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Mayors demand phone inquiry

Seeking answers on data sharing

Omission: A story in yesterday's City & Region section about a campaign by the American Civil Liberties Union to demand information about whether telecommunications companies are illegally sharing customer phone records with the National Security Agency neglected to include responses from the companies. AT&T has not commented except to cite its privacy policies; Verizon has said it will not confirm or deny whether it has any relationship to the NSA program; and Bell South Corp. has denied it shared any records with the NSA.

Four Massachusetts mayors are filing a complaint with the state department that oversees telecommunications companies, part of a national campaign by the American Civil Liberties Union to demand information on whether the nation's largest security agency has gained access to private phone records.

The ACLU launched its campaign yesterday to seek an inquiry into whether telecommunications companies are illegally sharing customer phone records with the National Security Agency.

Massachusetts will play a prominent role in the campaign, because it is believed to be the only state where mayors can file complaints that require public hearings before the state Department of Telecommunications and Energy, said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts.

The mayors of Newton, Somerville, Northampton, and Chicopee are requesting a public hearing with the department to question whether the companies violated the law. The ACLU has asked that the Federal Communications Commission and 20 state public utilities commissions take action.

``We've gone from, `Can you hear me now?' to `Who can hear me now?'" said Mayor Michael D. Bissonnette of Chicopee.

Janice Power, a consultant from Arlington, became one of the first to sign the ACLU's online petition yesterday. She is not an ACLU member but called the Massachusetts chapter because she said she was incensed by reports about phone records being turned over to the NSA.

``It really just blindsided me," she said. ``I was an AT&T customer and had no idea what was going on."

Power also has called her congressional representatives, urging them to demand an inquiry into whether the phone database exists.

``I value the privacy of my information," she said. ``I don't mind a legal process, as long as there's an oversight committee."

USA Today first reported, earlier this month, that three of the four major telephone companies have cooperated with the NSA, turning over the phone records of millions of Americans.

The NSA has compiled a massive database of calls placed since Sept. 11, 2001, to search for communication by terrorists, according to the article and subsequent reports.

President Bush and other administration officials have neither confirmed nor denied the reports.

``If they are true, we are talking about the single largest, the most massive, invasion of privacy in American history," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Project. ``We are talking about a government that has been secretly obtaining the call records . . . of hundreds of millions of Americans. That is a breathtaking and truly frightening possibility."

As part of its campaign, the ACLU is urging citizens to support the group's formal demand to the FCC, asking regulators to punish phone companies that are illegally turning over records.

In Massachusetts, the group is also asking residents to complain to the state Telecommunications and Energy Department. Yesterday, the agency declined to discuss its policy on public hearings.

In Newton, Mayor David B. Cohen has personal experience with the battleground between national security and individual privacy. Earlier this year, after officials at Brandeis University received an e-mailed threat of a planned terrorist attack, Newton police and FBI agents went to the Newton Free Library, where they believed the e-mail had originated, and requested access to 21 computers.

Cohen and other city officials refused the request until the FBI received a warrant from a federal judge.

Yesterday, Cohen said he believes that phone companies cannot legally turn over phone records without a warrant.

``My objective is really to have our government stop spying on innocent private citizens," Cohen said.

``There really is no reason why the government needs to know all of my phone conversations . . . in order to protect national security. I believe there is an overreaching here."

Rose, of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said the group sought out mayors from a diverse group of cities to file the complaint.

``Massachusetts has historically been a place where citizens have been willing to stand up to abuses of power and to demand that the rule of law be followed," she said. ``This is just the latest in a tradition of people in Massachusetts holding their government accountable."

Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone of Somerville said, ``The only way we can shed light on this is for the mayors to take action."

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@globe.com

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