The Big Sweep: U.S. Surveillance & You

In the spring of 2004, I was working at my desk, in my home in Oakland, California, when the phone rang.

A classic beginning – to a story that confirms the current revelations about U.S. government surveillance.  Indeed my family’s experience shows that American eavesdropping is much more advanced than is being posited this minute in the press.

The caller in that spring of 2004 identified himself as an FBI agent, phoning from New York City–from, in fact, in front of my daughter’s former apartment in the West Village.  The super did not have her forwarding address.  Could I give this caller her whereabouts.  The FBI wanted to ask her about some phone calls she had made from Lisbon, Portugal five months ago, in January.

Perhaps needless to say, I refused.

As soon as the caller rung off, I phoned the local FBI office in San Francisco and described the New York call to the agent who answered.  I was curious whether or not the call had been legitimate.

An hour later, the head of the San Francisco FBI office called me back.  A chatty man indeed.  From the government’s point of view, too chatty.  Why?  Because I deduced the most astonishing fact from his conversation.

The head of the SF FBI told me that the New York call had been legit, although the man should not have called himself an FBI agent.  He was one of many people currently on temporary contract to the FBI during its investigation of phone records after the Madrid, Spain terrorist train bombings a few months earlier in March.

I will never forget what the FBI chief said:  “We are investigating all the phone calls made from the Iberian Peninsula in the wake of the Madrid train bombings.”

All. the. calls.

But it was not the sweep of the investigation that took me aback.

It was the timing.  The terrorist attack on Madrid happened in March.  But my daughter had phoned from Lisbon in January.  Two months before the attacks.  By March, she was back in college here.

There was only one conclusion I could make.  The U.S. government captures all telephone calls and holds them against future use/need.

Furthermore.  Given the volume of “all calls from the Iberian peninsula,” the government must have quite a sophisticated (likely more so now, nine years later) Artificial Intelligence to sift through the millions.

I suppose that one of our intelligence agencies, if not the FBI itself, gave its AI a few key words to winnow down the calls.  And then human beings listened to “the capture.”

Certainly, human beings later that spring had listened to my daughter’s January Lisbon phone calls.  The FBI chief in San Francisco knew that she was phoning her own apartment back in New York City and talking to her boyfriend in the apartment.  The FBI chief knew the boyfriend’s name, even though he was not on the apartment lease.  The FBI chief knew the tenor of their relationship.

How my daughter phoned home back then adds to the creepiness factor.  She did not have a cell phone.  In Lisbon, she went to the corner tobacconist and, with cash, she bought a phone card.  Then she went to the pay phone booth on the street to call the boyfriend.

There is no way the U.S. government could interest itself in my daughter’s overseas phone conversations with her boyfriend without (1) sweeping up her pay phone calls into a large database; (2) holding that database against future need; (3) using Artificial Intelligence to listen.

A year later, the FBI finally caught up with daughter, when she answered a knock at the door of her current apartment in the East Village.

The final lesson I take here.  Never think for a minute that our government is not serious about terrorism.


In case you are wondering how the story ends.

“FBI,” the agent announces himself.

My daughter bursts into tears.

It turns out that the FBI is interested in the now-ex-boyfriend.

Why??? I can not imagine.  The sweetest guy.  Wouldn’t hurt a flea.

My daughter does not know where he lives now.

One of the two FBI agents at the door gets in the parting shot.  “In future, don’t live with a guy who can’t or won’t put his name on a lease.”


June 7, 2013


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