Snowden Rebuts Sen. Feinstein's Claims That The NSA's Metadata Collection Is 'Not Surveillance'

from the yeah,-i-know.-and-a-collection-is-not-a-collection.-got-it. dept

Ed Snowden has briefly stepped up to the mic to rebut Dianne Feinstein's claims that the NSA's bulk phone records collections are "not surveillance." While he didn't specifically name Feinstein, it's pretty clear who his comments are directed towards, what with the senator putting in overtime over the past few weeks defending the agency's cherished but useless Section 215 collections haystacks that are definitely not collections (according to the Intelligence Dictionary.)

"Today, no telephone in America makes a call without leaving a record with the NSA. Today, no Internet transaction enters or leaves America without passing through the NSA's hands," Snowden said in a statement Thursday.

"Our representatives in Congress tell us this is not surveillance. They're wrong."
Her op-ed for the USA Today stated the following:
The call-records program is not surveillance.
Why is it not surveillance? Feinstein claimed, in direct contradiction to someone who's seen most of the inner workings of the agency's programs, that because it doesn't sweep up communications or names, it isn't surveillance. Also, she pointed out that surveillance or not, it's legal. So there.

Maybe Feinstein considers the term "surveillance" to mean something closer to the old school interpretation -- shadowy figures in unmarked vans wearing headphones and peering through binoculars.

Of course, this kind of surveillance contained many elements completely eliminated by the combination of the PATRIOT Act, the FISA Amendments Act, and a very charitable reading of the Third Party Doctrine. You know, the sort of stuff those shadowy men used to utilize: warrants, targeted investigations, reasonable suspicion, a grudging working relationship with the Fourth Amendment…

That's all gone now. The courts have declared that sweeping up business records on millions of Americans is no more a violation of the Fourth Amendment than gathering metadata on a single person. The NSA has warped the definition of "surveillance" just as surely as they've warped the definition of "relevant." The wholesale, untargeted gathering of millions of "transactions" from internet and phone activity doesn't seem to resemble what anyone might historically think of as "surveillance," but it's surveillance nonetheless.

Sure, the NSA may not look at everything it gathers, but it has the capability to do so and it shows no interest in letting any of its dragnets be taken out of commission. The NSA's defenders downplay the agency's many intrusions by first playing the "legal" and "oversight" cards and, when those fail to impress, belittle their critics by trotting out condescending statements like, "The NSA isn't interested in Grandma's birthday phone call or the cat videos you email to your friends."

Well, no shit. We're hardly interested in that, either. We're not worried about the NSA looking through tons of inane interactions. We know it doesn't have the time or inclination to do so. We're more concerned it's looking at the stuff it finds interesting and amassing databases full of "suspicious" persons by relying on algorithms and keywords -- a fallible process that robs everything of context and turns slightly pointed hay into the needles it so desperately needs to justify its existence.

What makes this even more frightening is that the agency then hands this unfiltered, untargeted, massive collection of data off to other agencies, not only in the US but in other countries, subjecting innocent Americans' data to new algorithms, keywords and mentalities, increasing the possibility of false positives.

But what we're mainly concerned about is the fact that an agency that claims its doing this to combat terrorism can't seem to come up with much evidence that its programs are working. The NSA has deprived us of civil liberties while delivering next to nothing in terms of security. Americans have been sold out to a data-hungry beast, and even if it's not officially "surveillance," it's still completely unacceptable.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. icon
    Ninja (profile), Oct 25th, 2013 @ 4:04am

    It must be repeated: if it's not surveillance and she doesn't mind having her data collected why not share with the public? We promise we won't look.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 5:56am

    In a certain respect Feinstein is correct, based on the current legal definition of "surveillance", this is not surveillance and it is legal. All that tells me though is that we need to change the legal definition of surveillance to match our common sense. Just because it's currently legal does not mean that it should be or that we can't change to law to make it illegal.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 6:10am

    Collect everything. Laws change, so we'll get you on something eventually if we want to...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. icon
    DannyB (profile), Oct 25th, 2013 @ 6:19am

    Newspeak dictionary

    Torture --> Enhanced Interrogation Techniques

    Surveillance --> Collecting Metadata

    Whistleblower --> Terrorist

    Leaks --> Espionage

    Oversight --> Rubber Stamps with no adversarial counterweight

    Lack of Due Process --> Secret courts, secret proceedings

    Rule of Law --> Secret Laws, Secret Interpretations of laws, copyrighted laws, and coming soon... patented laws.

