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ACLU assails Qwest move to stop telling customers of data release
By Greg Griffin, Staff Writer Denver Post
Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Qwest had a policy until October 2001 of notifying customers, when possible, that a subpoena or court order required it to release their confidential records to the government or anyone else.

But less than a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Denver-based phone company changed that policy.  Qwest no longer promises it will tell customers about such releases of information.

Qwest spokesman Nicholas Sweers confirmed the change and said it was redrafted to comply with the law.

"It's normal to look at and review such documents to make sure it's in accordance with our understanding of the law," he said.  "The law does not require notification.  Often court orders do prohibit disclosure."

Qwest's move may have harmed consumers by allowing an invasion of privacy without their knowledge, said Cathryn Hazouri, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado.  It deprives them of the ability to fight a subpoena seeking such records, she said.

Qwest has 14.3 million local-telephone lines in 14 states, including Colorado.

Today, the ACLU plans to deliver to the state Public Utilities Commission more than 1,800 signatures on a petition demanding an investigation into whether phone companies in Colorado illegally shared customer call information with the National Security Agency.

Qwest's policy change effective Oct. 10, 2001, was discovered by The Denver Post while reviewing the company's present and past customer-privacy policies.

"Qwest complies with 'legal process', such as a subpoena or court order or other similar demand, associated with either criminal or civil proceedings," the company states in its current privacy policy, last revised Oct. 10, 2001.

That sentence was revised from the previous policy to remove this phrase from the end:  "and, if not prohibited by the legal document, we will advise you of the demand."

Hazouri questioned whether Qwest notified its customers when it changed that policy.

"Did they actually alert people to the fact they removed particular protections?" she said.  "You are obligated to inform the current customers that you have made that kind of change to their contract."

Qwest did not have an answer to that question Tuesday.

In 2002, when Qwest introduced a plan to use customer calling records to market new services, it sent out several fliers with customer bills.

Other phone companies have policies similar to Qwest's.

Verizon states in its privacy policy that it "must disclose information, as necessary, to comply with court orders or subpoenas."  AT&T states that it may release confidential information "without your consent ... to comply with court orders, subpoenas, or other legal or regulatory requirements."

Neither company could provide a copy of its pre-Sept. 11, 2001, privacy policy Tuesday.

USA Today reported in May that AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth provided the NSA with information on customer calls beginning after the 2001 terrorist attacks.  The information included what calls customers made and received but not the content of the conversations.

Only Qwest did not provide the information, according to reports and an attorney for former Qwest chief executive Joe Nacchio.

Verizon and BellSouth have denied providing the information to the NSA.  AT&T said it has not given customer information to the government without legal authorization. Qwest has declined to comment.

Staff writer Greg Griffin can be reached at 303-820-1241 or