Don't Let Verizon off Privacy Hook

Published on
the Portland Press Herald (Maine)

Don't Let Verizon off Privacy Hook

James Cowie

In May 2006, 21 other customers of Verizon in Maine and I filed a complaint with the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

The complaint asked the PUC to investigate whether Verizon gave the National Security Agency, or any other government agency, unwarranted access to its Maine customers' calls or e-mails or to its switching facilities, and whether in the process it violated any Maine or federal privacy statutes.

We took that step because, in the five months since The New York Times had reported on the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program, the oversight committees of the House and Senate had yet to conduct a hearing on this apparent violation of the Fourth Amendment.

This paper and every other major newspaper in Maine supported our complaint and encouraged the PUC to investigate it. Almost immediately, however, the Department of Justice sued the PUC to prevent it from investigating the complaint.

That lawsuit is currently before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which is considering the Department of Justice's assertion that the PUC's investigation could reveal "state secrets."

Now, should the court throw out the Department of Justice's lawsuit and authorize the PUC to investigate the complaint against Verizon, will the PUC be able to do so?

Not if Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins have anything to say about it. Last month, they both voted in favor of a bill that grants legal immunity to phone companies that cooperated with the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program.

Their vote is ultimately based on the legality of President Bush's assertion that he has the authority to order warrantless wiretaps, which many people believe violates state and federal telephone privacy laws, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Fourth Amendment. The president's assertion has yet to be tested in a court of law.

But if the president does get to sign the phone company immunity bill our senators voted for, Verizon's customers in Maine will have to contend with the galling unfairness of never knowing whether Verizon violated our privacy rights.

That's because that new law will prevent the PUC, or any court, from considering that question. And by then Snowe and Collins will have supported two laws that have fundamentally changed us as a country.

The first is this law, which grants legal immunity to virtually the entire U.S. telecommunications industry; and the shameful Military Commissions Act, which gave the president the powers of a despot, enabling him to decide who is a "foreign combatant" and then to deny such persons habeas corpus, the right to challenge charges against them in court.

At the end of this month Verizon's sale of its Maine network to FairPoint will close, and then Verizon will no longer be a public utility in Maine, and so will no longer be subject to the PUC's jurisdiction.

But the PUC imposed a condition on that sale, which Verizon agreed to, that requires Verizon Maine to continue to be subject to the PUC's jurisdiction until it completes its investigation of our privacy complaint.

As for whether FairPoint will be asked to cooperate with the NSA, we can only hope it takes the same position Qwest did.

It was, and still is, the only former Bell Telephone successor firm to state publicly that it refused to cooperate with the NSA after it learned the agency would not provide court orders for its wiretapping program.

Has Verizon cooperated with the NSA? That question was put to rest last August; in an interview with the El Paso Times, Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell described Verizon and AT&T as "partners" in the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program.

James Cowie of Portland, a retired mathematician, is lead plaintiff in a privacy complaint against Verizon before the Maine PUC.

© 2003- 2008 Blethen Maine Newspapers, Inc.

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