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American Express Call Centers Open Door for Warrantless Surveillance by Gov’t?

Jun 12, 20114 mins
Data and Information SecurityMicrosoftSecurity

A lawsuit alleges that the government intercepts electronic data like financial records when calls are placed to outsourced, overseas American Express call centers. The complaint says customers are at risk of warrantless surveillance and seizure.

How many times have you called customer support only to have that call answered by a customer support representative in a country other than the United States? You may not know how often this happens, but could this allow the federal government greater access to spy on you? What if the reason you called the customer support center was to discuss some charge or payment on your credit card? A federal class action lawsuit has been filed that claims the federal government engages in warrantless snooping to gets its hands on and seize all such intercepted electronic data when customers call outsourced American Express call centers.

PogoWasRight posted the news of a lawsuit that claims, “American Express routes customers’ calls to foreign call centers without their permission or knowledge, subjecting them to intrusive, warrantless snooping by the U.S. government.” Yet Dissent looks deeper at the issue, asking what I was also wondering, “Is our government scooping up all of our data as it is transferred to outsourced call centers?”

Pickman v. American Express Travel Services [PDF] goes through a long list of American Express terms and services like membership rewards, points, ID Protect, Baggage Protection, Trip Delay, Airflight Insurance, passport assistance, drivers’ license service, the ability to cancel the card if lost or stolen, etc. By page 10, the complaint states that in order to provide all these various consumer services, American Express collects and stores “Cardmember’s spending, consumption and financial records.” Consumers have a “reasonable expectable” that these records will be “safeguarded against disclosure” to the U.S. government.

Customer service call centers are no longer based solely in the U.S. even if the U.S.-based toll-free number was called. In order for a customer service representative to provide assistance to a cardholder, “spending, consumption, and financial records” are made available to the customer service representative answering the call in a foreign-based call center. The complaint further discusses the reasons for U.S. call centers being closed in favor of these foreign-based call centers, basically saying it’s all about profit and overseas call centers are cheaper to maintain.

Since cardholders are not asked to dial a different country or add an overseas country code to reach foreign call centers, it is dependent upon an automated system whether or not the call stays within the United States or is routed to an oversea American Express call center. If it’s a foreign call center, then all your electronic data records are made available to the representative to assist you. However, those overseas personnel have no rights under the U.S. Fourth Amendment. This means you are not protected as the U.S. government “may intercept” your electronic data “without regard to constraints imposed by the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.” In fact, it’s considered legal as long as the government doesn’t specifically “target” you for surveillance.

The complaint states, “On the information and belief” the U.S. “maintains a global electronic signals interception system that, each day, collects billions of electronic data (including the above described EDT) that are received by and sent from foreign nationals residing overseas” . . . and “stores” as well as “searches” such electronic intercepts. It alleges that when U.S. citizens make these calls which are routed overseas and intercepted, the warrantless surveillance violates the Fourth Amendment as well as violates the “Right to Financial Privacy Act.”

If this is true, then why would it be limited to only American Express credit card customers? Many of those services that American Express offers are also offered by other credit card companies which also outsource call centers. Should we expect to see more class action lawsuits filed against other credit card companies? Signing up for a credit card and calling about that service should not equal annihilation of privacy and an open invitation for the government to engage in even more warrantless surveillance.

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.