‘How cheap can these guys be?’

Marketplace Staff Jun 8, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Arlen Specter is one unhappy Republican this week. Specter’s the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He’d promised to hold hearings into the Bush administration’s domestic spying program. The one where phone companies sold customer records to the government. Said he would subpoena executives, if he had to. But Specter changed his mind earlier this week. He says Vice President Cheney urged other Republicans on his committee not to go along. Commentator and economist Austan Goolsbee says those phone companies owe the public an explanation. And more.

AUSTAN GOOLSBEE: The first thing I thought when I heard about the secret government program of collecting 50 million people’s phone records without their knowledge was, “How cheap can these guys be?”

See, there are people out there known in the telecom industry as “bill harvesters” who pay customers for their phone bills. They usually offer something like five bucks and a chance to win a big prize in a raffle.

They do it because they know that companies will pay big money to get information about customers. Some of the more aggressive harvesters online are actually selling the cell phone records of individual people they got from who knows where. To prove a point, one blogger actually bought General Wesley Clark’s cell phone bills for $89.95.

Look, selling phone records is big business. So when I hear about the government getting the phone records of 50 million completely typical American families for nothing, it drives me nuts.

There’s more to this scandal than privacy. Your transaction information is valuable. Think about how much the private sector is willing to fork over for mailing lists, e-mail addresses, credit scores and all sorts of information.

The government should not just be able to take whatever information they want from your phone bills and pretend like they didn’t take something of value from you.

I have no doubt the feds took my phone bills. One too many chicken kalaya orders from my cell phone to a Lebanese restaurant did me in. But I got nothing for it. No $5. No name entered into a raffle. Nothing. I’d settle for even just some cheesy free gift. A T-shirt, for Pete’s sake! Anything! I’d wear it with pride! I’d have embossed, right on the front of it: The government spied on all my phone bills and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.

RYSSDAL: Austan Goolsbee is a professor of economics at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business.

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