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Shayana Kadidal Headshot

New Case Says AT&T Is Helping the NSA Spy on Americans

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It's not just the government spying on you: Corporate America is getting in on the act, according to a new court filing by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

On Wednesday, the EFF filed briefs supporting a preliminary injunction to stop AT&T from disclosing consumer communications to the government for the illegal NSA spying program. EFF says it can back up its claims with evidence from "internal AT&T documents." The suit also alleges that the NSA domestic spying program is essentially a "vast fishing expedition" directed at everyone in America -- a data mining program using voice recognition software and the NSA's vast array of computers to scan more or less every phone call entering or exiting the United States.

Of course, that description contradicts the Bush Administration's vague defenses of "targeted and focused" surveillance directed only at terrorists, setting up an important showdown in court.

My colleagues and I at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filed one of the first federal cases against the government challenging the NSA's illegal spying (CCR v. Bush), and the EFF case presents important questions about whether American companies are also playing an active role in the NSA's illegal surveillance. So while the CCR suit asks the court to halt the NSA Program by ordering the government to halt the program, the EFF also seeks damages against AT&T.

As a class action on behalf of the millions of AT&T subscribers, the damages EFF is seeking could be enormous: $100 per person for each day of illegal surveillance (plus any punitive damages). The total could add up to hundreds of millions of dollars, since the allegation is that almost every international phone call or data transmission made through AT&T over the last four years was intercepted by the NSA with the active assistance of AT&T.

A reading of both EFF's original complaint and the public parts of the new filings indicate a shocking allegation: The complaint says that AT&T installed or helped the government install equipment in its main facilities to intercept almost all communications that move through AT&T's circuits.

By moving for "relief from the court," EFF attorneys are clearly stating they believe they have sufficient proof of this allegation. In addition to the internal records, EFF is providing a sworn statement from a former AT&T technician that asserts the company "secretly and unlawfully opened its networks to government eavesdroppers," according to a CNET article yesterday, "AT&T whistleblower claims to document illegal NSA surveillance." This is a shocking revelation: somewhere within the bowels of AT&T's massive switching stations, a giant bug is delivering every phone call and email of every AT&T subscriber to the NSA. And the government desperately wants this truth hidden from the court and the American public.

The EFF case alleges that the NSA domestic spying is broader than the government ever acknowledged. If true, government officials may still argue the program is necessary because national security is at stake. But if the searches are as broad as EFF asserts, the security target might as well be a bull's eye painted across an entire map of the United States. It does not matter who the government is looking for if they knock down every single American's door in the process.

EFF filed its case on behalf of millions of Americans who were customers of AT&T and may have unknowingly been spied upon by their telephone company and their government. If that is proven in court, EFF's plaintiffs -- ordinary American phone subscribers -- could change the entire debate on domestic spying and show the public why massive, warrantless surveillance must be stopped, before it's too late.

NOTE: Parts of this column are adapted from the article "Suing Ma Bell to Stop NSA Wiretapping: Back to the Future?" -- a historical comparison of the EFF case and legal precedents against broad search warrants and spying. To see the entire article, visit the University of Pittsburgh School of Law's JURIST website.