AT&T Inc. is being sued by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) to try to stop the company from any role it may have in divulging customer information to the U.S. government as part of surveillance operations undertaken since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The privacy group announced the lawsuit Tuesday.
In the 27-page suit filed Tuesday, the San Francisco-based EFF alleges that AT&T violated U.S. law and customer privacy rules by providing phone records and other telecommunications access to National Security Agency (NSA) agents without getting court orders as required by law.
The government surveillance program became public last month, when The New York Times reported that President Bush had authorized the surveillance efforts in 2001 as part of the government’s efforts to fight terrorism. Bush has defended the legality of the ongoing surveillance program, which the EFF argues has been made possible with the help of AT&T and other telecommunications firms.
“AT&T has opened up its network and databases to the National Security Agency to illegally intercept and analyze millions of ordinary Americans’ communications,” said Kurt Opsahl, a staff attorney for the EFF.
“Congress has set up strong laws protecting the privacy of your communications, strictly limiting when telephone and Internet companies can subject your phone calls to government scrutiny. The companies that have betrayed their customers’ trust by illegally handing the NSA direct access to their networks and databases must be brought to account. AT&T needs to put a sign on its door that reads, ‘come back with a warrant.’”
Jim Burns, a spokesman for AT&T, said the company “declines to comment on matters relating to national security or customer privacy … or things involving pending litigation.”
In the lawsuit, the EFF “challenges the legality of defendants’ participation in a secret and illegal government program to intercept and analyze vast quantities of Americans’ telephone and Internet communications, surveillance done without the authorization of a court and in violation of federal electronic surveillance and telecommunications statutes, as well as the First and Fourth Amendments to the United States Constitution.”
The lawsuit further states that, “AT&T Corp. has opened its key telecommunications facilities and databases to direct access by the NSA and/or other government agencies, intercepting and disclosing to the government the contents of its customers’ communications as well as detailed communications records about millions of its customers, including Plaintiffs and class members.”
The EFF alleges that AT&T, in addition to allowing the NSA direct access to the phone and Internet communications passing over its network, has given the government unrestricted access to its more than 300TB “Daytona” database of caller information, which is one of the largest databases in the world.
In September 2005, AT&T Corp. was acquired by SBC Communications Inc., with AT&T becoming a wholly-owned subsidiary of SBC. The company was then renamed AT&T Inc.
The lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California, is being pursued as a class-action lawsuit to represent all AT&T customers nationwide.
The EFF is seeking an injunction to stop AT&T from participating in the NSA surveillance program, as well as fines that could total billions of dollars in damages for violation of federal privacy laws.
The EFF alleges that the NSA uses massive computers to “data mine” the contents of captured Internet and telephone communications for suspicious names, numbers, and words, and to analyze data on callers and e-mail authors that can help identify persons who may be linked to suspicious activities, suspected terrorists or other investigatory targets of the government.