By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

BellSouth and the NSA

A potentially significant problem has arisen with USA Today’s big story of last Thursday, in which it was reported that the nation’s three largest phone companies have allowed the National Security Agency to track their customers’ calls. One of those companies, BellSouth, now says it did not participate. Here is BellSouth’s statement:

There has been much speculation in the last several days about the role that BellSouth may have played in efforts by the National Security Agency (NSA) and other governmental agencies to keep our nation safe.

As a result of media reports that BellSouth provided massive amounts of customer calling information under a contract with the NSA, the Company conducted an internal review to determine the facts. Based on our review to date, we have confirmed no such contract exists and we have not provided bulk customer calling records to the NSA.

BellSouth has built a successful business because of the trust that our customers have placed with us. We will continue to take our obligations to our customers seriously.

The Washington Post covers the story here; the New York Times here.

What does USA Today have to say about this? Reporter Leslie Cauley, who wrote the original story, reports:

USA TODAY first contacted BellSouth five weeks ago in reporting the story on the NSA’s program. The night before the story was published, USA TODAY described the story in detail to BellSouth, and the company did not challenge the newspaper’s account. The company did issue a statement, saying: “BellSouth does not provide any confidential customer information to the NSA or any governmental agency without proper legal authority.”

In an interview Monday, BellSouth spokesman Jeff Battcher said the company was not asking for a correction from USA TODAY.

Asked to define “bulk customer calling records,” Battcher said: “We are not providing any information to the NSA, period.” He said he did not know whether BellSouth had a contract with the Department of Defense, which oversees the NSA.

That is one convoluted passage. It’s hard to know what to think. Is BellSouth relying on loopholes in its denials? Or is USA Today making it appear that way in order to preserve its story? And what does it mean that the company at first “did not challenge the newspaper’s account”? How much time did USA Today give the company to respond? Was the official (or officials) contacted even in a position to know?

Frankly, the company’s contention, in its statement, that it had to conduct an internal review before it could give a definitive answer, strikes me as believable. Cauley does write that she contact BellSouth five weeks before the story appeared, but we don’t know the substance of that contact. As for describing the story in detail “[t]he night before it was published,” that more or less speaks for itself.

We need answers.

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  1. sentient unit

    Leslie Cauley was on Talk of the Nation yesterday with Bobby Ray Inman ex-head of the NSA. Sounded to me like she’s out of her depth and lacks background in the technology. Inman was pretty convincing I thought that the NSA has neither the computing capacity nor the interest in collecting a haystack–in getting “billions” of calls into a database. He said the NSA would be interested in a more manageable data set, for example all calls from say Virginia to Iran or Afghanistan within a certain period. Which would amount to thousands of calls, not billions.Cauley just kept saying basically, we vetted the story and we stand by it. But the story’s legs are shaky. Since Cauley is relying on anonymous “people with direct knowledge of the arrangement”, whose identities cannot be revealed, how can USA Today vet the report? Just because some PR flack who happened to pick up the phone at BellSouth when Cauley called “did not challenge the newspaper’s account” is not exactly an admission. In fact if BellSouth was sneaky enough, keeping mum allowed them to deny it after the story was published, reducing its credibility.From my experience with databases and defense contractors, Inman’s remarks seemed on the mark. People think the NSA is some super high-tech place, but I suspect it’s more likely just another clumsy govt giant, more bureaucratic than technical, clogged with inertia and inefficiency. Commercial data mining is far ahead of the govt, because money is a greater motivator than security. However it is only a matter of time before such data is linked together. The distinction between corporate and government spying will blur and eventually merge. The satellites will know where we are at all times, for our safety, of course. And they’ll know when we need our next injection of high fructose corn syrup, and the credit card to bill for it, to keep us fat and placid. It’s part of an inexorable process, and to get upset about this particular step, whether it turns out to be true or not, is arbitrary.

  2. Sven

    It’s amazing how closely BellSouth’s statement resembles earlier non-denial denials. In the Project Shamrock case, for example, “No one [at the telegraph] companies could find any record whatsoever of an agreement with NSA or ASA setting forth the terms of the operation.” The companies also claimed they weren’t handing over tapes containing the telegraph messages to the NSA. it turned out the companies were allowing the NSA to make copies of those tapes.

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