    Political Prisoner --> Traitor

    Respecting National Sovereignty --> Secret arrests and extraditions

    Humane Treatment --> Secret prisons off US soil with little/no oversight and no representation

    Transparency --> Lies so obvious you can see through them, or doing something illegal/unethical/immoral and hiding it in plain sight so you cannot see it

    Big Brother --> Homeland Security

    The US has always been at war with Al Qaeda. The US has never been at war with Iraq.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. icon
    Rikuo (profile), Oct 25th, 2013 @ 6:27am

    Just because something is legal, does not make it moral, ethical or right at all to do. Do I need to bring up the obvious example of the Nuremberg Laws, which were passed in Nazi Germany and made it legal to discriminate against Jews, and more or less deprived them of citizenship?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. icon
    Greevar (profile), Oct 25th, 2013 @ 6:28am

    Re: Newspeak dictionary

    What did the founders of America say about a government turning tyrannical?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 6:31am

    Re: Re: Newspeak dictionary

    "It is the duty, nay, the moral obligation, of the People to stand fast against tyranny in all its forms.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 6:37am

    It's not cheating if you don't know her name.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Guardian, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 7:05am

    she thinks the ends justifies the means

    and where do we see the ends justifying the means...nazi germany/italian fascism....

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 7:16am

    So their is no need for people attending an event in DC this weekend to leave their phones at home. Collecting the Metadata is not surveillance and won’t be used to identify protesters.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 7:27am


    What happens while drunk is not real.
    That sets quite a precedence. ;-)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 7:32am


    In a certain respect Feinstein is correct, based on the current legal definition of "surveillance", this is not surveillance and it is legal.

    This is the type of "under the current definition" shit that got black's labeled as non human and now the unborn are being labeled as non human.

    The same type of water muddying that has screwed everyone's idea of what the 2nd amendment stood for despite being make crystal fvcking clear by the founding fathers what it all means.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 7:36am

    No is not surveillance, absolutely not.

    People can collect all information about a person and know what the color of their underwear is, but that is not surveillance not at all.

    I also am not human, I am a flying pig.

    My wife realized something today, she bought a new phone, it had nothing in it, the minute she registered her old account the phone suddenly had all her apps download and installed, her calls records, videos, photos, emails all restored, just like magic and for a minute it was all good until she realized what that meant, all her data stored on her phone was duplicated and stored somewhere else without her knowing about or having to set up anything.

    Now she is scared of using it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 8:09am

    Feinstein is wrong

    The Supreme Court has NOT held that "THIS 'metadata' is not protected by the Fourth Amendment." They determined that phone numbers collected by a pen register were not protected by the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court hasn't said word one about metadata... yet. She is assuming that the decision in Smith vs. Maryland is also applicable to metadata as well. That is a VERY BIG assumption based solely on HER OPINION of whether it is applicable or not. Her opinion isn't what matters. The court's opinion is what matters. She and the rest of the defenders of the NSA are on very thin ice in that opinion and they know it. That is why every time a case is brought to challenge that, they attempt try to kill it some other way before it can actually be decided by the courts.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    Some Canuck, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 8:11am


    Surveillance - Noun
    - the act of carefully watching someone or something especially in order to prevent or detect a crime.

    One could argue that they aren't being careful, therefore what they are doing is not actually surveillance. =P

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 8:20am

    Re: Re:

    Thanks for bringing up the important issues of gun control and abortion. I have long felt that it is a mistake on the part of Techdirt to skirt these issues when discussing mass government surveillance of its citizenry.

