Yes, It Bothers Me

Just before my body decided to purge itself for a few days, USA Today ran a story that the NSA was doing more than just listening in on overseas calls to suspected terrorists.  It claimed that the NSA was also compiling a database of domestic call records.

The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone
call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by
AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the
arrangement told USA TODAY.

This bothers me, as much for separation of powers issues that I will describe below as for any  worry about the data being collected.  Conservatives, however, immediately criticized the article, as summarized well here, making a number of points:

1.  Its old news
Shame on conservatives.  This is the same tired line that Clinton used to drive them crazy with.  The theory here is that once a story has run a full news-cycle, it is then too late to report on it or show any further outrage about it.  Once the political boil is lanced, its time to "move on".  Sorry, I don't buy it.

2.  USA Today is exaggerating
The USA Today and those who picked up on the story  are indeed sloppy, perhaps purposefully to make a better story, in blurring the line between collecting phone numbers and eavesdropping.  To date, the evidence is only that phone numbers were collected, which is in fact less intrusive than eavesdropping.  It still pisses me off, for reasons below.

 3.  The IRS already has more data
Yes, and that bothers me too.  Does anyone really doubt that IRS data has been peeked at and used for political purposes?  And I am flabbergasted at how far conservatives have wandered over the last several decades that they hold up the IRS as a model to be emulated.  But here is the key difference that I will get into in a minute:  The IRS is allowed to collect this data by legislative statute passed by Congress.  This statute includes rules for data management and access, with steps for judicial review and criminal penalties for its violation.  The NSA data base has ... none of this.  No legislative authorization.  No process and privacy protections.  No penalties for misuse of data.  No judicial review steps.

4.  Its no big deal, and its good for you
Maybe.  Or maybe not.  The trouble is that we are only getting tiny leaked glimpses into whatever the administration is doing.  The President has created the theory that he can declare war against a vague and in fact impossible to define target, and then take on absolute dictatorial non-reviewable powers to prosecute this war in any way he likes, and that any steps taken in this war can be considered legitimate steps (rather than overstepping his bounds) based on his say-so alone. 

The problem is not the database per se, but the fact that the NSA and this administration feels it can do anything it wants outside the bounds of traditional separation of powers.  If the NSA needs a phone call database, then the President can go to Congress and solicit such an authorization.  A well-crafted piece of legislation would put strict limits on how the data is used, would provide some sort of outside review of its use, and would provide for stiff penalties for its misuse.  This is what I wrote previously:

Here is how we have generally interpreted the 4th amendment:  The
legislative branch sets the ground rules, as followed by the
Administration.  The administrations selection of targets is reviewed
by the Judiciary (warrants) and is also subject to later review at
trial (via the admissibility of evidence).  What we try to avoid is
allowing the same person to set the rules, choose the target, and
perform the surveillance, all in secret and without outside review.
The problems with the NSA wiretapping program is not that it is wrong
per se, but that it may violate this process.  The administration is
claiming the right to choose the target and perform the surveillance
under the own rules and in secret with no possibility of review.   

What really irks me about this is the crass politics going on.  Does anyone doubt that if a Clinton White House had been revealed doing this that Conservatives would have been screaming in outrage?  And liberals are, if anything, even funnier.  These are the folks that trust the government but distrust corporate America.  So why is it that they are upset about a transfer of phone records from evil old AT&T to benevolent old Uncle Sam?  Except, of course, because it is being done by a Republican.

More on eroding separation of powers here and here.

Update: This database may be being used to see who reporters are talking to in order to root out leaks.  Anyone uncomfortable now?  And this is priceless:

Under Bush Administration guidelines, it is not considered illegal for
the government to keep track of numbers dialed by phone customers.

Duh.  Under Bush Administration guidelines, nothing the administration wants to do is considered illegal.

