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.

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Comments on “Is The Bigger Concern NSA Getting Phone Records, PRISM Or Just Everything?”

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John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Google. It's the everyday part of the SPYING.

you CAN’T avoid it as more and more websites move to using it

Of course you can. Just because a website uses it doesn’t mean that you have to allow your computer to access google when you’re at the website. If blocking access to google makes the website break, just stop going to that website. That’s what I do.

soem gadget uses Android or Chrome

I use an Android phone, but it never talks to Google.

it’s taking over all internet advertising

Big deal. Block it.

out_of_the_blue says:

Only thing that'll be rolled back is the ginned-up fears:

“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.”

That’s Mike saying as I predicted on Friday at first signs:

This “leak” is a deliberately engineered standard intelligence agency psyop of LIMITED HANGOUT, admitting what everyone knew all along and even hyping it to appear worse, and when the story is soon deflated, we’re all left feeling a bit foolish for getting so excited. And then the Ivy League educated frat boy technocrats tell us in that soft safe sane NPR voice, “it’s not as scary as was originally reported.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Two biggest concerns

I think there are two very big concerns right now.

Concern number one is the NSA’s involvement in domestic intelligence gathering. For years, we’ve been assured that the NSA doesn’t spy on Americans.

Concern number two is the lying. For years, we’ve been assured that the NSA doesn’t spy on Americans. Now maybe they’ve been lying to us all these years. But perhaps it’s not just the public they’ve been lying to?it looks like they’ve been lying to Congress as well.

Concern number three (yeah, I said two, but?) concern number three is the loss of civilian control over the military. Not only is the NSA spying on the American people ?and lying to Congress about it? but we can’t even impeach these military officers.

Sometimes you gotta step back and wonder about all the neo-classical Greek and Roman architecture used in some our prominent public buildings. We all know what happened to that old Roman republic.

Yeah Right says:

Re: Re:

Are you happy, AC?

Do inform us of your wellbeing when some of this metadata is leaked, as it will be.

Because I’ve got some database queries lined up looking into the networks of people involved in lobbying, the banking scandal, UK press, big companies and environmental issues, etc.

And I’m pretty sure some of my worst suspicions will turn out to be true.

White House Smackdowns says:

In this Guardian editorial, Senator Rand Paul gives Obama the smackdown he so richly deserves, perfectly contrasting the Obama of a few years ago with the current Obama: CMP=twt_gu

29,503 signatures already, need 100,000 for White House response…

Pardon Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden is a national hero and should be immediately issued a a full, free, and absolute pardon for any crimes he has committed or may have committed related to blowing the whistle on secret NSA surveillance programs.

Anonymous Coward says:

In regards to PRISM we’ve only seen 4 slides from a much larger power point presentation. To my understanding The Guardian and the Washington Post reached out to the government to determine the national security effects of releasing all the slides. We ended up only getting 4 of those slides.

I bet there is much much more to PRISM then we are seeing.

Tubal (profile) says:

... just everything

It is a little too early to say that “the metadata story is the much bigger one.” Once more, it seems that the stories are intimately related. The alarming scope of warrants that the FISA court is willing to secretly approve IS the story. It is not clear that aspect is unique to the metadata warrant.

It seems that the metadata warrant for Verizon Business metadata constitutes ONE request.

Under PRISM it appears that there were 1,856 requests last year alone.

It is far from clear what the scope of each one of the 1,856 requests entailed. To the extent one feels the need to treat the two stories separately, the PRISM story could easily trump the metadata story in scope and importance.

On a related front, what is the rationale for routinely HIDING out_of_the_blue’s comments?
While I don’t know who initiates a comment being HIDDEN (i.e. flagged), it just seems odd to routinely do so in the context of what is 1) a very interesting and important topic; and 2) a story about revelation and opening debate on issues hidden from the public.
I realize that HIDING his comments doesn’t prevent anyone from clicking through to read them, but as I said it just seems odd. And, for those who say his comments are repetitive — that is true but the more the comments are HIDDEN, the more reason he has for repeating himself.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: ... just everything

We, the readers, hide his comments by hitting the ‘report’ button. Get enough reports, it auto-hides the comment. We do this because OotB is generally off-topic and nonsensical. There are times he doesn’t get reported, when he actually has something of substance to say regarding the article where he is posting, but his continued insistence that Google is the antichrist and to blame for everything needs to stop.

