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Reactions to NSA Phone Record Spying


The disclosure that the National Security Agency has been collecting and analyzing phone records of tens of millions of Americans has struck a chord. Here are some of the reactions, and some of the reasons this is such a big deal.

From Jim Harper, Cato Institute's director of information policy studies and a member of the Department of Homeland Security Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee (not online yet, received by e-mail):

  • "It flies in the face of Fourth Amendment principles that call for reasonableness or probable cause. It is not reasonable to monitor every American's phone calling in a search for terrorists.
  • The program was not authorized by Congress and it flies in the face of Congress' intent when it de-funded the Total Information Awareness program because of concerns about the privacy consequences of 'data mining.'

  • "'Data mining' for terrorism -- the idea that searching through masses of data can find terrorist patterns or suspicious anomalies -- is provably flawed. Probability theory shows that searching for extremely rare events or conditions using even slightly flawed formulae will return mostly false positives. In other words, investigators searching through data about millions of Americans for the very few terrorists will send themselves on wild goose chases after innocent law-abiding citizens, with only the slimmest chance of stumbling onto terrorists or terrorism planning.
  • "It is no defense of the program to say that it only includes information about calls, and not the content of calls themselves. Traffic information is very revealing -- it includes the times and frequency of Americans' calls to their doctors, psychologists, paramours, and priests. And there is no way to know whether this surveillance is limited only to telephone traffic information.
  • "It is unlikely that authorities could restrict their use of a database of all Americans' phone calls. If it hasn't been put to new purposes yet, before long this database will be used for general investigative purposes. As we've seen in the past, surveillance powers given to government officials are ultimately used even for political purposes.
  • "For these reasons, oversight is essential. But the secrecy that surrounds the NSA's domestic surveillance programs prevents Congress from debating the issues, prevents researchers and critics from testing the techniques, and prevents testing in the courts to determine whether the programs are lawful.
  • "Congratulations are due to Qwest, the one telecommunications company that resisted the NSA's demand for information because of concerns about its legality. Jeers are due to AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth, who have violated the privacy of their customers. It is not patriotic to obey the demands of government officials. It is patriotic to hold government officials to the laws and the Constitution."
< Justice's OPR Ends Warrantless Spying Inquiry | 72 Congressman File Amicus Brief Challenging NSA Warrantless Surveillance >
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  • Re: Reactions to NSA Phone Record Spying (none / 0) (#1)
    by Joe Bob on Thu May 11, 2006 at 10:01:30 AM EST
    No way is this just 'telephone traffic information.' All the government has to do is take what they get from ATT or Verizon,compare it to the information in all of their other databases and, voila, they have a pretty good picture of what you're up to.

    Re: Reactions to NSA Phone Record Spying (none / 0) (#2)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Thu May 11, 2006 at 10:04:46 AM EST
    Will Americans finally begin to see what this administration is really up too? I just can't believe it. These revelations just keep on coming down on us worse than a barage of Texas hail stones!

    Re: Reactions to NSA Phone Record Spying (none / 0) (#3)
    by desertswine on Thu May 11, 2006 at 10:13:18 AM EST
    This doesn't seem to have anything to do with going after terrorists, but rather to go after and complete dossiers on political enemies. The Solzhenitsyns and Dostoyevskys of our society be warned.

    Re: Reactions to NSA Phone Record Spying (none / 0) (#4)
    by Slado on Thu May 11, 2006 at 11:05:26 AM EST
    Two points. One that this was a "classified" program doesn't seem to bother anyone who screams about Valarie Plame. Two. "The Supreme Court has repeatedly said that the government may obtain business and other records held by third parties without warrant or probable cause, because those records are no longer private. Law enforcement officials may subpoena records, or request that they be provided voluntarily, or may simply purchase data repositories on the market like any other player in the digital economy." http://www.rightwingnews.com/ Just because the NSA is doing the data mining and not a telemarketer doesn't make it illegal. The bottom line is if you call or receive calls from suspected terrorists watch out.

