Last week BuzzFeed posted an intriguing look at a company called Neustar, which manages the central database of phone numbers in the United States — the report claimed that Neustar was a little too cozy with law enforcement and potentially delivering personal information to agencies like the NSA without permission. It was interesting — but according to Neustar's Scott Blake Harris, it's also a "batshit crazy" conspiracy theory.
Harris told us that Neustar's phone number database contains only two fields: the number, and the specific carrier to which it's assigned. The database itself updates every eight seconds — that's why you can port your number in a store and have your new phone working by the time you leave. The database is also mirrored at each of the more than 2,000 carriers in the US, who use it to switch calls, but Neustar was created to hold the canonical database because it's a neutral party. (Harris said the "neu" in "Neustar" stands for "neutrality.") Law enforcement authorities can access the database to figure out what carrier to ask for more information, but that's it — everything after that happens with the carriers.
"These implications are sinister, but there's nothing there."
That's where Neustar's other business comes in. About 400 smaller carriers have contracted Neustar to serve as their agent — basically the place where the legal paperwork goes. Harris characterized those 400 carriers as extremely small, and noted that Neustar only handled 14,000 information requests last year, while the top nine carriers responded to some 1.4 million. Harris also said that he's "unbelievably careful" about making sure the requests are in the proper form, have the proper warrants, and aren't overly broad. "We scrutinize the requests," said Harris. "I wouldn't say we have a relationship with law enforcement. Our relationship is with our customers."
Of course, the problem is that Neustar's customers are the carriers, not consumers — and there's already a level of distrust when it comes to the carriers sharing personal information with the government. But while Harris acknowledged Neustar's role as a background player — the company's slogan is "the technology behind the technology" — he wasn't worried about BuzzFeed's allegations. "I don't expect consumers to rely on us, but we have an absolute commitment to privacy," he said. "We have an extraordinary reputation for being neutral and trusted — our business model demands it. These implications are sinister, but there's nothing there."