I called my phone service provider, Verizon, Friday, to find out whether my phone records had been or were still being provided to the National Security Agency. Of course, I knew they were, since the report in USA Today on May 11 stated that Verizon, AT&T and BellSouth had all turned over all their customer records to the NSA, with only Qwest, of the major phone providers, refusing the request.
The first thing I discovered was that when I called Verizon customer service, a misleadingly comforting recording had been added, saying, “As always, privacy of your account is your right and our duty.”
After that effort to head me off, I was switched to a customer service representative, who, upon learning that I was calling not with a billing question, but to see if my records had been given to the government, advised me that all such calls were being handled by the phone company’s “Security Department.”
Switched to the Security Department, I got a recorded message saying that “all representatives are busy,” instructing me to leave my number, and promising me that I would be called back.
It would appear that the public is truly upset, finally, at the news that the Bush administration has authorized massive “data mining” of phone records, once considered to be private absent a court order and a finding of probable cause.
Now let me say that I know all about these phone company “Security Departments” (a misnomer if ever there was one!). In fact, my first ever investigative reporting scoop was a story I broke in my own weekly paper, the Los Angeles Vanguard, back in May 1976. That was an article exposing how the “Security Departments” of Pacific Telephone and GTE were both routinely giving out unlisted numbers, as well as customer credit records and other phone records, to a list of some 200 public agencies, ranging from federal, state and local police to the local library late books desk, all without any request for a warrant.
When we confronted old Ma Bell with our story, we were given a flat denial by the PR department, and assured that such customer records were held in confidence unless there was a court order. However, we held a press conference on the sidewalk in front of PacTel corporate headquarters, which was well attended by the local media. The company panicked and invited everyone in to a hasty company press conference on the issue. But when we and a group of LA reporters from the city’s mainstream media crowded into PacTel’s press room and started hammering the flaks with questions, it quickly became evident that the company had been lying. They initially admitted that they would provide such information immediately at the request of local police on a police assertion that there was a hostage situation or some other urgent reason. Then they were pushed back until they finally conceded that any of 200 organizations could get the information simply by calling in to the “Security Department” and asking for it. All 200 organizations had been provided with a direct access number to the Security Department, which had a bank of operators specifically dedicated to providing the information forthwith.
I also learned, and reported in the Vanguard, that phone company “Security Departments” are routinely staffed by, and headed by retired federal agents from places like the Secret Service and the FBI—people who are on a first-name basis with the spooks in Washington. No wonder they are so accommodating, when unseemly requests for customer data are made.
Given this experience, it comes as little surprise to me, then, to learn that the successors to the old Ma Bell for the most part have willingly agreed to pimp for the NSA in its latest mass spying campaign.
Both Verizon and AT&T (now wholly owned by SBC Communications) have company rules requiring that any government request for customer billing information or call records be preceded by a court order or subpoena, according to a May 12 article in the San Francisco Chronicle. But just as back in 1976 with Pacific Telephone and GTE, both these companies simply ignored their own rules—and federal privacy statutes and the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution--when the NSA came calling.
I’m still waiting for my callback from Verizon Security. Maybe they’re just real busy fielding calls from irate customers.
Verizon’s vice president for media relations, Jack Hoey, refused to comment or respond to questions regarding the company’s breach of its own internal rules, saying only that a prepared statement was being made available to the media. That statement read:
"We do not comment on national security matters. Questions about national security policies and practices should be directed to the relevant government
policymakers. Verizon acts in full compliance with the law and we are committed to safeguarding our customers' privacy."
Not so committed, though, that they’d require the NSA to get a warrant.
SBC’s media department also has so far declined to even respond to my messages asking for comment.
Clearly, the Bush administration decided to implement Admiral John Poindexter’s bold idea of a Total Information Awareness program, even after Congress and the public broadly denounced the idea when it was first exposed back in 2002. Supposedly killed back then, the idea of monitoring everyone all the time was just too tempting to this control-freak administration, so they just shifted the plan out of the Pentagon and handed it to the NSA.
Back in 1976, the headline for our expose was “At Pacific Telephone, Your Privacy Ain’t Worth a Nickel.” Now it appears the headline should read, “In Bush’s America, The Fourth Amendment Ain’t.”
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