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AT&T Draws Ire Over Privacy Update

UPDATED: Is telecom giant AT&T changing the rules in the middle of the game or simply clarifying how it handles subscriber information?

The company Thursday announced it was clarifying its privacy policy regarding the account information of its 7 million subscribers. Customers are required to agree to the changes.

AT&T's new policy went into effect today, the same day it faced off with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in court. The EFF is accusing AT&T of collaborating with the National Security Agency (NSA) to gather information on U.S. citizens.

But the government said that the disclosure of details about the program would hurt national security.

In April, the EFF filed a statement from a former AT&T technician who said the NSA installed equipment in the telecom's San Francisco hub allowing the government to siphon off phone and Internet traffic.

At today's hearing, the EFF argued against the government's call to dismiss the case on grounds of state secrets.

"The government has stepped in to prevent the evaluation of that program by contending that it involves 'state secrets' without any reasonable justification," said Robert D. Fram, on behalf of the EFF.

"This is little more than a legal cover-up that is just as dangerous as the unlawful surveillance that is alleged in this lawsuit," according to Fram.

One privacy group sees AT&T's new policy as an attempt to limit liability from the phone company's involvement in the government's hotly disputed domestic spying program

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said in a statement that the updated privacy policy is "nothing more than an exercise in spin control."

Secretly providing customer data to the government "violated the privacy expectations of Americans –- not just the terms of some legalistic privacy policy," according to the ACLU.

The company denied the update affected the spirit of the privacy policy or how it protects customer data, according to Michael Coe, an AT&T spokesperson.

AT&T told internetnews.com that, as with any privacy policy, it outlines its obligation to assist law enforcement and other government agencies responsible for protecting the public welfare, whether it be an individual or the security interests of the entire nation.

AT&T said the changes only reflected new video services offered, as well as the name change following the merger with SBC.

"If and when AT&T is asked by government agencies for help, we do so strictly within the law and under the most stringent conditions," Coe said.