Sunday, February 05, 2006

Putting numbers on surveillance

The Washington Post has an article today that for the first time reveals the extent of the domestic surveillance program initiated by the NSA. In the past four years, some 5000 Americans have had "international" emails or phone calls intercepted. The administration claims that American lives have been saved because of this program, although there is no way to verify this. As it stands now, surveillance of purely domestic phone calls or emails still requires a warrant.

The article also provides some explanation as to why the administration circumvented FISA. Because this program has been of such low yield for information, it would easily be shown to be an unreasonable search given its unreliability. Hence, a violation of the 4th amendment.

In another insidious use of logic, NSA rules define surveillance as only occurring when a human examines surveillance data directly. The NSA is using more and more automated, computerized filtering systems that have the ability to scan large volumes of communications in the hopes of picking up information or patterns that could signal terrorist activity. Yet, only the hits that are actually examined by a human would be considered subject to possible legal protection.

This is a very slippery slope we are on. Intercepting terrorist communications is clearly important, but we can not allow it to come at the expense of speech and privacy. If it does, then the terrorists have already won. There needs to be an informed public debate about this, and it does not require divulging all details of current programs. If the government is listening in on me, I want to know about it.

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