AUSWR
The Association of U S West Retirees
 

 

 

Is the Phone Company Violating Your Privacy?
The Wall Street Journal
Friday, May 13, 2006

THE MAIN EVENT

Cooperation between U.S. telecom firms and the National Security Agency in the war on terror raised a firestorm on Capitol Hill this week.

* * *

ON THURSDAY, USA Today reported that three telecom companies -- AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and BellSouth Corp. -- have been providing the spy agency with records of billions of phone calls made by U.S. citizens inside the U.S. Qwest Communications International Inc. is the only one of the major landline phone companies that refused to cooperate.

The news comes just months after the Bush administration acknowledged reports that it had allowed the NSA to eavesdrop on Americans communicating with people overseas without first obtaining a warrant. It feeds worries among privacy activists that the administration is engaged in broad-scale domestic "data mining" activities. Mr. Bush has neither confirmed nor denied that such a program exists, but Thursday said "the intelligence activities I authorized are lawful and have been briefed to appropriate members of Congress."

Michael Hayden -- Mr. Bush's nominee for the director of the Central Intelligence Agency -- also says that all programs conducted by the NSA are legal.

Here's a closer look:

What the companies did: The three phone companies have been handing over phone numbers and calling information since shortly after September 11, 2001, while withholding names, addresses or other personal customer data, according to media reports. But it would be easy for the NSA to obtain that information by cross-checking the data with other readily available databases. The companies didn't provide any information about the contents of the calls.

In an overnight survey, nearly two-thirds of Americans say they thought it was acceptable for the NSA to collect phone records. But Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.) said that the three phone companies will likely be called before the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify about their role.

Why didn't Qwest participate? Joseph Nacchio, the former chief executive of Qwest who is now facing insider-trading charges, was approached by the NSA in the fall of 2001 and asked to provide access to the private phone records of Qwest customers. Mr. Nacchio put out a statement that said he declined to provide access when he learned that no "warrant or other legal processes have been secured in support of the request."

Why is this a problem for Michael Hayden? Mr. Hayden, head of the NSA from March 1999 until April 2005, was an architect of both the program to listen in on certain calls without warrants and the program to gather phone records. He is now Mr. Bush's nominee to head the CIA, and is clearly going to come under attack from some members of Congress during his confirmation hearings.

Mr. Hayden defends the NSA programs as necessary to "preserve the security and the liberty of the American people." He hasn't commented specifically on the program involving phone records.

Is this legal? The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit group that works on protecting privacy, contends the phone companies cannot give customer data to the federal government without a warrant. They point to the Pen Register Statute that requires a court order for the government to capture call-detail information such as the caller, recipient, length of call and the date of the call. The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution also protects Americans rights to privacy.

It is not clear their arguments will stand up in court. The president and the companies insist everything they did is legal.

During the earlier controversy surrounding the secret wiretaps, the administration argued that Article II of the Constitution gives the president inherent authority to use wiretaps to fight the war on terror, and that Congress authorized the government to "use all necessary and appropriate force" to fight the war on terror.

--Lauren Etter

POINTS OF VIEW

"The government does not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval. We're not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans."
--President George W. Bush

"Everything that the agency has done has been lawful. It's been briefed to the appropriate members of Congress. The only purpose of the agency's activities is to preserve the security and the liberty of the American people."
--Michael Hayden, CIA Director Nominee

"Compiling a data-base of the phone calls of millions of Americans is not likely to find actual terrorists, but is a dangerous threat to the privacy and associational rights of Americans.
--Kate Martin, director, Center for National Security Studies

"Are you telling me that tens of millions of Americans are involved with al-Qaeda?"
--Senator Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.)

FACTS

Of Americans' total annual expenditures, about 2% goes to paying phone bills. The average local phone bill is about $37. The average long-distance phone bill is around $10. The average wireless bill is about $41.

Payphones are a dying breed in the U.S. In 2004, there were about 1.3 million payphones nationwide, down from 2.1 million in 1997. Payphones collected about $1 billion in revenue in 2004, down from about $2.1 billion in 1997.

The number of employees in the wired telecom industry is on the decline in the U.S. There are currently about 548,000 employees, down from about 672,000 in 1990.

There are at least four million miles of phone lines running underground in the U.S. In comparison, there are about 2.4 million miles of paved roads.

The number of telephone calls made on land lines has decreased, as mobile phone use has increased. In 2004, Americans made about 375 billion local phone calls on landlines, down from about 419 billion in 2003.

The number of cellphone subscribers has increased to 208 million in the U.S., up from 340,000 in 1985. The average length of a cellphone call is about three minutes. There are currently about 184,000 cell sites in the U.S., up from about 913 in 1985.

BY THE NUMBERS



http://online.wsj.com/article/SB114747897946851946-search.html?KEYWORDS=Qwest&COLLECTION=wsjie/6month