Anonymous Coward says:

My biggest concern is not just the NSA tracking US citizens inside the country against it’s mandate and the lying about it to all it should be responsible in reporting to.

What bothers me the most is the government paranoia over it all. The idea that somehow it must watch over every detail of every persons life.

I beg to differ on how important phone and communications metadata is. You get all the names and locations to narrow down the hunt for whom ever it is you are after with the metadata and then can close in for the kill of data with a NSL, which prevents anyone from talking about it.

This is exactly how I believe Gen. David H. Petraeus was set up for the kill with his emails.

Notice that even though the NSA is talking metadata that isn’t what Edward Snowden is saying in his last news release. He was saying nothing you have is safe. Not your bank account password, not your credit card history, not your affair you might do at night cheating on your wife, nothing is beyond the reach of these spy programs. That means metadata is the least of the exposure you are getting through the capturing of all this personal data.

Remember the miliatary and the government are still calling things confidential and secret and despite the leak, not all was revealed as the Guardian newspaper called the US first on what it should not leak while going ahead with the story. In other words you haven’t heard the worst of it yet.

Yeah Right says:

Re: Re:

Looks like it.

According to an Associated Press report, rather than transmit emails to each other’s inbox, which would have left a more obvious email trail, Petraeus and Broadwell left messages in a draft folder and the draft messages were then read by the other person when they logged into the same account.

The power of metadata, ladies and gentlemen.

Anonymous Coward says:

POLL: Majority Views NSA Phone Tracking as Acceptable Anti-terror Tactic

Pew Research Center / Washington Post poll conducted June 6-10.

?Majority Views NSA Phone Tracking as Acceptable Anti-terror Tactic?, Pew Research Center for People and the Press, June 10, 2013

Public Says Investigate Terrorism, Even IF It Intrudes on Privacy

A majority of Americans ? 56% ? say the National Security Agency?s (NSA) program tracking the telephone records of millions of Americans is an acceptable way for the government to investigate terrorism, though a substantial minority ? 41% ? say it is unacceptable.


Anonymous Coward says:

Re: POLL: Majority Views NSA Phone Tracking as Acceptable Anti-terror Tactic

How many of those 56% understand:
1. What can be done with this data? Hope some terrorist does not dial your number by accident some day.
2. That the terrorists are no real threat, you are more likely to die in an auto accident than at the hands of terrorists.
3. In a land with too many laws you broke one recently, yes everyone has something to hide.. Looks like 555-555-5555 was speeding on his way home from work, better send them a ticket…
4. The NSA is not building a massive data center in Utah to TEMPORARILY store this data, they want to store it forever. Remember that creepy dude you were forced to do a group project with in school 10 years ago? Turns out he is a terrorist and the FBI is on their way to arrest you cause you talked to him a few times in the past about planning things, clearly you are a tourist too.

Rapnel (profile) says:

Re: POLL: Majority Views NSA Phone Tracking as Acceptable Anti-terror Tactic

I guess it’s semi-official then; America is full of Americans that either have no idea about the history and roots of their own country or they’re straight-up stupid. I guess this is no shock considering what we’ve been delivered via the voting public for the past 30 odd years. Sad that is.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: POLL: Majority Views NSA Phone Tracking as Acceptable Anti-terror Tactic

What’s the sample size on these polls? We’re talking about over 300 MILLION people, and if your sample size is less than 1%, then it isn’t going to have enough accuracy to be reliable. That’s 3 million or so, give or take 500,000 people. My guess, because they don’t actually give raw numbers, is less than 10,000 people were polled.

Shon Gale (profile) says:

It’s always about money. The more Congress and the White House think they need your department, the more money that department is granted and then the executives can get higher salaries and more perks. It’s always about the money. Nothing else matters to the greed of these men. Fear always loosens up the dollars.
As we go deeper and deeper into debt and mass unemployment, we now waste money spying on our own people. Of course, in my 66 years on this planet, I have never known a government that trusted me. All the way back to J. Edgar, they have always seemed to be afraid of the citizen.
They better be!

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