Is the Government Listening to Your Phone Calls?

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Is the Government Listening to Your Phone Calls?

The big news broke last week that the US government has required Verizon to give them access to the records of all phone calls made on their networks since April of this year. They were granted this power by having a secret government court issue a top secret court order for these records to Verizon. This subpoena is in effect until July 19, but this time frame could be extended by the court if government officials request it and the court renews the order. So is the government listening to your phone calls?

No. According to the documents obtained by the media, Verizon is turning over information including the number placing the call, the number being called, the time and duration of the call, IMSI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity) and IMEI (International Mobile station Equipment Identity), trunk identifier, and telephone calling card numbers. The order includes calls made between the US and abroad, as well as calls within the US only, including local calls.The calls themselves are NOT being recorded. In fact, the order specifically states that the content of the calls are not included, nor are the name, address, or financial information of the customers.

What does this mean for you and me? In terms of this specific action effecting us, for most people probably not much. An investigation of this sort should focus on calls made to or from identified numbers, and use that information to expand to other numbers, trying to follow the trails to identify terrorist and terrorist groups. Statistically, most of us have no contact with terrorists, even three or four times removed. We will most likely never make the NSA or FBI’s radar. However, it is not out of the realm of possibility that someone could very innocently have telephone contact with a number that has been previously identified to have a connection with a suspected terrorist-related phone number.

Let’s try this scenario on for size. I have had quite a few issues with the air conditioning units in my house over the past 18 months. Each time there was a problem, I or my wife made several calls to the repair man in order to schedule an appointment, receive a confirmation, follow up on a conversation, discuss the problem once diagnosed, approve the repair cost, and finally to confirm the problem was resolved. We have a significant pattern of calls. Because the repair guy is a one man shop who works long hours, and because in my business I work erratic hours, we talked at all hours of the day, not just 9:00 – 5:00.

Now, let’s say my repair guy gets a call from another man who also has a legitimate air conditioner issue (who doesn’t in Texas), and for whom he does work over the course of several weeks, possibly in the same time frame as my work is being done. If this third party is already on the government’s list of suspected individuals, and they are tracking that person’s calls, then to an over-eager investigator my repair guy begins to look like a go-between who is passing information between a person with suspected terrorist ties, and a man who does surveillance, background research, and investigations for a living. Suddenly the FBI is digging into my past.

A little far-fetched? Maybe. We would like to believe that as the government does it’s due diligence they realize that these connections were all legitimate and move on to other avenues in the investigation. However, have we ever seen evidence of someone inappropriately targeted by law enforcement? Of course. That’s why we have checks and balances, and accountability, and why we conduct court hearings that are open and public.

Except the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is not public. It’s hearings are very, very private. Secret. Top secret, in fact. This type of power and lack of  accountability to the public concerns me. I worry about our willingness to give up our rights and our privacy in order to be “safer.” When we give away rights, and we allow a system to exist where it can happen in private and without our knowledge, we open up a path to abuse of power.

What if the next time the government approaches the court they say they need to listen in to the phone calls. What if they issue the line “It’s the only way we can protect Americans.” Are you okay with that? How much leeway are you willing to give your government? Let me know how you feel about it.


Keith is the owner and founder of Owens Investigations.


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