We interviewed the guy who prank-called the NSA

September 1, 2013

The NSA is in dire need of customer service training — at least in the case of Bahram Sadeghi, a Dutch-Iranian filmmaker who decided to call the surveillance agency for "help" after one of his e-mails was accidentally deleted. In a three-minute exchange with NSA spokespeople, Sadeghi manages to confound one with his request (you can almost hear the relief in her voice when Sadeghi asks to speak to someone else) and gets a curt reply from another.

How did Sadeghi pull off his trick? In an interview Sunday, the prankster revealed how his plan came together and where it went off the rails. The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Brian Fung: How long did it take for your video to get off the ground?

Bahram Sadeghi: It only took one day to get noticed. We actually recorded it maybe Wednesday, but my girlfriend was busy with other stuff. We made some mistakes because we made it through Skype, so it took about a day for us to really edit the video and then I sent it to all my Dutch media friends, and then it started to get big in Holland, and then some of my Dutch media friends or ex colleagues, they have a lot of friends. They know a lot of people from Egypt to the United States, so I guess that's how it got bigger and bigger.

Was there an actual e-mail that actually got deleted, or did you make that up?

No! [Laughs] I'm ashamed to say that, no, it was only a thought experiment. My girlfriend and I thought to make the video because we are always thinking about ways to comment on the world outside, but then my good friend and ex colleague — I don't know whether it's smart to mention his name, but on the other hand, it's no secret I have worked with him for years, and he calls me at least twice a week with mad ideas about things I have to do. So he called me and said, 'Bahram, you should call the NSA and you should make it really as extreme as possible, for example telling them that it's a love e-mail from your girlfriend from Pakistan, but that she's not here, she went to Pakistan, but I haven't heard from her.' And I went, 'Come on, my own story is crazy enough; I'm an Iranian with an Israeli girlfriend!' It took me about two days to figure out how to build it up. I had written down what I would say, and it took me about a day to build up the video on paper but then you have to call. That moment when you call other people who are not expecting you — and maybe who are not even willing to talk to you — that's the moment that you really have to be prepared for different scenarios. 'When they say A, what would you say? If they say B, what would you say?'

When you were talking to the NSA by phone, how much of it went according to plan and how much of it required improvising?

I almost get through the main scenario. I know they are not going to help me. That's why I had the build-up with extra information, where I say, 'By the way, I'm from Iran!' But I was surprised that they asked for my contact information and asked for my provider —

You mean your e-mail provider?

— Yes. So that's when I thought, 'What the heck, let's play the game.' When I am calling them to help me and they ask for information, I have to give them the information — otherwise I don't have to call them. By the way, I should also mention that all my friends and ex-colleagues, they all loved the video, but all of them were afraid that I would be followed or even maybe bothered or harassed by the NSA in the future.

Are you worried about that?

I don't want to worry about that, because in one way or another, NSA is a governmental organization. If I would be afraid of government even when it comes to such an innocent phone call, then we are really lost. You know what I mean?

If we are afraid that a big organization like the NSA that they would waste their time and energy and money on someone like me? To bother me? If you really think that, and a lot of my friends would think that way, that means we have a really big problem when it comes to the fundamentals of democracy and trusting your government — and trust me, I'm not naiive. About half the things I've done in Holland have been about challenging corruption, politics or business.

At the same time, I don't want to lose my trust in my own government, because I vote. I vote, so it means I trust them. And I guess you in the United States, even despite everything your government does, you still trust your government because still people are going to vote. So that was the aftermath. I thought it was more interesting to see, you know, what does it say about our view toward governments.

Can you tell me what got edited out?

Only things that made the story a little bit bigger or understandable for the people on the other side of the phone line. For example, "To be honest, I have never phoned your organization before." That sentence was so in the text already that I could really delete it out. I had only eight minutes of video, so the editing took me only about two hours. But we had some technical problems. We recorded via Skype, and then we had to make that in Final Cut Pro, and every time we uploaded the video, it was not synced -- it took my girlfriend about 26 or 27 times to upload it synced.

Were there any answers from the NSA that didn't make it into the video?

No, they only had things like, "No, I can't help you." The thing about making this video is that you really have to give them airtime because otherwise it's only my word so the balance is not good. It's really difficult for me, as you can hear, to keep my mouth shut and let them talk because as I said, I know that in general they don't want to talk, so everything — for a video like this or when I went to the Chinese embassy or when i go to corporate businesses in Holland, when i go there with my megaphone, then I have to stop and then hear them out.

Is there anything you wish they had said? Or places where you wish the conversation had gone?

For me, the most important thing was to have a conversation. Those people are not willing to talk to me at all. I know that. that's half of their job, just refusing critical questions. For me I thought, if i have a conversation, I'm almost done. But then at the end, it's not that satisfactory.

What do you plan to do next?

We may make a follow-up. My good friend Gideon, who is harassing me all the time, really wants to make a follow-up or even follow-ups about this. To give you an idea, I can call them up and say, I called you a couple of days ago, I had this problem, but you couldn't help me. Well, I thought maybe you can help me nevertheless, because it's not only my problem but my girlfriend — then you see my friend, and then you see her calling them with her problem. Then you see my good colleague, Gideon — and so I go to all my friends, and they have to act a little bit. Just 10-20 seconds with problems they have with data storage, and then at the end we'll have text showing the phone number of the NSA and our e-mail address.

If people have "problems" with their data storage and they want to get professional help from a trustworthy organization, they can call them or they can send their video to us and we would be more than happy to edit it and send it to the NSA.

The other thing we want to do is make a song. You know, "Who you gonna call? NSA!" which you saw a little bit in the title of our video. I still have to write it, but the original idea was the song.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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Brian Fung · August 31, 2013