Furor and confusion over allegations that major phone companies have surrendered customer calling records to the National Security Agency continue to roil Washington. But if AT&T Inc. (T) and possibly others have turned over records to the NSA, the phone giants represent only one of many commercial sources of personal data that the government seeks to "mine" for evidence of terrorist plots and other threats.
The Departments of Justice, State, and Homeland Security spend millions annually to buy commercial databases that track Americans' finances, phone numbers, and biographical information, according to a report last month by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. Often, the agencies and their contractors don't ensure the data's accuracy, the GAO found.
Buying commercially collected data allows the government to dodge certain privacy rules. The Privacy Act of 1974 restricts how federal agencies may use such information and requires disclosure of what the government is doing with it. But the law applies only when the government is doing the data collecting.
"Grabbing data wholesale from the private sector is the way agencies are getting around the requirements of the Privacy Act and the Fourth Amendment," says Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington and a member of the Homeland Security Dept.'s Data Privacy & Integrity Advisory Committee.
The Justice Dept. alone, which includes the FBI, spent $19 million in fiscal 2005 to obtain commercially gathered names, addresses, phone numbers, and other data, according to the GAO. The Justice Dept. obeys the Privacy Act and "protects information that might personally identify an individual," a spokesman says. Despite the GAO's findings, a Homeland Security spokesman denies that his agency purchases consumer records from private companies. The State Dept. didn't respond to requests for comment.
A number of lawmakers from both parties are calling for investigations of the role of phone companies and the NSA in domestic surveillance. BellSouth Corp. (BLS) and Verizon Communications (VZ) have denied turning over bulk call records to the agency, although their carefully worded statements contained some ambiguities. AT&T said that when it helps the government, it does so strictly within the law. On May 11, USA Today reported that the three telecom titans cooperated with NSA surveillance efforts.
But in the face of the uproar over the issue, others on Capitol Hill are pushing for more government data collection. House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) is drafting legislation to require ISPs to amass information about users' Web-surfing habits to assist government investigations. Executives at companies that fail to comply could be subject to up to a year in prison.
Other players in the information world that could get more attention in coming days are little-known firms that help telecom industry clients comply with government investigations. That's a small part of what a company called NeuStar Inc. (NSR) does.
Based in Sterling, Va., NeuStar has developed a lucrative niche in the routing of millions of phone calls a day from one carrier to the next. "Nearly every telephone call placed is routed using NeuStar's system, and every telecommunications service provider is one of NeuStar's customers," the company's Web site states. NeuStar doesn't keep records of the calls it handles, a spokeswoman says.
Now NeuStar is seeking to profit from increased post-September 11 government pressure on telecoms to turn over data. Last year it acquired Fiducianet Inc., which helps phone company clients comply with "subpoenas, court orders, and law enforcement agency requests under electronic surveillance laws," according to a February, 2005, NeuStar press release. NeuStar says this part of its business accounts for less than 1% of total revenue. The company went public last June and reported 2005 revenue of $242.5 million.
NeuStar also provides services to federal agencies, but CEO Jeff Ganek says it hasn't done so for the NSA. The company has "absolutely nothing to do with any of the surveillance that's currently being discussed on Capitol Hill," Ganek stresses. All told, government contracts provide less than 2% of NeuStar's revenue, the company spokeswoman says. Government agencies sometimes seek NeuStar's help in identifying phone carriers that investigators plan to subpoena, she says, adding, "We do not provide any other information."
By Lorraine Woellert and Dawn Kopecki