Ah the Good Old Days When You Could Spy Without Help: Private Companies and Their Cooperation with Eavesdropping

Thisbe_-_John_William_Waterhouse2.JPGYet again technology is cited as a problem requiring change. This time it is in the familiar realm of government access to telecommunications. As the New York Times reports:

The federal government’s reliance on private industry has been driven by changes in technology. Two decades ago, telephone calls and other communications traveled mostly through the air, relayed along microwave towers or bounced off satellites. The N.S.A. could vacuum up phone, fax and data traffic merely by erecting its own satellite dishes. But the fiber optics revolution has sent more and more international communications by land and undersea cable, forcing the agency to seek company cooperation to get access.

This information is not exactly new, but the article also notes that it is not just recent terrorist concerns that have prompted the government to seek help in tracking communications. The N.S.A. and the D.E.A. have apparently been “collecting the phone records showing patterns of calls between the United States, Latin America and other drug-producing regions” since the 1990s and the program may be expanding. At bottom the concern is that the Bush Administration wants to offer retroactive protection for the companies that cooperated with the government because as Attorney General Mukasey and director of national intelligence have argued without that protection would be reluctant to help. Yet the article details that some companies such as Verizon may have cooperated and even run a line to a military facility whereas others refused to cooperate because they feared public reaction regarding their privacy. Immunity thus is not necessarily why the companies did not cooperate.

Put differently, how affording such protection makes sense is unclear unless the immunity would work in a way analogous to prosecutorial immunity: “You have to work with us.” “But it’s against the law.” “Maybe. But you aren’t liable anymore so just do it.” Again as long companies fear “customers’ demands for privacy and shareholders’ worries about bad publicity,” the immunity should be less of an issue. Still from an in-house attorney perspective, persuading the other executives that the best practice is not to cooperate would be harder to do if there is general immunity for cooperating in breaking the law. The immunity removes a powerful argument against what should be a practice to be avoided.

image: Thisbe – John William Waterhouse Wikicommons

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