    What are your thoughts on Mormonism?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 8:23am

    And WHY should be believe SNOWDEN ? Gathering meta-data, is NOT SPYING when compared to Google !!

    Lets just face facts here !!!

    Or don't facts have a place here ? Guess not. Just pure hate for the US Government, antidisestablishmentarianism at its best.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. icon
    Rikuo (profile), Oct 25th, 2013 @ 8:34am


    Very good impression of our resident troll, down to the lax spelling and calling out of Google (should be believe, should be "should we believe"). You did forget the tagline and the mysterious numbers which I think s/he thinks serves as some sort of proof that it is blue commenting...which is just insane, since they're just random numbers, and this ignores the very convenient method of simply creating an account with a password that only s/he would know.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 9:02am

    Re: Re:

    No, that's just darryl. out_of_the_blue's buttfuckbuddy.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 9:30am

    Of course its surveillance, fuck their definitions. Any idiot knows its surveillance.

    Reading this stuff is crazy. Its like pointing at a coffee cup and saying its not a coffee cup because some old white dumb fuck said so.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. icon
    DannyB (profile), Oct 25th, 2013 @ 9:31am


    From an old Simpsons episode Homer saying . . .

    . . . it's a victimless crime, like punching someone in the dark.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 10:29am


    it's google's backup function. It asks you if you want it enabled. She probably wasn't paying attention, so the next time she logged into a new device, it started syncing everything

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23. icon
    James (profile), Oct 25th, 2013 @ 10:30am

    Might be YOUR "main concern." Not Mine.

    But what we're mainly concerned about is the fact that an agency that claims its doing this to combat terrorism can't seem to come up with much evidence that its programs are working. The NSA has deprived us of civil liberties while delivering next to nothing in terms of security.

    No, that's not what I'm mainly concerned about. I don't care if the program(s) work. I don't care if the surveillance allows DHS, the NSA, the CIA and the FBI to thwart 50 attacks each.

    I care that people without provable guilt are being searched and their records/papers retained without due process of law, and without a warrant having been obtained as a result of sworn testimony.

    I'm most concerned that the federal government is depriving us of civil liberties. Period. Full Stop.

    Haven't I read right here on this very blog that we could prevent a lot more crime by installing cameras on every corner and stationing police in every home, but that approach is simply unacceptable?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24. icon
    John Fenderson (profile), Oct 25th, 2013 @ 10:44am


    Now she is scared of using it.

    No need to be scared. She can turn off the syncing, avoid using the Google apps, and even install a firewall and block all access to Google completely if she wants to.

    She can also go to Google's account management page to delete all of the data that's already been synced.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25. identicon
    philosopherott, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 10:45am

    back door

    So as long as you don’t know what you have it is legal?
    So if I backdoor into a government agency and collect data but don't look at it, it is legal because it is not surveillance or an invasion of privacy? Then I can sell it as long as I don’t know what I am selling? This seems like a bad move on there part.
    “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures…” metadata is my effect isn’t it?
    "(The right to privacy is a person's) right to be left alone by the government... the right most valued by civilized men."
    - Former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26. identicon
    Davey, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 11:43am

    Don't get caught up in the technicalities - it's surveillance

    Surveiller - (french) to watch [over].

    Suppose you walked out your front door one morning and spotted a guy in a Fedora and trenchcoat who followed you around all day, taking notes. He followed you everywhere you went and continuously recorded your location. He recorded who you called, who you visited, the businesses you patronized and the charitable organizations you supported. He wrote down the names of all your friends and acquaintances and recorded what you had for lunch at the diner down the street. However, he didn't actually eavesdrop on any of the conversations.


    If a police officer parks a car across the street from your house and watches your house all night through a pair of binoculars and logs your activities, ISN'T THAT SURVEILLANCE?

    The difference between these examples and the NSA's activities is only in the means - not the end product.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27. identicon
    Bob Jacobson, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 12:08pm

    Violating state-enforced privacy rights

    In California, in the mid-80s, I wrote and managed through enactment California's Telephone Privacy Act. It specifically protected telephone records from public disclosure, for the reasons that Snowden now eloquently provides.

