ACLU Condemns Phone Companies’ Role in FBI Datamining, Reaffirms No Amnesty for Telecoms

September 9, 2007 12:00 am

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Washington, DC – The American Civil Liberties Union today condemned reports that telecommunications companies datamined their customers’ records at the request of the FBI. The requests, first reported by the New York Times, asked phone companies to identify the “communities of interest” of customers being scrutinized by the FBI and were brought to light in documents obtained by a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The FBI has since ceased the demands.

“For years, the FBI was not only asking telecom companies to do its investigative work, but also asking them to sidestep the Fourth Amendment,” said Michael German, ACLU National Security Policy Counsel. “The fact that telecoms complied with the FBI’s intrusive demands is shocking. It sets an extremely risky precedent to hand out such broad and vague authority to telecom companies. Ceding investigative powers to private companies will have disastrous effects not only for Americans’ privacy, but for their safety.”

These revelations come at a time when broad telecom amnesty is being debated on Capitol Hill for the companies’ role in the National Security Agency’s domestic spying program. The ACLU noted that this is not the first time these companies have asked for both criminal and civil immunity. There has been a sustained below the radar lobby effort to get amnesty since the administration’s surveillance program was revealed at the end of 2005. The first concerted effort was made through a lobbying push at the end of the 109th Congress with a section of the Protecting Consumer Phone Records Act. The section would have preempted stronger state privacy laws and eliminated the rights of independent state agencies to investigate the companies’ role in warrantless spying. In April of this year, an immunity provision was included in the administration’s first FISA “modernization” proposal. Further attempts to attach immunity to other legislation were beaten back by privacy groups.

“We are increasingly discovering the intrinsic role telecom companies played in the administration’s unwarranted and illegal surveillance of Americans,” said Timothy Sparapani, ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel. “Congress should not even begin to consider blanket amnesty before investigating just how deeply these companies were entrenched with the government’s spying program. This is about accountability. The law was clear and if telecom companies placed their bottom line over the constitutional rights of their customers, they need to face the consequences.”

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