Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Verizon Communications and Blatant Disregard for the Fourth Amendment

Executives from Verizon Communications, admitted to congressional investigators that they had willingly turned over the telephone records of their customers to federal authorities hundreds of times since 2005 without so much as asking to see a warrant or a court order.

The executives maintain that it is not their place to determine the legality or necessity of the requests because “to do so would slow efforts to save lives in criminal investigations.”

The company also revealed that the FBI, through the use of “National Security Letters” sought multiple generations of customer information. They sought, and received, not merely the customers call records, but the records of every person they called and all of the people they called as well. When it comes to information about our private lives, the government is a voracious beast, and Verizon seems all too willing to load up it’s plate in the buffet line.

The disclosures, in a letter from Verizon to three Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee investigating the carriers' participation in government surveillance programs, demonstrated the willingness of telecom companies to comply with government requests for data, even, at times, without traditional legal supporting documents. The committee members also got letters from AT&T and Qwest Communications International, but those letters did not provide details on customer data given to the government. None of the three carriers gave details on any classified government surveillance program.

From January 2005 to September 2007, Verizon provided data to federal authorities on an emergency basis 720 times, it said in the letter. The records included Internet protocol addresses as well as phone data. In that period, Verizon turned over information a total of 94,000 times to federal authorities armed with a subpoena or court order, the letter said. The information was used for a range of criminal investigations, including kidnapping and child-predator cases and counter-terrorism investigations.

Verizon and AT&T said it was not their role to second-guess the legitimacy of emergency government requests. (emphasis added)

The letters were released earlier in the week as Congress deliberated whether or not to grant immunity to telecommunications companies for their complicity and willingness to assist the government in spying on Americans. The incumbent executive, the companies, and their Republican cronies in Congress want the companies to be granted immunity in cases where they are sued by customers, pissed off about the invasion of their privacy. House Democrats refuse to consider such immunity without first learning just exactly how complicit the companies and the government are in these breaches of privacy.

"The responses from these telecommunications companies highlight the need of Congress to continue pressing the Bush administration for answers. The water is as murky as ever on this issue, and it's past time for the administration to come clean," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who, along with Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) and Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.)launched the investigation.

…[The]13-page Verizon letter indicated that the requests went further than previously known. Verizon said it had received FBI administrative subpoenas, called national security letters, requesting data that would "identify a calling circle" for subscribers' telephone numbers, including people contacted by the people contacted by the subscriber. Verizon said it does not keep such information.

"The privacy concerns are exponential each generation you go away from the suspect's number," said Kurt Opsahl, senior staff attorney with the EFF. "This shows that further investigation by Congress and the inspector general is critical."

Earlier this year, the Justice Department's inspector general found that the FBI may have improperly obtained phone, bank and other records of thousands of people inside the United States since 2003 by using national security letters and exigent letters, or emergency demands for records.

Michael Kortan, an FBI spokesman, said the bureau has suspended use of community-of-interest data "while an appropriate oversight and approval policy" is developed. He added that the inspector general is reviewing the use of those data.

Democrats have seen their efforts to force the Bush administration to admit the scope and breadth of the domestic spying it has engaged in since September 11, 2001. What revelations have come to light have been unmasked via press reports, FOIA lawsuits filed by advocacy groups, and Inspector General’s reports.

Verizon is certainly a company I would drop like a bad habit if I had any services through them. Fortunately, I don’t.