Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Warrantless wiretaps and telecom immunity move forward

How much impact did the Democratic takeover of Congress have on ... oh ... let's say, protecting Americans against intrusive wiretapping? Not a whole hell of a lot, to judge by the Senate vote on an extension of expanded federal wiretapping powers. Not only is the Democrat-led Senate gung-ho to "update" the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, granting law-enforcement authorities awesome power to conduct electronic surveillance without bothering with the formality of securing a warrant first, but it voted 67-31 to reject an amendment that would have stripped out a provision immunizing telecommunications companies against liability for past violations of customers' privacy during the course of wiretapping operations.

Why does the government want to give telecommunications companies what amounts to a get-out-of-jail free card? Because at least some telecoms have been the feds' willing accomplices. Says the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is acting as co-lead counsel in lawsuits against the guilty companies:

Reporting from every major American media outlet and undisputed whistleblower evidence show that AT&T and other phone companies were complicit in the NSA's warrantless surveillance. This included the records and full content of the private domestic communications of millions of ordinary Americans. The President and the phone companies hid this information from Congress and the American people for at least six years.

That doesn't sit well with everybody. As Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, said in a statement posted on the Web:

When companies break the law they should be held accountable by our government – not given a multi-million dollar favor. The millions of Americans who are telecom customers deserve to know that their phone conversations are private. The telecommunications providers illegally turned over private customer call information to the government. Instead of having faith in the U.S. court system to fairly handle these cases; the U.S. Senate is poised to give the telecom providers a get-out-of-jail-free card.

So the Senate is dead-set on establishing the precedent that, when private companies violate their customers' privacy rights at the behest of government authorities, they'll be protected by their powerful buddies. Left implicit is the threat that if they don't play along with the feds, bad things could happen. So the telecoms' have a choice between breaking the law on behalf of the government without consequence, or sticking up for their customers' privacy and pissing off the regulators who exercise enormous power over their bottom lines.

What do you think most companies will choose to do in the future?

And who do you turn to to change things when both major political parties seem to think this all constitutes wise public policy?



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