AT&T faces PR challenge over national surveillance

SAN FRANCISCO: AT&T is facing a potential PR conundrum, as the US government has filed a "Statement of Interest" in the Electronic Frontier Foundation's (EFF) class-action lawsuit against AT&T.

SAN FRANCISCO: AT&T is facing a potential PR conundrum, as the US government has filed a "Statement of Interest" in the Electronic Frontier Foundation's (EFF) class-action lawsuit against AT&T.

The government wrote that it would "assert the military and state secrets privilege" and "intervene to seek dismissal" of the case. This comes after a US District Court judge recently issued a scheduling order for a hearing in mid-May about the sealing of documents the EFF said show that AT&T helped the US government conduct domestic surveillance.

The EFF, a digital civil liberties group, has filed a lawsuit accusing AT&T of collaborating with the National Security Agency in its massive surveillance program. Rebecca Jeschke, EFF media coordinator, said the documents show evidence of "widespread surveillance on AT&T customers' Internet communications."

Harlan Loeb, director of litigation at Financial Dynamics, Chicago, said this issue could potentially be a significant PR challenge, but not necessarily a problem for AT&T.

"If handled right, it doesn't have to be a PR problem," Loeb said, "if they clearly articulate the values that are in conflict - privacy and national security - and articulate the basis for which they feel compelled to act. If you take the basic value conflict, and then describe the role you play in that, people will understand the position."

Walt Sharp, a spokesman for AT&T, said the company generally does not comment on matters of litigation or national security.

"The company has a long history of very vigorously protecting customer privacy," Sharp said. "We also have an obligation to assist law enforcement and other government agencies that are responsible for protecting the public welfare, whether that's in the case of an individual or in the security interests of the entire nation."

Jeschke said the EFF is not saying AT&T shouldn't assist the government; it's simply saying it should do it in accordance with the law.

"We're not telling AT&T it shouldn't participate or help law enforcement," Jeschke said. "But AT&T should have said, 'Come back with a warrant.'"

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