    Re: Reactions to NSA Phone Record Spying (none / 0) (#5)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Thu May 11, 2006 at 11:06:01 AM EST
    For the math challenged: Say there are 200 million phones, and each gets 10 calls a day. That's 2 billion calls. Say NSA employs 10,000 people (an absurdly high number) to actually physically listen to calls. Do the math. Each of those employees has to monitor 200,000 calls per day. Say each of them works 12 hours a day (an absurd assumption). Do the math again. That means they have to listen in on 16,667 calls per hour. Divide by 60. That's 278 per minute. Divide by 60 again: Just over 4 1/2 calls to monitor per second. Hmmm. Seems to me that there's no actual monitoring going on. What's actually happening is data mining - an attempt to match up calls to or from known enemy numbers. Which allows the NSA to actually pay attention to the small number of things that might matter. So the question is, is TL incapable of doing the math, or do you simply assume that your audience won't do the math? The actual number of phone numbers is higher, btw, the number of employees who could monitor calls much lower than my number above, and the hours they would work in a day much less than 12. Which means that the 4 1/2 calls listened to per second is a wildly optimistic number. Then there's the sheer storage problem of trying to save all the audio - I seriously doubt anyone has that much disk space. What they actually do is almost certainly akin to what PubSub does in the blog/RSS tracking - they do instant matching as data becomes available, and save nothing but the results.

    Re: Reactions to NSA Phone Record Spying (none / 0) (#6)
    by Che's Lounge on Thu May 11, 2006 at 11:10:38 AM EST
    Reasonable? Ha! 9/11 changed everything. For the NSA and the warmakers, it's Christmas all the time. By the way, has anyone seen my guns?

    Re: Reactions to NSA Phone Record Spying (none / 0) (#7)
    by Che's Lounge on Thu May 11, 2006 at 11:13:24 AM EST
    Then why do it at all JR? Face it. You are clueless.

    Re: Reactions to NSA Phone Record Spying (none / 0) (#8)
    by jondee on Thu May 11, 2006 at 11:22:53 AM EST
    Che - Business is business. Dont worry, it'll trickle down to all of us (and make the world a better place), eventually.

    Re: Reactions to NSA Phone Record Spying (none / 0) (#9)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Thu May 11, 2006 at 12:11:43 PM EST
    Che: Why do it at all? Because the data mining filters down to the small number of data points that the intelligence community actually cares about. Heck, your response is silly. You might as well ask: "Why build a search engine? It's hopeless".

    Re: Reactions to NSA Phone Record Spying (none / 0) (#10)
    by Che's Lounge on Thu May 11, 2006 at 12:19:20 PM EST
    JR, You take a lot on faith. Good luck.

    Re: Reactions to NSA Phone Record Spying (none / 0) (#11)
    by kdog on Thu May 11, 2006 at 12:37:57 PM EST
    JR...You assume the govt. is only interested in spying on terrorists. They have proven they will use these powers to spy on say a Tommy Chong. Who can trust them?

    Re: Reactions to NSA Phone Record Spying (none / 0) (#12)
    by kdog on Thu May 11, 2006 at 12:53:24 PM EST
    I guess I'll have to contact the bush doctor via smoke signals from now on. Or two soup cans and some string.

    Re: Reactions to NSA Phone Record Spying (none / 0) (#13)
    by Slado on Thu May 11, 2006 at 01:11:08 PM EST
    The real truth is "some" in this country would rather worry more about government conspiracy theories then terrorists or criminals . If, and it's a big if, the government was using the infomration illegally then wouldn't we hear about it eventually? Can anyone name someone harmed by this procedure, by NSA, by the patriot act who isn't a suspected terrorist? The fact is our government can't keep anything secret, Area 51 excluded, anymore and for someone to maintain that they are against a policy that will lead to terrorist arrests for no other reason then fear mongering is ridiculous.