More: Several sources have used the Supreme Court decision Smith vs. Maryland to make the case that collection of the phone records is legal without a warrant.  Here is a key passage:

Petitioner in all probability entertained no actual expectation of
privacy in the phone numbers he dialed, and even if he did, his
expectation was not "legitimate." First, it is doubtful that telephone
users in general have any expectation of privacy regarding the numbers
they dial, since they typically know that they must convey phone
numbers to the telephone company and that the company has facilities
for recording this information and does in fact record it for various
legitimate business purposes. And petitioner did not demonstrate an
expectation of privacy merely by using his home phone rather than some
other phone, since his conduct, although perhaps calculated to keep the
contents of his conversation private, was not calculated to preserve
the privacy of the number he dialed. Second, even if petitioner did
harbor some subjective expectation of privacy, this expectation was not
one that society is prepared to recognize as "reasonable." When
petitioner voluntarily conveyed numerical information to the phone
company and "exposed" that information to its equipment in the normal
course of business, he assumed the risk that the company would reveal
the information  to the police,

First, it would be interesting to see if the SCOTUS would agree that this ruling extends to sharing such information with non-law-enforcement branches of the government (NSA is not a law enforcement arm).  Second, it would be interesting to see if the Court came to the same conclusion if the target for the the data sweep was "every citizen in the US" and not just targets of law enforcement investigations.

Third and most importantly, this decision seems to suck.  This exact same logic seemingly applies to any piece of data submitted to any private third party unless the data is specifically protected (e.g. medical records).  Sorry, but this is wrong.  I should be able to have commercial transactions with third parties without the expectation that the government can take the records for its own use without any kind of a warrant. 

Also, the premise that this ruling is based on is provably false, though only by technology instituted after the decision.  There is an entire industry of phone company services and 3rd party technologies aimed right at this area of phone call (and email; and Internet surfing) anonymity and privacy.  With the Internet for example, there is a very, very clear expectation that sharing information with a company for one purpose (e.g. to complete a transaction) does NOT authorize the company to use or share the data for any other purpose.  This use of transaction data and its limits is a CRITICAL and front-of-mind issue for modern communicators.  It is absurd to say, as the justices did, that:

When
petitioner voluntarily conveyed numerical information to the phone
company and "exposed" that information to its equipment in the normal
course of business, he assumed the risk that the company would reveal
the information  to the police

The implication is that by giving a company data for use in a transaction, we are giving them an unwritten license to do whatever they want with the data.  Do you believe you are granting this?  Is it true that you "entertain no expectation of privacy" in such transactions?  If you agree with this ability, then I assume you also agree that the government should be able to see all your:

  • Credit card bills
  • Records of who you have emailed
  • Records of which Internet sites you have visited
  • Records of what searches you made in search engines

These are all 100% amenable to the logic the Justices used in this decision.

I don't mean that law enforcement shouldn't be able to subpoena these records ever.  But they need to at least go to a judge and say "we want to see Warren's phone records from X to Y date because we suspect him of Z for the following reasons."

  • nonone

    [IMG]http://www.thismodernworld.com/blog/NSA1.jpg[/IMG]

    [IMG]http://www.thismodernworld.com/blog/NSA2.jpg[/IMG]

  • http://1caribe.blogspot.com Mateo

    What gets me is that people trust the government to "only go after terrorists". That's just insanity. Do you honestly think that the executive branch, with the power to get phone records of anyone they want, are just going to use that power on terrorist cells? What the heck is to stop them from getting legal, but embarrassing, information on political opponents and using that as blackmail? It's exactly what happened with Martin Luther King.

  • http://www.zianet.com/ehusman/weblog/blogger.html Eric H

    Possession of FBI files by the White House? A collective shrug from the Left, outrage from the Right. Echelon? Quiet from the Left, discomfort from the Right. Carnivore? Mild discomfort followed by yawning from the Left, outrage from the Right. The same thing, only many times larger, but by a Republican president? Outrage from the Left, rationale from the Right.

    After President Hillary takes office, things will be exactly the opposite as they are now.

    Well, except the expansion of the police state.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_ECHELON
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carnivore_%28FBI%29

  • Victor

    Perhaps you have not heard of the "Bank Secrecy Act" or the Supreme Court case "U.S. v. Miller" 425 U.S. 435 (1976), in which the court ruled that citizens have absolutely no right of privacy in bank records, or more generally in any information that they share for any purpose with any other person (except lawyers, doctors, and sometimes clergymen) (and by implication, no matter what means the gov't uses to get the data from the 3rd party, the citizen has no standing to object).

    Of course this is wrong (as you explained). See the dissent in that case. But it's the law at this time.