NSA Has Massive Database of Americans’ Phone Calls
USA Today has the banner headline “NSA has massive database of Americans’ phone calls.” The actual story, alas, is much less dramatic:
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. The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans — most of whom aren’t suspected of any crime. This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said in separate interviews.
So, the government has my phone records? Sure, I trust mega-corporations who sell my private information to telemarketers with this information. But a government agency that collects and analyzes signals intelligence? I dunno.
The NSA’s domestic program, as described by sources, is far more expansive than what the White House has acknowledged. Last year, Bush said he had authorized the NSA to eavesdrop — without warrants — on international calls and international e-mails of people suspected of having links to terrorists when one party to the communication is in the USA. Warrants have also not been used in the NSA’s efforts to create a national call database.
In defending the previously disclosed program, Bush insisted that the NSA was focused exclusively on international calls. “In other words,” Bush explained, “one end of the communication must be outside the United States.” As a result, domestic call records — those of calls that originate and terminate within U.S. borders — were believed to be private.
Sources, however, say that is not the case. With access to records of billions of domestic calls, the NSA has gained a secret window into the communications habits of millions of Americans. Customers’ names, street addresses and other personal information are not being handed over as part of NSA’s domestic program, the sources said. But the phone numbers the NSA collects can easily be cross-checked with other databases to obtain that information.
Calls. Call records. Same thing, right?
Obviously, we don’t want the government listening in on our telephone conversations without some really good rationale. But having calling patterns stored in a database to look for patterns? That doesn’t fill me with any particular anxiety.
Now, we don’t want employees of NSA or any agency–including the phone companies themselves–able to pull up individual calling records for the sheer hell of it in order to snoop on their friends, neighbors, celebrities, and so forth. One presumes NSA has some safeguards in place for that sort of thing.
Update: To be clear, since it has been a while since I have written on this matter, security and liberty are both highly desirable goals for which we strive. They are, unfortunately, conflicting. Ben Franklin’s dictum, “They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security” is oft misquoted as an absolute (“They who would give up liberty for security, deserve neither liberty or security”); Franklin was, alas, not that simpleminded.
I am willing to give up trivial amounts of liberty (carrying a passport when traveling abroad, e.g.) when it provides some significant amount of additional security. I balk at even modest surrender of liberty (friskings by government travel agents at the airport) when I feel that the gain in security is negligible.
In this case, I believe the surrender of liberty is infinitesimal while the potential gain in security is huge. If it turns out that my premise is wrong (i.e., there have been some large number of people harassed because of perfectly legitimate calling patterns or other abuses), I am prepared to reevaluate my position.