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General News    H2'ed 5/24/13

Verizon (and Google) Helped U.S. Government to Spy on Reporters

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by Pratap Chatterjee ,  CorpWatch Blog
May 23rd, 2013

Technology companies willingly provided information to U.S. government agencies to help the Obama administration snoop on reporters from the Associated Press (AP) and Fox news in order to ostensibly crack down on leaks that pose a "threat" to national security.

Verizon, one of the largest mobile phone companies in the U.S., turned over records on 20 reporters from the AP who were working on a story on Yemen without questioning the government. Likewise Google turned over email records on Stephen Jin-Woo Kim, a federal contractor, over his conversations about North Korea with Fox news.

This is not the first time that the Obama administration has asked telecommunication companies to turn over records on journalists. In 2010 the federal government asked for the phone records of New York Times reporter James Risen for his investigation of Operation Merlin, a failed attempt by the Clinton administration to sabotage Iran's nuclear program by supplying misleading information on key technology.

"Every president wants to control the message, but this administration has taken things to a different level," Kathleen McClellan, a lawyer for the Government Accountability Project, a whistle-blower support organization, told the Los Angeles Times. "They have indicted a record number of people under the Espionage Act, and they have been very willing to go after journalists."

Not surprisingly, Verizon recently ranked lowest in an annual report by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) on which companies protect their customers best. (Google did much better) Nor is Verizon ashamed of this record -- the company is now hawking its abilities to collect and sell information on user behavior.

Verizon Cooperation

The AP published a report in May 2012 that a person in Yemen was planning to launch a suicide attack on a U.S. bound plane using an underwear bomb. The report suggested that the Obama administration had misled or lied to the public about the existence of the plot.

The U.S. Department of Justice asked Ronald Machen Jr., the U.S. attorney in Washington, to investigate the matter. A subpoena was issued to Verizon (and possibly others) for 21 phone lines in five AP offices (including one that has been shut down six years ago, according to David Schulz, AP's chief lawyer. Verizon turned over the data "without any attempt to obtain permission to tell them so the reporters could ask a court to quash the subpoena."

Federal officials later claimed that it has the legal authority to ask for the records. But media organizations say that the request sets a dangerous precedent.

The Obama administration is sending a message "that if you talk to the press, we're going to go after you," said Gary Pruitt, CEO of AP. "Officials who would normally talk to us, and people we would talk to in the normal course of news gathering, are already saying to us that they're a little reluctant to talk to us; they fear that they will be monitored by the government."

The compliance of Verizon is not surprising -- the company routinely approves federal government requests to track customers. Recently revealed court documents show that in July 2008 Verizon secretly reprogrammed a wireless internet card belonging to Daniel David Rigmaiden to allow the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to track him for alleged tax fraud.

Activists say that the company should not have complied with the government as no legitimate warrant was provided. "It shows you just how crazy the technology is, and (supports) all the more the need to explain to the court what they are doing," Hanni Fakhoury, an EFF staff attorney, told Wired magazine. "This is more than just (saying to Verizon) give us some records that you have sitting on your server. This is reconfiguring and changing the characteristics of the (suspect's) property, without inf
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