Verizon Disclosures Raise Renewed Questions On Phone Records, Privacy


Verizon, in an Oct. 12 letter to a panel from the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, said that from January 2005 to September 2007, it provided data to federal authorities on an emergency basis 720 times. The company also provided information a total of 94,000 times to federal authorities with a subpoena or court order, according to the letter. In addition to counterterrorism investigations, the requests also included a variety of criminal offenses.

Verizon also said that the FBI, using administrative subpoenas, requested data identifying the "calling circle" of all the people that a customer may have called, as well as the people those people called. Verizon said it does not keep does not keep data on this "two-generation community of interest" for customers.

On Oct. 2, the House Committee sent letters to AT&T, Verizon and Qwest, asking that the telecommunications companies provide details on attempts by government agencies to obtain information about customers' telephone and Internet use.

While all three companies responded, Verizon's letter was the most detailed and caught the attention of lawmakers and privacy advocates alike.

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AT&T did not disclose information on the extent of its information sharing. "Public officials, not private businessmen must ultimately be responsible for whether the legal judgments of underlying authorized surveillance activities turn out to be right or wrong -- legally or politically," AT&T wrote in its a letter to the committee.

The degree of cooperation between the federal government and the telecommunications companies has become a controversial issue, with critics saying individual civil rights are being violated in the rush to bolster national security. The telecommunications companies have been the targets of class action lawsuits alleging the information sharing is illegal.

"We urge the Committee to examine the rules for government access to information from communications service providers," the Center for Democracy and Technology wrote in a letter to the committee. "The recent letter from Verizon shows just how expansive is the government's use of its access authorities. We urge you to look further into both authorized and unauthorized surveillance practices, in order to develop the necessary protection of the rights of Americans."

Rep. Bart Stupak,D-Mich., chairman of the subcommittee on oversight and investigations, said further inquiry is needed into the extent of cooperation by the telecommunications companies with government information requests.

"While I recognize the unique legal constraints the telecommunications companies face regarding what information they may disclose, important questions remain unanswered about how the administration induced or compelled them to participate in NSA's [National Security Agency's] eavesdropping program," Stupak wrote. "Through our ongoing investigation, I will continue working with Chairmen Dingell and Markey to pursue answers to these questions."

The Center for Democracy and Technology said the issue must be re-examined. "We must stress that information sharing to prevent terrorism and for other governmental purposes is generally desirable," the center wrote. "However, especially in the counterterrorism context, a major shift in the data collection and use landscape is taking place without a suitable privacy and due process framework."