I might as well confess. Since I’m a cell phone customer of Verizon, the National Security Agency no doubt has records of all my calls for the past few years, thanks to an order from a top-secret federal court.
I’ve been in touch with foreign agents many times.
A senior Obama administration official has said that the order “does not allow the government to listen in on anyone’s telephone calls” but rather relates only to “metadata,” such as the telephone number or the length of the call.”
I suspect the first part of that disclaimer is a lie. Almost any time I start one of these calls, I hear a message something like this: “For quality assurance purposes, this call may be monitored.”
So I’ve known all along that someone could be eavesdropping.
The phone numbers won’t help the government much. Every call goes to a number cleverly disguised as a help line for a major American company, such as Verizon, AT&T, Apple or Blue Cross Blue Shield.
A series of questions starts with what language I want to converse in, and I always select English because the only other one with which I have any familiarity is Latin — from many years ago. Eventually I wind up speaking with another person who chose a different language.
But first, I am directed through a maze that tests my ability to follow directions, use my cell phone’s keypad and input a series of secret codes.
If my patience holds up, eventually I reach a real person, who invariably has only a first name.
“Hello, my name ez Anthony. How I may help you?”
Me: That’s a coincidence. My middle name is Anthony. How do you spell yours?
“Please give your email address to me.”
“Where are you calling from?”
Me: Jonesboro, Ark. Where are you speaking from?
“Ajbma-Matep ha Tarahke.”
You must quickly learn not to get these foreign agents off script by asking personal questions because they revert to the language they chose on the front end of the call. Unless you are multilingual, you will not be able to keep up.
I’ve found that a good alternative is the “chat,” wherein you can type in your questions and answers and get written responses. Often a transcript is available afterward, which makes things much easier for the government spies to do their monitoring. That way they can take coffee breaks any time they wish.
Here’s a partial transcript from a chat I had recently with a foreign agent posing as an Adobe representative.
Syed: Hello! Welcome to Adobe Customer Service. Hi, Roy.
Syed: May I please have your email address registered with Adobe?
Syed: Thank you for the email address.
Syed: I understand that you are facing issues with the software Photoshop, am I correct?
Me: Yes. The others in the suite seem to work fine.
Syed: Thank you for confirming.
Syed: I am really sorry to hear that. Let me check and see what best I can do for you.
Me: OK, I’d appreciate that.
After exchanging much more information, each followed by a thank you, Syed says he (or she?) can’t help after all.
Syed: I would suggest you to contact our technical team. They will be more than happy to assist you. I will provide you the phone support details.
That means another phone call or chat with another foreign agent, and I finally was able to fix the Photoshop problem myself. The one good thing about this process is that agents may be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. By the time I’ve been through several different “departments,” the calls can last until well into the night — critical since length of the call is duly recorded by the NSA.
Through these calls I’ve obviously established some good contacts abroad because I’ve started receiving e-mails from foreign agents. Here’s an excerpt from one that came while I was writing:
“ПОЗИТИВНОЙ ЭНЕРГИИ! По: 8(968)77|3066 ВИДЕО МОЖНО СМОТРЕТЬ В YOUTUBE!!!
I don’t really understand much of it, but my next mission is apparently to watch a certain YouTube video. This is important enough that I received the message twice, and the second time it didn’t get trapped in my spam filter.
You may have been engaged in similar exchanges with foreign agents, and don’t think you’re going to get off scot-free either. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Bush administration began a secret NSA program for the bulk collection of Americans’ call records. That’s because the government didn’t have enough to do between pursuing Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. We’re all being watched.
Thanks to the reporting of the American version of a British newspaper, The Guardian, we now know that all this spying was assigned in 2007 to the super-secret clandestine terrorism surveillance court, which is housed in a basement room deep below the Capitol Visitors Center in Washington, D.C. Several years ago I toured the center and and didn’t suspect a thing.
However, I expect to be called before the tribunal any time now. If this column disappears, please send help.
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Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.