Where’s the Outrage: Nobody Seems to Care as America’s Becomes a Police State
Back in 1976, I co-founded, with some Los Angeles colleagues, a feisty little alternative weekly called the L.A. Vanguard. About two months after we launched it, I got tipped off about a program by the local phone companies, Pacific Telephone and GTE, in which they had so-called “Security Departments,” composed of banks of operators, whose sole job was to provide unlisted phone numbers to inquiring government agencies, all without a warrant. As I delved into this story I learned more: these special operators (led in each case by retired FBI officials) were also providing credit information on phone customers on request, and the agencies who had instant access to all this data ranged from local police to the public library.
When we broke the story, it exploded on the Los Angeles media scene. There was a banner headline across the whole top of the Los Angeles Times front page screaming “Unlisted Numbers Given Out.” We at the L.A. Vanguard, to promote our little paper and being guerrilla journalists, announced that we were holding a protest and press conference on the sidewalk in front of the main entrance of the Pacific Telephone building in L.A., at which we’d be handing out copies of our newspaper. We were mobbed by reporters and camera crews from every media organization in the city. It was huge. Pacific Tel’s PR people realized they had to respond and invited everyone inside for an impromptu news conference at which they tried to quell the furor, but they only made it worse by having to admit the scale of the program.
Now I understand that Los Angeles, which is home to more celebrities per square foot than any other place in the world, has a thing about privacy, but this story even went national. It was simply shocking at the time to learn that the phone company would provide police and other government agencies -- even the over-due books department of the library! -- information about a customer’s sacred unlisted number without even requiring that they first obtain a warrant from a judge.
My investigative exposé led to hearings by the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC), at which the various government agencies were compelled to explain how they used the information they were obtaining from the phone companies and to justify their need for it, and the phone companies were forced to explain why they were so casually releasing the information, and why they were using ratepayers’ money to pay for a special group of operators to provide it. In the end there were restrictions placed by the PUC on the companies and on the number of agencies able to get access to unlisted numbers.
Today, such a story would be seen as quaint. It probably would not even be published in a major newspaper, and I doubt it would even make the first page of the Hollywood Reporter, trade publication for the film industry. Certainly no regulatory agency like the state PUC would bother to hold hearings on it.