America’s Surveillance State: Can You Hear Me Now?

Lynne Kiesling

Today has seen a flurry of information in the wake of Glenn Greenwald’s breaking the news in the Guardian last night about the National Security Agency’s (dubbed in the Washington Post the “eavesdropper in chief“) collection of Verizon phone customer metadata on a daily basis. Here’s a roundup of the resources I have found most useful and informative:

Shane Harris in the Washingtonian provides an overview of the NSA metadata surveillance program. If you are not familiar with metadata, this is a good place to start:

In fact, telephone metadata can be more useful than the words spoken on the phone call. Starting with just one target’s phone number, analysts construct a social network. They can see who the target talks to most often. They can discern if he’s trying to obscure who he knows in the way he makes a call; the target calls one number, say, hangs up, and then within second someone calls the target from a different number. With metadata, you can also determine someone’s location, both through physical landlines or, more often, by collecting cell phone tower data to locate and track him.

The NSA is data mining to look for patterns, ostensibly with a national security/terrorism reduction objective. They store, analyze, manipulate the data on our communications. These surveillance activities are supposed to be applied only to foreign communications may be associated with terrorist threats, not to the widespread collection and storing of the communications metadata of U.S. citizens.

And they have done so under legal authority granted in the late 1970s to FISA courts. Timothy Lee in the Washington Post provides background on the use of FISA courts. The FISA courts were fairly moribund until the Patriot Act created Congressional authority for the NSA to use FISA courts to process secret authorizations of widespread surveillance of our communications. The authorizations processed in FISA courts are rolling three-month authorizations, and according to a USDOJ Office of Legislative Affairs report in April 2013 to the Senate, of the 1,976 surveillance requests the NSA made, the FISA court did not reject one. Seems suspiciously like a legal rubber stamp …

Julian Sanchez does an excellent job of explaining why the NSA’s collection of our communication records is a problem:

We are, predictably, being told that this program is essential to protecting us from terrorist attacks. But the track record of such claims is unimpressive: They were made about fusion centers, and the original NSA warrantless wiretap program, and in each case collapsed under scrutiny. No doubt some of these phone records have proven useful in some investigation, but it doesn’t follow that the indiscriminate collection of such records is necessary for investigations, any more than general warrants to search homes are necessary just because sometimes searches of homes are useful to police.

And Arik Hessedahl at All Things D reminds us that we, the citizen-voters, are the boss:

Now that we live in an age where data storage is inexpensive and computing power all but limitless, finding that meaning and achieving that understanding is simply a matter of will.

Clearly, the will exists, or the court order would not have been sought or granted. But will implies intent, and we can only guess at that intent. Officials in all branches of federal government have a long history of overstepping their legal authority and of abusing outright the powers granted them by their boss.

That boss, by the way, is us.

At this, it’s worth reminding ourselves what the boss’s policy is. It’s contained within the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution:

Which, by the way, has been in precipitous decline over the past 13 years, as the surveillance state has evolved in the face of either fear or indifference, or both.

Other useful commentary today is from Jim Harper of Cato in the Daily Caller, Kashmir Hill in Forbes, and the editors of Bloomberg News.

But the most striking commentary is from the editors of the New York Times, who state that “the administration has now lost all credibility”.

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