Skip to main content

Telecom firm pushed back on NSA data collection, papers show

By Evan Perez, CNN
updated 8:22 AM EDT, Thu May 15, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Telecommunications company challenged NSA's data collection, papers show
  • The newly released documents show firms pressed U.S. to prove legality in 2010
  • The companies had been criticized for not protecting customers' privacy

Washington (CNN) -- U.S. telecommunications companies are trying to put some distance between themselves and U.S. government spying programs after years of quietly complying with court orders to cooperate with National Security Agency surveillance.

The Obama administration on Wednesday released a set of declassified court documents showing that in 2010, a U.S. telecom company pushed the government to prove the legality of the NSA's bulk collection of data on U.S. phone calls.

The so-called phone metadata program, authorized under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, became public last year in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Since the Snowden disclosures, telecommucations providers have come under criticism from privacy advocates for not fighting hard enough to protect their customers' data from the government's mass surveillance programs.

Jonathan Pollard is a divisive figure in U.S.-Israeli relations. The former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst was caught spying for Israel in 1985 and was sentenced in 1987 to life imprisonment. The United States and Israel are discussing his possible release as part of efforts to save fragile Middle East peace negotiations, according to sources familiar with the talks. Click through the gallery to see other high-profile leak scandals the United States has seen over the years. Jonathan Pollard is a divisive figure in U.S.-Israeli relations. The former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst was caught spying for Israel in 1985 and was sentenced in 1987 to life imprisonment. The United States and Israel are discussing his possible release as part of efforts to save fragile Middle East peace negotiations, according to sources familiar with the talks. Click through the gallery to see other high-profile leak scandals the United States has seen over the years.
Sharing secrets: U.S. intelligence leaks
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
Sharing secrets: U.S. intelligence leaks Sharing secrets: U.S. intelligence leaks
National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden poses with German Green party parliamentarian Hans-Christian Stroebele in Moscow on October 31. Stroebele returned from the meeting with a letter from Snowden to German authorities, which was distributed to the media. In it, Snowden said he is confident that with international support, the United States would abandon its efforts to "treat dissent as defection" and "criminalize political speech with felony charges." National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden poses with German Green party parliamentarian Hans-Christian Stroebele in Moscow on October 31. Stroebele returned from the meeting with a letter from Snowden to German authorities, which was distributed to the media. In it, Snowden said he is confident that with international support, the United States would abandon its efforts to "treat dissent as defection" and "criminalize political speech with felony charges."
NSA leaker Edward Snowden
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
>
>>
Photos: NSA leaker Edward Snowden Photos: NSA leaker Edward Snowden
Former intelligence worker Edward Snowden revealed himself as the source of documents outlining a massive effort by the NSA to track cell phone calls and monitor the e-mail and Internet traffic of virtually all Americans. He says he just wanted the public to know what the government was doing. "Even if you're not doing anything wrong, you're being watched and recorded," he said. Snowden has been granted temporary asylum in Russia after initially fleeing to Hong Kong. He has been charged with three felony counts, including violations of the U.S. Espionage Act, over the leaks. Former intelligence worker Edward Snowden revealed himself as the source of documents outlining a massive effort by the NSA to track cell phone calls and monitor the e-mail and Internet traffic of virtually all Americans. He says he just wanted the public to know what the government was doing. "Even if you're not doing anything wrong, you're being watched and recorded," he said. Snowden has been granted temporary asylum in Russia after initially fleeing to Hong Kong. He has been charged with three felony counts, including violations of the U.S. Espionage Act, over the leaks.
Notable leakers and whistle-blowers
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
>
>>
Notable leakers and whistle-blowers Notable leakers and whistle-blowers

Some technology companies have complained that their compliance, under court order, with U.S. surveillance programs has caused customers to distrust them and could harm their business and the U.S. economy.

In January, after a pair of conflicting federal court rulings on the legality of the data program, Verizon questioned the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court about the legal basis for the program. The court turned away the challenge and ordered the company to continue complying.

The documents released Wednesday show there was an earlier, more modest effort in 2010 made by at least one provider to push the government to explain the legality of the data collection.

Wednesday's declassification came after the company, unidentified in the partially redacted court documents made public, pressed the government to release the 2010 court records, according to people familiar with the matter.

The name of company remains classified, but an official familiar with the matter confirmed it was Sprint. The Washington Post first reported the name of the company and said the company's lawyers were prepared in 2010 to challenge the NSA program's legality until the government more fully explained it.

