"Have I reached the party to whom I am speaking?"

“Here at the Phone Company, we serve all kinds of people; from Presidents and Kings to the scum of the earth…”
—Lily “Ernestine” Tomlin
Lily: Sold Out February 2, 1981 on CBS.

It can be fairly said that the phone company does not discriminate. The same thing cannot be said of of the PNB press. They discriminate against common sense.

This morning’s Lansing State Journal, taking a lead from USA Today and the New York Times, willfully confuses a database of telephone numbers with monitoring the content of Americans’ conversation. The LSJ even does a half-assed job of admitting it understands this:

Previously, Bush has said the NSA focuses exclusively on calls between the U.S. and other nations. “One end of the communication must be outside the United States,” Bush explained when furor erupted last December over warrantless [sic] eavesdropping.

…What the NSA does [in this completely different program], USA Today reports, is monitor [sic] millions of phone calls [sic] to pick up patterns – who’s calling whom – rather than listening to the actual conversations.

“Monitor” is the wrong word because “calls” is the wrong word. Nobody is listening to calls, it is phone numbers being recorded..

The LSJ goes on (and we’ll return to this):

It’s noteworthy that telecommunications company Qwest declined to help the NSA, not believing NSA’s assertion that a court order wasn’t needed for call-tracking.

And then closes with this snide presumption:

…senators, and American citizens, should want to know more about this insidious NSA program.

I’d be willing to listen to the LSJ proposals for fighting a war against a dispersed, determined, sly and exceedingly vicious enemy whose command and control structure critically depends on a global public communications network. So far, they’ve only demanded that we abandon one of our most significant advantages – information superiority. So far, it’s bleating twaddle.

The records under discussion are not recordings of conversations, as the LSJ acknowledges. In fact, they are the same sort of records that the virtuous Qwest was in an Arizona court protecting in 2002. Protecting, that is, their right to:

…share customer account and billing information only among the Qwest family of companies. He [Qwest’s executive vice president of consumer markets] added that the company sometimes needs to make account information available to other business with which Qwest has marketing agreements in order to enable the delivery of a Qwest service. Smith cited high speed internet service and Qwest’s agreement with MSN as an example of such an instance. Qwest may have to tell MSN about the characteristics of a customer’s phone line in order to provide the appropriate service.

Emphasis mine. I mention Qwest because they are currently lauding themselves for refusing the NSA access to the phone records without a warrant. Apparently, what the NSA really needed was a “marketing agreement.”

A perusal of Verizon’s policy reveals that Qwest is hardly alone in “concern” for your privacy:

Under Federal Law, you have the right to, and we have the duty to protect, the confidentiality of your telecommunications service information. This information includes the type, technical arrangement, quantity, destination, and amount of use of telecommunications services and related billing for these services.

We may use this information, without further authorization by you, to offer you: (i) services of the type you already purchase from us, and (ii) the full range of products and services available from Verizon and other Verizon companies that may be different from the type of services you currently buy from us. In addition to local telephone services, Verizon and other Verizon company services include long distance (where authorized), wireless, and Internet services. A more complete description of our companies and service offerings is available on this Web site. Use of your information will permit us to offer you a package of services tailored to your specific needs. Without further authorization by you, we may also share your information with other Verizon companies with whom you already have an existing service relationship.

There also seem to be some short memories at the LSJ, USA Today and the NYT about the general public availability of your phone call records. In January, the Chicago Sun-Times reported:

Dozens of online services are selling lists of cell phone calls, raising security concerns among law enforcement and privacy experts.

Criminals can use such records to expose a government informant who regularly calls a law enforcement official.

Suspicious spouses can see if their husband or wife is calling a certain someone a bit too often.

And employers can check whether a worker is regularly calling a psychologist — or a competing company.

From that, it is easy to see the value of patterns that may be found in a list of phone numbers called. There should be concern over easy access to such lists for one phone. The ability to follow a network of calls would be even more powerful.

No private citizen should be able to find out how many times your mistress called your bookie, much less whether those calls were immediatley followed by a call from your bookie to your dealer. The practice of selling such records should be made a serious crime, and the phone companies should be protecting them in the first place.

Nonetheless, cheating on your wife is in a different national security class than is plotting, for example, to plant a dirty bomb. The first is certainly not the business of the government nor of some sleazy PI. The second is precisely the business of the government, and one of the few Constitutional activities to which it commits any funds. Perhaps that’s why, while the President’s approval rating is at 29 percent; 63 percent of Americans say the NSA program is an “acceptable way to investigate terrorism.” How many times the terrorist called the Semtex supplier, who then made a call to a Saudi bank funds transfer hotline is of interest, and I only hope the computers can keep up with it.

The LSJ sees a threat to fundamental liberty because patterns of phone calls are being tracked that might reveal the interactions of your bookies and your mistresses. Too late, this info is already for sale.

And, if it weren’t for the fact that we’re at war with people who used telephones to set off 9/11 – and that nobody at the NSA really gives a rat’s ass about your bedding or betting habits – there might be a small point, if the phone companies didn’t already diss your privacy. As to the argument that the records become more vulnerable to misuse in the hands of the NSA – well, go see if you can buy back the rights to your call records from those internet brokers, and ask them how they vet their customers.

To close, I offer some commentary from Best of the Web Today:

The Times’ conflation of “monitoring” and “collecting information on” calls is quite dishonest [just like the LSJ]. What the government is doing here is essentially maintaining a database of people’s phone bills–information the phone companies store and use for their own marketing and billing purposes. In Smith v. Maryland, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that law-enforcement agencies do not need a warrant to collect such information.

That’s not even the most astonishing thing about the Times piece. The USA Today report that leaves the editorialists so breathless turns out to be largely a rehash of a story that appeared way back on Christmas Eve–in the New York Times!

… the paper is so eager to hyperventilate about President Bush that it is willing to give another paper credit for a scoop it reported itself months ago. This is demented.

The only odd bit there is why Taranto is surprised at NYT dementia.