August 9, 2007 | By Derek Slater

How Ma Bell Fought for Your Privacy - 80 Years Ago

Once upon a time, nearly eighty years ago, AT&T fought at the Supreme Court to stop the government's warrantless surveillance of Americans' private communications.

How times have changed.

Since its participation in the president's illegal wiretapping program came to light in late 2005, AT&T has desperately tried to avoid accountability and has sided with the government's claims that no one should be able to sue to stop the dragnet surveillance of millions of ordinary Americans.

But when the Supreme Court first confronted warrantless wiretapping in Olmstead v. USA, AT&T co-authored an amicus brief that outspokenly defended its customers' privacy:

"The telephone companies deplore the use of their facilities in furtherance of any criminal or wrongful enterprise. But it was not solicitude for law breakers that caused the people of the United States to ordain the Fourth and Fifth Amendments as part of the Constitution?. [I]t is better that a few criminals escape than that the privacies of life of all the people be exposed to the agents of the government, who will act at their own discretion, the honest and the dishonest, unauthorized and unrestrained by courts."

Even in the 1920s, AT&T clearly recognized that surveillance of the modern telecommunications system could be far more invasive than the Colonial era privacy violations that inspired the Bill of Rights.

"The telephone has become part and parcel of the social and business intercourse of the people of the United States, and this telephone system offers a means of espionage to which general warrants and writs of assistance were the puniest instruments of tyranny and oppression."

"Writs of assistance" were used by King George II and III to carry out wide-ranging searches of anyone, anywhere, and anytime regardless of whether they were suspected of a crime. These "hated writs" spurred colonists toward revolution and directly motivated James Madison's crafting of the Fourth Amendment.

Today, the president has essentially updated this page from King George's playbook. EFF's lawsuit against AT&T presents uncontested evidence that, since at least 2001, the telco giant has given the National Security Agency unfettered backdoor access to its customers' Internet and phone communications as well as realtime access to calling records.

If AT&T in 1928 thought that wiretapping made the "hated writs" look puny, how can it now cooperate with the president's massive and illegal spying program?

Both federal statutes and the Constitution plainly forbid the president's abuse of power as well as AT&T's participation, and EFF will continue to fight hard in court to restore your rights. On Wednesday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments in our case. As AT&T's brief from 80 years ago makes clear, the most basic essence of our Constitution is at stake.

AT&T isn't the only one in need of a history lesson; Congress is, too, and it's up to each and every one of us to set our representatives straight. By passing horrible legislation last week permitting the warrantless surveillance of Americans' international communications, Congress failed to do its job and check the Executive's abuse of power. Now we must do our democratic duty and help restore our Constitutional rights. Take action and write to Congress now.


Deeplinks Topics

Stay in Touch

NSA Spying

EFF is leading the fight against the NSA's illegal mass surveillance program. Learn more about what the program is, how it works, and what you can do.

Follow EFF

New Dutch surveillance law may allow bulk interception of encrypted communication: https://eff.org/r.27eh

Jul 30 @ 5:31pm

Netzpolitik confirms that German authorities are investigating its journalists for reporting on mass surveillance: https://eff.org/r.o8c5

Jul 30 @ 5:14pm
Jul 30 @ 2:56pm
JavaScript license information