June 6, 2006

Rights group asks FCC to probe phone data access

By Peter Szekely

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The American Civil Liberties Union
on Tuesday said it asked federal regulators reviewing the
proposed merger of two telephone giants to investigate a report
they gave customer calling records to a U.S. spy agency.

The ACLU said it reminded the Federal Communications
Commission in a letter sent late on Monday that it has a
statutory duty as part of its review of the AT&T Inc. takeover
of BellSouth Corp. to investigate a report that the companies
gave calling records to the National Security Agency.

"These actions seem to be in direct violation of statutory
guarantees on the privacy of telephone calling information,"
ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said in a statement.

BellSouth has denied a May 11 report in USA Today that it
gave records to the NSA as part of its effort to detect
terrorist activity following the September 2001 attacks.

The USA Today report also said Verizon Communications and
AT&T provided records to the NSA. Verizon has denied the
report, while AT&T has not directly addressed the matter.

The ACLU said the FCC is legally required to review the
conduct and "character qualifications" of the AT&T and
BellSouth, which announced their merger in March. Violations of
communications laws and regulations would be relevant to the
agency's review of the merger, the ACLU said.

"Our view is that they don't have any choice here," said
Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty
Project. "If they can't invest it, then I don't see how they
can proceed with the merger."

Two weeks ago the agency rebuffed a request from Rep.
Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, for a general
investigation of the report the companies gave the NSA access
to telephone records.

"The classified nature of the NSA's activities makes us
unable to investigate the alleged violations," FCC Chairman
Kevin Martin, a Republican, told Markey in a letter.

But Steinhart noted that the ACLU's request for an
investigation was made in the context of the review of the
merger between AT&T and BellSouth and stressed that the group
was not asking the FCC to investigate the supersecret NSA.

"This could be cleared up in a day," he said. "They've got
to ask the question."

Last month, the ACLU also launched a campaign to ask
regulators in 20 states to stop the NSA's warrantless
eavesdropping and to prevent telecommunications companies from
providing the agency with phone records.