Saturday, May 13, 2006

Big Brother Should Be Watched

Unsurprisingly, the news media and the US government continue to misunderstand the central issue in the domestic spying revelations I mentioned in Should We Trust Big Brother?. The real story is protecting the civil rights of individual citizens from abuses, not everyday business-as-usual.

The news media have focused on whether or not Americans object to the NSA trolling their telephone records (they don't, by a 65% majority) and the likely prospects of General Michael Hayden to be confirmed as the next head of the CIA.

However, consider the following scenario, where innocent people may be harmed for political gain.

By all reports, including the President's, the NSA has gained access to telephone call records in an attempt to track who terrorists are speaking to in the US. Let's say that a terrorist on a watch list calls a dry cleaner in New York City. Let's further stipulate that the dry cleaner is a legitimate business who is not part of any illegal activities. Lots of other people will use that dry cleaner and some will make calls to them. The NSA will not be able to assume that the dry cleaner is legitimate and so will have to analyze the second degree of contacts. Did the dry cleaner make or receive any calls from known criminals or terrorist suspects?

Perhaps our dry cleaner also services a local politician and his family. Perhaps one of them has made a call to a 1 900 service, or a brothel or just happened to use the same dry cleaner of a terrorist suspect.

Could our leaders resist the urge to use this knowledge for political gain? Surely, some will. History tells us unabashedly that some will not. The theory of six degrees of separation suggests that we are more closely connected to each other than we may think. Should such closeness be used against us, by default and without legislative or judicial oversight?

Thus, without a carefully crafted system of checks and balances (to include warrants), it is my strong opinion that American civil liberties will be damaged by the current system.

I have no objection to the NSA being allowed to do its job! I do, however, believe strongly that trust is earned and not to be given lightly. Trust, say the Russians, but verify. I have yet to hear a single voice raised to explain why the NSA should not be required to get a warrant to access, much less follow, the trail of information available in telephone records.

1 comment:

  1. What I find disturbing is a lack of discussion of where we draw the line between foreign and domestic intelligence gathering. The NSA has a clear mission to collect intelligence outside the U.S. By venturing into the space of domestic communications, it seems to be overstepping the longstanding boundaries. From a capabilities perspective maybe that is appropriate. Yet the NSA should be required to abide by all the strictures that are placed on its domestic intelligence counterparts. With this administration, it is not clear to me that this is occurring.