    Re: Reactions to NSA Phone Record Spying (none / 0) (#14)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Thu May 11, 2006 at 01:15:11 PM EST
    The real truth is "some" in this country would rather worry more about government conspiracy theories then terrorists or criminals.
    No, the real truth is that some in this country, like you, want others to, "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."
    Can anyone name someone harmed by this procedure, by NSA, by the patriot act who isn't a suspected terrorist?
    Strawman ALERT

    Re: Reactions to NSA Phone Record Spying (none / 0) (#15)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Thu May 11, 2006 at 01:19:17 PM EST
    So the question is, is TL incapable of doing the math, or do you simply assume that your audience won't do the math?
    You are assuming that TL's audience will fall for your BS. The "math", as you put it, is irrelevant. It is the principle of the matter that is relevant. The NSA performing such activities with no oversight is wrong.

    Re: Reactions to NSA Phone Record Spying (none / 0) (#16)
    by kdog on Thu May 11, 2006 at 01:31:36 PM EST
    The real truth is "some" in this country would rather worry more about government conspiracy theories then terrorists or criminals
    I disagree. I think the real truth is our own govt. is a far greater threat to our freedom than any terrorist. A terrorist, at the moment anyways, is a greater threat to my life than the govt., but the govt. are the ones threatening the freedom. I personally cherish freedom more. Besides, we aren't guessing that the govt. is logging our calls, there is evidence and a whistleblower saying the govt. is logging our calls. Plus, need I remind you that it's more likely you'll be killed by a bus than a terrorist. Terrorism, or the threat of terrorism, is not worth throwing away the rule book on freedom.

    Re: Reactions to NSA Phone Record Spying (none / 0) (#17)
    by Jlvngstn on Thu May 11, 2006 at 01:37:44 PM EST
    If the Government has NOTHING to worry about, why do they cover so much of this stuff up? I know, it is because they cannot talk about it because we would be less safe. Yadda, friggin yadda.

    Re: Reactions to NSA Phone Record Spying (none / 0) (#18)
    by Joe Bob on Thu May 11, 2006 at 01:37:53 PM EST
    I see. So, if The Decider decides someone is a 'suspected terrorist' then the Bill of Rights doesn't apply anymore? Why didn't someone think of using those two magical words a long time ago? There are many actions our government could take that would ostensibly make us all 'safer.' However, those very same actions would also likely make this country a place less worth living in. Why worry, you ask? Because given the opportunity, government has repeatedly shown its willingness to abuse surveillance powers. Have you never heard of COINTELPRO? the Church Committee? CIA Operation CHAOS? If these things are unfamiliar to you, I suggest you revisit recent history. As for COINTELPRO, the FBI carried on that program for 15 years. So yeah, I guess you could say we eventually found out, but in my book 15 years is a long time to live without your 1st and 4th amendment rights.

    Re: Reactions to NSA Phone Record Spying (none / 0) (#19)
    by jimakaPPJ on Thu May 11, 2006 at 01:39:18 PM EST
    macromanic writes:
    The "math", as you put it, is irrelevant. It is the principle of the matter that is relevant.
    Uh, that reminds of people always saying, "It isn't the money, it's the principle." It's the money.

    Re: Reactions to NSA Phone Record Spying (none / 0) (#20)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Thu May 11, 2006 at 01:43:25 PM EST
    Uh, that reminds of people always saying, "It isn't the money, it's the principle." It's the money.
    I expected such a response from someone one who advocates the, "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain" principle.

    Re: Reactions to NSA Phone Record Spying (none / 0) (#21)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Thu May 11, 2006 at 02:14:48 PM EST
    Jim. I quite agree with you. It's the money. It's the guns. (see Che's earlier link) and it's the "Enemy combatants" They have all gone missing. (Fill in your own numbers as you think appropriate) Jim you and I do have something we entirely agree on. One day we shall sit and talk about what a nice bunch of guys the Iranians are. And we will let it rip, and thems that don't agree, what will we care?

