Do the major US phone companies think it's constitutional for the NSA to -- as the American Civil Liberties Union puts it -- "collect a record of every single phone call made by every single American every single day"?
The recently declassified opinion by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court -- released Tuesday -- suggests they do. "To date, no holder of records who has received an order to produce bulk telephony metadata has challenged the legality of such an order," it reads.
The UK's Guardian newspaper rang up the telecoms for clarification on the point, but it seems it got a dial tone.
The paper, which in June got the scoop on a top secret order requiring Verizon to hand over call data to the National Security Agency, reported Wednesday that its queries to Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile about the FISC opinion were greeted with a "no comment." The paper outlined the questions it put to the carriers:
Seeking clarification, the Guardian asked...whether their lack of resistance to the collection of their phone records was indeed an implicit acceptance of its legality.
The Guardian also asked how the phone companies could justify to their own customers the decision not to challenge the court orders, in stark contrast to some Internet companies such as Yahoo, which have contested the legality of NSA collection of their customers' data.
The phone companies were asked by the Guardian to make clear whether they felt their compliance with FISA court orders relating to NSA data collection was voluntary, or whether they felt pressured by any party into conceding without legal protest.
The Guardian wraps up its piece by noting that the telecoms are putting themselves in an "increasingly peculiar position":
"By withholding their internal views from the public, they are setting themselves apart from equivalent Internet firms that are taking a more bullish stance, and are shrouding themselves in more secrecy than even the FISA court, one of the most tight-lipped institutions in the country."
But it seems that at least one Verizon executive has been somewhat less than tight-lipped -- and is somewhat less than impressed by the Net firms' bullishness.
The same day the FISC opinion was released, Verizon Enterprise Solutions President John Stratton -- former COO of Verizon Wireless -- implied that the actions of Net firms like Yahoo and Google are more than a little motivated by PR concerns.
"I appreciate that the consumer-centric IT firms that you referenced [Yahoo, Google, Microsoft] -- that it's important to grandstand a bit and wave their arms and protest loudly so as not to offend the sensibility of their customers," Stratton said during a media briefing in Tokyo that was covered by CNET sister site ZDNet.
Stratton suggested that it's Verizon, in fact, that is taking the admirable stance, saying, "This is a more important issue than that which is generated in a press release. This is a matter of national security." He also suggested that, yes, the company does consider the NSA's snooping to be legal.
"Verizon, like every communications company on the planet, operates in many jurisdictions, and our obligation in operating in those jurisdictions is to comply with the law in those places where we do business," he said. "So whether that be in the United States, in the United Kingdom, in Japan, whoever it is that we have a license with to operate our business, we have these obligations."
Stratton said it's not the responsibility of businesses to sort out the problem of balancing national security and civil liberties, and he took another swipe at Yahoo et al.
"This is not a question that will be answered by a telecom executive," he said, "this is not a question that will be answered by an IT executive. This is a question that must be answered by societies themselves.
"I believe this is a bigger issue, and press releases and fizzy statements don't get at the issue; it needs to be solved by society," he said.
At the moment, society seems to be a bit less comfortable with the NSA than Stratton is. A poll conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and released last week shows that though Americans remain concerned about terrorism, "only 53 percent now say the government does a good job of ensuring freedoms, compared with 60 percent two years ago" (that from a Seattle Times report on the poll). "Nearly 60 percent oppose the NSA's collection of data on telephone and Internet usage."