The Electronic Frontier Foundation apparently couldn't wait for Congress to open hearings into President Bush's controversial domestic-spying program later this month.
The civil-liberties group filed a class-action suit in federal court in San Francisco on Tuesday against AT&T, accusing the telecommunications titan of violating the law and the privacy of its customers by allowing the National Security Administration unfettered access to its records and transmissions.
"We're alleging the violation of multiple federal statutes regarding wiretapping and privacy of communications records," EFF staff attorney Kevin Bankston said. "We're saying that by giving direct access to key telecom facilities in the U.S., AT&T gave the NSA access to nearly all of the communications going over the AT&T network."
The EFF is also alleging that AT&T gave the NSA direct access to its vast database of stored records on caller information — one of the largest in the world — which goes back several years and contains information on the communications of millions of people who are not suspected of any crime.
"There are rules prohibiting wiretapping and when companies can release this kind of information," Bankston said. "And since AT&T is acting as an agent of the government, we're also alleging constitutional violations of First- and Fourth-amendment rights to privacy."
The EFF is seeking a declaration by the court that these alleged actions are illegal and an injunction to stop AT&T from further participation in the government program.
"We cannot discuss matters of national security," a company spokesperson said Wednesday (February 1). "Also, our policy is not to discuss pending litigation."
AT&T has 30 days to respond to the suit by either replying to the allegations or asking the judge to dismiss the claim. Bankston said he fully expects the government to try and have the suit dismissed by citing national-security concerns. As he has previously, President Bush defended his ordering of secret eavesdropping on phone and e-mail communications of what he said were suspected al Qaeda members in his State of the Union address Tuesday night (see "Bush Says U.S. Is 'Addicted To Oil,' Offers Few New Plans In Speech"), saying he has both the legal and constitutional right to order such surveillance.
"But when the rights of millions of Americans are at stake," Bankston said, "an answer of, 'Well, sorry, it's a secret,' is not sufficient and probably a confirmation of our worst fears."
The class action is on behalf of all AT&T residential and Internet customers, which Bankston said covers 1.2 million residential online users and more than 25 million long-distance customers. But the suit also encompasses past customers who used the service during the period since the NSA program began in 2002 as well as the potentially millions of non-AT&T customers whose calls or Internet activity were channeled through the AT&T network.
The EFF is seeking damages for the consumers whose privacy has been violated by the program, and Bankston calculated the potential awards per individual at $22,000 or more. "The reason the potential damages are so high is because this is what is defined in the statutes because the government realizes that this is a grave violation of privacy," he said.
Because the EFF does not want to tip its hand at this point, Bankston said he could not reveal how the organization knows that AT&T engaged in the alleged behavior. The New York Times has reported on several unnamed major telecommunications companies that were involved in a vast "data-mining" operation by the NSA that is similar to what the EFF action alleges. Bankston said the complaint is consistent with what's been published and is based on privileged information the organization obtained prior to filing.
Bush's domestic-spying program has drawn action from other civil-rights groups as well. In mid-January, the Times reported that the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights were preparing their own court challenges to the eavesdropping program (see "Civil-Rights Groups Suing Over Domestic Spying Program").