Did Verizon And BellSouth Lie About Their Role In The NSA Scandal?

It's difficult to separate the truth from lies when it comes to whether Verizon and BellSouth cooperated with the NSA on turning over customer records. We dig into the issue

May 17, 2006

3 Min Read
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The big headlines this week in the NSA records-collection scandal were generated by Verizon and BellSouth, which denied having turned over the records in question. Does this mean the original USA Today report about the NSA program was inaccurate? Or were Verizon and BellSouth flat-out lying?

The answer, not surprisingly, is: It's complicated. So here goes.

Take a minute, if you will, and read the statement Verizon put out on May 16, dealing with the NSA issue. If you are a telecom person, you will immediately grasp why the general press's coverage of Verizon's "denial" was so misleading.

Note the emphasis in the statement on businesses that Verizon was involved in back in September 2001. Note the careful wording that excludes MCI from the scope of the denial being issued (while not mentioning MCI). In this release, MCI is -- pick your cliche -- the dog that doesn't bark, the hand of the magician that you're not supposed to watch, whatever.

Note, even, the title of the release: "Verizon Issues Statement on NSA Media Coverage." Get it? They're not even claiming that this release addresses the substance of the NSA program. It's a press release about press coverage of the program. But if the general media wants to report it as a blanket denial, well, that's the general media's problem.The Associated Press was the first news outlet that caught the essential distinction that may be at the heart of the confusion over the NSA story: Local vs. long distance. (The AP article is here). USA Today's Wednesday article picked up on this.

If NSA was collecting call data on long distance, they likely wouldn't have gone to Verizon in 2001, because Verizon wasn't a major *facilities-based* LD carrier at that time -- the facilities being the key issue. If NSA was seeking information on long distance calls, that data presumably would have resided in Class 4 switches, which would have been the property of whatever LD carrier owned the switch, not the service provider (Verizon) that might have been leasing capacity on the switch to support its own LD offering.

Which leads us back to, among others, MCI. Did MCI, before it was acquired by Verizon, participate in the NSA program -- or was it least asked to do so? When I asked a Verizon spokesman this question today, he said Verizon was making no comment on what MCI did or didn't do.

But I say, consult your common sense. Qwest was asked for records. Assuming Verizon is telling the literal truth in its statement, we can deduce that NSA wasn't pursuing local calling records. So we can assume that it was Qwest's long-distance calling data that NSA was interested in. And we can assume that NSA wasn't interested only in Qwest.

All of this leaves us with a few unanswered questions: If the carriers that participated in the NSA program were the LD players, not the local players, does that absolve the local players from responsibility for any claims of customer privacy violation? In other words, were local players like Verizon and BellSouth, who might have sold packaged local/LD service to their customers, under any legal obligation to protect those customers' privacy end to end, even if the data was being pulled from facilities that the local carriers didn't control? Was there a part of the contract between the locals and LD carriers that addressed how caller data could be used?

And how about this question: In the same timeframe we're talking about, intercity voice traffic was increasingly migrating from traditional long-haul TDM circuits. It was being run through media gateways and carried on big fat IP pipes between the cities. Those IP pipes carried an awful lot of other traffic, too. Did NSA have the means and/or desire to take a peek at any of this other stuff, as long as they were at it?-- Eric Krapf, Editor, Business Communications Review; Program Chair, VoiceCon 2005 Conference

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