How Private Are Phone Records?

After reports that major phone companies had turned over their callers' records to the National Security Agency, many customers wonder who else could see their records. Last year, a group of companies managed to access cell-phone records for marketing purposes. It now appears that phone companies are getting better at keeping their records private.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Bell South wants a change to a story about how it helped the government. The company wants USA Today to retract its report that the company gave customer's phone records to the National Security Agency. Bell South is one of three major phone companies the paper says handed over customer data.

Earlier this week, Verizon said it was never approached by the NSA to provide data from its customers' domestic calls.

But the possibility that massive amounts of information from major phone companies was analyzed by the NSA has some people wondering just how private their phone calls really are.

Here's NPR Laura Sydell.

LAURA SYDELL reporting:

It's hard to discern what may or may not have been given over to the NSA. Press releases from AT&T, Verizon, and Bell South all hedge a little bit, leaving room for speculation.

However, the phone companies have a pretty good record when it comes to protecting their call data, says Sam Simon. He's chair of the board of the Telecommunications Research and Action Center, a consumer advocacy group.

Mr. SAM SIMON (Chairman, Telecommunications Research and Action Center): And they would not ever disclose a telephone record or a calling pattern without proper judicial paperwork or warrant or a court-ordered wiretapping.

SYDELL: The current situation isn't about listening in on phone calls, but knowing who called who and when. In fact, it's been easier for a private entity to get that information, says Simon. Last year, a group of companies had their employees pose as relatives of Verizon customers, and...

Mr. SIMON: Ask for copies of their bill to be sent to them, and they would collect. People sell bills, and then sell that information and use it with marketing firms, or to people who wanted it.

SYDELL: Verizon went to court and was able to put a stop to these practices. According to Simon, Congress is now considering legislation that would make it a federal crime for anyone to get phone records this way.

And the phone companies themselves have gotten wise, says Neil Woods, who works as an expert witness in telecommunications cases.

Mr. NEIL WOODS (Expert Witness in Telecommunications, TeleCom Management Associates): I think you'll find, if you call your telephone company and you want information on your calling record that they're going to ask you personal information to make sure that you're the party requesting the information.

SYDELL: Woods says phone companies centralize all their calling data and keep it securely locked away, except from certain outside eyes. Some phone companies do contract with third parties to print bills, says Brian Washburn(ph), an analyst with Current Analysis, who follows the telecom industry.

Washburn says that it's possible that a contractor could give out phone company data, which is always a risk when outside parties deal with sensitive customer information. He says there are a variety of agreements that are used, especially by mid-sized phone companies.

Mr. BRIAN WASHBURN (Analyst, Current Analysis): These agreements typically are in the wholesale level, and they're made on a case-by-case basis, because they are so large. So there's no real official cookie-cutter agreement out there.

SYDELL: However, Washburn says that the large phone companies, like Verizon, AT&T, and Bell South, do most of their printing in-house. But it's a complicated scenario for at least two of the three companies implicated in handing over information.

There's been a series of mergers, making it harder to keep track of who has done what, says telecom analyst Scott Cleland.

Mr. SCOTT CLELAND (Telecom Analyst; Founder and CEO, The Precursor Group): The local phone company SBC bought AT&T and assumed its name, and Verizon bought MCI and took that name away. And so, in 2005, the local phone companies weren't long-distance companies, and in 2006, two of the largest are.

SYDELL: It's the long-distance companies that were of interest to the NSA, because they itemize each call on their bills.

The statement released by Verizon says it's only denying the involvement of the company as it existed before it merged with MCI. Ultimately, Cleland thinks the phone companies have a business interest in keeping their information private if they want to keep their customers happy.

Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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