Verizon, AT&T shareholders want more details on NSA data access — but don't hold your breath

Shareholders of the two largest U.S. telcos are getting twitchy about U.S. surveillance and the possible complicity by the companies' that they're helping to fund.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor
Image: ZDNet/stock photo

Shareholders of the two largest telecom companies in the U.S., Verizon and AT&T, are seeking more details relating to the companies' sharing massive amounts of customer data with the U.S. government. 

First reported by the Reuters news agency, activist shareholders with Trillium Asset Management and New York State Common Retirement Fund have filed proposals ahead of a early 2014 shareholder meetings of both companies.

The proposals call for the telcos to report, "metrics and discussion regarding requests for customer information by U.S. and foreign governments," according to the report — akin to how Silicon Valley companies report annually or every half-year how many reports they receive.

Even then, the companies implicated in the NSA's PRISM program, including Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Yahoo, are not allowed to disclose how many secret data requests the government has issued under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

The companies have taken to suing the U.S. government in order to disclose the figures.

However, the process may not be as simple, or as likely to go through, because telcos and technology companies are not considered one of the same.

One person with knowledge of the situation previously told ZDNet that the company, as a telco, is heavily regulated and the laws it falls under are far greater than the FISA, which apply more so to software and technology companies.

Under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, a telco can be forced to hand over "all tangible things," including customer data. He added that Verizon may have filed a case under seal, but it would not be allowed to disclose any information until a time where the documents were released by the court.

A Verizon spokesperson previously told ZDNet it had "no comment" in regards to whether or not the telecoms giant will join other Silicon Valley companies in challenging a secret government court ruling, which allows federal intelligence agencies from accessing massive amounts of U.S. citizen, foreign national, and Verizon customer data.

The company also declined to comment on whether it was subject to a secret court order.

However, the very first leaked document provided by former U.S. government contractor Edward Snowden revealed a court order that forced Verizon under FISA to vacuum up vast amounts of fiber optic cable data.

We also reached out to AT&T for comment, but did not hear back at the time of writing.

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