    The CTPA, which relies on the California Constitution's "privacy clause," upheld by the US Supreme Court, was completely wiped out by the first round of spying during the Bush years. In 2008, Sen. Obama in voted with the majority to extend immunity to the telcos, including those in California, who disclosed telephone records and other data to the NSA. (That's when he lost my vote, forever.) So much for states' rights.

    It's still the case. The CTPA is useless, the state's and federal cable privacy laws are useless, the very notion of privacy inherent in the Bill of Rights is null and void. What a pity. And, nothing to be done about is short of a radical change in the American government's relationship to its people.

    We're a nation with two governments: the overt public government, and the covert intelligence community. Which one's in charge no longer matters, they are compradores.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 12:41pm

    Of course these unconstitutional spy programs have failed to prove useful in catching terrorists.

    Fighting terror isn't it's main function, remember?

    Political blackmail - Germany, Mexico, Brazil Presidential phone taps.

    Industrial espionage - Brazilian Oil industry spying

    Suppression of US citizens' Constitutional Rights and Freedoms - Too many to list. Drones flying around and spying on our phone calls for starters. Militarization of police departments is also a worrying trend.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 1:07pm

    Re: Newspeak dictionary

    Due Process --> Secret courts, secret proceedings


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  30. icon
    John Fenderson (profile), Oct 25th, 2013 @ 1:46pm

    Failure to understand

    In the USA Today op-ed, Feinstein wrote

    The Senate Intelligence Committee will soon consider legislation to add public reporting requirements and more court review, and to codify existing procedures into law. I hope this will restore public confidence to a program that continues to protect the homeland from terrorism.

    If she really thinks that just doing those things will "restore public confidence" (as if the public ever had confidence in these programs in the first place -- it's hard to have confidence in something that you don't know is happening), then she really, truly doesn't even begin understand what the uproar is about.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  31. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 25th, 2013 @ 2:56pm

    Re: Newspeak dictionary

    Your comment is accumulating votes in a secret voting system. If you receive enough votes you will be exiled. The exact number is known only to God and the hangman.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  32. icon
    stimoceiver (profile), Oct 25th, 2013 @ 6:58pm

    Whether or not this obvious "surveillance" of us all really "IS" "surveillance" or not, theres one thing I'd like to know.

    Many who have been following these developments for the past decade will remember an informative document called "Interception Capabilities 2000". If you haven't seen it, its well worth reading if for no other reason than to provide some perspective on the technological development of COMINT surveillance systems over the time span of the last 13 years or more. It even has some screenshots of an NSA surveillance software of that era called "Trailmapper".

    The subtitle of this report was somewhat longer:

    "Report to the Director General for Research of the European Parliament (Scientific and Technical Options Assessment programme office) on the development of surveillance technology and risk of abuse of economic information."

    So, I'm curious, for all those better versed in the recent earth history of state level surveillance tech than I: What abuses of economic information were known to have occurred? I've read through the document once or twice and while it highlights the potential risk of abuse of economic intelligence by 3rd parties connected with the intel communities, I don't recall any explicit references or footnotes indicating to what extent such had already at that time happened.

    And I can't help but assume it must have happened at the time of the reports writing in order to earn so prominent a place in the title and subject matter of a report to the EU parliament.