    Re: Reactions to NSA Phone Record Spying (none / 0) (#22)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Thu May 11, 2006 at 02:48:15 PM EST
    "If the Government has NOTHING to worry about, why do they cover so much of this stuff up? I know, it is because they cannot talk about it because we would be less safe." Why do they keep top secret programs secret? Heck, go ponder that one. Perhaps because the enemy pays attention? You think they don't change their communications methods after the media trumpets the ways we listen in on them? I think we need a 21st century version of the "Loose lips sinks ships" campaign.

    Re: Reactions to NSA Phone Record Spying (none / 0) (#23)
    by jondee on Thu May 11, 2006 at 03:08:48 PM EST
    "Its the money" The same rationale the mugger and the pimp uses. So much for good, old-fashioned values.

    Re: Reactions to NSA Phone Record Spying (none / 0) (#24)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Thu May 11, 2006 at 03:30:27 PM EST
    There is the fact that they ASKED for these records. As TL knows, the cops can do anything if they simply ask for it and the other party agrees, outside of some confidentiality privileges where people do not have authority to divulge without the agreement of the individual whose information it is. A CDR is not covered by any of these privileges, and is actually a fairly common thing for cops to get for free from phone companies. Actual wiretapping without a court order is covered by certain rights and privileges (in some states both parties need to be aware of recording for it to be legal unless there's a warrant). CDR information is treated with as much privilege as address information on a letter or email: no confidentiality whatsoever, though a contested search can require a warrant and prob.cause. Compaining about this program, rather than the lack of confidentiality for address information that makes it possible, is disingenuous and ignorant. I'm not exactly surprised by the reaction, but it would be better if y'all had more to your arguments than "oh my god, fascists!". Changing the policy is going to be VERY hard, as it won't be hard to ridicule the suggestions as applied to regular criminal cases, lettermail, email, and then on how it's idiotic to have more protection for terrorist suspects than common criminals.

    Re: Reactions to NSA Phone Record Spying (none / 0) (#25)
    by Che's Lounge on Thu May 11, 2006 at 04:35:10 PM EST
    JR, What's actually happening is data mining - an attempt to match up calls to or from known enemy numbers. GWB, "We are not mining or trolling through the personal lives of innocent Americans," nuff said?

    Re: Reactions to NSA Phone Record Spying (none / 0) (#26)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Thu May 11, 2006 at 05:58:06 PM EST
    I'm sure Bushhaters and tyranny-fearers will run with this story, but when the facts come out I'll bet that the silent majority could care less about data mining to prevent terrorism, especially since most computers get mined by cookies anyway and dissidents haven't been crushed.

    Re: Reactions to NSA Phone Record Spying (none / 0) (#27)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Thu May 11, 2006 at 10:33:07 PM EST
    rogan:
    I'll bet that the silent majority could care less about data mining to prevent terrorism, especially since most computers get mined by cookies anyway and dissidents haven't been crushed.
    First, none of us expressing opinions here will ever know what the silent majority thinks about data mining, because if they said what they thought, they would not be part of that group. So your bet is worthless speculation. Second, what exactly is the relevance in your logic of the question of whether dissidents haven't been crushed? You seem to be arguing that the government's failure to crush dissent will prove that illegal intelligence gathering is not a concern? Can you cite some support for this novel argument -- maybe in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, perhaps? Please elaborate.

    Re: Reactions to NSA Phone Record Spying (none / 0) (#28)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Fri May 12, 2006 at 08:57:49 AM EST
    Posted by James Robertson May 11, 2006 03:48 PM "If the Government has NOTHING to worry about, why do they cover so much of this stuff up? I know, it is because they cannot talk about it because we would be less safe." Why do they keep top secret programs secret? Heck, go ponder that one. Perhaps because the enemy pays attention? You think they don't change their communications methods after the media trumpets the ways we listen in on them? I think we need a 21st century version of the "Loose lips sinks ships" campaign.
    The ACLU would never stand for it.

    Re: Reactions to NSA Phone Record Spying (none / 0) (#29)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Fri May 12, 2006 at 04:45:48 PM EST
    Does JRT stand for James Robertson's Twin?