NSA collected pre-9/11 phone calls for analysis

If you received a phone call from the Middle East and, when done, proceeded to make telephone calls to other people within the U.S., you just might be a terrorist, according to a report on the National Security Agency’s telephone record collection program.

USA TODAY reported Monday that the NSA used the telephone records of the terrorists involved in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to construct a “template” of telephone activity which may indicate terrorist activity. That template involves receiving a call from Pakistan or Afghanistan and then immediately making several calls to other points within the U.S.

There’s just one small problem with this template: It could identify all sorts of people who have no connections to terrorism at all.

Under this approach, sophisticated algorithms hunt for patterns of terrorist behavior in information-trails, and then apply those patterns to average citizens, seeing which ones fit. It doesn’t matter who you know. It’s what you do that gets you in trouble. If you spend money and buy plane tickets like Mohammed Atta did, then maybe you’re a terrorist, too. Same goes for the kind, and frequency, of phone calls you make. — Noah Shachtman

While all the information available to the public indicates the NSA programs have failed miserably at catching anything other than soccer moms, this question needs to be asked: Is this something we should be doing at all, even if it is effective?

Take a different, but equally incendiary example. Suppose that we could semi-reliably create a statistical portrait of child molesters: their age, geographical location, gender, and calling and buying patterns. Suppose they tend to rent certain kinds of videos, make phone calls to certain kinds of chat lines, and call up other known child molesters.

Needless to say, the FBI could track these patterns using the same methods as the NSA and then exploit the results to create lists of “possible child molesters.” And it might work. But would we be OK with the FBI tapping someone’s phone just because they fit a statistical profile? Or staking out their house? Or investigating their friends? — Kevin Drum

Wow, that does sound like a police state! Are you ready to be watched 24/7, even when you’ve done nothing wrong?

And even if the program hasn’t been a colossal failure, how much money should we be spending to catch terrorists? And are there less expensive ways to do it? Not to mention less invasive ways that don’t result in the FBI wasting its time tracking down ordinary Americans who wouldn’t even know what a terrorist looks like.

Speaking of wasting time, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales defended the telephone record collection program, saying that a 1979 Supreme Court decision permits the government to obtain telephone call detail records without a court order whenever it wants to.

While not confirming a USA Today report May 11 saying the National Security Agency has been collecting phone-call records of millions of Americans, Gonzales said such an activity would not require a court warrant under a 1979 Supreme Court ruling because it involved obtaining “business records.” Under the 27-year-old court ruling in Smith v. Maryland, “those kinds of records do not enjoy Fourth Amendment protection,” Gonzales said. “There is no reasonable expectation of privacy in those kinds of records,” he added. — Washington Post

In other words, they’re the telephone company’s records, not yours, and if the telephone company wants to give them to the government, there is nothing you can do about it. You can switch telephone companies, but that won’t help.

One thought on “NSA collected pre-9/11 phone calls for analysis

  • May 25, 2006 at 7:59 pm

    Good point. But what recourse do we have if the executive branch decides the law doesn’t apply to whatever it’s doing? After all, there’s a war on, haven’t you heard?

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