By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Big Brother is listening

This is really the big one, isn’t it? USA Today’s blockbuster confirms what many observers have suspected since last December, when the New York Times revealed that the National Security Agency had been engaged in no-warrant wiretaps of calls between the United States and foreign countries.

I’m not going to look it up right now. But if you think back, there’s been a lot of speculation about data-mining, and whether the fact that no humans need be involved in sifting through such information might be cited as a legal fig leaf. Well, now it’s all coming out.

I’m sure you’ve read it already, but read the lead of Leslie Cauley’s USA Today story again, slowly, letting the import of these words sink in:

The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA TODAY.

The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans — most of whom aren’t suspected of any crime. This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said in separate interviews.

“It’s the largest database ever assembled in the world,” said one person, who, like the others who agreed to talk about the NSA’s activities, declined to be identified by name or affiliation. The agency’s goal is “to create a database of every call ever made” within the nation’s borders, this person added.

A database of every call ever made. Wow. Students will be reading this story 100 years from now and studying what went wrong. That is, if we can get our country back.

This morning I was listening to Neil Young’s new album, “Living with War,” while driving to work. One of the songs, “Let’s Impeach the President,” includes these lines:

Let’s impeach the president for spying
On citizens inside their own homes
Breaking every law in the country
By tapping our computers and telephones

At 9:45 a.m. today, I took that verse as artistic license. At 3:40 p.m., as I’m writing this, it looks more like simply an accurate description of what’s going on in what used to be the land of the free.

Arlen Specter is angry again. Perhaps this time he’ll actually stay angry long enough to do some good.

Instant update: The Nation broke part of this story two months ago. Click here.

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  1. Lex

    If this thing is the largest database ever they have GOT to be storing sound files, the contents of Internet transactions or both. Just identifying info on phone calls, even every phone call in the U.S., wouldn’t generate the largest database ever.

  2. MeTheSheeple

    Editor and Publisher has an interesting bit with a White House spokesman onboard Air Force One. It echoes something Bush himself says, but I can’t locate the exact quote:MS. PERINO: Well, not confirming or denying or acknowledging the substance of the story this morning in USA Today, what the President said today, all intelligence activities of the United States are limited and targeted and focused solely on al Qaeda and al Qaeda’s affiliates. They are the enemy.I may have missed something back in my elementary school language arts/English lessons, but I always thought “limited” meant “with limits” and “targeted” was similar to “focused.” Collecting everything hardly seems limited and focused solely on anything.This effort might just have merit, yet it’s covered by so much deception from an administration seemingly distanced from reality that any thought of “trust” evaporated a long, long time ago.

  3. neil

    Not to justify it, but I’m not sure that this should come as a surprise. Phone calls are commercial transactions between you and your phone company. They already have these records, which police have been able to subpoena for years–for as long as Law and Order has been on anyway. 🙂 The NSA asked for and got these records. NSA is merely aggregating existing data. Which may be an affront to our notion of personal liberty, and has the potential for political abuse, but is not technically a new level of snooping. Rather it’s the copying of info that was already available in the private sector into the hands of the govt as well, without having to get a subpoena first. Phone call “record” is misleading because it sounds like they are recording your calls. But they are just a record of point-to-point connections. If your phone company knows every call you make, then it’s little surprise that the govt will know too. As I said even now the govt can find out when they want to. It is naive to expect privacy when using any electronic medium. Privacy is obsolete. To retain it you have to get off the grid which few people are willing to do. For phone anonymity, steal a cellphone. Even then there will be a record of the call.

  4. Dan Kennedy

    You know, Lex, when people refer to this as the largest database ever, somehow I don’t think they’re referring to the amount of hard-drive space it takes up.

  5. metallicaMobes

    wow. if they actually have all the conversations recorded and have this on every phone call made, that’s scary. However, wasn’t project ECHELON something of the similar nature?

  6. neil

    When they get the recording tech online it should work both ways. We should be able to use the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to the recordings of our own calls. Surely they can’t deny us access on the basis of national security since they themselves have said most of the calls are unrelated to any threat.For example recently I specifically ordered my pineapple and anchovy pizza well done, but Papa Gino’s denies it. Ooh how I’d love to get the recording of that call and shove it in their smug faces those undercooked-pizza-peddling bastards. Papa can’t lie when Big Brother’s listening. Well done I said–it’s right on the tape! Comeuppance!

  7. Specks

    What’s truly sick is that some don’t see anything wrong here.

  8. Don

    Right after 9/11 people complained that we were not vigilant enough. These are the same people who are now bitching that we’re paying too close attention. You can’t have it both ways. God bless America.

  9. MeTheSheeple

    Neil, two things.First, you sound like the type of person that might appreciate Tor:, pineapple and anchovies? *shudder*

  10. Anonymous

    Dan, what’s been freaking me out is that it seems like we should have reached “the big one” threshold long ago. But somehow this clown and his crooks are still in power. I like your hundred-years-from-now observation.

  11. whispers

    Hey Neil,”Rather it’s the copying of info that was already available in the private sector into the hands of the govt as well, without having to get a subpoena first.”Sounds reasonable. Except it’s illegal.“It is illegal for the NSA to obtain records of phone numbers from the telephone companies unless the FISA court authorized it. The Stored Communications Act prohibits the telephone companies from disclosing such information to the government unless they receive a subpoena or a court order for the records. 18 U.S.C. 2702(c), 2703 (c).””In the case of the NSA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court would have to issue such an order. It does not appear that it has done so, apparently because the NSA worried that it would not approve such wholesale collection of information.”

