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Telecom firms distance themselves from NSA flap

As outcry over Bush administration data mining grows, companies go out of their way to say they weren't involved.

Following revelations this week that three of the nation's largest phone companies opened their databases to the National Security Agency, other firms are trying to distance themselves.

RCN, which offers cable, phone and Internet services, released a statement Friday afternoon assuring its customers that it had not contributed to the NSA's reportedly vast database of Americans' phone call records. The company hosts more than a million customers in some of the nation's largest metropolitan areas, including Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

"We are committed to the privacy and confidentiality of our customers' personally identifiable information," said Richard Ramlall, a vice president of the Herndon, Va.-based company.

The assertions came a day after a USA Today report that AT&T, BellSouth and Verizon Communications had turned over "call detail records" to the NSA. Call detail records are database entries that document details such as parties in the conversation and the length of the call--but not the content.

The same story noted that Qwest Communications, the smallest of the nation's four regional phone companies, had not turned over information requested by the NSA. That's because the company was concerned that doing so without a warrant in place would violate federal privacy laws, a lawyer to former CEO Joseph Nacchio told The New York Times on Friday. Qwest did not respond to requests for comment from CNET

Qwest and RCN are likely not alone in shirking the NSA's request. A February CNET survey pinpointed 15 large telecommunications and Internet companies that were willing to say they had not participated in the program.

Verizon speaks up
Firms supplying those assurances included AOL Time Warner, Comcast, Cox Communications, Cablevision Systems, Cingular Wireless, Microsoft, T-Mobile and EarthLink.

Although President Bush clung to an unyielding defense of the NSA data mining, the latest news about the big three telecommunications providers has unleashed a fury of criticism from politicians, mostly Democrats. Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, for one, vowed to call in the phone company executives for questioning.

In a statement on Friday, Verizon said it was "fully prepared to participate in such a process," noting that any discussions would need to take place in a setting that offered "safeguards for protecting classified information."

Verizon said it does not and will not provide any government agency unfettered access to customer records, and that there had been "factual errors in press coverage about the way Verizon handles customer information in general."

The company said it would provide customer information to a government agency "only where authorized by law for appropriately defined and focused purposes."

Verizon, which bought long-distance operator MCI in January, said it was ensuring its own policies were also enforced at MCI.

Reuters contributed to this report.