NSA Data Mining 1: If you aren’t against it, then you don’t really understand it.


The NSA phone records program doesn’t seem quite so bad, at least not when it’s described this way.

“Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!” – Sir Walter Scott

The NSA’s recently-revealed program to scour through and analyze the phone records of millions of normal and innocent Americans is apparently seen by my many of us to be perfectly okay. A Washington Post/ABC poll conducted on Friday, the day after the revelations, concluded the following:

The new survey found that 63 percent of Americans said they found the NSA program to be an acceptable way to investigate terrorism, including 44 percent who strongly endorsed the effort. Another 35 percent said the program was unacceptable, which included 24 percent who strongly objected to it.

I was shocked by this report. 63 percent? Do these people have any idea what it is they are approving of?

Maybe not. Let’s look at the actual question asked in the poll:

“It’s been reported that the National Security Agency has been collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans. It then analyzes calling patterns in an effort to identify possible terrorism suspects, without listening to or recording the conversations. Would you consider this an acceptable or unacceptable way for the federal government to investigate terrorism? Do you feel that way strongly or somewhat?”

Gee, the way they describe it here it sounds perfectly safe. They’re not actually listening to the calls. They’re only “analyzing patterns”. Sounds pretty sophisticated and yet respectful of privacy rights, doesn’t it? Some news sources even made a point of saying that the information was “anonymous” — that there were no names or addresses associated with these records.

Don’t believe oversimplified reports.

But it’s just not as simple as that. And upon even a superficial analysis, it’s easy to see that many of these “safety” measures are at best fig leafs bordering on lies. Thankfully more and more of us are starting to realize this, too: After the story lingered in America’s consciousness over the past few days, after most journalists, analysts, politicians, and even the American people have had some time to start to get a dim inkling of what this program really means, our initial blind approval is fading away. By Saturday, Newsweek showed only 41% of American’s approving of the program.

But that’s still not low enough. This is a serious threat, but I don’t think most of us quite understand why or how. To me it’s simple.

If you think you have any reason to distrust or feel threatened by the government at all, then you have a very good reason to fear this program.

If, on the other hand, you think that the government is now, has always been, and always will be perfect and trustworthy, well, then you are an idiot.

Don’t be a coward, either.

“Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” – Benjamin Franklin

One of the things that the Bush Administration is counting on is that we Americans will be so afraid of the terror boogieman that we’ll think that losing our liberties is okay. He is basically appealing to our cowardice. It is this cowardice Ben Franklin was speaking of 250 years ago. But Trent Lott, apparently speaking for millions of other cowardly Americans, said in 2005 “I don’t agree with the libertarians. I want my security first. I’ll deal with all the details after that.”

This is not what the Founding Fathers were hoping for.

[NOTE: I have never, ever been a paranoid type or a conspiracy theorist, but the recent barrage of revelations about the Bush Administration’s domestic spying programs has finally pushed me over the edge. So this post is the first of a short but rapid series of articles about what exactly is wrong with this program, in the hopes that it will help people explain to each other why this program, and this Administration, must be stopped.]

Go to “NSA Data Mining 2: So you think you have nothing to hide?

Go to “NSA Data Mining 3: Wiretaps? Maybe not. Stakeouts? Definitely.


6 responses to “NSA Data Mining 1: If you aren’t against it, then you don’t really understand it.”

  1. Thank you for adding to the discussion. It’s pretty scary that there are so many uninformed people naively accepting government policy that would have been unthinkable 7 years ago.

  2. Thanks Dan. “Uninformed” is correct. I can’t figure out why the press doesn’t do their job and help inform the public about the nature of this program. Is it because:

    1) The press understands the program very well and doesn’t think that anyone else will have a problem understanding it, so they don’t bother? (I doubt this!)

    2) They don’t fully understand the technology and the program, so they simply go with whatever the pundits and politicos on both sides tell them? (more likely)

    3) They don’t think the public will be able to understand the details, so they dumb it down and hope that somehow the truth is detectable among the oversimplified stories? (also likely)

    4) They’re so wrapped up in the politics of it that they think that they will be seen as “biased” if the point out, for example, that the “anonymous” nature of this program is a lie since any doofus can connect a phone number with a name. (I think this is mostly it)

    The New York Times should have a 2-page spread with infographics showing what a real social network looks like, how databases talk to each other, and about how easy it is to find a seemingly incriminating connection… and about how easy it is for a real terrorist to dodge the system.

  3. i just listened to a “talk of the nation” broadcast, where the guest (the 1982? NSA director) bluntly stated (paraphrasing) “i believe that this report (the usa today story) will be discovered to be the reporting equivalent to the wmd misinformation leading up to the war in iraq.”

    his argument? the nsa doesn’t have the database / server resources to pull off this program, and it’s outside the scope of their charter.


    it’s good to see your passion on this, chris. as an IA, you have a perspective and visualization skill set worth sharing. it’s time we do some *i*nternal *a*ffairs work…

  4. Hendy Avatar

    Very well put togeter 3-piece. Nice lay out too 🙂 but call me one of the “misinformed” but I understood the program to work like this: Marines find cellphone/number A on terrorist B, send that off to the NSA and they crossrefrence it to who they’ve been calling and other known terrorist. and the investigation goes from there. Also having police agencies been doing this for years tracking criminals and making cases against them but on a much smaller scale. Believe me I don’t like my privacy invaded as much as the next person, but i’m still hazy on a lot of issues surrounding this.

  5. Thanks Hendy! And yes, your misinformation is misinformation. If they were checking one number at a time, that would be fine with me, honestly. But this analysis stuff is literally a fishing trip.

    Today’s New York Times actually had a pretty clear critique of the program that also explains what their social network analysis entails. I find it a little disappointing, however, that it was in the Op-Ed section given that it was largely full of facts and scientific analysis.

    With regards to the police agencies, yes, they do it but as far as I understand they ask a judge for a warrant first. That’s the part of this program I hate the most: the fact that our only protection against the program being abused is the Bush Administration’s word. And I don’t think that their word is worth much anymore.

  6. From what I have understood, the NSA must first obtain a warrent from a court set up in 1978 by the Foreing Intelligence Serveillance Act for these specific kinds of cases (wiretapping) and that reciently the NSA has been neglecting to aquire warrents for some of their phone taps. The reason they gave for not first aquiring a warrent seemed to be that it was an emergancy, that they had to tap that phone immediatly to protect Americans. Another reason for warrentless phone tapping that the US. Department of Justice included in one of its releases is an AUMF. They use this as the excuse for all the borderline violation of fourth ammendment rights cases mentioned. and what is an AUMF. Essentually its a decleration of war, Authorized Use of Military Force, or the Presidents empty check to invade your privacy and toss out the bill of rights. Other notible related facts…habeas corpus…or the right to a trial, the thing that has been around since this nation was founded, kinda died on Nov. 13 2001 when bush suspended it. It made it through all the other wars, but not this one…

    some of my sources include

    (the Dept. of Justice Release)