Telcos on Privacy Hot Seat?

Kat Khan
WASHINGTON — A U.S. congressman has opened a new front in the investigation of domestic surveillance by the federal government by sending letters to most of the country’s major telecommunications, cable and Internet communications firms seeking information.

Michigan Representative John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, sent the letter to 20 companies, including AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Time Warner, Cingular, T-Mobile, Microsoft, Yahoo, Google and EarthLink.

The request for surveillance information puts the communications firms squarely on the hot seat as issues of customer privacy, national security and the privacy guidelines under which the firms operate are being addressed by legal scholars and critics of the administration.

The letter, dated Jan. 21, 2006, asked the companies’ leadership whether they have “allowed the federal government to eavesdrop on customer communications” through their facilities or whether or not they have turned over customer records “when not compelled to do so by law.”

The letter, which was sent on the House Judiciary Committee stationery, also asks the leaders of the communications firms if access was indeed granted, what content was monitored and how many customers were monitored.

Comcast, the largest cable operator in the U.S., acknowledged receiving the letter but said it has not been asked to provide access or information by the government.

“We will respond expeditiously to Rep. Conyers’ letter, but to the best of our knowledge we have not been asked by the government to afford such access or provide such information,” Comcast Spokesman Tim Fitzpatrick said. “We have many cable systems and many vendors across the country that we are double-checking this with, but as far as we know, that is not something we’ve been asked to do by the government.”