Carriers must take a stand on searches

I recently hit a new high in my career as suspected criminal: When leaving a drugstore, the security guard stopped me and asked for a receipt. Even though I’d picked the receipt up all of 10 seconds earlier, I couldn’t locate it. And naturally I was wearing one of those Arctic explorer jackets with approximately two dozen pockets (in case I should ever feel the need to stash my water bottle on my upper arm — who designs these things?)

At any rate, the poor security guard apologized profusely as I went through each pocket, saying, “I’m so sorry, ma’am, but see those security cameras? If I don’t ask you, I’ll lose my job.” I assured him that I fully understood (this is New York, after all), and finally produced the receipt. Arrest averted.

What’s the point? I wish the carriers would be as diligent — in the opposite direction — about demanding the proper paperwork before conducting a search.

The folks at Verizon earned some (exceedingly rare) kudos in this column a while back for standing up to the RIAA and demanding subpoenas before they would release personal subscriber information. Good for them.

Better still, word is they’re sticking to that position, even as AT&T is caving ignobly. AT&T recently announced it plans to monitor user communications, at the behest of the media companies, to uncover potential copyright violations.

As I’ve said previously, we have a legal system that’s perfectly set up to address theft, suspected and otherwise. If the RIAA wants to subpoena AT&T, it can. Otherwise, fugghedaboudit. That’s the position Verizon is taking (and again, good for them). Let’s hope that the folks at AT&T rethink their craven perspective and grow some spine.

More broadly, all the carriers should take this opportunity to publicly announce their philosophies about the monitoring and release of customer information. And it should be this: No paper, no deal. No matter who asks.

The feds want to wiretap? Warrant, please. And the RIAA wants to see personal information? Show us the subpoena.

That said, I’m probably one of the few folks who believes the carriers should be granted retroactive immunity for their actions immediately post-9/11, on the grounds of exceptional circumstances. Here’s the thing: Keep in mind that both Verizon and AT&T had office buildings in downtown Manhattan. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, their shocked and horrified executives could literally smell the jet fuel from the burning buildings. (It lasted for weeks.) Nobody knew how many had died, or when the next attack would come. When the president asked for information that would help the United States track down the perpetrators, the carriers can be forgiven for taking his word that the request was fully legal.

But it’s time for a line in the sand. From here on out, without a warrant or subpoena, the carriers should refuse to act. The bottom line: It’s past time for the carriers to take a stand.