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March 4, 2014

Telecoms push back on NSA plan

WASHINGTON — When Apple, Google, Microsoft and other tech giants united in outrage last summer over the National Security Agency’s unfettered spying, telecommunications giants such as AT&T, Verizon and Sprint —whose customers are also the targets of secret government spying — remained noticeably mum.

But now the phone companies are speaking up. In closed-door meetings with policymakers, they are taking a less accommodating stance with government and rattling the historically tight bond between telecom and the surveillance community.

“It’s been extremely unusual for telecoms to resist any requests from the government,” said software engineer Zaki Manian of Palo Alto, who advocates against mass government surveillance. “The telecom companies have a long history of providing raw data dumps to the government and typically taking some money in return and calling it a day.”

Technology companies typically comply with requests for information about individual users but resist demands for bulk data. But telecommunications companies share a connection with government unlike that of any other industry.

They “have been tied to our national security agencies for all of their history,” said Susan Crawford, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School who was a special assistant to President Barack Obama for science, technology and innovation policy.

During World War II and for decades after, telegraph companies such as Western Union — which was controlled by AT&T — turned over copies of international telegrams originating in the U.S. to the NSA and its predecessor agency.

But 2014 marks a pivotal moment for the telecom industry. White House policymakers are considering significant changes as public debate about surveillance heightens in the aftermath of NSA spying exposed by former agency contractor Edward Snowden.

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