Lawton, Oklahoma: A Digit Away from Being Watched by the NSA

The Washington Post's blockbuster surveillance story Thursday night revealed that the National Security Agency violated privacy rules a total of 2,776 times over the course of a year, but one incident in particular stands out: the time in 2008 when a "communications switch" misread phone numbers with the area code 202 (Washington, D.C.) as coming from country code 20 (Egypt), and residents of the nation's capital had their call records swept up by the NSA without authorization.

The classified internal NSA report published by the Post indicates that 37 percent of the agency's violations of the FISA Amendments Act were due to this kind of "system error" as opposed to human error. Not all of those glitches were quite as memorable as the Great Area Code Mixup of 2008; some involved "system disruptions" and "data flow issues."

Still, the possibility remains that other Americans have made the grave mistake of living in parts of the country with area codes similar to the country codes of America's greatest rivals, enemies, and threats. Consider this: There are 24 area codes in the United States, marked in the map above, that share their first two digits with the country codes for either China, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, or Venezuela. The following is just a sampling of towns and cities across the United States who find themselves at the mercy of an NSA programming error.

China (Country Code 86)

Greenville, S.C., has the distinction of being one of Outside magazine's best towns, with "killer farmers' markets, quick access to adventure, and bike shares galore," but it also has the less-desirable distinction, with area code 864, of being one digit away from China.


Egypt (Country Code 20)

Yes, according to the NSA's internal audit, the agency's systems mixed up Washington, D.C. with Egypt. But the programming error gods could have targeted another part of the country as well: the entire state of Idaho. The state is famous for having potatoes with "dependable performance," and is billed as "a land that Lewis and Clark would still recognize." That might be another way of saying it does not have many people, which explains why the state has just one area code, 208. The similarity to Egypt's country code raises the question: Is this man, relaxing by the Snake River and featured on Idaho's tourism website, being watched? 

Iran (Country Code 98)

Houma, La., population 34,000, is "The Heart of Louisiana's Wetlands," featuring swamp tours that bring adventurous spectators up close to alligators. It also has an area code, 985, that's up close to Iran's.

Pakistan (Country Code 92)

We know that President Obama is a big Chicago Bears fan, but we didn't know that fans of their nemesis, the Green Bay Packers, could be under surveillance (accidentally). Green Bay, Wis., has area code 920, which isn't far from Pakistan's.   

Venezuela (Country Code 58)

Lawton, Okla., is home to the Museum of the Great Plains (new permanent display: artistic saddles) and The Holy City of the Wichitas, a replica of Israel during Biblical times that hosts the nation's longest-running passion play every Easter. It is also home to area code 580, which is uncomfortably close to Venezuela's.

Of all the places with unfortunate area codes, however, Tallahassee, Fla., may have it the worst. Its area code, 850, is not just close to North Korea's country code. It is North Korea's country code. Here's hoping the NSA has a way of telling the difference between the two.


Meet the Mayoral Candidate Who Believes Russia Will Vanquish the Antichrist

You haven't seen crazy until you've spent some time following the Moscow mayoral race.

On Friday, Mikhail Degtyarev, the Liberal Democratic Party's candidate, indulged in some apocalyptic thinking and said he believes Russia will lead the world in vanquishing the Antichrist.  But when it comes to Degtyarev's political shenanigans, that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Meet the man who not only would like to lead Moscow in battle against Satan, but would also like to give women two days leave from work every month during menstruation.

For Degtyarev, the battle between good and evil is one that plays out in intensely nationalist terms. "I can say as a believer that I believe in the apocalypse from the point of view of faith. And I think we must prepare," Degtyarev said on Friday. "I believe that we'll defeat the Antichrist -- I'm sure of it -- and that Russia will lead the fight against the Antichrist."

But Degtyarev has no patience for the portended apocalypses of other religions. Late last year, he launched a campaign to stop Russian media from reporting on the possibility that the end of the Mayan calendar foretold the end of the world. "In our compatriots' interests, we ask you to pay attention to the dissemination of pseudo-scientific information about the end of the world in your media," he said in addressing the coverage.

Incidentally, Degtyarev serves as the deputy head of the science and technology committee in the Duma.

But Degtyarev isn't just a kooky crusader for Christ. He's perhaps best known for his initiative to give women paid leave during menstruation. Last month, he introduced a bill in the Duma that would require employers to provide their female employees two days off every month during what he called their "critical days."

"In this period, the majority of women experience psychological and physical discomfort," Degtyarev said at the time. "Often the pain for the fair sex is so intense that they are forced to call an ambulance."

The language of that legislation reads like something of an homage to male condescension: "Strong pain induces heightened fatigue, reduces memory and work-competence and leads to colorful expressions of emotional discomfort. Therefore scientists and gynecologists look on difficult menstruation not only as a medical, but also a social problem."

Though Degtyarev is a fringe candidate in the coming Sept. 8 mayoral election (he's currently only polling at about 2.3 percent -- far behind the two leading candidates, the Kremlin-backed Acting Mayor Sergei Sobyanin and anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny), his campaign puts a religious and socially conservative spin on a nationalist trend in Russian politics. The current mayoral campaign has been filled with anti-migrant rhetoric, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has recently embraced the Russian Orthodox Church in supporting legislation banning so-called gay propaganda.

Degtyarev's nationalism was on full display earlier this week during a visit to a traditional Russian bath house, where he made a shirtless appearance before the cameras clad only in a towel and a traditional Russian hat. In an interview, which you can view below, he declared that when the plague struck Europe, Russians were largely immune to the effects of the disease because of the restorative properties of the banya. Such are the powers, Degtyarev claims, of traditional Russian culture.