Friday, May 12, 2006

Your Data or Your Cash!

Early last month, in keeping with my recent habit of occasional repartee with leftish bloggers, I took Can't Take it Any More to task for his hyperventilation over President Bush's so-called leak of classified information. The entire "leak" presscapade was so singularly silly I didn't comment beyond one short and sarcastic post. But my conversation with CTAM left me somewhat disturbed because he managed to both accuse President Bush and Vice President Cheney of frequently lying and abdicate responsibility for demonstrating a single instance of their prevarication:

And my apologies if I intimated that GW has lied in the past. I meant to state it clearly: GW has lied often to the American public; Dick Cheney has lied more often and more baldly; and they both continue to do so.


Two things I definitely do not plan to do as a blogger is 1) to engage in endless circular arguments about with fellow bloggers; and 2) to conduct endless research to back up my arguments.

Today the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson promises to resolve CTAM's dilemma with "An Easy Call: Lying", concerning the NSA's data-mining of telephone records. As James Taranto points out, this story was reported by the New York Times back in December. There's no reason to re-break the story except to once more undermine the Bush Administration, no matter the cost to national security.

To judge how thoroughly the media has confounded this issue I asked my wife, who normally does not pay close attention to politics, to summarize in one sentence her impression of today's media coverage of the NSA story. Her answer was that "the NSA is recording the conversations of American citizens", and that is exactly Robinson's conflation when he accuses the administration of having lied by denying listening to domestic telephone conversations.

So why does the NSA need this database? Phone calls within a terrorist network may exhibit distinctive pattern characteristics (or they may not, but you can't know that ahead of time). The patterns could involve duration, location, chaining, etc., and the NSA needs this data to search for them.

Pattern searches typically take one of two approaches. The first involves searching for specific patterns known in advance. For example, a grocery store chain might mine sales data to discover how often people buy milk and eggs when they also buy wine. The NSA, on the other hand, is likely searching for unknown patterns. This involves using phone records from known terrorist rings to "train" a complex computer program. The program then searches for similar sets of records in NSA's giant database. A side advantage of the database is that pre-assembling these records will speed the process of rolling up any new terrorists networks discovered in the future.

As to why the NSA's anonymous database should concern us, there are two arguments. The first is the implication of illegality on the part of the administration. Most news sources have been careful not to claim this explicitly because the NSA's actions are simply not illegal. (UPDATE: John Hindraker of Powerline discusses the legality of the NSA's program in more detail. He doesn't reach a firm conclusion that would apply in all circumstances, but summarizes the relevant statutes.) The second point of concern is that the government can easily circumvent the current anonymity of the phone records it maintains. As Robinson says, "No names are attached to the numbers. But a snoopy civilian with Internet access can match a name with a phone number, so imagine what the government can do." Or as the Post's William Arkin says:

Although there is no evidence that the harvesting programs have been involved in illegal activity or have been abused to reach into the lives of innocent Americans, their sheer scope, the number of "transactions" being tracked, raises questions as to whether an all-seeing domestic surveillance system isn't slowly being established, one that in just a few years time will be able to reveal the interactions of any targeted individual in near real time.

But these concerns amount to little more than paranoid presuppositions of government malice. Consider Robinson's worry that the NSA could easily re-link the anonymous phone numbers with names and addresses. Well, so what? If the concern is that a rogue NSA employee might do this and somehow misuse the information, then why is this more likely than a rogue phone company employee doing the same thing? If the concern is that the NSA itself might use these records in an authorized investigation, then is there any doubt the NSA could easily obtain the same information and more by other means? If Robinson is concerned this data might be used in illegal investigations without proper court orders, then our concern should be the fact of the illegal investigations, not the particular data used!

Arkin's concern seems to be the speed with which the NSA can investigate targeted individuals. But why is investigative speed a problem? If the target is innocent we would rationally want their innocence speedily determined. If the target is guilty we would rationally want them swiftly apprehended. It seems the non-anonymous income, employment, and address information we send the government each April should be far more worrisome in this respect than anonymous telephone billing records.

Another possible worry is that the NSA's pattern-matching software might wrongly spotlight, say, football-team phone-trees rather than terrorist cells. But anyone who denounces the program for this reason must also demonstrate why other such imprecise suspect searches used in law enforcement, such as those based on physical characteristics or vehicle descriptions are not similarly problematic.

If data-mining bothers you: get over it. Every major company you do business with "mines" your records to improve sales and profit margins; it's ridiculous to rule the same useful techniques out of bounds for intelligence agencies. I note with interest that many of today's hand wringers are liberals who believe we should raise taxes! To that I say--take my data, I'll keep my cash!

Related Washington Post stories: Phone Calls Are Just the Start; NSA Program Further Blurs Line on Privacy; Lawyer: Ex-Qwest Exec Ignored NSA Request; GOP Duo Back Hayden for CIA; Is Bush Overreaching?; Bush Defends Scope of Domestic Spying; The Right Call on Phone Records

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