  12. whispers

    The tinyurl of the previous over-long link:

  13. Anonymous

    Whispers, ThinkProgress runs down the legal issues here: thousand bucks per violation. That’s a lot of money, even by these bastards’ standards.

  14. Anonymous

    And the New York Times has this:Qwest Explains Why It Refused N.S.A. Query By JOHN O’NEIL and ERIC LICHTBLAUPublished: May 12, 2006WASHINGTON, May 12 — The telecommunications company Qwest turned down requests by the National Security Agency for private telephone records because it concluded that doing so would violate federal privacy laws, a lawyer for the telephone company’s former chief executive said today.In a statement released this morning, the lawyer said that the former chief executive, Joseph N. Nacchio, made the decision after asking whether “a warrant or other legal process had been secured in support of that request.”Mr. Nacchio learned that no warrant had been granted and that there was a “disinclination on the part of the authorities to use any legal process,” said the lawyer, Herbert J. Stern. As a result, the statement said, Mr. Nacchio concluded that “the requests violated the privacy requirements of the Telecommunications Act.”

  15. neil

    whispers, I didn’t mean to put myself in the position of defending this action. hatlo makes the point that you can’t have it both ways and I’ll leave it to the likes of him to justify it. I applaud Qwest’s decision.I’m looking at it from a broader perspective though. We have already acceded to corporations the right to collect, examine and trade all the info about us that their technology permits today, yet nobody makes a peep. To me this is more creepy than that the govt now wants to do the same. We sell our supposedly precious privacy already every chance we get, for 10% off supermarket discount cards and the like, and every time we make a non-cash transaction. The corporations keep us consumers comfortable. We are already fat happy lemmings. And if corporate America knows what kind of toilet paper you buy and when you call a sex hotline, how surprised should you be that the govt knows too.We’ve already traded privacy for consumer convenience. We’ll provide private information for a discount on Cheese Doodles. It’s the logical next step to be asked to trade privacy for security. It’s all part of the process of turning citizens into tools of the machine. Your duty as a citizen is to consume and be afraid. We’ll take care of the rest.Once you click the mouse button or slide the credit card, that info might as well be broadcast in Times Square already anyway, is my point. You can’t expect otherwise. Tor and the like are valiant efforts but only holding actions, I think. Qwest may decline to provide this info to the govt, but trade it with Frito-Lay, Comcast, Wal-Mart etc, without hesitation.As to Dan’s 100 years, by then everyone on earth will have some radioactive identifier in their blood trackable by satellite. Privacy will be a faintly-remembered relic.If the NSA had to pay a $1K fine per violation, they wouldn’t care. Just more deficit spending! Payable by the grandkids.

  16. Anonymous

    Neil, over my dead body. It’s spine time, man.

  17. BosPhotog

    The very troubling news here is that it appears a good amount of US citizens do not mind their gov’t doing this. Have you seen the latest WBZ radio poll.”Do you think it is acceptable for the government to collect phone records for national security reasons?”Yes 48%No 48%Not Sure 4%And this is Massachusetts……I think the numbers would change “a bit” if this poll was taken in a red state 🙂

  18. Anonymous

    That’s ridiculous. As with yesterday’s virtually instant poll, there is no way this story has had enough time for polls to mean an ything.

  19. metallicaMobes

    I again ask (and I could be wrong), wasn’t project ECHELON and CARNIVORE under Clinton almost the exact same program?

  20. Dan Kennedy

    Metallica:I can’t answer that without doing a lot of research. But I can make a few logical points about this:1. Clinton was one of the worst presidents we had ever had from a civil-liberties standpoint — until Bush. So you don’t exactly score any points by citing Clinton. By the way, one of the most eloquent critics of Clinton’s anti-civil-liberties policies was a senator from Missouri named John Ashcroft.2. If this has been going on since Clinton, then Bush didn’t need to do anything, right? Yet obviously Bush did a great deal. So what’s going on now, by definition, is new and different. And give Clinton this: He never lied about what he was doing. If we took perjury about civil liberties as seriously as we do perjury about oral sex, Alberto Gonzales could be fitted for stripes right now.3. Technology is so much more capable today than it was in the 1990s that there are no useful comparisons to be made.

  21. MeTheSheeple

    I did a quick search at and HowStuffWorks and found grounds for comparison. Take all this with a barrel of salt, because they don’t exactly have the NSA guys giving open testimony before Congress.The latest program in question aims to take the records of the phone calls made within the United States. It does not, in itself, monitor content. (I haven’t seen any reports on what happens when this system gets hits. Are warrants sought? Hrm.)Echelon, supposedly, is a much bigger monitoring effort with roots that span decades. It aimed to intercept traffic, at first among the Communist countries, and then everywhere. In short, it wound up monitoring the content of just about everything, everywhere, targeting certain places, people and words.Carnivore was a program to monitor Internet communications by a single person with a warrant. To do that, software had to analyze all the traffic of everyone through a particular point, e.g., an Internet Service Provider. The software supposedly would let the FBI reconstruct e-mails, Web pages and the like. The FBI considered this an Internet parallel to a phone tap. Carnivore ultimately was about warranted Internet surveillance on individuals but had the potential to monitor everyone.

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