How serious is the government snooping? Very serious

One catch for most people in dealing with the two major stories of the government’s sweeping capturing of telephone records and internet activity is trying to understand its significance. If you are like me and not particularly tech-savvy, the question we cannot really answer is what were they actually doing and how bad it was. We have seen many supporters of the national security state trying to pooh-pooh the revelations as no big deal and some may be persuaded by those arguments.

In the case of the phone records, the government says that they were collecting only the metadata, all the information about the message itself, apart from its actual contents. This seems to have reassured some people who think that as long as the contents of the message are not being listened to, the invasion of privacy is not that great. But Jane Mayer, the New Yorker‘s excellent reporter on national security issues, says that metadata reveals incredible amounts of information, far more than we think, that makes the actual conversations almost superfluous.

And I just want to say, on this question of metadata, which means just the outside of the calls, who you call, for how long, I interviewed someone named Susan Landau(ph) this week, who is an engineer with Sun Microsystems, or she used to be. And she’s an expert in this area of privacy and computers. And she says, people don’t understand metadata is incredibly invasive and revealing.

You don’t need to know the content if you can look at everybody who someone has called. You can figure out a pattern. They can tell if they called their doctor. You can see if there’s a corporate takeover. You can see if there are opponents of the government meeting someplace.

In the case of the government obtaining a ‘back door’ into the servers of the major internet companies (and I am pretty sure that the companies left that door unlocked, despite their denials), some people may be tempted to shrug and say that this kind of snooping goes on all the time with private companies and that there is nothing new here. So what’s the big deal with the government knowing as much about us as Google? Isn’t the age of privacy dead and those who are outraged by these new revelations simply romantics yearning for a bygone age that won’t return?

Hence this sentence at the bottom of the orginal story on the tapping into internet servers on the motive of the person who leaked information was quite revealing.

Firsthand experience with these systems, and horror at their capabilities, is what drove a career intelligence officer to provide PowerPoint slides about PRISM and supporting materials to The Washington Post in order to expose what he believes to be a gross intrusion on privacy. “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” the officer said.

If jaded intelligence types can feel ‘horror’ at what the government is capable of now doing, that is not a good sign. Barton Gellman, one of the reporters, says in a fascinating interview that his whistleblowing source expects to be revealed and punished and is braced to face the harsh consequences but thinks it was worth it, because he is acting out of conscience. Of course such people are the ones the government seeks to punish most severely. Gellman also describes how the internet companies are using weasel language to avoid being seen as complicit with the government.

Incidentally the other person reporting this story with Gellman for the Washington Post is documentarian Laura Poitras who as I have written before has been repeatedly harassed by the DHS and has to go to extraordinary lengths to keep the government from prying into her affairs, to the extent that she says she now feels safer working in other countries rather than the land of the free.


  1. slc1 says

    This is just the latest example of the failure of the other branches of government to rein in excess of the executive. In fact, we have the Chairman of the Intelligence Committee and the ranking Rethuglican both going on record supporting this activity. And no sign that the judicial branch is going to do anything about it.

    The Rethuglicans in the House are making a big deal out of Benghazi and the IRS non-scandals while ignoring this far more serious situation. The reason is that this started under the Dubya Administration and thus they support the policy. It is doubtful that any Congressional hearings will be held to force the administration to justify this stuff.

  2. mck9 says

    I grind my teeth whenever I hear someone referring to the telephone records as “metadata”.

    Metadata is data about data. As I have always used the term, and seen it used, it refers to information about how other data is formatted and stored. It includes things like record layouts, field names, database schemas, and the details of formatting and validation.

    For example, consider a library catalogue and circulation system. Metadata tells you how many characters are available for a book’s name, or for a patron’s name, and whether we store them in all caps or in mixed case, and whether we use the Dewey Decimal system or the Library of Congress system (or both), and how the database tables are linked to each other.

    The contents of the system tell you who checked which book when. That’s just data. It’s not metadata in any useful sense of the term, even though it refers to things (books) that contain other data.

    Telephone records are data. They are metadata in only one useful sense of the term: the sense that is useful politically.

    The use of the term “metadata” to refer to telephone records is not just an abuse of terminology. It’s a smokescreen. It’s a deliberate attempt to portray the product of police-state surveillance as some sort of empty husk, devoid of content, in order to minimize its significance.

    Don’t fall for it.

  3. Corvus illustris says

    And no sign that the judicial branch is going to do anything about it.

    We’re talking about the same judicial branch that has been just fine with secret warrrants rubber-stamped* by H. M. Court of Star Chamber, right?

    *in most cases. Exceptions have been noted.

  4. slc1 says

    There are probably some judges out their who would call a time out on this program, they are just being bypassed by the administration.

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