Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Temp Pass, Get Out of Jail Card, or Ticket to Sing-Sing

Picture from MSNBC Story: NSA Director, Gen. Keith Alexander

Introduction  and background from the story:

A day after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked a secret court order revealing that the agency was gathering millions of Americans phone records, Senate intelligence committee chair Sen Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) downplayed the report, telling reporters, “this is just metadata.”

President Obama echoed that defense, reassuring Americans that “when it comes to telephone calls, nobody is listening to your telephone calls.”

At the beginning of last Sunday’s CBS 60 Minutes defense of the NSA, reporter John Miller threw NSA Director Keith Alexander the world’s slowest softball. “There is a perception out there that the NSA is widely collecting the content of the phone calls of Americans. Is that true?”

But no one is arguing that this NSA program is collecting the content of Americans’ phone calls.

“A call to a suicide hot line, Alcoholics Anonymous, or a gay sex chat room at 2 a.m. are all more sensitive” than what a person might actually say on the phone, Christopher Soghoian of the ACLU told the New York Times in June.

The legal and political defenses of metadata collection are closely tied together.

Legal Background:  In 1979, the Supreme Court ruled that Michael Lee Smith, a man who made harassing phone calls to a woman he robbed, had no expectation of privacy in the numbers he dialed, because that information had already been given to the phone company when he made the call. At the request of the police, the phone company recorded the numbers dialed from his phone. A call made to the victim helped provide police with enough evidence to arrest him.

That 1979 ruling came at a time when America had no commercial cell phone network, email was only just being made available to consumers, and almost seven million American households didn’t even have landlines. But it has been at the moral and legal core of the U.S. government’s “just metadata” argument, namely that communications records are not private, and therefore it doesn’t violate Americans’ constitutional rights for the NSA to obtain all of them.

Now back to the story:  Judge Richard Leon sided with the civil libertarians who argued that metadata should almost never be prefaced by the word “just,” ruling that the NSA’s bulk phone data collection program was likely unconstitutional. When the court ruled in 1979 that Americans had no expectation of privacy, the “almost Orwellian” technology available to the government now was “the stuff of science fiction.” There’s always been an obvious contradiction in the government’s argument – that collecting metadata is both invaluable to intelligence gathering and not a threat to anyone’s privacy.  Where the Smith case involved one person’s phone records, the NSA data gathering involves billions or more.

More at the link to story. Good stuff.

Review — How NSA Works the Data (supposedly):  Five key points:

1. The massive amounts of data gathered (metadata) and screened is equal to the proverbial haystack. NSA says they look for the right needle in that haystack: The phone numbers are the thus the needles.

2. Both NSA programs have been subject to congressional and judicial review and approval and renewed and signed into law and in many cases approved by the FISA court.

3. Regarding the leak of the highly classified information about the two programs, leaking highly classified data: TOP SECRET/SI/NOFORN is extremely dangerous (the Snowden example and thus why he does not want to face justice here at home – he committed a very big and serious crime).

4. NSA is not allowed to look at people’s names, addresses, call content, or actual conversations.  NSA sifts through the metadata (haystacks) to identify potential leads to people who might engage in terrorism and people with links to terrorists (their phone numbers, their locations within the U.S. etc.). 

5. Tipping off a sworn enemy about how we monitor them, hunt for them, track them down, or operate against them by leaking information about how we do that is pretty bad for sure – that operational aspect is what concerns so many about the Snowden leaks.

Stay tuned and make sure you don't call that sex hot line too often. Why? A bad guy might have called that same sex hot line and NSA might link you two together and come a calling ... Whoops.

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