Telecoms firms never challenged NSA

Phone companies put up no resistance to NSA demands for data, but it doesn't make online giants the good guys

By Natasha Lennard
September 19, 2013 4:00PM (UTC)
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Since news of the National Security Agency's dragnet-style surveillance programs first broke (and continues to break), Silicon Valley leviathans have scrambled to absolve themselves of wrongdoing.

The key vectors of government online surveillance -- Google, Facebook et al. -- have joined a chorus calling for (and suing) the government to enable them to release classified information about user data requests made by the government. If users know how and how much they are surveilled, then the fact of surveillance isn't so bad, suggests the flawed ideology at play. It seems that only Yahoo, in a 2008 lawsuit, took pains to disclose such information to their users before the scandal hit. Other tech firm protestations smack of scandal-drenched attempts to save face.


Meanwhile, telecommunications firms -- the other key providers of communications data to NSA spy programs -- have reportedly marched in goose step with the expanding surveillance state. The Guardian revealed Wednesday that telephone companies who have received Fisa court orders for mass customer data have not once challenged the demands.

"To date, no holder of records who has received an Order to produce bulk telephony metadata has challenged the legality of such an Order," Fisa judge Clair V. Eagan wrote. "Indeed, no recipient of any Section 215 Order has challenged the legality of such an order, despite the mechanism for doing so." Eagan's opinion, commented the Guardian's Ed Pilkington, "implied that by failing to challenge the legality of the programme, the phone companies were passively accepting it its constitutional status."

And while Internet giants have made considerable noise in the wake of Edward Snowden's leaks going public, telecoms firms have remained comparatively silent. In my view, aside from Yahoo's 2008 legal efforts, the difference between the telecoms firms' silence and online companies' protestations is more to do with public relations than ethics. Both industries were acquiescent in feeding the government's hoarding complex for communications metadata.


The Guardian's Pilkington suggested that telecoms firms' silence over the issue set them significantly apart from the Internet giants ostensibly (and publicly) showing resistance to government spy orders. He wrote:

The companies' decision not to comment on any aspect of the NSA dragnet puts them in a increasingly peculiar position. By withholding their internal views from the public, they are setting themselves apart from equivalent internet firms that are taking a more bullish stance, and are shrouding themselves in more secrecy than even the Fisa court, one of the most tight-lipped institutions in the country.

But, once again, the position of the telecoms firms is only a difference in patina. Structurally, the companies that handed over telephonic metadata under Fisa orders and those that handed over email metadata played the same role in providing the government with a sprawling repository of information on U.S. citizens' communications. One might argue that it is, at least, preferable now that online leviathans are pushing for greater transparency while phone companies remain troublingly mum. But lets not then pretend that the Internet firms are thus the good guys in this story, protecting users against government spycraft. It is the very business of companies like Google and Facebook to track user activity (this is how targeted advertising works); they constitute the surveillance state as much as any NSA program. Silence over and acquiescence to secret government orders from the likes of Verizon should not mean absolution for its noisier Silicon Valley counterparts.

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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Edward Snowden Facebook Fisa Fisa Court Fisc Google Metadata Nsa Surveillance Verizon Yahoo