LOS ANGELES - The three affiliates of the ACLU of California filed lawsuits today against both Verizon and AT&T for their illegal and unconstitutional transfer of private customer information to the National Security Agency.
The lawsuits were filed in state court and seek injunctions stopping the two phone companies from any additional transfers of private customer data to the federal government in violation of the California Constitution's privacy provision and the Public Utilities Code.
Plaintiffs in the case include former Congressman Tom Campbell, journalists Marc Cooper and Robert Scheer, "Law & Order" actor Richard Belzer, the writer of the California Telephone Privacy Act, medical professionals, members of the clergy, computer and security experts and lawyers.
"AT&T and Verizon have systematically and flagrantly violated important state laws that are designed to protect consumers and maintain the privacy of millions of California residents," said Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California. "The government has the means to obtain information legally under certain specific circumstances, but it has no license for this overbroad, illegal collection and mining of data."
On May 11, USA Today published a report on a previously undisclosed database of telephone calls created by the National Security Agency from millions of customer records provided by the telephone companies. The lawsuits filed today call on the companies to comply with the law and cease divulging private consumer data to the federal government. California law prohibits telephone companies from providing information including "customer's or subscriber's personal calling patterns, including any listing of the telephone or other access numbers called by the customer or subscriber" to anyone unless the subscriber has consented or pursuant to court order, and the law requires the companies to disclose to customers any information sharing.
The lawsuits note the extreme importance medical professionals share in ensuring their phone calls remain confidential.
"It is essential to good medicine that patients' communications with their doctors be completely confidential," said Dr. Curren Warf, a pediatrician who practices in Los Angeles. "In many cases, adolescents and their families, whom I treat, have private concerns. Having phone companies turn over doctors' phone records is a terrible violation of privacy and a threat to the doctor-patient relationship, which is founded on confidentiality and trust. The law must protect both the content of doctor-patient communications as well as ensuring patients that they can speak with doctors without anyone else knowing about that conversation."
Dr. Robert Jacobson is a technology expert in California who in 1985 helped draft the California Telephone Privacy Act, which was passed with bipartisan support and signed into law by Gov. George Deukmejian.
"The law is clear and it reflects the fact that privacy is important to the people of this state and its business community," Jacobson said. "People expect their private conversations to be private whether they're calling friends, family, church, or business associates.Similarly, business thrives when customers know that their personal information is not being given away without their consent."
Security expert Bruce Schneier warns that data mining is ineffective and sacrifices freedoms:
"Data mining is like searching for a needle in a haystack and the cost is enormous -- not just for the FBI agents running around chasing dead-end leads instead of doing things that might actually make us safer, but also the cost in civil liberties. The fundamental freedoms that make our country the envy of the world are valuable, and not something that we should throw away lightly."
On Wednesday, 20 other ACLU affiliates filed complaints with the Public Utility Commissions in their states or sent letters to state Attorneys General and other officials demanding investigations into whether local telecommunications companies allowed the NSA to gather information about their customers.
"This type of overbroad data collection is especially alarming to doctors, psychiatrists, lawyers, ministers and their clients," said Peter Eliasberg, ACLU/SC managing attorney. "Our society protects privacy and respects doctor-patient, lawyer-client, and minister-parishioner confidentiality. Without a system of checks and balances, the government can monitor any phone call or e-mail it wants, and that abuse of power sends a chilling message to all innocent Americans that our conversations are not our own."