EFF Sues AT&T Over NSA Wiretaps

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a class-action lawsuit against AT&T Tuesday, charging the carrier violated the law by assisting in the National Security Agency’s controversial wiretap program. AT&T provided federal eavesdroppers access to a database of caller information, according to the lawsuit.

“The NSA program is apparently the biggest fishing expedition ever devised,” according to Kevin Bankston, EFF staff attorney.

The New York Times revealed in December that U.S. President George Bush authorized the NSA to conduct warrantless intercepts of telephone and Internet conversations among people in the U.S. suspected of terrorist connections. Amid the firestorm of protest, a number of lawsuits have been filed challenging the legality of the NSA program.

The EFF lawsuit, filed in California’s Northern U.S. District Court, claims AT&T provided the NSA access to voice and data communications crossing its network while also allowing “unfettered” access to a 300 terabyte database called “Daytona.”

Filed on behalf of three California AT&T subscribers and AT&T customers nationwide, the lawsuit is asking for $21,000 in damages for each customer. “AT&T customers reasonably expect that their communications are private and have long trusted AT&T to follow the law and protect their privacy,” Lee Tien, EFF senior staff attorney, said in a statement.

“Without AT&T’s collaboration, this wouldn’t happen,” said EFF spokesperson Rebecca Jeschke. AT&T has 20 days to respond to the lawsuit, Kevin Bankston, EFF staff attorney, told internetnews.com.

The giant carrier, according to the lawsuit, violated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, limiting how the federal government can require carriers turn over caller records.

“At the NSA’s request, AT&T eviscerated the legal safeguards required by Congress and the courts with a keystroke,” said Tien.

AT&T spokesman Michael Balmoris told internetnews.com that it wouldn’t comment on matters of national security. EFF’s Bankston called that response “stunning.”

AT&T was charged because it is the only telecom company named as assisting the NSA program, according to Bankston. However, the EFF is expected to file similar lawsuits against other carriers.

In January, Detroit U.S. Representative John Conyers released a letter asking Internet and phone providers, including AT&T, if they allowed the federal government to eavesdrop on customers without a warrant.

“The companies that have betrayed their customers’ trust by illegally handing the NSA direct access to their networks and databases must be brought to account,” said Kurt Opsahl, an EFF staff attorney. “AT&T needs to put up a sign on its door that reads: ‘Come Back With a Warrant.'”

The U.S. government’s explanation, that the domestic spying program is limited only to keeping tabs on terrorists, is “not even close to the whole story,” Bankston added. In January, the Washington, DC-based Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), filed a freedom of information request with the government, asking for documents indicating if individual phone or email records were searched and how that information is used.

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