May 11, 2006

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

NSA Domestic Spying Revelations

Update (5/12/2006, 11:26 AM): This story has been picked up by Hammer of Truth and Homeland Stupidity. Homeland Stupidity also has a second article explaining the details of what is in the records and who can see them. The author is a former MCI employee. There is also an AP Article on the (limited) congressional response that has already begun (HT: Sister Toldjah)

For those of you who might not know, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has sued telecom giant AT&T alleging that AT&T improperly assisted the NSA in listening to Americans' phone calls without the proper warrants. On April 28, the government tried to have the case dismissed based on its 'state secrets' privelege. The litigation is ongoing.

Now, USA Today is reporting that not only AT&T but also Verizon and BellSouth, have been assisting the NSA in constructing the largest database of calling records in history. It appears that the source and destination of essentially every phone call made one these carriers, including names and addresses, has been collected, and this collection has been going on since shortly after the September 11 attacks. (The program doesn't actually listen to the phone calls, or so they say.) The government has no warrants or FISA approval whatsoever for this data mining. As a result, Qwest, apparently the only telecom with any integrity, has refused to cooperate. When Qwest suggested that the government get warrants from FISA, the NSA allegedly told them that "they didn't want to do that because FISA might not agree with them."

I want further congressional inquiries, I want them now, I want them done quickly, and when Congress is done inquiring, it would be nice if it actually did something about it! Maybe Grace would like to be the NSA's mother too, and she can send them to their room until they apologize.

(HT: Slashdot)

Posted by Kenny at May 11, 2006 4:48 PM
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Why is the NSA Data Mining Operation Bad?
Excerpt: In the comments to my first post on NSA domestic spying, Jeremy said, This is exactly why I think libertarianism is completely nuts. If it's going to place some absurd sense of an absolute right to privacy so much higher than the extremely important ob...
Tracked: May 15, 2006 7:25 PM


Kenny, it started with the first NSA news a couple months ago, but this pretty much pushes me the rest of the way into your camp. I'm voting libertarian until further notice.

Posted by: pferree at May 11, 2006 10:31 PM

Glad to have you aboard! Once upon a time (think Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater), Republicanism was just tempered libertarianism (or libertarianism was extreme Republicanism, depending on your point of view), but with W and friends in charge, and people like them running the Party, those days have passed. Furthermore, the Democrats don't seem to be doing much about it. Fortunately, it's looking quite likely that next term we will have at least one Libertarian in Congress. One is only so much help, but it will give the Libertarian Party some legitimacy, which might help the next time around.

Posted by: Kenny at May 12, 2006 9:19 AM


Since you are so precise in the use of language you may want to change your post a bit. You wrote:

'...AT&T improperly assisted the NSA in listening to Americans' phone calls...'

As I understand it, NSA was not listening to anyone's phone calls. NSA was simply tracking relationships or connections between a number they had reason to believe was associated with a terrorist suspect and numbers that were called by or called into the suspect number.

Also, telephone records are in many cases public domain information. At least cell phone records are available for a fee to anyone. As such, public information is not subject to any warrant requirements as I understand it.


Posted by: KB at May 12, 2006 10:10 AM

KB, the EFF suit is separate (it's before the leak) and it does allege that they are actually listening to phone calls (it was connected with the previous NSA revelation, about actually listening in on overseas calls). According to the EFF page on the case (linked above) "This surveillance program ... intercepts and analyzes the communications of millions of ordinary Americans." 'Intercept' implies to me actually listening. It also specifically says that AT&T is "disclosing to the government the contents of its customers' communications." So, the EFF lawsuit does indeed accuse AT&T of helping the NSA to actually listen to customers phone calls, plus, as you must know, the administration even admitted that the NSA was monitoring phone calls into and out of the country without warrants.

As to the public information claim, Qwest's lawyers sure don't think its public information. Most telecoms have some kind of privacy policy which places them under at least a contractual obligation not to give out this information without a warrant, just like ISPs do. However, the EFF seems to think that AT&T has violated an actual law, and not just committed breech of contract. I don't know the details exactly. They may have civil liability for helping the NSA violate FISA, I'm not sure. At any rate, the only thing that might possibly be misleading or poorly worded about the example you cite, is if I implied that the allegations made by the EFF and the revelations in USA Today were precisely the same; they are not.

Posted by: Kenny at May 12, 2006 10:59 AM

Thanks for the links. To clear some things up: These appear to be two separate programs, and mixing them up is going to get quite confusing.

First program: Revealed in December 2005, NSA intercepts the telephone calls of suspected terrorists, associates and acquaintances of associates which enter or leave the U.S.

Second program: Revealed in May 2006, NSA collects call detail records of as many telephones as possible in the U.S. As I pointed out at Homeland Stupidity, this includes local calls.

Posted by: Michael Hampton at May 12, 2006 12:16 PM

This is exactly why I think libertarianism is completely nuts. If it's going to place some absurd sense of an absolute right to privacy so much higher than the extremely important obligation of the government to protect its people, then I want nothing to do with it. It may be that the NSA is violating a law. I'm not legal expert. But one thing I'm sure of is that if this is illegal then the law ought to be changed, because it's an immoral law. It just seems silly to me to complain that my rights are being violated simply because information the government can already get if there's reason to suspect me of any criminal activity is more readily available in the event that such criminal activity is terrorism-related.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce at May 12, 2006 2:22 PM

No, there is not an 'absolute right to privacy.' But, as Ben Franklin said, "Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety." What we're talking about here is "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures," etc. The phone companies own their own records, and certainly COULD give that information to the government voluntarily IF they didn't have a contractual obligation not to. That wouldn't violate rights. But the government shouldn't be keeping track of whom I am calling, any more than they should be keeping track of my library borrowing habits (as they now do, under the PATRIOT Act). They don't have a right to take this information from the phone companies without probable cause, judicial oversight, due process, etc., and the phone companies are probably obligated by their privacy policies not to give it up voluntarily (at least that's how most ISP policies are written; I'm more familiar with those).

Government's obligation to protect the people is what libertarianism is ABOUT. We believe that government's only legitimate purpose is to protect its citizens from force and fraud. However, the government's actions in these cases (a) violates the principle of 'rule of law' which undermines the legitimacy of ANY government, and (b) amounts to the government perpetrating force against its citizens.

The EFF of course may well be taking the right course by suing the phone companies, because the phone companies do indeed own the data, and they are the ones who gave it up voluntarily, in violation of their contractual obligations.

Posted by: Kenny at May 12, 2006 2:39 PM

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