February 01, 2006
EFF files lawsuit against AT&T over wiretaps

This ought to be exciting: The Electronic Frontier Foundation has filed a class action lawsuit against AT&T for "violating the law and the privacy of its customers by collaborating with the National Security Agency (NSA) in its massive and illegal program to wiretap and data-mine Americans' communications."

The suit (.pdf), filed by the civil liberties group in federal court in San Francisco, alleges AT&T secretly gave the National Security Agency access to two massive databases that included both the contents of its subscribers' communications and detailed transaction records, such as numbers dialed and internet addresses visited.

"Our goal is to go after the people who are making the government's illegal surveillance possible," says EFF attorney Kevin Bankston. "They could not do what they are doing without the help of companies like AT&T. We want to make it clear to AT&T that it is not in their legal or economic interests to violate the law whenever the president asks them to."


The suit, which relies on reporting from the Los Angeles Times, seeks up to $22,000 in damages for each AT&T customer, plus punitive fines.


The government is not named in the lawsuit, though it is already being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union over the surveillance program.

Bankston estimates that millions of people nationwide would be eligible to join the class action, pushing the possible total fines into the billions. However, he expects the administration will try to kill the lawsuit by invoking the rarely used state secrets privilege.

"If state secrecy can prevent us from preserving the rights of millions upon millions of people, then there is a profound problem with the law," says Bankston.

More information is here. I'm not a lawyer, so I can't tell you how much merit this suit has. I suspect there's a nontrivial amount of desire to put public pressure on AT&T and any other company that would (unlike Google) accede to the government's wishes for this kind of activity. There's a debate going on in this thread on The Agonist over whether AT&T was compelled by law to do what the government asked them to do. I'm sure they'll argue that, but I feel reasonably confident that it's at least a murky point, since last I checked the EFF had some smart people working for them, and it wouldn't do them or the cause they're advocating much good to have this thrown out of court in the first round of motions.

Will the tactical gambit of putting pressure on AT&T and anyone like them work? The AP has picked up the story, and Google News shows that it's appeared in a number of newspapers. There's quotes from the EFF's Bankston but none from AT&T, since they declined to comment. The Chron has it, but as far as I can tell, the San Antonio Express News, which is to say the paper of AT&T's corporate headquarters, does not. Maybe tomorrow, we'll see. In any event, I look forward to seeing what AT&T's response will be, and if any other companies will change their behavior because of this.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 01, 2006 to National news | TrackBack