Friday, May 19, 2006

Explaining the Telcos' NSA Database Denials with use of Scapegoats for Hire

So as you may have heard, the big telecommunications companies that were implicated in the NSA spying scandal by USA Today's article on the massive government electronic database have all issued non-denial denials. The "denials" appear to deny specific details of the story, but leave plenty of wiggle room for the main facts to stand. AT&T, for its part, seems to be hoping that this will all blow over, stating that it will not comment on national security matters. Verizon denied that "Verizon was approached by NSA and entered into an arrangement to provide the NSA with data from its customers' domestic calls," but it qualified this denial by stating that it "cannot and will not confirm or deny whether it has any relationship to the classified NSA program," and "Verizon always stands ready, however, to help protect the country from terrorist attack." BellSouth's demand to USA Today for a retraction states:
[T]he story said BellSouth is "working under contract with the NSA" to provide "phone call records of tens of millions of Americans" that have been incorporated into the database.
"No such proof was offered by your newspaper because no such contracts exist," stated the letter, portions of which were read by spokesman Jeff Battcher. "You have offered no proof that BellSouth provided massive calling data to the NSA as part of a warrantless program because it simply did not happen."

The blogs abound with speculation of how the USA Today story and the denials can be accurate simultaneously. See Josh Marshall:
[T]here's some third party involved here, a subcontractor, a private vendor, perhaps another government agency. And because of that their claims are technically true. Or, maybe, they allowed the NSA to take the data (a variety of technical means suggest themselves) rather than 'providing' it to them. Who knows.
Paul Kiel and Justin Rood at TPM Muckraker follow up on this angle, noting a Business Week article that explains how "[r]ather than respond themselves to requests from the FBI and others, a telco can sign up with one of these companies, give them access to their call records and equipment, and let that third party do all the hard work." Note Kiel and Rood:

What are the benefits? One company, NeuStar, doesn't beat around the bush. In a pitch to service providers, it bills itself as a "scapegoat" for hire, presumably allowing phone companies to deny responsibility for or involvement in turning over their records to the government. Sound familiar?
NeuStar actually has an advantage over its competitors: it's not just an FBI-friendly third party, it's a major routing company. According to their web site, "Nearly every telephone call placed is routed using NeuStar's system, and every telecommunications service provider is one of NeuStar's customers."
Yep, their customers include AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth - the mighty trio featured in USA Today's story on the NSA's vast calls database last week.
Now, NeuStar's CEO has repeatedly denied that his company had anything to do with the NSA program. That may be so. But if NeuStar isn't the fabled third party to hand over the telcos' data to the NSA, then it seems that there are plenty of other suspects.
Additionally, perhaps the biggest point standing in the way of believing the telco denials is the fact that another telco, Qwest, was in fact approached by the NSA, and Qwest refused to participate in the spying ring. As noted by Josh: "through his lawyer, the then-CEO of Qwest confirms that he'd rebuffed the NSA request. What interest would he have in lying about that?"

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