A report commissioned by Virginia-based telecommunications company Neustar claims that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s possible award of a contract to administer a national phone routing system to an American division of Swedish technology company Ericsson would involve security risks. Neustar, which has held the contract since the late 1990s, hired former Homeland Security Department chief Michael Chertoff—now a private consultant—to review the situation after a phone-industry panel recommended that the FCC give the job to Telcordia Technologies, the Ericsson division.
According to the report, if a foreign company were to administer the routing system, it would have access to information about the U.S. government’s surveillance of domestic phone numbers, which potentially “would be a counterintelligence bonanza for adversaries of the nation and a security disaster for the United States.” The system in question was created to support phone-number portability and allows the government to know where fixed and mobile calls are being routed, regardless of carrier. According to a report, some current and former members of the U.S. intelligence community have joined in expressing concern about the possible award of the contract to Telcordia. No decision has yet been made by the FCC as to which company will be chosen.
While Neustar’s investment in the Chertoff report may have been motivated at least in part by a desire to retain business, the concerns raised are worth addressing. At the very least, the publicizing of the report has drawn attention to the fact that an obscure system created over 15 years ago to support portability has become instrumental to the U.S.’s domestic surveillance program. Supporters of Ericsson have countered that despite its foreign ownership, Telcordia is in fact an American company, and furthermore that its services would be less expensive than Neustar’s. Be that as it may, the question of who should have access to phone information is a live one, particularly post-Snowden. However one feels about the telephony industry’s cooperation with government surveillance programs, the fact is that the increasingly international nature of this industry will likely make it more and more difficult to keep information within the country’s borders over the long term. Whether or not the FCC takes the Chertoff report to heart, the genie appears to be out of the bottle.