Saturday, May 13, 2006

NSA: SOME COMMON SENSE

Andrew McCarthy, over at the National Review, is asking some very relevant questions of members of Congress, especially of those acting like their water just broke:

  • Do you maintain databases of American citizens for fundraising purposes?
  • Do those databases contain names, addresses, telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, and other identifying information?
  • Do the databases contain information about the interests of the citizens who have been entered into them? About candidates or causes to which they have previously donated money?
  • Are those databases searchable? If so, what search criteria do you use to divide these American citizens into various categories?
  • Do you do targeted mailings for purposes of raising funds or pushing particular issues?
  • When you target, how do you know whom to target? That is, what kind of information do you maintain in your databases to guide you about which potential donors or voters might be fruitful to tap on which particular issues?
  • Do you trade information about American citizens with other politicians and organizations in the expectation that they might reciprocate and you all might mutually exploit the benefits?
Heather MacDonald writes on the contrast between the civil liberties hand-wringing and the real scope of NSA data mining in the Weekly Standard:
Only a paranoid solipsist could feel threatened by the recently revealed calling analysis program. Since late 2001, Verizon, BellSouth, and ATT have connected nearly two trillion calls, according to the Washington Post. The companies gave NSA the incoming and outgoing numbers of those calls, stripped of all identifying information such as name or address. No conversational content was included. The NSA then put its supercharged computers to work analyzing patterns among the four trillion numbers involved in the two trillion calls, to look for clusters that might suggest terrorist connections. Though the details are unknown, they might search for calls to known terrorists, or, more speculatively, try to elicit templates of terror calling behavior from the data.

As a practical matter, no one's privacy is violated by such analysis. Memo to privacy nuts: The computer does not have a clue that you exist; it does not know what it is churning through; your phone number is meaningless to it. The press loves to stress the astounding volume of data that data mining can consume--the Washington Post's lead on May 12 warned that the administration had been "secretly . . . assembling gargantuan databases." But it is precisely the size of that data store that renders the image of individualized snooping so absurd.

True, the government can de-anonymize the data if connections to terror suspects emerge, and it is not known what threshold of proof the government uses to put a name to critical phone numbers. But until that point is reached, your privacy is at greater risk from the Goodyear blimp at a Stones concert than from the NSA's supercomputers churning through trillions of zeros and ones representing disembodied phone numbers.

And even after that point is reached, the notion that 280 million Americans who have not been communicating with al Qaeda are at risk from this quadrillion-bit program is absurd. What exactly are the privacy advocates worried about? That an NSA agent will search the phone records of his ex-wife or of themselves? This quaint scenario completely misunderstands the scale of, and bureaucratic checks on, such data analysis programs.

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