I admit that I was among those spooked by the report in USA Today that AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth rather casually turned over the phone records of millions of Americans to the National Security Agency. Amid outright denials from the NSA, Verizon and BellSouth, and a sketchy statement from AT&T, Carol Wilson at Telephony has been following this story all week, trying to reconcile the diverse claims. The NSA’s aim, according to USA Today, was to build a massive database of calling records in an effort to discern patterns that might point to terrorist activity. On the face of it, this sounds ridiculous, but given the way our Homeland Security effort has been misdirecting resources in the past, I figured it was par for the course. What Wilson posits is that NSA was seeking international calling records only. This would fit with statements by BellSouth (BellSouth does not carry international calls) and Verizon (MCI’s international operation is treated as separate unit) that they were never even approached, Qwest’s statement that it refused the NSA’s request, and AT&T’s vagueness. I’m not sanguine about the idea of the phone companies releasing customer data without at least some due process. And despite the comments from the telcos and the NSA about privacy, there’s a lot one can learn from a phone number. Either way, the scope of this case may be far more narrow than thought. USA Today’s account has been challenged by all parties and it’s another example of the mainstream media jumping on a too-sexy-to-be-true antibusiness story without checking facts.
Steven Titch served as a policy analyst at Reason Foundation from 2004 to 2013.