Verizon sued for alleged NSA cooperation

Damages in suit over alleged privacy violations could reach $50 billion; AT&T and BellSouth will also likely be added.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read
Verizon Communications is the latest big phone company to be sued for allegedly violating privacy laws by handing over phone records to the National Security Agency for a secretive government surveillance program.

On Friday, two attorneys from New Jersey--Bruce Afran and Carl Mayer--filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Manhattan, where Verizon is located. Afran said Monday that AT&T and BellSouth, which is in the process of being acquired by AT&T, may also be added to the suit.

The NSA has been building a database of millions of Americans' telephone calls since shortly after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, according to an article that appeared last week in USA Today. Verizon, AT&T and BellSouth supposedly complied with government officials, while Qwest did not, the article stated.

The lawsuit filed Friday claims that Verizon violated federal laws and the First and Fourth Amendments by turning over the records to the government. Specifically, Verizon is being sued for allegedly violating the Communications Act of 1934, the Electronic Communications and Privacy Act and the 1986 Stored Communications Act. Each of these federal statutes limits how much information phone companies can reveal without a customer's consent, or without a search warrant or subpoena.

"Federal law prohibits the phone companies from giving records to the government without a warrant," said Afran, who is an attorney in private practice and also a professor of law at Rutgers University. "There was no warrant, nor was there any attempt to get warrants, which is in violation of the constitution and the Telecommunications Act."

Verizon could be fined $1,000 for each violation of the Telecommunications Act, Afran said. If the case is certified as a class action, damages could reach $50 billion, he said.

Verizon has not confirmed or denied participation in the highly classified NSA program. But it did issue a statement on Friday.

"Verizon puts the interests of our customers first and has a longstanding commitment to vigorously safeguard our customers' privacy," the company said. "Verizon will provide customer information to a government agency only where authorized by law for appropriately defined and focused purposes. Verizon does not, and will not, provide any government agency unfettered access to our customer records or provide information to the government under circumstances that would allow a fishing expedition."

AT&T is already being sued over similar allegations that it has passed along private customer information to the NSA. In January, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that advocates for privacy rights on the Internet, filed suit against AT&T in a federal district court in San Francisco for also handing over customer data to the NSA.

On Saturday, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a motion to dismiss the class action lawsuit against AT&T. The government claims that its legal brief and two affidavits from senior intelligence officials that accompanied the motion are classified, preventing even the parties to the lawsuit, EFF and AT&T, from seeing them.

Attorneys for the EFF have vowed to continue with the lawsuit.

"We don't think our lawsuit will compromise national security," said EFF staff attorney Kevin Bankston. "And we dismiss vigorously any claims by the government that it does. AT&T is breaking federal and state statues by giving private customer information to the NSA."

The EFF is looking for the court to impose an injunction on AT&T so that it stops sharing customer information with the NSA, and it is also asking for $1,000 in damages to be paid to all residential AT&T customers both of its phone service and Internet services, Bankston said.

A hearing is scheduled for Wednesday to determine whether evidence that EFF claims to have against AT&T can be unsealed. AT&T claims certain documents should not be unsealed because they compromise the company's trade secrets.