Pressure Mounts Against Telcos To 'Fess Up About Their Involvement In NSA Surveillance

from the open-up dept

Ever since the Snowden leaks began, there's been a clear dichotomy in terms of how different industries have reacted. The various big internet companies, which were named early on as participants in the PRISM program, have been quite vocal (sometimes to profane levels) that they were not willing participants in most of these programs, and are currently involved in an important lawsuit arguing that they have a First Amendment right to reveal how much info they actually share with the government. While those eventual revelations (and they almost certainly will come out, either legally or through leaks) may reveal certain companies were more complicit than others, by all indications, the various internet companies have been very willing to fight the government over this.

On the other side, you've got the telcos -- mainly AT&T and Verizon (but Sprint and some others as well). What do you have there? Total, deafening silence. Seriously. They've said nothing about any of this, despite increasing evidence that they not only are happy and willing participants in the NSA's efforts to spy on everyone, but that they've volunteered to hand over more data than required. Furthermore, it's quite clear now that they've basically let the NSA put taps directly on the internet backbone, by which they can record just about anything, while the internet companies have (from all appearances to date) limited information sharing only to a specific segment of information following a specific court order (which probably doesn't have enough oversight, but that's a different issue).

The contrast here is really striking. From all revealed info to date, the telcos' info sharing with the government is much more massive and has significantly more privacy implications than anything done by the internet companies. And yet it's the internet companies that are both speaking out against this and challenging some of it legally (though some of us still think they should go further -- but, thankfully, we've been hearing significant and credible buzz that much more is on the way). The telcos? Absolutely nothing. Well, except for a Verizon VP mocking the internet companies for pushing for transparency.

Otherwise? Dead silence.

When the internet companies reached out to the telcos about co-signing their letter to the government pushing for more surveillance, the telcos refused. Over the last few months, we've seen pretty much every major internet company release a transparency report, including showing at least some data on government requests for info. The telcos have never released such a thing.

Kevin Bankston, who was instrumental in helping to coordinate that original letter, is now calling out the telcos on their shameful silence. It seems that the telcos are hoping this whole thing blows over, in part because a true transparency report from them would likely reveal just how complicit the telcos were in handing over your private info to governments, often with little to no oversight. In fact, Bankston notes that AT&T has been quietly lobbying against legislative efforts to increase transparency.

What are the telcos afraid of? The answer is pretty obvious.

However, they might not be able to wait this out and hide forever. The ACLU of Northern California has now filed a shareholder proposal with both At&T and Verizon demanding that they file a transparency report concerning their cooperation with government surveillance.
Customer trust is critical for any business, but especially for Internet and telecommunications companies that gather personal data concerning and affecting the lives of hundreds of millions of people in the U.S. and around the world. In an effort to help rebuild consumer trust, major Internet companies including Google, Microsoft, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Yahoo! have issued transparency reports with information on government requests; AT&T and Verizon have not. Companies, including Google and Microsoft, have also filed in court seeking authorization to disclose further information to the public; AT&T and Verizon have not.

Privacy is fundamental to democracy and free expression -- and transparency is essential if individuals and businesses are to make informed decisions regarding their personal information. AT&T and Verizon must comply with legal obligations imposed by the Patriot Act and other laws. But these companies have no good excuse for staying silent and failing to provide information about how often customer information is being shared with the government. To the contrary, staying silent as other industry leaders release transparency reports and take steps to reinforce a genuine commitment to privacy, makes it appear that these companies have something to hide and presents serious financial and reputational risks. Consumers prefer companies whose information practices they know and can trust. It is already estimated that the risks of surveillance and lack of trust could cost the U.S cloud computing industry $21 billion to $35 billion in foreign business over the next three years. The Chief Privacy Officers at AT&T and Verizon have praised transparency as a goal, but it is time to back up those statements with action by releasing transparency reports.

Of course, thanks to other bad government policies, AT&T and Verizon have market dominant positions, such that there's often no actual customer choice -- which is part of why they can get away with this silence. Hopefully shareholders of both companies will stand up and make those companies reveal some basic transparency, even if it will embarrass the two companies. And, if they're really embarrassed by what the data will show, perhaps that's a sign that they shouldn't be doing it in the first place.

Filed Under: silence, surveillance, telcos, transparency
Companies: aclu, at&t, verizon

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  1. icon
    Rapnel (profile), 22 Nov 2013 @ 12:47pm

    US telcos == US surveillance

    The telcos are big brother.

    Oh yes they are.

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