For a while now, I’ve lived with the presumption that anything I transact over the Internet gets snorfed up in transit by the National Security Agency, for possible review/analysis/whatever.  This week, we learned that Verizon, the telephone company for many of us, has turned over records of all telephone calls made over its network in recent weeks to the government, and that the NSA has an ongoing program to collect data from major Web providers including Microsoft, Google, and Facebook.  Apple joined this group more recently, in 2012.  That this happened after Steve Jobs died may be telling.

We’re told that all of this is done strictly in the interest of catching terrorists, and that there are safeguards on the use of this information.  Somehow, I’m not convinced.  It’s probably still a bit of a stretch to sift through billions of telephone records to construct a chain of associations from a given person, but that will only become quicker and easier over time.  It seems inexorable that eventually the same process will be used against more ordinary crimes (after all, for every felony there is a related law against ‘conspiring to commit’), for sociological research, and for God knows what else.

I’m a law-abiding citizen, and as far as I’m aware, I’m not under investigation for any sort of crime.  But if the police wanted so send officers to track my movements, they could.  It would be legal, and Constitutional, because there is no presumption of privacy on a public street or, by extension, in a public conveyance.  But it would be preposterously expensive to send officers to follow everyone.  And so it always was… until now.

We’re reaching the point where it is becoming practical to perform surveillance on everyone, regardless of whether one has committed a crime or otherwise merits investigation.  I carry a cell phone, and I’ve always accepted that in order for it to function, the cell phone network must keep track of approximately where I am.  But I’m not comfortable with the notion that the phone could use GPS or other means to more accurately locate itself, and then report that information back to the network, which could then be reported to the government.  And I’m really uncomfortable with the notion that, under government order, the phone could be used as a listening device without my knowledge and consent.  (And I’m sure that such a feature has been included in our cell phones for years.)

And the telephone companies and Web providers are really big companies, and they know which side their bread is buttered on.  They all exist at the grace of the government, and wouldn’t want to get in trouble, lest it interrupt the revenue stream.

The Fourth Amendment says:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

But who is to say what is ‘unreasonable’?  I’ve noted in these pages that a search of one’s possessions prior to boarding an aircraft is reasonable, for reasons that go beyond terrorism. (What’s reprehensible is the conduct of the people carrying out the search, but that’s a subject for another day.)  But this week, politicians and columnists have lined up to commend the government for its efforts to keep us safe: it’s only ‘metadata,’ people; nothing to worry about.  So I guess the current view is that trawling through everyones phone records is ‘reasonable.’  Ten years hence, when voice recognition is fast and really, really cheap, it will be ‘reasonable’ to trawl through the actual content of everyone’s voice conversations.

You don’t want the terrorists to win, right?

Or do you?

5 thoughts on “Snooping”

  1. For what it’s worth, overseas communications have been monitored for at least the last 20 years. This is most of what the NSA does. There is a long-term project called Echelon that you can read about.

    I have no confidence that the information management is being done adequately. People do tend to keep information, even when the rules say to purge the files after a certain time. As memory gets ever cheaper, this information can be held indefinitely.

    Another thing that makes me nervous is how information is classified. The basic rule is that pieces of information, standing alone, can be unclassified and available for anyone to see, but in combination, these facts become classified. For instance, I could write books about industrial chemical processes, but if I link that information to a specific country, what I write is subject to review by the security department.

    There are estimates that well over half of the information that is classified should not be. There are mandatory time frames when previously classified information is subject to review to determine whether or not it should still remain classified, or changed to a lower level of classification, but my guess is that agencies that manage the information are badly behind in the review. Redacting documents is not an enjoyable job. I was sent to a “redaction team” about 20 years ago, but I had the good luck to be plucked from that pool to work on policy issues. There is also something called “derivative classification”, which among other things, makes a document that uses classified information take on the classification of the included information. Declassifying the classified information does not automatically make that document unclassified. The document still had to be reviewed for “downgrading”.

  2. Anybody anywhere in authority can do as they wish.

    This includes your boss/ your company. They reserve full right to listen in on your phone calls that take place over company landlines and they can read all of your emails …and look through your desk.

    60 Minutes did a story on this very thing, quite some time ago.

    1. There’s an essential difference.

      The desk at your office, the telephone, and the computer are all property of your employer. You didn’t buy them: he did, not for your entertainment, but to run his enterprise. A prudent employer will recognize that his employees have personal lives, and not be overbearing in imposing and enforcing the rules, but it’s still the employer’s decision.

      As an employee, you have the option of simply not transacting any personal business at your workplace. You can carry a cell phone and call your friends on your lunch hour. In an extreme case, you can quit and find another employer.

      But if the government is listening in on your phone calls and reading your e-mail 24/7, you can’t just quit and find another government.

    2. Some of the dumber cases where employers monitored employees activities that in at least one case resulted in a jail term for the person involved putting pornography on a company-owned computer.

      We have what one of my colleagues calls “Net-Nanny” at work. I needed to look up the melting and freezing point of a chemical today. I know about what they were, but I needed to be precise. I had the Chemical Abstracts number for the chemical, which is a unique multi-digit number for every chemical that we know about, and that will save you a lot of typing compared to typing in the name of many organic compounds. so I typed it in. The usual screen came up that forced me to click on a box if access to the internet was for official purposes. I can’t think of anything that is MORE “official work” than research on a chemical handled at my plant.

  3. At my former employer we had to sign a form stating the company can and will listen/read email/phone conversations if needed. As it’s their property I feel that they have the right to do this. However if it came to a point where they were allowed my private access that would be an invasion. As most of you are aware some employers do ask for the info to their Facebook page and that is invasion of privacy.

    My uncle feels he is being snooped on by the government. He ran a business for several years and is a card carrying member of the NRA and on their board in Indiana. He’s also a staunch Republican and a birther I think. In the last couple of years the IRS has come after him for unpaid taxes (said he lied on his tax forms)and he wasn’t allowed to board a flight recently.

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