Monday, May 5, 2008

Who the Hell Thought This Was a Good Idea?

One company in Northern Virginia controls the database for all phone numbers in North America. And, no, that's not a great idea.

Sterling-based NeuStar is the carriers' digital directory for all phone calls in North America. More than 800 telephone companies have numbers in the database. NeuStar assigns blocks of available telephone numbers to carriers. It also manages the directory for common short codes: five- or six-digit codes that people punch into their cellphones to take part in sweepstakes or to vote for game-show contestants, for instance. And about one out of every four Internet transactions is routed using a NeuStar database, as NeuStar handles traffic for domains that include .biz, .us, .org and .info.

NeuStar's databases are so powerful that the FBI a few years ago sought direct, unfettered access to one containing 310 million phone numbers in the United States and Canada. The telephone companies that pay NeuStar to run the database denied the FBI's request, but they did allow NeuStar to create a site where authorized law enforcement officials with court orders can obtain carrier information on telephone numbers.

NeuStar is part of an evolving telecom industry that is creating caches of information attractive to the government without clear guidelines governing who may have access and under what circumstances. Its registries fall under international, U.S. government and trade association rules, including those set by the Federal Communications Commission.

The company is dependent on and crucial to telecom companies and state, local and federal governments, part of the government-industrial complex that drives the region's economy. Indeed, said Jeffrey E. Ganek, NeuStar chairman and chief executive, "this is a business that could only have grown up in Washington."


NeuStar also helps optimize Web traffic for clients such as Amazon so that when a customer types in, NeuStar directs the request to one of Amazon's thousands of servers around the world. It provides the same kind of service for Oracle, Emirates Airlines and Forbes.

"We're at all the key Internet nodes in the world," Ganek said. "Depending on the time of the day and the point of origination, we send the traffic to Seattle, for instance, or to a data center in Miami or another data center in Singapore. If there's a fiber cable cut in the Pacific, we see it before [the carriers] do and turn the traffic in the other direction so it goes counterclockwise around the globe."

First of all, BULLSHIT. The FBI asked and they "turned them down?" How did that work? During 2005 and 2006, the FBI was going crazy with "National Security Letters" and they weren't taking "no" for an answer from anyone.

Second of all, they're not just operating here in North America:

Revenue last year was $429.2 million, and profit was $92.3 million, up from $73.9 million the previous year. Company officials expect revenue to exceed $500 million this year. Soon, they said, NeuStar expects to be providing digital directory service for about 85 percent of all wireless devices in the world.

How is that a good idea, either? How savvy are the foreign companies to the fact that US law enforcement can look at any and all numbers?

Third, they didn't "deny" the government. They winked and said, "here you go!"

In 2005, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration wanted a direct link to the database in NeuStar's Sterling headquarters, according to a January 2005 letter from the Justice Department criminal division to a consortium of carriers that have given NeuStar the contract to run the database. The department wanted to use the data to identify which carrier to subpoena for records concerning telephone numbers in an investigation, the letter said.

"What they were asking for in a nutshell was a copy of the database," said Mike Warren, NeuStar vice president of fiduciary services. "They wanted us to send them an update of the database once a day."

Instead, NeuStar set up LEAP, or Local Number Portability Enhanced Analytical Platform, a Web site to help local, state and federal law enforcement in investigations that rely on phone call surveillance. The database gives basic information such as carrier but not more technical details such as whether a phone number is for a wireless phone or a landline. Earlier this year, NeuStar added historical carrier information to that service.

Whether a phone number is for a wireless phone or a landline can be gotten from the companies that already allow warrantless wiretaps. Or a simple telephone lookup. Or just "pinging" the phone with a single dialing from a piece of software designed to determine where the number traces to. That's a very cozy arrangement, designed to skirt the law. Telecom Immunity makes skirting these laws even easier.

In effect, they make a big deal of telling the Feds that they can't have their product, but they give them the whole thing simply by witholding the one thing the Feds can figure out themselves.

Remind me again how we lost our privacy rights? Did I vote for this shit? Because if I did, I really screwed up.

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