AT&T Sued Over U.S. Wiretapping Program

A civil liberties organization filed a class-action lawsuit against AT&T this week for collaborating with a U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) program to intercept Internet and telephone communications of U.S. citizens without authorization from a court of law.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), based in San Francisco, filed the suit against AT&T for giving the NSA direct access to its databases of communications records, including whom their customers had phoned or sent e-mail to in the past. The suit was filed Tuesday in the United States District Court of the Northern District of California.

EFF is suing the former AT&T before it merged with SBC Communications to become AT&T, says Kevin Bankston, a staff attorney with the EFF. However, the suit also is intended to protect customers of the new AT&T as it continues to merge the operations of the previously separate companies.

Last December, The New York Times broke the news that U.S. President George Bush had authorized the NSA to intercept telephone and Internet communications on the basis of national security without the authorization of any U.S. court of law. The program started in 2001 and is still in effect, according to published reports.

According to court papers, AT&T has given the NSA access to several of its databases, including those code-named Daytona, Aurora, and Hawkeye, which allow the agency to collect information about how AT&T customers use its communications services. AT&T did not notify customers of the investigation or the company's role in it, so customers were not given a chance to consent to it, the group wrote in its suit.

"AT&T aided the NSA in intercepting all or a substantial part of communications going over their network," Bankston says. "We don't exactly know what the NSA is doing with that data."

Against the Law?

The EFF alleges that this behavior on the part of AT&T violates several federal laws, including the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), he says. It also violates the first and fourth amendments, which protect U.S. citizens' right to speak freely and not to be subject to unreasonable searches, Bankston says.

The ECPA was enacted in 1986 as an update to a 1968 law against wiretapping phones that set out provisions for gaining access to electronic communications. Among other things, it prohibits the U.S. government from requiring disclosure of electronic communications from a service provider without proper procedure.

The EFF is asking the court to award each AT&T customer involved in the suit about $21,000 in damages, Bankston says.

AT&T could not be reached for immediate comment on Tuesday.

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