The NSA’s New New Phone Database

Woke up this morning to the following headline, emailed from Open Source‘s fifth Beatle, John Barth:

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.

Leslie Cauley, NSA has massive database of Americans’ phone calls, USA TODAY, May 10, 2006

The White House would not discuss the domestic call-tracking program. “There is no domestic surveillance without court approval,” said Dana Perino, deputy press secretary, referring to actual eavesdropping.

Leslie Cauley, NSA has massive database of Americans’ phone calls, USA TODAY, May 10, 2006

So this is different from the surveilled phone calls to foreign entities that we talked about last month. Judging from the USA TODAY article, it’s database of almost every phone call made in America. Every phone call.

The administration’s response hinges on the word “surveillance.” If they aren’t listening, but merely tracking whom you call, how often and when, what can they learn? Have you been calling a Lebanese bakery twice a week? Do you — as we do to book this show — regularly call the Middle East? Are you having an affair? Can this information, once collected, be used for something other than counter-terrorism? And how, exactly, is “data-mining” of every phone call in America going to reveal who is or might be a terrorist?

Patrick Radden Keefe

Writer and lawyer, author of Chatter

Ryan Singel

Reporter, Wired

Glenn Greenwald


Blogger, Unclaimed Territory – by Glenn Greenwald

Author, How Would a Patriot Act?, forthcoming

William Gibson

Novelist, author of Neuromancer

Coined the term “cyberspace”

It is becoming unprecedentedly difficult for anyone, anyone at all, to keep a secret.

In the age of the leak and the blog, of evidence extraction and link discovery, truths will either out or be outed, later if not sooner. This is something I would bring to the attention of every diplomat, politician and corporate leader: the future, eventually, will find you out. The future, wielding unimaginable tools of transparency, will have its way with you. In the end, you will be seen to have done that which you did.

William Gibson, The Road to Oceania, The New York Times, June 25, 2003
Update from the comments thread, May 11, 3:36

I do research with others that do just this type of analysis, and let me tell you that what they need is a better understanding into the problem, and not more data. … As my own method of protest, I routinely state over the phone lines when talking to friends, especially if an international call, “Thermite, explosion, assination, Bin Laden, Get a FISA warrant you lazy bastard’’. If everybody did this then there simply would be no signal to lock in on.

oolitic, from comment to Open Source, May 11, 2006

In the wake of the net neutrality discussion, it’s nice to see that the major telecoms actually do like to work with the government.

FilkeeVT, from comment to Open Source, May 11, 2006

I’m not saying accumulating data isn’t useful. But I do think there comes a point when so much has been amassed, with so much of it irrelevant and distracting, that the sheer weight of it gets in the way of fast, flexible problem solving. …apart from the ethical dubiousness, I think a database of almost every domestic phone call would only serve to weigh down efficient and decisive action.

mynocturama, from comment to Open Source, May 11, 2006

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