Nell didn’t want phone privacy

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 8, 2013

This week, we learned that Big Brother is monitoring the phone calls of Verizon customers.

I am a Verizon customer – by virtue of being “assigned” to Verizon after my previous phone company merged – therefore, my calls are being monitored.

More correctly stated, the government is collecting metadata that can help them discern my calling patterns – with whom I talk and when.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) order directed Verizon to give the National Security Agency daily information on foreign and domestic calls from April 25 through July 19.

The news begs the question of whether other cell providers have recently received similar orders. Such action isn’t without precedent. In 2006, USA Today reported that the National Security Agency had been secretly collecting the phone call records of Americans using AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth.

Well, I’ll swan.

If we think of the early days of telephones, one wonders where we ever got the notion that phone calls would be private. Remember, we started with party lines. I almost missed those days, but remember picking up the receiver at my grandparents’ farm near Lockhart and hearing others’ conversations.

I vaguely remember needing to call the operator to place a long-distance call. But before that, one called an operator to make a local call. Try to slip around and talk to your love interest – or terrorist acquaintance – in that environment.

There are great stories from those days. I love one about my mother-in-law, Stelle, and her neighbor and relative-by-marriage, Nell Staff, may they both rest in peace.

Nell would call the local operator and tell her that she had put her toddler, Eddie, down for a nap.

“I’m going to leave the receiver in his crib,” she told the operator. “If Eddie wakes up, you call me. I’ll be playing bridge at Stelle’s.”

My friend Emilie tells a similar story about making a long-distance phone call to her mother when away in school.

“The operator said, ‘Oh, she’s not at home. She’s having dinner over at your Aunt Tootie’s …”

Yes, the notion of phone calls being private is a relatively modern one. We can stomp our feet and worry about Big Brother and our privacy rights, but in truth, we signed those away when Congress passed the Patriot Act in the wake of 9-11.

I’m less worried that the government is watching my calling patterns than I am that they spending resources tracking my patterns. If they were analyzing my calls, they’d know that I talk to my mother every Sunday night whether we have anything important to say or not; that Honey calls around 5 on weekdays to inquire about supper; that my brother likes long conversations late at night; and my father abhors phone conversations that last more than two minutes. It must be a hangover from party line days when he needed to keep the line free for his neighbors.

I’m way more concerned that anyone can read my e-mails that are older than 180 days because they are considered “legally abandoned,” based on a law that practically predates email. Like the Patriot Act, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 had unintended consequences.