While everyone races to blame politicians for allowing the NSA to spy on millions of innocent Americans' phone records, and as Washington defends itself on Capitol Hill and the airwaves, Verizon spent Thursday deflecting the blame back toward the government, too. By playing dumb, staying relatively silent, and siding with its customers, the telecom giant seems to have been hoping, at best, to avoid losing a ton of loyal customers or, at worse, to fend off thousands of lawsuits. So far, Verizon damage control is mostly working. Despite the unfortunate marketing choice pictured over at right, and a few users who have announced on social media their decision to up and leave the carrier, company stock has only climbed since The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald broke the story wide open Wednesday night:
And then there's the leaked memo from Verizon's legal team to employees, outlining the company messaging. It aims to depict, from the inside-out, a company besieged by the draconian hand of the government court order that forced Verizon to hand over private information. While conveniently neither confirming nor denying anything reported in The Guardian — Verizon is under a court ordered gag order, though the White House is playing the same game — the lawyers defend their position: "Verizon continually takes steps to safeguard its customers' privacy," begins the letter from Verizon General Counsel Randy Milch. "Nevertheless, the law authorizes the federal courts to order a company to provide information in certain circumstances. "If Verizon were to receive such an order, we would be required to comply." In other words: Verizon handed over the meta-data to your cellphone records because it just absolutely had to — or that's what Verizon's lawyers want you to think. Of course, the telecommunications beheamoth isn't exactly that innocent.
In the wake of the warrantless wiretapping revelations of the Bush era — and the legislation that followed — Congress and the courts gave telecoms retroactive immunity for warrantless searching after the phone companies, fearful of lawsuits, lobbied hard for the provision. "As that bill was being ironed out, this step was requested by private companies because they wanted protection from lawsuits in case innocents — or millions of innocents — found that the NSA had gathered their call information," Marc Ambinder explains over at The Week.
Verizon doesn't actually care about protecting your data — in fact, the system is set-up just to hand it over to the government, as this enlightening post by an AT&T employee over at Talking Points Memo explains. Phone companies are always looking for ways to collect (and sell!) our data within legal bounds. (The cheeky Photoshop job above at right pretty much sums that up.) Any telecom, these days, just needs to cover its ass. Indeed, the scrambling inside Verizon following Greenwald's scoop has "more to do with its brand reputation with customers and inside the Beltway, rather than legal liability," sources told Politico's Anna Palmer. That's because Verizon knows its safe — especially with official Washington hold the line. "I'm a Verizon customer," Sen. Lindsey Graham said at a hearing with Attorney General Eric Holder this morning. "It doesn't bother me one bit for the NSA to have my phone number."