A top federal agency is demanding that U.S. phone companies collect and store personal information about their customers that, if exposed, could reveal details about their private behavior. The agency also wants the companies to file reports about that activity to the government. The stored records include metadata such as individual phone numbers, the dates and times of their calls and highly specific routing information.
And no, we're not talking about the NSA.
The Federal Communications Commission is requiring phone companies with more than 100,000 domestic subscribers to submit aggregated reports on calls that customers make to rural areas. It's part of an effort to crack down on a problem known as "rural call completion," in which calls to remote parts of the country get dropped or never make it through.
The order, which the commission approved in October, is much more targeted in scope and contains many more privacy protections than the NSA's controversial phone records program. But it underscores how blurry the line can be between consumer prying and consumer protection.
Even though calls to rural areas account for less than 10 percent of all phone calls nationally, making one can be a difficult experience. Customers have reported hearing nothing after dialing a number; ringing that goes on endlessly, even though the recipient never realizes anyone's trying to get through; and busy signals when the receiving line isn't actually busy.
These problems occur because rural phone companies are allowed to charge phone companies in denser areas a higher fee to connect long-distance calls, according to the FCC. As a result, some phone companies work with cut-rate intermediaries that help connect those calls at the cheapest prices possible for the originating phone network. In other words, businesses are cutting corners. And that's hurting consumers.
By requiring phone companies to submit those reports on rural call completion, the FCC thinks it has a shot at curbing what Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has called an "unacceptable problem." Yet to a casual observer, the FCC's request could be easily mistaken for another, more insidious form of privacy intrusion. At its most basic level, the components are all there: A worthy goal everyone can get behind; corporate retention of user data; quiet, confidential reports to the government.
But there are subtle differences between the NSA's systematic surveillance program and what the FCC is trying to accomplish. For one thing, the retention period is a lot shorter: Phone companies are obligated to retain the individual call records for six months before discarding them. What's more, the FCC doesn't have access to the individual call records, while the NSA has a giant database that it could query virtually anytime. Here's what the FCC sees in the reports it gets quarterly from phone companies: The number of attempted calls to rural phone providers per month; the number of those calls that were answered; and the number of calls that failed to complete.
According to an FCC official, who declined to be named in order to speak frankly, the commission requires phone companies to retain individual call records so they can go back and troubleshoot if there are any problems with the aggregate reports.
In short, the FCC's data collection program appears fairly benign.
"My instinct is to say, 'Yeah, at some level the phone companies have more information about us,'" said Paul Gallant, a telecom analyst at Guggenheim Securities. "But it's for a pretty targeted, universally-agreed-upon reason."
Civil liberties advocates may still object to phone companies holding onto the logs at all. But the effort to improve rural call completion illustrates the way some consumer records can be used for good. Unfortunately, that only makes drawing the line between service and spying that much more difficult.