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Telecoms push back on proposed NSA plan

Shift could strain historic bonds with government

WASHINGTON — 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.

Now the phone companies are speaking up. In closed-door meetings with policy makers, they are taking a less accommodating stance and straining the historically tight bond between telecom and the surveillance community.

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‘‘It’s been extremely unusual for telecoms to resist any requests from the government,’’ said software engineer Zaki Manian of Palo Alto, Calif., who advocates against mass government surveillance.

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,’’ said Susan Crawford, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School who was a special assistant to President 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 United States 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 to be the biggest intelligence-intercept operation in US 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 requires telecom companies to build networks that allow law enforcement to eavesdrop in real time.

But 2014 marks a pivotal moment for the telecom industry. White House policy makers are considering significant changes as public debate about surveillance heightens in the aftermath of NSA spying exposed by former agency contractor Edward Snowden.

The central pillar of Obama’s plan to overhaul the surveillance programs calls for shifting storage of Americans’ phone data from the government to telecom companies or an independent third party. But telecoms don’t want that job.

Phone industry executives have privately told administration officials they don’t like the idea of storing phone records gathered by the NSA because they don’t want to become the government’s data minders. Companies say they are wary of being forced to standardize their own data collection to conform to the NSA’s needs.

Industry officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment on their discussions with the administration.

CTIA-The Wireless Association, an industry group, said the balance between national security and civil liberties ‘‘can be achieved without the imposition of data retention mandates that obligate carriers to keep customer information any longer than necessary for legitimate business purposes.’’

The NSA’s massive collection of calling records under secret court orders was revealed by Snowden in June in the first of many disclosures about surveillance programs based on classified documents. Snowden, granted asylum in Russia in August, faces espionage charges in the United States.

The Snowden documents also revealed NSA programs that scoop up data from Internet companies and tap into Google and Yahoo’s data-center communications overseas.

The tech giants lashed out when news broke that their customers’ data was being tapped, escalating pressure on Obama to curb the NSA programs.

On Jan. 27, the government said it will allow five companies — Google Inc., Microsoft Corp., Yahoo Inc., Facebook Inc., and LinkedIn Corp. — to share more information with the public about how often they receive orders to assist national security investigations.

But telecom companies remained largely on the sidelines. An opinion from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which was declassified in September, said no telecom company that has received an order to turn over bulk phone records has challenged the directive.

In contrast, at least one tech company, Yahoo, asked the court to make public its orders to turn over customer data so the company could show it had fought them.

Verizon’s general counsel, Randal Milch, said the government should publicly disclose the number of demands it makes for customer data.

In December, responding to pressure from major shareholders, AT&T and Verizon said they will publish reports on the number of law enforcement requests for customer information, a disclosure Internet companies already make.

Verizon’s first report, released in January, showed it received at least 1,000 government requests for customer information last year.

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