Tuesday, June 25, 2013

How Much Is Enough Information?

Edward Snowden is experiencing his 15 minutes of fame.  Mr. Snowden, formerly working for a government contractor working for the NSA, released/leaked classified information, which revealed that the NSA has ordered Verizon (and other wireless carriers) to provide a database of all the calls of all of their numbers. All. Every. One.

Apparently, Mr. Snowden currently is enjoying the comforts of Moscow's transit lounge en route to a country that will offer him asylum. I find it interesting that the media are more focused on this chase around the world that is starting to resemble a game of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego than about the massive database possessed by the NSA. They were somewhat less blasé when the story broke about the wiretaps at the Associated Press. Interesting, redirecting the narrative to reduce focus on the truly disturbing aspects of these revelations, very interesting.

But, I want to get back to this point that the NSA has these "rolling court orders," which they can use to order carriers to provide this metadata to them. They provide the calling number, the receiving number, the date/time/length of call, which can be kept on file for five years.

Whether Mr. Snowden is a patriot or a traitor is a discussion for another day. Regardless, we would not know that this was going on  if he had not shared this information. Truth be told, I read enough spy novels that I thought they were doing this, but I was surprised at my indignation of having my suspicions confirmed.

How do you feel about the government having all of your call information?  As you may suspect, I'm not too happy about it. Why?

The "party line" from the Intelligence Community is that they need it, so if they get a lead on a particular phone number, they can search the database to which numbers they're talking to. It's all okay because they originally receive a secret court order that our cell provider is prohibited from revealing to anyone. We shouldn't feel like we're under surveillance because there are no names on the database.

Let me tell you something. There's this thing called the internet. You may be familiar with it. You give me a phone number, and in 30 seconds or less, I'll be able to tell you all kinds of things about the person linked to that number, including their name.  The NSA or the White House saying that we have nothing to be concerned about because our name isn't in the database is worse than nonsense. It implies that they think we're stupid.

The next insulting proposition is that if I don't support storing and trolling of this  metadata information that I must not care about security. Wrong.  I just think that if they have suspicions about someone, they should have to get an individual personalized warrant for the information. What I don't understand is the need for generic, just give us everything on everyone,  rolling court order. This trolling net captures the innocent along with the guilty. It seems to be the very definition of "unreasonable search and seizure."

You may ask, "If I'm not doing anything wrong, why should I worry? They're never going to have a reason to look at my information. They're never going to feel the need to waste their time matching my number with my name, right?"  Well, that may be true today.  Let's even say that there are checks and balances within the system that keeps the government from abusing my information (that we're just starting to learn about now).  Let's say that everyone is even following all the rules all the time with all of this information. I think that's a lot to presume with the number of people involved, but still, let's go with it for the moment.

Today, I'm not considered an enemy of the state.  What about tomorrow, next week, next year, the next presidential administration?  Just having that information on file is a temptation.  It doesn't even have to be intentional. It can be as simple as the IRS being suspicious about the legitimacy of non-profit groups that include the words "patriot" or "progressive" in their names.  (Presuming that the mid-management scapegoats that "they" have decided to blame for that debacle weren't directed by higher authority.)

See what I mean about the potential abuse of power, and you wonder about the apprehension of some about government attempts to limit citizens' 2nd Amendment rights to bear arms?  Again, that's a whole different post.

Bottom line, I am not convinced that the NSA needs to stockpile all this phone information for all mobile phone users.  Do I want them to be able to access it?  Yes, after they have established probable cause.  Am I willing to sacrifice some of my privacy for increased security?  Yes, but this NSA thing goes way over the line.

President Obama says we need a national debate on this, and I agree.  A country needs secrets in order to function, but as one of the authors of my spy novels would say, Intelligence people would classify the phone book.  As Senators Wyden and Udall of the Senate Intelligence Committee put in a letter to NSA director, General Keith Alexander:

"We believe the US government should have broad authorities to investigate terrorism and espionage, and that it is possible to aggressively pursue terrorists without compromising the constitutional rights of ordinary Americans ... Achieving this goal depends on not just secret courts and secret congressional hearings, but on informed public debate as well."

We need to shine some light on the process of under what circumstances and how our information is used.  That is the only way that we can be assured that the power isn't being abuse.


I'm still having a debate with myself regarding these government leaks and the implications of what has been leaked. I haven't got my thoughts organized, or my feelings. I like the way you have framed your argument.

Travis: I'm disturbed that the focus remains on Snowden, but I'm also concerned that the diplomatic heavy handedness is going put the US in a world of hurt. It looks less and less that we're living up to our ideals ... if we ever did.

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