Troy already posted on the revelation that Verizon is required by FISA court order to turn over to the Obama Administration all data on all telephone calls made via their service. My husband joked that for the first time in his adult life he was happy to be an AT&T customer, but I think we all know that Verizon is not alone.
So this means that all of our phone call records are in the hands of the federal government, a notion straight out of the most dystopic fiction.
Member KC Mulville writes in the comments to the aforementioned post that the government is just collecting metadata. He says it's just public information and that the danger is only with what the government does with that data (other than identify you in about four seconds flat).
Benjamin Wittes over at Brookings picks up this point, trying to make sense of the FISA Court order that required Verizon Business Network Services, under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, to turn over all the goods.
He notes that the order began the day of the Boston bombings and will end in mid-July. He says he has a really hard time imagining the application that produced it. He writes:
To acquire such an order, the government does not have to do much—just as it doesn’t have to do much in a criminal investigation: It merely has to offer, in pertinent part, “a statement of facts showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the tangible things sought are relevant to an authorized investigation . . . to obtain foreign intelligence information not concerning a United States person or to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.”
So I’m trying to imagine what conceivable [set] of facts would render all telephony metadata generated in the United States “relevant” to an investigation, presumably of the bombing. This would include, of course, all telephony metadata that, as matters turned out, postdates the killing of one bomber and the capture of the other—though there’s no way the government could have known that when the application was submitted. And it would also include all telephony metadata that postdates the government’s conclusion that the Tsarnaev brothers were apparently not agents of any foreign terrorist group. But even if this were not the case, how is it possible that all calls to, say, Dominos Pizza in Peoria, Illinois or all calls over a three month period between two small businesses in Juno [sic], Alaska would be “relevant” to an investigation of events in Boston—even if we assume that the FBI did not know whom it was investigating in the Boston area and did not know whom that unknown person was communicating with?
I think the only possible answer to this question is that a dataset of this size could be “relevant” because there are ways of analyzing big datasets algorithmically to yield all kinds of interesting things—but only if the dataset is known to include all of the possibly-relevant material. The data may not be relevant, but the dataset is relevant because it is complete—and therefore is sure to include any communications by whomever the bombers turn out to be.
The trouble is that if that constitutes relevance for purposes of Section 215—or for purposes of grand jury subpoena, for that matter—then isn’t all data relevant to all investigations?
I'm not saying I'm completely surprised, although it is worth remembering how much of a bloody hypocrite Barack Obama is. But isn't this terrifying? Or are you in the "our all-powerful federal government, IRS included, would never do anything bad with data" camp?