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BellSouth, AT&T in privacy lawsuit

BellSouth Corp and AT&T Inc were named in a $200 billion lawsuit on Tuesday alleging that telecommunications companies violated privacy rights.

india Updated: May 17, 2006 11:24 IST

BellSouth Corp and AT&T Inc were named in a $200 billion lawsuit on Tuesday alleging that telecommunications companies violated privacy rights by turning over customer phone records for use in a US government call-tracking program to detect terrorist plots.

BellSouth and AT&T were added to the lawsuit seeking class-action status that was initially filed against Verizon Communications Inc in US District Court in Manhattan on Friday. Verizon said it did not give any government agency unfettered access to customer records.

USA Today reported last week that BellSouth, AT&T and Verizon had turned over tens of millions of consumers' telephone records to the National Security Agency (NSA) so it could analyze call patterns.

"We're outraged at the actions of the NSA, the Administration and the phone companies," Bruce Afran, a public interest lawyer from New Jersey, said at a news conference. He added that he wanted the companies to understand the massive financial exposure they had on this issue.

On Tuesday, US President George W Bush defended intelligence programs that have raised concerns the government is spying on Americans, saying his administration was obliged to "connect dots" to protect citizens after the Sept 11, 2001 attacks.

The revelation late last year that the NSA was eavesdropping inside the United States without warrants on the international phone calls and e-mails of terrorism suspects sparked an uproar. The USA Today report, if confirmed, means the agency's domestic program has been on a much wider scale than is generally believed.

The NSA is charged with eavesdropping on foreign communications and protecting US government communications.

BellSouth on Monday denied turning over customer telephone records to the NSA on a large scale and said it did not have a contract with the agency.

"Our statement speaks for itself it's clear we've had no association with the NSA, so any lawsuit would be moot," BellSouth spokesman Jeff Battcher said, referring to the statement on Monday.

A spokesman for AT&T declined to comment on the lawsuit, and cited an e-mail statement from the company saying it has not given customer information to law enforcement authorities or government agencies without legal authorization.

First Published: May 17, 2006 11:24 IST