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NSA Collects Metadata because it Can

The astonishing thing about the report yesterday that a secret court had ordered Verizon to turn over – en masse – the metadata concerning every phone call placed on that network isn’t that it happened. It’s that it’s probably perfectly legal. If you’re a Verizon customer, file suit. The 4th Amendment is interpreted to protect you from government surveillance, search, and seizure with respect to matters in which you have a “reasonable expectation of privacy”.  

Because the content of your messages and phone calls are not generally collected by phone carriers, you have an expectation of privacy with respect to what you say. But the metadata is automatically transmitted to the company, so it will likely be argued that you have no similar expectation that this would remain private, since Verizon also has it. 

The USA PATRIOT Act (Uniting & Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept & Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001), which Congress passed just six weeks after the 9/11 attacks, greatly enhanced the government’s ability to surveil US citizens with respect to their involvement in terrorism, and it was extended in 2011 under President Obama. 

Here, the government sought and obtained a federal court order from a secret court that our government set up through a rushed process immediately after a catastrophic terrorist attack. Furthermore, the order in question was sought immediately after the Boston Marathon attack in April. There’s a possibility it was sought in response to that in order to track any unusual call patterns to determine if there were more attacks in the pipeline. 

I don’t mean to excuse what is obviously a very troubling case of government surveillance.  What I mean to do is point out that this is the world we’ve collectively chosen. In response to 9/11, we turned America into a very weak, cosmetic police state in the name of public protection. We don’t have a Stasi that will arrest you for your political dissent activities based on the warrantless taps on your phone, but we do have a government that indiscriminately collects call data to see if there are odd and suspicious call patterns related to terrorism. 

If you want this sort of thing to stop, you have to change Washington and the whole notion of a department of pre-crime. The NSA, Bush, or Obama didn’t do this to us; we did this to us


  • hwhamlin

    Good analysis, Alan.
    For those who automatically see a violation of the 4th Amendment in this, it should be noted that the FISA order is the equivalent of a search warrant. Of course, generally the grounds for granting a search warrant can be attacked as insufficient, or made up; it’s pretty tough to do this if the FISA court rules make all the paperwork secret.

  • Jesse Griffis

    You seem to be okay with it, which is in stark contrast to your losing your budget fight in Clarence. The “we did this to us” seems to apply in both cases.

    The question is how far down the slope to do we want to slide before there’s a backlash. You saw it in 2008 when the Tea Party started as the Republicans voted for the abhorrent TARP giveaway, after they’d ignored years of profligacy from their “small government” representatives.

    I wonder if this will be the straw for the surveillance state. I’m afraid it won’t be.

  • Jim_Holstun

    “The NSA, Bush, or Obama didn’t do this to us; we did this to us.”

    and

    “Erich Honecker didn’t tell the Stasi to knock down our doors; we did this to us.”

    Really, it isn’t necessary to watch out for that lying, snooping, and murdering little creep so much; Wall Street and the security state have already got his back.

  • Jesse Griffis

    http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2013/06/verizon-nsa-metadata-surveillance-problem.html?mbid=gnep&google_editors_picks=true

    Yep, it’s just metadata. No big deal!

    It’s frankly shocking to see Alan dismissing this so thoroughly. We all know what his reaction would be if a conservative was still President…