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Former PUC official at center of challenge to NSA spying

Doug Cowie realized that state law might make Verizon's sharing of data with federal government illegal, filed complaint, and spawned a rash of lawsuits and countersuits. The case may wind up at the Supreme Court.
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Written by Richard Koman on
James "Doug" Cowie ended an 18-year career with the Maine Public Utilities Commission, only to jump right back into public life a few months later by questioning whether Verizon Communications Inc., the state-regulated provider of local phone service in Maine, was cooperating with the National Security Agency in warrantless domestic wiretapping and the agency's data-mining program, The Portland Press Herald relates.

That filing resulted in civil libertarians in 24 other states filing complaints with their own utility regulators. And then the U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Maine and four other states challenging their right to look into areas that involve national security.

"It had a substantial effect," said Christopher Calabrese, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union's technology and liberty program. "What he did was set an important example that we have tried to replicate across the country," Calabrese said. "I think he deserves a lot of credit for innovation."

Because Maine state law protects customers' privacy, Cowie asserted that by sharing data with the NSA, Verizon broke the law.

"People had been tending to think in terms of federal laws and federal actors," Calabrese said. "Doug was one of the first to think of state laws and state agencies as a way to bring some accountability to what the NSA is doing."

Cowie got his idea for his filing the last month of his time at the PUC, when telephone companies were accused of giving the government access to their networks.

Cowie asked a Verizon employee he had worked with if there was such a program in Maine, and he said he didn't know. He wrote to Verizon's president, and was told that the company could neither confirm nor deny its involvement. In May, Cowie filed his complaint with the PUC, using a state law that allows any 10 people to formally raise questions. He was the lead complainant, joined by 21 other Mainers. "I think you have to be vigilant," Cowie said. "You can't trust what the government says and accept their glib arguments. "It's no different than the sheriff coming into your house, grabbing whatever he wants, doing whatever he wants with it and not telling you why," he said. "I don't want them getting my stuff."

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