One of several big stories that broke this week concerns the NSA’s collection of meta information about phone calls of Verizon customers.
Undoubtedly, Verizon is not the only company complying with the government mandate. While that is speculation on my part – it’s not much of a leap. We’ll get to the part where you’ll want to run for your tinfoil hats in a bit.
First, however, here’s the story as it unfolded in The Guardian this week:
The National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon, one of America’s largest telecoms providers, under a top secret court order issued in April.
The order, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, requires Verizon on an “ongoing, daily basis” to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the US and between the US and other countries.
The unlimited nature of the records being handed over to the NSA is extremely unusual. Fisa court orders typically direct the production of records pertaining to a specific named target who is suspected of being an agent of a terrorist group or foreign state, or a finite set of individually named targets.
And here is the important part of “the narrative,”
The information is classed as “metadata”, or transactional information, rather than communications, and so does not require individual warrants to access. The document also specifies that such “metadata” is not limited to the aforementioned items. A 2005 court ruling judged that cell site location data – the nearest cell tower a phone was connected to – was also transactional data, and so could potentially fall under the scope of the order.
While the order itself does not include either the contents of messages or the personal information of the subscriber of any particular cell number, its collection would allow the NSA to build easily a comprehensive picture of who any individual contacted, how and when, and possibly from where, retrospectively.
The NSA, as part of a program secretly authorized by President Bush on 4 October 2001, implementing a bulk collection program of domestic telephone, internet and email records. A furor erupted in 2006 when USA Today reported that the NSA had “been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth” and was “using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity.” Until now, there has been no indication that the Obama administration implemented a similar program.
These recent events reflect how profoundly the NSA’s mission has transformed from an agency exclusively devoted to foreign intelligence gathering, into one that focuses increasingly on domestic communications. A 30-year employee of the NSA, William Binney, resigned from the agency shortly after 9/11 in protest of the agency’s focus on domestic activities.
In the mid-1970s, Congress, for the first time, investigated the surveillance activities of the US government. Back then, the mandate of the NSA was that it would never direct its surveillance apparatus domestically.
A lot of people think: What’s the big deal? Of course there are patterns in the data and they can see who is talking to whom. (This should, in itself give us pause.) But it’s to “keep us safe” after all. … using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity.”
That’s the narrative, anyway. I suspect that while that data is useful, it becomes a whole lot more useful when paired with the content of the conversations taking place. Consider the following:
1. Do we really think that private companies are permitted to launch communications satellites into space, without government control mechanisms? Is it really that far fetched that the US government might want a backdoor, or access in the event of national emergency? What if the government has been siphoning off conversations for processing for quite some time – directly from the source?
2. It’s quite possible that the government may additionally be mining the ether. Encryption, decryption, and data collection are after all, the bread and butter of the National Security Agency.
In either case, or in the likely combination of the two means of collection SIGINT, what’s significant here is what is missing. It’s one thing to listen in on a whole bunch of disembodied conversations. It’s another to be able to put them together with the names and addresses attached to those phone numbers.
As any internet marketer will tell you, while there is value in so-called “anonymous” data, there is a whole lot more value in Personally Identifying Information – PII. So, while it might sound benign to some – like Senator Lindsay Graham – it becomes a whole lot less so if coupled with actual conversations.
“I’m a Verizon customer,” Graham said. “I don’t mind Verizon turning over records to the government if the government is going to make sure that they try to match up a known terrorist phone with somebody in the United States.”
We have the technology and the capacity now for voice recognition, pattern recognition, facial recognition – even gait recognition. Let’s list some of the things that the government now has access to:
If the government isn’t also working with credit card processors to watch purchase histories, it would be surprising. The public only gets glimpses of what the government is capable of – consider the amazing technology involved in identifying the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing.
Technology isn’t good or evil, just like guns aren’t good or evil. It’s how both are used. We have a government that has grown steadily more and more powerful and we’ve seen more and more abuses of that power. And those are just the ones we know about.
Hold on tight – we’re living in a brave new world.