By Eugene Robinson
Someday, a young girl will look up into her father’s eyes and ask, “Daddy, what was privacy?”
The father probably won’t recall. I fear we’ve already forgotten that there was a time when a U.S. citizen’s telephone calls were nobody else’s business. A time when people would have been shocked and angered to learn that the government is compiling a detailed log of ostensibly private calls made and received by millions of Americans.
The Guardian newspaper of Britain reported Thursday night that the U.S. government is collecting such information about customers of Verizon Business Network Services, one of the nation’s biggest providers of phone and Internet services to corporations. The ho-hum reaction from officials who are in the know suggests that the government may be compiling similar information about Americans who use other phone service providers as well.
The Guardian got its scoop by obtaining a secret order signed by U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Since we know so little about this shadowy court’s proceedings and rulings, it’s hard to put the Verizon order in context. The instructions to Verizon about what information it must provide take up just one paragraph, with almost no detail or elaboration. The tone suggests a communication between parties who both know the drill.
Indeed, Senate intelligence committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the order obtained by the Guardian was nothing more than a “three-month renewal of what has been in place for the past seven years.”
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., another intelligence committee member, also said that “this has been going on for seven years”—and added that “to my knowledge there has not been any citizen who has registered a complaint.” Chambliss did not explain how any citizen could possibly have complained about a snooping program whose existence was kept secret.
Authority for the collection of phone call data comes from the Patriot Act, the Bush-era antiterrorism measure that the Obama administration has come to love. The Verizon court order compels the company to provide “on an ongoing daily basis ... all call detail records or ‘telephony metadata’ created by Verizon for communications (i) between the United States and abroad, or (ii) wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls.”
Telephony metadata includes the phone numbers of both parties, their physical location to the extent it is evident, the time and duration of a call, and any other identifying information.
An unnamed senior administration official noted in a statement to news outlets that “the information acquired does not include the content of any communications or the name of any subscriber.” But come on.
If the NSA’s computers were to decide there was something about calls to and from a certain number that merited further investigation, how many nanoseconds do you think it would take the agency to learn whose number that was? And if the number were that of a mobile phone, the “metadata” provided by the phone company would include the location of cellphone towers that relay the customer’s calls—thus providing a record of the customer’s movements.
“Information of the sort described in the Guardian article has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States,” the Obama administration statement said, “as it allows counterterrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States.”
Feinstein described the program as “lawful” and maintained that it is effective. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s consistent with our traditional values.
Maybe that old idea about a law-abiding individual’s contacts and movements being none of the government’s business is a quaint relic of an earlier age. Surveillance cameras watch us as we walk down the street and snap pictures of our license plates when we drive through toll plazas. We leave an electronic trail whenever we use our ATM cards. Our lives are recorded in a way that was impossible in earlier times, and history suggests there is no turning back.
But it is precisely because of this technological momentum that we should fight to hold on to the shreds of privacy that remain. If the collection of phone call data is so innocuous and routine, why are the surveillance court’s orders stamped top secret? Why can’t we know more about this snooping? What’s there to hide?
We have to ask these questions now, while we still remember what privacy is. Or was.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2013, Washington Post Writers Group
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