Monday, June 10, 2013

The NSA Data Mining Non-Scandal

I’ll be the first to say that I have been underwhelmed by the recent “scandals” to rock the Obama administration. A great deal of the NSA data collection seemed rather rational and commonplace from an investigative angle, and the condemnation from Congressmen (who had signed the Patriot Act into law countless times) seemed like nothing more than taking the moral high ground in a hole full or dung.

Thankfully, David Simon (best known for creating “The Wire”), explains just how mundane the data collecting undertaken by the NSA is. Having spent years as a police reporter, he recognizes that this is nothing new and has been done for decades now in one form or another. He writes:
Having labored as a police reporter in the days before the Patriot Act, I can assure all there has always been a stage before the wiretap, a preliminary process involving the capture, retention and analysis of raw data. It has been so for decades now in this country. The only thing new here, from a legal standpoint, is the scale on which the FBI and NSA are apparently attempting to cull anti-terrorism leads from that data. But the legal and moral principles? Same old stuff. 
Allow for a comparable example, dating to the early 1980s in a place called Baltimore, Maryland. 
There, city detectives once began to suspect that major traffickers were using a combination of public pay phones and digital pagers to communicate their business. And they took their suspicions to a judge and obtained court orders — not to monitor any particular suspect, but to instead cull the dialed numbers from the thousands and thousands of calls made to and from certain city pay phones. 
Think about it. There is certainly a public expectation of privacy when you pick up a pay phone on the streets of Baltimore, is there not? And certainly, the detectives knew that many, many Baltimoreans were using those pay phones for legitimate telephonic communication. Yet, a city judge had no problem allowing them to place dialed-number recorders on as many pay phones as they felt the need to monitor, knowing that every single number dialed to or from those phones would be captured. So authorized, detectives gleaned the numbers of digital pagers and they began monitoring the incoming digitized numbers on those pagers — even though they had yet to learn to whom those pagers belonged. The judges were okay with that, too, and signed another order allowing the suspect pagers to be “cloned” by detectives, even though in some cases the suspect in possession of the pager was not yet positively identified. 
All of that — even in the less fevered, pre-Patriot Act days of yore — was entirely legal. Why? 
Because they aren’t listening to the calls.”

Read the whole thing.


SnoopyTheGoon said...

Leaving the privacy issues aside (and there are some), the method used by NSA is extremely inefficient. CHeck out this:


Roland Dodds said...

Fair point Snoopy. I shared David Simon's point that it is amazing they are actually able to use all of that data effectivly. As much as we make fun of the government for not doing things well, it is suprirsing that they would even bother going through such a large black of data. I will have to spend more time taking in the Rubin piece you posted.