The World According to Nick
My take on Software, Technology, Politics, and anything else I feel like talking about.
Thursday, May 11, 2006

Yet Another NSA Surveillance Program 

First there came surveillance over international phone calls that involved a terrorist on at least one end. I know a lot of people had issues with this, and even I had questions, but I could deal.

Now they're just monitoring every phone call you make, unless of course you use Qwest. Reactions across the blogosphere are pretty mixed, as you'd expect. For instance, Michelle Malkin is is practically joyous in the news. Of course, except when the topic is illegal immigration, she reflexively agrees with everything the White House says, so that's not a shock.

Orin Kerr has some pretty good legal analysis on short notice, which is worthwhile reading as well. One thing I'd be curious about is the implication that the NSA requested this information and the phone companies complied. Isn't this equivalent to a police officer asking to enter your home without a warrant? If you comply, and they find something, you can't complain about an illegal search can you? Now then, in this instance I have serious questions about why the NSA was even asking, but still the point remains. I also wonder if these phone companies are opening themselves up to lawsuits from individuals depending on what their privacy agreements state? Because they gave up this information without a warrant, they are exposing themselves legally.

It's also important to realize that the NSA is not a law enforcement agency. In fact, the most troubling aspect of the whole endeavour was buried way down the end of the USA Today article:

The NSA told Qwest that other government agencies, including the FBI, CIA and DEA, also might have access to the database, the sources said. As a matter of practice, the NSA regularly shares its information — known as "product" in intelligence circles — with other intelligence groups. Even so, Qwest's lawyers were troubled by the expansiveness of the NSA request, the sources said.

This is the general problem I have with most "terrorism" legislation and surveillance programs. Terrorism seems more and more to be a smoke screen to increasing police powers around other efforts, like the war on drugs.

The fact that the DEA was called an "intelligence" group is asinine at best. It is a law enforcement agency, and is bound to obey constitutional limits, and protect the rights of citizens. The NSA is really a military organization, that is chartered to gather signals intelligence against outside enemies of the United States.

The problem that these programs present to me, as a citizen, is that more and more our government is drawing a line between foreign enemies, and citizens with rights. At some point in time, we have to start asking ourselves what benefit we get in protection by giving up these rights. Is this database providing any value in protecting us from terrorists? At some point the cost just won't justify the benefit any more. I wonder if we're not already to that point.

I also have to wonder... what other secret programs are there waiting to be discovered?

Update: Orin Kerr continues to delve into the legalities of this, and comes up with more details. My continued worry is that while "fighting terrorism" is the public reason for this, that the "product" will be given to other law enforcement agencies to do other work that they'd never be able to get away with on their own.


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Name: Nick
Home: Wauwatosa, WI, United States

I'm a Software Consultant in the Milwaukee area. Among various geeky pursuits, I'm also an amateur triathlete, and enjoy rock climbing. I also like to think I'm a political pundit.

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