Sprint is pleased with the release of the records, spokesman John Taylor said.

"Sprint believes that substantive legal grounding should be provided when the government requests customer information from carriers," he said. "Sprint has a longstanding commitment to protecting our customers' privacy and will challenge an order for customer information that we don't think complies with the law.

"This is an important part of the debate in how our government balances the need to provide for our national security while protecting civil liberties," Taylor continued. "Sprint also believes this balance can be achieved without obligating carriers to keep customer information any longer than necessary for legitimate business purposes."

With ongoing Snowden document disclosures, the company sought the declassification to show it didn't blindly go along with government spying, according to a U.S. official familiar with the matter.

The 2010 records show the dispute fell short of a full court challenge of the NSA data collection.

But documents show the company pushed the government into negotiations to provide more information about the legality of the program. In the end, the documents show, a federal judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court ordered the company to continue to comply with the NSA's programs.

Opinion: Let the spies spy, let the cops chase terrorists

Behind the NSA's mysterious coded tweet

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Data mining & privacy
updated 10:25 AM EDT, Sun June 23, 2013
He's a high-school dropout who worked his way into the most secretive computers in U.S. intelligence as a defense contractor.
updated 8:26 AM EDT, Thu May 29, 2014
Traitor or patriot? Low-level systems analyst or highly trained spy?
updated 3:27 PM EDT, Thu May 29, 2014
What are the takeaways from Snowden's NBC interview? You might be surprised.
updated 7:52 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Months after accepting asylum in Russia, Snowden asked Putin about Moscow's own surveillance practices.
updated 12:43 PM EDT, Wed March 12, 2014
A federal judge has refused the Obama administration's request to extend storage of classified NSA telephone surveillance data beyond the current five-year limit.
updated 8:44 PM EDT, Sun March 9, 2014
From his sanctuary in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Julian Assange said that everyone in the world will be just as effectively monitored soon -- at least digitally.
updated 8:39 PM EDT, Mon March 10, 2014
In a rare public talk via the Web, fugitive NSA leaker Edward Snowden urged a tech conference audience to help "fix" the U.S. government's surveillance of its citizens.
updated 11:55 PM EDT, Thu August 1, 2013
The White House is "very disappointed" that National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden has been granted temporary asylum in Russia.
updated 8:57 AM EST, Tue December 10, 2013
Spies with surveillance agencies in the U.S. and U.K. infiltrated video games like "World of Warcraft" in a hunt for terrorists "hiding in plain sight" online.
updated 7:39 AM EDT, Fri August 2, 2013
Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden both held jobs that gave them access to some of their country's most secret and sensitive intelligence. They chose to share that material with the world and are now paying for it.
updated 10:35 AM EDT, Thu August 1, 2013
The NSA's controversial intelligence-gathering programs have prevented 54 terrorist attacks around the world, including 13 in the United States.
updated 2:54 PM EDT, Thu August 1, 2013
You've never heard of XKeyscore, but it definitely knows you. The National Security Agency's top-secret program essentially makes available everything you've ever done on the Internet.
updated 9:04 AM EDT, Sun August 18, 2013
You may have never heard of Lavabit and Silent Circle. That's because they offered encrypted (secure) e-mail services, something most Americans have probably never thought about needing.
updated 2:54 PM EDT, Wed July 24, 2013
"Any analyst at any time can target anyone. Any selector, anywhere ... I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone."
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 2, 2013
President Barack Obama responds to outrage by European leaders over revelations of alleged U.S. spying.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Tue April 1, 2014
Browse through a history of high-profile intelligence leaking cases.
updated 10:37 AM EDT, Tue July 2, 2013
Former President George W. Bush talks Snowden, AIDS, Mandela and his legacy.
updated 9:04 AM EDT, Wed June 26, 2013
Edward Snowden took a job with an NSA contractor in order to gather evidence about U.S. surveillance programs.
updated 6:47 AM EDT, Wed June 19, 2013
With reports of NSA snooping, many people have started wondering about their personl internet security.
updated 9:52 AM EDT, Wed August 14, 2013
Click through our gallery to learn about other major leaks and what happened in the aftermath.
updated 4:02 PM EDT, Sun June 9, 2013
What really goes on inside America's most secretive agency? CNN's Chris Lawrence reports.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT