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.