Telecoms Push Back on NSA Proposal

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," says 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," Manian says.

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," says 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. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, government agents reviewed tens of thousands of telegrams each month under "Project Shamrock," deemed by lawmakers to be the biggest intelligence-intercept operation in U.S. history.

Since the earliest days of wiretapping in the late 19th century, telephone companies have assisted law enforcement and intelligence agencies. For decades, a series of laws cemented the relationship, including a 1994 wiretapping act that...

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