In case you missed it, the so-called 'D.C. Madam' released 13 years worth of phone records from her escort agency last night. Already one Senator has come forward and apologized for his connection when his number showed up on the list. After browsing through the records for a few hours last night, I myself came up with a couple noteworthy individuals - enough to make me believe that these records absolutely warrant further investigation.
The problem for the mainstream media outlets on this story is that there is an overabundance of raw information to go through, and each outlet may only have 4-5 people working on the story. It's going to take a long time for a news team to go through the 1,774 pages of phone logs going back over more than a decade.
Fortunately there are more than 4-5 people on Newsvine... so why don't we just beat them to the punch?
The phone records are available to download to any member of the public on the "D.C. Madam's" website right here.
Ironically, the Madam herself notes:
Deciphering this voluminous amount of data – some of which is well over a decade old will not be an easy task. Frankly, this likely is understating matters. It will take a small army of people skilled in computer and phone technology, investigation as well as factual knowledge regarding the significance OR non-significance of identified persons. No one individual or entity will be able to connect all of the dots. The overall endeavor easily could take many months, if not years to research and report conscientiously.
I propose we use the advantage of the crowd we already have and split up these records and work our own way through them.
Yes looking through pages of logs is tedious, but it's not rocket science. It takes all of 5-10 seconds to feed a phone number into a reverse lookup engine and find out if it is a publicly listed number (even entering the number straight into Google will yield a result if the number is public).
Additionally, all the records are in the .TIFF format - some are easy to read, others take a little more eyeball work. Even automating the job with OCR software isn't a 100% solution - given the inherent inaccuracy of said programs along with the less that pristine quality of the documents.
Initially, the search may also be discouraging. The majority of the numbers that passed through the escort agency were cell phone numbers, that are not outright publicly accessible (unless you are willing to pay a premium for a service such as Intelius. For every 9 numbers that aren't public, there is one that will be. In sets of 20-30 pages at a time on our parts, we can burn through this data much more quickly than CNN if we want to.
However, and I can not stress this enough, this needs to be undertaken carefully and responsibly.
Example: Grabbing the list and calling the numbers to see who is at the other end as one blog is doing is irresponsible. In fact, it's probably considered outright harassment.
Likewise, you may find a number associated with some Joe Schmo. While you may be excited about the prospect of having identified this person, ask yourself what the newsworthiness of that person is. Are they a public citizen or a private citizen? If there are of no significant note, leave them be - there are bigger fish to fry.
Being on the Madam's call list is also not an automatic "slam dunk" of what a person has or hasn't done. Over 13 years more than one person is going to dial a number wrong, for example. The Madam has also insisted that her business was legit and never engaged in any illegal activity -- and though that may be a bit of stretch, especially after Senator Vittman's confession,
none of us have all the facts. This is yet another reason why scrutiny should be applied only to public figures, a Senator, lobbyist, or journalist are subject to more scrutiny than your neighbor because of the role they play.
And even if you do find that needle in the haystack, so to speak, do not publish their corresponding phone number or address, that leaves them open for an amazing amount of harassment and if people really want to figure that information out for themselves it will already be easy enough because you found them through publicly available information, too.
Noooooooooooooow, with all that said, if you're interested in doing some real investigative work and citizen journalism, this is all you have to do:
- Download the records here, here (torrent), or here. The Madam's website is almost certainly going to crash because of bandwith (the files are about 120mb total).
- Download a third-party .TIFF reader, such as Brava! (trust me, if you try to open these with the default program on your computer, you're probably going to crash it).
- Pick a file and which page numbers you will look through. Post that info here so someone doesn't duplicate your work.
- Start searching. Enter the phone numbers into Google or a reverse search and see if a name pops out. If you get a name (usually you won't, the number will either be from a cell or unlisted), Google that name along with the city and see if they are of an particular note, you're nearly guaranteed to find something out about the person even if they are of no concern to the general public.
- Copy the following information into separate columns in your spreadsheet: Name, phone number, the date of the call, and a note on the person's significance. This is so your work can be independently verified and makes for an easy way to keep track of everything - especially since data in this format can easily be combined into one resource as the crowd works through the information.
Be smart about your searching: there are several phone numbers that are repeated over and over. Check these once, make a note of them, and you can skip past them when you see them pop up again (these are no doubt employees of the escort agency).
On AT&T's records, there is a column that notes if the call is "M2M" or "CW" - these stand for mobile-to-mobile and call-waiting. There is no need to look up mobile-to-mobile numbers because they are from other cell phones in AT&T's network, which is not (readily) publicly available.
Work backwards. Start with the most recent records from 2006 and work backwards to 1994 - more recent logs are going to be easier to identify then older logs.
I also suggest we create a group for this effort and continue work there and until there is a bigger picture of everything, not name any names.
UPDATE - 10.29PM: The users of Reddit are also throwing their collective weight behind the project (not long after we began crowdsourcing), as indecent notes. They have created a wiki here. To gain read-only access to the wiki, enter the password "reddit" along with your name and email (due to repeated vandalism you must request a password from a moderator to make changes to the wiki). The users at Reddit have attempted to use OCR software to convert the records to an easier format to work with.
dcmadamphonerecords.com has also been setup as a wiki to display the information, but so far it appears to be blank.
and with this, I have to crash... I haven't slept since the weekend. Who will pick up the baton on this?