    After reading "The Secret History of Signals Intelligence" and a few introductory documents on cryptography I see no reason to believe our telecom network wasn't equipped with the capability for COMINT surveillance since day one. Because if it has been going on since the implementation of these public networks (if not being an a priori justification for their creation in the first place) then perhaps a better issue for activists to concern themselves with would be elucidating and illuminating not only what the criterion currently are for acting on the intel thus gathered and to what degree private commercial information might be shared with competing businesses, but how (or whether) these criterion have evolved (or devolved) since their devising.

    q.v. Interception Capabilities 2000

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  33. identicon
    Capt. Gary Kassbaum M.M., Oct 26th, 2013 @ 9:01am

    NSA Surveillance

    Security Motive Derivative
    The last commentators dissertation is 'spot on'. Information "increasing the possibility of false positives" is a bit of an understatement. I, as a Canadian Gov`t official was targeted,drugged, assaulted and micro-chipped, while attending a 3 day conference - Washington-Arlington 2005- I`ve have never had even a misdemeanor. The cover-up process must be a big part of the NSA`s budget or the budgets of over-zealous agencies involved....a case of `not enough terrorists``, so in order to to stay in practice we`ll target just about anything that even `hearsay` information falsely interpreted qualifies. Going over telephone message databases and picking one out ones that appears suspicious; without being in the moment or seeing the whole context, that telephone message now warrants action. As such, non-lethal harassment can now become much more sinister to semi-lethal harassment; `semi` infers a corporate conscience of letting the targeted person live- ``just in case we made a mistake``- and then spend a lot of time and money covering up the `collateral damage done. In essence the due process of law has been subverted
    I believe the damage done to both Canada and the United States by this `wired-up`approach is more than any ji-hadists ever dreamed of. Whatever happened to `probable cause``, protection of the individual under all the Constitutional Amendments and The Charter Of Rights and Freedoms......questions, questions..questions deliberately unanswered. Those working in the relevant agencies like to go home at night thinking Ì`ve protected my country another day, deliberately- consciously or unconsciously oblivious to the risks of collateral damage to possibly hundreds of thousands of innocent people - marching us ominously toward a `fear`society``. This spreading `security sensitivity` is more than paranoia, its almost like a disease taking away the joys of normal life and living from those most affected. When one organization becomes so large and remotely untouchable; with hundreds of thousands of direct and indirect conscripts working in all kinds of jobs across N. America secretly aligned `to the cause``- G-D help us when these indoctrinated and brainwashed security advocates become armed and receive their marching orders when martial law is declared or any other drastic political reason warranting it.
    G-D Bless Canada and The United States.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  34. identicon
    Peter Wakefield Sault, Oct 26th, 2013 @ 12:13pm

    Metadata Nonsense

    Telephone numbers are NOT metadata. They are PRIMARY and SPECIFIC data. Metadata related to telephone numbers might be, for example, the quantity of digits in a telephone number format or, for another example, the number of times calls to or from a particular telephone number are logged by the NSA. The metadata is all the information ABOUT the telephone number but not the telephone number itself. Hence NSA apologists are being disingenuous when they claim that "only metadata" is being stored.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  35. identicon
    T, Oct 26th, 2013 @ 3:05pm

    Hey Eddie, blow the lid off 9/11 so that we can get on with making arrests and drop this soap opera drama about phone tapping. If you are who you say you are. Peace.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  36. identicon
    Amy, Nov 3rd, 2013 @ 8:01am


    There has been exhaustive references to the collection of metadata in reference to the recent NSA controversies without sufficient understanding of what metadata actually is as it pertains specifically to NSA domestic collection of said material. The rudimentary definition of metadata is data about data. One must understand that the data collected en masse and provided to gov't agencies from data service providers is extremely limited. The NSA does not have access to identifying information, nor content of data transmissions, unlike your service provider. The information available to the gov't without warrants or FISA court order is limited to an ID number which is not connected to a name or account and the very basic info associated with a data transaction such as time and location. There aren't people nor keyword software programs mining this information. The metadata is accessed by or for law enforcement (for domestic concerns) after a warrant or federal injunction has been issued by the court. Once the warrant is issued, depending on the parameters of the warrant a name or account information will be provided by the data plan supplier and surveillance and information collection begins at this time. If the NSA or any other government agency were mining the information in a way which is suggested by Mr. Snowden one would expect a plethora of domestic arrests and detentions based on people's Internet and telephone use; this simply isn't happening. The government does not have access to a fifth of the information individuals willingly allow their service providers to access and share with their corporate partners. Food for thought.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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