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AT&T overhauls privacy policy
Telecom giant removes key reference from policy, says it has obligation to government agencies under 'most stringent conditions.'

NEW YORK (CNN) - Phone service provider AT&T announced Thursday a privacy policy overhaul that removes a key reference from its previous policy, which had said the company "does not access, read, upload or store data contained in or derived from private files without the members' authorization..."

Thursday's revision comes after the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a lawsuit in January against AT&T accusing the company of violating the law and the privacy of its customers "by collaborating with the National Security Agency in its illegal program to wiretap Americans' communications." Accusations of collaboration resurfaced in a USA Today story last month stating that AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth provided domestic phone records to the NSA.

An AT&T spokesman said Thursday the company has never said whether it participated in any such program. Verizon and BellSouth denied providing the phone call records to the agency shortly after the USA Today story was published.

AT&T (Charts) spokeswoman Tiffany Nels initially told CNN Thursday that the privacy clause above was included under the "diagnostics section" of the new policy, but a CNN review of the policy did not reveal any such reference.

Asked about the missing reference, she then said that it been removed in order to clarify the policy and make it easier for customers to understand.

"We have never looked at our customers' files, or e-mails, photos or personal information, so this is not an issue. This is simply a matter of streamlining information," Nels said.

AT&T released a statement Thursday afternoon saying its merger last year with SBC "and the need to integrate the pre-merger companies' two separate privacy policies" led it to update the policy.

It added, "As spelled out in any privacy policy, we outline our obligation to assist law enforcement and other government agencies responsible for protecting the public welfare, whether it be an individual or the security interests of the entire nation.

"We prize the trust our customers place in us. If and when AT&T is asked by government agencies for help, we do so strictly within the law and under the most stringent conditions."

In a statement Thursday, the ACLU criticized the revised policy as "a violation of Americans' privacy standards."

"No tweaks to any fine-print click-through contract unilaterally imposed on its customers (and changed at will) can alter that fact," the statement said.

--from CNN's Jonathan Schienberg

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