Thursday, January 9, 2014

HB 13: Telephone Company Should Warn Customers

Virginia House Bill #13 would, if enacted, require telephone companies to include with the monthly bill a statement about the kind of information the company was required to disclose to the federal government.

Personally, I've assumed for a long time that various people can and do "monitor" telephone calls, and other "telecommunication," if and whenever they find it interesting to do so.

For example...when I've used computers at public computer centers funded by the Gates Foundation, I've noticed that an extra printer icon sometimes pops up while a document is printing. I've noticed that for the first year or so, when I went to computer centers just to print, didn't have much of an Internet identity, and wasn't logged on to the Internet while printing, the appearance of the extra icon seemed to be random. Then I started printing while connected to the Internet, and the behavior of the extra icon stabilized--it popped up whenever I was printing documents with certain names. And those documents happened to be the ones that appeared to contain the most personal information...not necessarily about me, the list includes documents ganked from an e-friend's public blog and some pieces of fiction, but they were the documents that seemed to disclose the most information about individuals that those individuals would be unlikely to disclose if someone walked up and asked for the information. I've been observing this strange behavior of Gates Foundation computers for several years now. I don't know whether it's local telephone company workers, Gates Foundation employees, or who (or who-all) else that's been trying to read what they probably believe to be private diaries, but somebody out there is definitely interested in anything that appears to be a day-to-day account of anybody's private life...however public, uninteresting, or fictitious the person's day-to-day account may be. The extra printer icon is triggered by the combination of dates in order and chunks of prose.

Then I remember how, in college, some friends got hold of a list of words for which the FBI were supposedly listening in telephone conversations. Supposedly, if your conversation used several of these words, your call would be mysteriously disconnected. Some of the guys tried reading the list to each other on the phone and reported that their calls were indeed disconnected. I didn't ask to see or hear the list, and, considering that the experiment was made by college boys, I wouldn't be surprised if it had been a prank. But the rumor that our government either pays low-level workers, or uses machines, to listen for trigger words on the telephone, refuses to die. Mike Royko once suggested, in a different context, that people experiment by reciting the seven words that come to an English-speaking mind when we think about death threats against the President. In these days of instant panics, I don't want to recommend that anybody recite a list of words that would constitute a death threat against anybody.

I don't think it should be a problem for most of us to avoid committing, or threatening, crimes. I don't think it should be a problem for the federal government to admit or deny the extent to which it's spying on private citizens, either.