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Telcos wish to deny mass snooping

'Compassionate totalitarianism' proves tricky for the private sector

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Now for a brief word on just how bad this mess actually is. Assuming the NSA program is as advertised, it would not constitute a serious threat to privacy. So long as the agency sticks to its stated goal of analysing call patterns, without identifying data, it's fairly harmless.

That's not to say it's a good thing. Indeed, it might well be illegal. The Bush Administration is betting its authority to analyse domestic phone calls on a presumption of wartime powers, and subsequent certifications by the US Attorney General that the practice is legal under the circumstances. These certifications amount to a get out of jail free card for the telcos, if scant insurance against a PR backlash.

However, if Bush's authoritarian house of cards, built on a very questionable claim of "wartime authority", is to blow away, the shock waves will be severe throughout Washington (and Fort Meade, and Langley). And the telcos could face a PR debacle of Biblical proportions.

Second, the potential for abuse is enormous, when we consider how easy it is to purchase, quite legally, personally-identifying data from sources like ChoicePoint, et al. The NSA has demonstrated, in the (post-Church-Committee) recent past, that it is admirably conscientious about protecting the privacy of US persons insofar as it can. But today it's absurdly easy to get all of the personally-identifying data one could wish for merely by paying a data broker, while the climate of paranoia, endless emergency, and imperious swagger within the Bush Administration is palpable. The outside pressure from the administration, and the internal temptations, to take it to the next level must be tremendous. One has got to figure, if they haven't given in yet, it's only a matter of time.

Still, at least until we learn more, this program appears to be minimally intrusive, if quite foolhardy. The NSA is going to be buried in data, and making useful sense of it is a long shot.

Far more ominous is the admission, by Bush himself, that the NSA has been eavesdropping on the actual content of phone calls and emails between US persons and foreigners, without a FISA warrant. This is a felony. And if the telcos have been cooperating with this outrage - if this is what they cannot confirm or deny - then there is no number of "certifications" from the Attorney General that will keep the gaoler's hand off their collars. ®

Related stories

CIA defends unaccountable snooping(18 May 2006)
Protection from prying NSA eyes (17 May 2006)
DoJ intervenes in 'warrantless' wiretapping lawsuit (15 May 2006)
NSA data trawl furore (12 May 2006)
Senate to save Bush's bacon on illegal wiretaps (8 March 2006)
NSA searches for advanced data mining tech (27 February 2006)
NSA uses ECHELON against US citizens (16 December 2005)
Arrest at UK's spook station after NSA UN bugging claim (9 March 2003)
This is how we know Echelon exists (14 September 2001)
What are those words that trigger Echelon? (31 May 2001)

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