Verizon Wireless Secretly Passed AP Reporters' Phone Records to Feds

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
May 16 2013 3:06 PM

Verizon Wireless Secretly Passed AP Reporters' Phone Records to Feds

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Verizon Wireless passed AP reporters' phone records to the feds.

Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images

If you are a customer of Verizon Wireless, you might want to consider switching carriers in light of the Associated Press phone snooping scandal.

Ryan Gallagher Ryan Gallagher

Ryan Gallagher is a journalist who reports on surveillance, security, and civil liberties.

When the feds came knocking for AP journalists’ call records last year, Verizon apparently turned the data over with no questions asked. The New York Times, citing an AP employee, reported Tuesday that at least two of the reporters’ personal cellphone records “were provided to the government by Verizon Wireless without any attempt to obtain permission to tell them so the reporters could ask a court to quash the subpoena.”

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A quick refresher on the back story: It emerged Monday that the Justice Department obtained AP journalists’ phone records as part of what is believed to be an aggressive probe into a leak about a foiled terror plot, which led to a May 2012 AP scoop. The government seized the records for more that 20 separate phone lines assigned to AP staff in April and May of 2012, the AP reported. The seizure of the records has prompted a backlash from media organizations, while Attorney General Eric Holder has tried to justify the intrusion by insisting that the leak “put the American people at risk.” The AP says that it published the story only after receiving assurances from the government that “the national security concerns had passed.”

Controversially, the AP was not given advance notice of the seizure, which is considered the usual protocol when the government is seeking to obtain journalists’ records. However, Verizon Wireless could have notified the reporters, which may have helped them challenge its legality. Companies like Dropbox and Twitter have made it their policy to inform users (whenever possible) that the government is seeking access to their data, and Twitter has been applauded for how it has been willing to challenge authorities’ surveillance attempts in court. But Verizon—like AT&T, Facebook, and Comcast—has been criticized in the past for its lack of willingness to stand up for users’ privacy rights, which suggests its decision to hand over AP reporters’ records is true to form. The company has been rated as one of the worst in the United States for three consecutive years in the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s annual “Who Has Your Back?” reports.

I contacted Verizon Wireless for comment, querying whether the AP incident may prompt the company to change its policy regarding how it responds to such requests. Spokeswoman Debra Lewis said Verizon Wireless complied “with legal processes with regard to requests from law enforcement” but wouldn’t comment on specific cases. In regard to a change of policy, Lewis said she was “not going to speculate on what may or may not happen in the future.”

Either way, the debacle is likely to come as a much needed wake up call for some reporters, even if companies fail to change their questionable practices. The message is simple: Don’t communicate with sensitive sources on the phone, regardless of who your carrier is. Encryption is an option, but safest is to do things the old-fashioned way: face-to-face, with a notepad and a pen.

Update, May 16: Lawmakers introduced Thursday a bill intended to prevent another AP-style phone records grab from occurring in the future. The one-sentence Telephone Records Protection Act would apply to all Americans and would stop the feds from being able to seize phone records with a mere administrative subpoena, as occurred in the AP case. Instead, the TRPA would force the feds to meet a higher legal standard to obtain a court order, Wired reports, requiring the authorities to state “specific and articulable facts” to prove to a court that the records and information being sought is “relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.” The bill was introduced by Reps. Justin Amash, R-Mich.; Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.; Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C.; and Jared Polis, D-Colo.

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