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The battle over which company has your number

Queena Kim Sep 29, 2014
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Telecom security, consumer privacy and the tension that lies therein is a hot topic. In the spotlight on Capitol Hill right now? Negotiations over a federal contract for which company will route phone calls.  

Once upon a time, if you switched phone carriers, you had to switch your telephone number. In 1997, Congress said you can keep your number even if you switch, said Ahmed Ghappour, a law professor at UC Hastings.

“And so that resulted in a great deal of confusion,” Ghappour said.

He said that’s because, before that law, each phone service provider was awarded blocks of numbers. If the police wanted to tap a number, they would know which company to go to. But once you could keep your number, that system was gone.

So the government contracted a company named Neustar to keep track of all phone numbers. Also, every time you make a call, it’s Neustar that routes your call to the right carrier.

“It’s essentially a central pathway for all calls to and from telephone lines that utilize U.S. telecom services,” Ghappour said.

Now Neustar might lose the contract to Ericsson, which is based in Sweden. Neustar says this would be bad for national security, said Jonathan Mayer, a fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.

“It certainly is a legitimate concern that the company that routes calls is in position to know a fair amount about law enforcement and intelligence investigations,” Mayer said.

For example, a hostile country could break in and see that law enforcement is asking about the phone numbers of its spies.

Christopher Soghoian, a technologist at the ACLU, said an American-based company can’t protect data any better than one in based in Europe.

“The security community doesn’t know how to build a system that allows access to one party but keeps others out,” Soghoian said.

Soghoian said the only way to keep data out of the hands of the bad guys is to secure it from everybody — even law enforcement. 

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