Is The Bigger Concern NSA Getting Phone Records, PRISM Or Just Everything?
from the phone-record-meta-data-is-a-bit-much dept
Former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy at Homeland Security, Paul Rosenzweig, who we’ve already quoted as pointing out that the NSA surveillance was larger than what he thought the government was doing, makes a good point: with the speed of leak upon leak, over the last few days, it seems that people are now more focused on PRISM than the government getting metadata on every phone call, when the metadata story is the much bigger one. As the details have come out about PRISM, there’s really nothing that surprising. It’s exactly what was allowed under the FISA Amendments Act (and why many were so vehement about speaking out on why it shouldn’t have been re-approved recently). But the sucking up of so much metadata on all phone calls goes way beyond what most people thought the law allowed.
As Jane Mayer at the New Yorker recently explained, the metadata issue is the one we should be most frightened about:
“The public doesn’t understand,” [mathematician and former Sun Microsystems engineer Susan Landau] told me, speaking about so-called metadata. “It’s much more intrusive than content.” She explained that the government can learn immense amounts of proprietary information by studying “who you call, and who they call. If you can track that, you know exactly what is happening—you don’t need the content.”
For example, she said, in the world of business, a pattern of phone calls from key executives can reveal impending corporate takeovers. Personal phone calls can also reveal sensitive medical information: “You can see a call to a gynecologist, and then a call to an oncologist, and then a call to close family members.” And information from cell-phone towers can reveal the caller’s location. Metadata, she pointed out, can be so revelatory about whom reporters talk to in order to get sensitive stories that it can make more traditional tools in leak investigations, like search warrants and subpoenas, look quaint. “You can see the sources,” she said. When the F.B.I. obtains such records from news agencies, the Attorney General is required to sign off on each invasion of privacy. When the N.S.A. sweeps up millions of records a minute, it’s unclear if any such brakes are applied.
Metadata, Landau noted, can also reveal sensitive political information, showing, for instance, if opposition leaders are meeting, who is involved, where they gather, and for how long. Such data can reveal, too, who is romantically involved with whom, by tracking the locations of cell phones at night.
The PRISM program is interesting and worrisome, but as the details suggest, it’s not as scary as was originally reported. There are still lots of problems with the way the government goes about getting information from all these tech companies, but at least it appears that it’s not full access. The same is not true when it comes to the telcos and their handing over all those records. Furthermore, it’s worth noting that while all of the internet companies came out and explained that they push back against overly broad government requests, none of the telcos appear to have done the same.