A Minor Victory for Privacy: NSA’s Bulk Phone Collection Ends

The expiration of the National Security Agencies’ power to collect and indefinitely store all phone records is neither cause for raucous celebration among privacy advocates—nor cause for predictions of doom among hawks for national security powers, such as this by Fox News:

The National Security Agency’s sweeping authority to collect phone-record data expired Sunday, despite evidence that such programs helped European officials track down the perpetrators of the recent Paris suicide bombing attacks and prevented other attacks.

American security agencies retain every tool the French drew on in using cell phone records to track down some of the perpetrators—after, we may add, the fact.

The more salient fact is that French security agencies, as American agencies before 9/11, had plenty of data in-hand—they were simply inept at utilizing it to prevent either the Charlie Hebdo or more recent attacks.

Rather, once again, the failure to forestall attacks perpetrated by known threats resulted from an “intelligence breakdown:”

As French authorities try again to analyze the cracks in their counterterrorism bulwark, French officials said they needed to better cooperate with allies while improving their capacity to process a welter of information. [Emphasis added]

Security agencies around the globe are drowning in too much data—and no longer having all of our phone records on their very own hard drives is unlikely to hobble NSA any more than it already is by definition of its being an unaccountable bureaucracy.

Unfortunately for those of us hoping for privacy from government’s officious overreach, the exchange of the USA Freedom Act for sections of the USA PATRIOT Act provides little actual additional rights. NSA can still pretty much access any information it wants, as well as tracking our movements. The PRISM program, among others, remains untouched. In a nutshell:

The problem – and it is a major one – is the reform applies only to phone records. The NSA can continue to harvest bulk communications from the internet and social media.

Yet our phone records are now not exactly off-limits: instead of being stored directly by the NSA, phone data will remain with our telecom companies, with NSA having to ask the Fisa court for access. And as we all hopefully know by now, the Fisa court generally gives NSA whatever it asks for.

Yet in the aftermath of Thanksgiving it’s good to remember to be thankful for even the smallest things. So, thank you, Edward Snowden, Thomas Drake, Kirk Wieber, Wiliam Binney and other true patriots, for helping people know:

The government unchained itself from the Constitution as a result of 9/11. And in the absolute darkest of secrecy, at the highest levels of the government, approved by the White House, NSA became the executive agent for a surveillance program that turned the United States of America effectively into the equivalent of a foreign nation for dragnet electronic surveillance….

And we are seeing the initial outlines and contours of a very systemic, very broad, a Leviathan surveillance state and much of it is in violation of the fundamental basis for our own country—in fact, the very reason we even had our own American Revolution. And the Fourth Amendment for all intents and purposes was revoked after 9/11.

Now let’s build on this small step to resecure the rest of our privacy rights.

After all, isn’t that why they’re called “Rights”?

Mary L. G. Theroux is Senior Vice President of the Independent Institute. Having received her A.B. in economics from Stanford University, she is Managing Director of Lightning Ventures, L.P., a San Francisco Bay Area investment firm, former Chairman of the Board of Advisors for the Salvation Army of both San Francisco and Alameda County, and Vice President of the C.S. Lewis Society of California.
Full Biography
Beacon Posts by Mary Theroux
  • Catalyst
  • MyGovCost.org
  • FDAReview.org
  • OnPower.org
  • elindependent.org