Too often privacy advocates place privacy atop a rickety altar. They fuel the media’s spin on government spying and usually ignore public safety. They shriek democracy could be at risk because privacy-violating security agencies cannot be trusted and they allege outrageous 4th amendment violations. They underplay destruction through covert terrorism.
In practice, the US government collects wholesale telephone metadata (the identities of calling and called parties along with a timestamp… but no voice content). The loss in privacy is minor – less information than the telephone company uses to bill accurately. The NSA also collects metadata on emails.
A court order can allow metadata use to identify the contact networks of suspected criminals or terrorists. It can permit use of metadata for targeting wiretaps to record suspects’ conversations. Metadata helps to investigate and apprehend criminals before or after they harm the public.
Other agencies also collect personally identifiable information, e.g. the IRS and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Under its foreign intelligence mission, the CIA collects international money transfer information for US-inbound and outbound transactions. NSA and CIA each need to reassure the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Courts (FISA Court) that a target is tied to a terrorist organization before searching a surveillance database. Granular data on international money transactions supports tactics such as financial sanctions on Iran, in effect increasing Iran’s cost of “going nuclear.”
Our security agencies have eavesdropped on foreign leaders’ phone calls, with help from security agencies of other countries. Monitoring of military, diplomacy and trade intentions was routine for centuries, but local politics in Germany and Brazil required their leaders to feign outrage.
September 11, 2001 was surely not the final terrorist attack against Americans on US soil. Indeed, Congressional Intelligence Committee leaders believe our safety is declining. They cite increases in malevolence, fatalities, terror cell formations, and bombs headed our way, but very few reports of US domestic terror have been declassified.
Key tools needed to keep Americans safe are general secrecy, the FISA Court and surveillance databases, where quick analysis can identify and locate suspected terrorists. Regrettably, some have misused the surveillance data. A security agency provided local police with surveillance data – under a promise that the police fabricate a “parallel construction,“ i.e. alternate plausible source for evidence and warnings of such pinpoint accuracy. That obliged police to lie to defense attorneys – faking evidence to convict a suspect. Such abuses should be prosecuted mercilessly.
Ongoing domestic surveillance requires public attitudes that embrace sane privacy laws. So far, public attitudes are not polarized. The Pew Research Center found 56% of the public say “it’s acceptable for the NSA to get secret court orders to track the calls of millions of Americans in order to investigate terrorism, while 41 percent say it isn’t acceptable”.
Public attitudes were affected by pragmatic issues such as surveillance effectiveness, court monitoring, and reports of terrorist dangers. Conservative respondents were less tolerant of the lost privacy than were liberal respondents, but there was no cluster of strident advocates.
If politicians think national security requires ongoing domestic surveillance they must regularly declassify examples that show security working for the public and they must prosecute everyone who improperly uses the data.
Alan Daley is a retired businessman who writes for The American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research