The people on the other end of the line all sound so young and cheery. “NSA Public and Media Affairs, how can I help you?” the young woman says.
“I’d like to know if the NSA has copies of my phone records,” I reply. I know I’m not going to get anywhere with this. My e-mail has been ignored. My Freedom of Information Act request has seemingly gone into the ether. I imagine the cartoon embodiment of the National Security Agency laughing as my Privacy Act request gets chucked in an oversized trash can.
The girl on the phone, who sounds like she’s barely old enough to legally hold a job, tells me that she cannot confirm or deny the existence of any records and that I’ll need to submit a FOIA request. She helpfully directs me to the portion of the NSA’s web site where I can make this request.
“So if I file a FOIA request, I’ll be told for sure whether or not the NSA has copies of my phone records?”
She pauses. “Yes. I don’t see why not.”
Maybe I’m just a cynic, but I’m not holding my breath.
Contacting the phone companies is no different. The embattled customer service representatives, at least one of whom told me she was in India, did their best to answer my question, sort of. Both over the phone and by e-mail, the answers I receive are positive but less than reassuring:
“We understand that you would like to know about security of our service. Vonage Holdings Corp. [Vonage] will not trade, sell, or disclose to any third party any form of customer identifiable information without the consent of the customer. This includes information derived from registration, subscription and use of the Vonage service. For more information on our security policy, please visit the link below.”
That’s not exactly an answer to whether the records of my phone number had been given to any third party. I mean, what exactly is “customer identifiable information”?
The young man I speak to when I call 1-VONAGE-HELP isn’t, in fact, much help. When asked to define that rather slippery phrase, Raj pauses, seemingly stunned. After a few “um” and “uh” interludes, he asks, “Can I transfer you to my higher department where they might be able to give you more information?”
While I listen to the ubiquitous “hold music,” a calm, prerecorded female voice comes on to tell me that I can find many answers to my questions on the Vonage web site and that my wait time is currently 5 to 10 minutes, though actual wait time may vary. More music and announcements.
The line begins to crackle. Just when I expect to be cut off, Valerie comes on.
She defines “customer identifiable information” as name, address and phone number. She tells me that call records won’t be released unless there’s a court order. While unable to tell me if there have been any such requests on my phone number, she assures me that I would know. “They would have to tell you and you’d have to have pending litigation,” she says.
Time for the million-dollar question: “So Vonage wouldn’t turn over call records if requested by the National Security Agency?”
I thank her and hang up, happy that I switched phone companies a few years ago.
Verizon, the company that used to provide my phone service, is less than reassuring. My e-mail request doesn’t even get a simple privacy statement response — but I do receive a cheery form reply that doesn’t say much of anything. At their 800 number, Sheila tells me, “We don’t give our records out. At least that’s what we’ve been told so far.” My cell phone companies offer me very little information but assure me my privacy is important to them.
In the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s suit against AT&T, filed in January, the group is “accusing the telecom giant of violating the law and the privacy of its customers by collaborating with the National Security Agency in its massive and illegal program to wiretap and data-mine Americans’ communications.”
AT&T seeks to have the case dismissed.
“We have shown that AT&T is diverting traffic wholesale to the NSA,” said EFF Staff Attorney Kurt Opsahl in a June 23 press release. “It is not a secret, and it is no reason to deny AT&T customers the opportunity to show the court that this dragnet surveillance program violates the law and their privacy rights.”
As I wait to hear back from the NSA, reports suggest Internet records might have been requested. Do I dare call Adelphia Cable, my Internet provider, about that one?
Jennifer Barnett (email@example.com) is a member of the People’s Weekly World editorial board.