The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington today asked the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) to investigate reports that telephone companies have regularly shared consumer telephone records with the National Security Agency without lawful authority. The UTC is charged with safeguarding customers against wrongdoing by utilities operating in Washington. The request was made on behalf of the ACLU’s more than 25,000 members in the state.
The action is part of a nationwide ACLU initiative to end illegal government spying. The ACLU of Washington and branches in 19 other states today filed complaints with public utility commissions, state attorneys general, or other officials urging investigations into whether local telecommunications companies allowed the NSA to spy on their customers.
“The information reportedly disclosed by phone companies can reveal customers’ associations, interests and a host of personal details about their lives,” said ACLU of Washington Executive Director Kathleen Taylor. “The NSA can obtain a warrant for records if it suspects wrongdoing. The government has no business avoiding the law, and the phone companies should not help them to do so.”
A May 11 article in USA Today reported that three phone companies – AT&T, BellSouth and Verizon – have provided the NSA with the personal calling details of customers, including telephone numbers called, time, date, and duration of calls. USA Today reported that the phone companies made available to the government information relating to billions of telephone calls made by millions of residential phone customers. According to sources in the article, these companies provided this information neither with the consent of their customers nor under the compulsion of a warrant, court order, or other legal process from the government. Additional reporting by the New York Times has described a broader program of wiretapping by the NSA and alleged cooperation by “the leading companies” in the telecommunications industry
Such customer information can be easily matched with other databases to obtain the name and residence of each caller. This information would enable the government to track every phone call made by every Washington residential customer, including the identity of the people they have called and the length of each conversation.
For a phone company to provide records of calls without a court order or customer consent would violate the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986. The sharing of phone record information also appears to violate the companies’ own customer privacy agreements.
“The Utilities and Transportation Commission has recognized a need to protect consumer privacy. Given the seriousness of the allegations and the lack of clear information on what the phone companies have done, UTC needs to conduct an independent investigation to determine the truth and take appropriate action,” said Doug Klunder, director of the privacy project of the ACLU of Washington.
As part of its nationwide campaign, the ACLU today is running full-page advertisements in The New York Times and half a dozen major daily newspapers, including the Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer, with the headline: “If You’ve Used a Telephone in the Last Five Years, Read This.”
When the NSA spying program was initially uncovered last December, the ACLU was one of the first organizations to bring a legal challenge, acting on behalf of a prominent and politically diverse group of journalists, scholars and lawyers. That challenge will be heard before Judge Anna Diggs Taylor in Detroit on Monday, June 12; it will be the first ever hearing on the legality of NSA spying since the program was disclosed.
More information on the ACLU’s initiative is available at https://www.aclu.org/cases/aclu-v-nsa-challenge-warrantless-wiretapping.