What's All the Fuss About?

Jun 11, 2013 | Updated Aug 11, 2013

There's a lot of controversy over recent revelations that the National Security Agency is logging and retaining metadata on every single phone call, email, and Web visit. But President Obama tells us that, "No one is listening to your phone calls." And ranking members of Congress assure us that everything is being overseen by a federal court. So what's all the fuss about?

Well, looking only at the U.S. domestic implications, perhaps two things. First, the court they're talking about is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (usually referred to as the "FISA" or "FISC" court). Most knowledgeable people consider it a "rubber-stamp" court that approves whatever the intelligence services want. This was confirmed by an April 30 letter from the Justice Department to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid which said in part: "Of the 1,789 applications [in 2012], the FISC did not deny any applications in whole or in part."

The second issue is that the law allows government intelligence agencies to collect "metadata" without a warrant or court approval (not even the FISA court). "Metadata" is, for example, the phone number a call was placed from (which tells them who made the call), the number (and therefore who) the call was made to, and how long it lasted. Metadata also includes the email address a message was sent from, the address it was sent to, and (possibly) the subject line. Same for text messages. Same for websites and web purchases. Well, so what? Who cares?

Most people have secrets they want kept secret -- mostly about sex or money, not terrorism or crime. As an example, let's look at sex. What kind of secrets concerning sex might someone have? An affair they're keeping secret from their spouse. Regular calls to the "HotSweatySex" phoneline or visits to a pornography website. Online purchase of sex-related products. Communications with a VD clinic, or a licensed sexual therapist, or a law firm specializing in employer sexual harassment cases. Membership in a kinky-sex club. Appointments with an abortion clinic or the existence of an unacknowledged child. And so it goes.

Metadata does not reveal the content of phone calls or email messages, but it does reveal patterns, and patterns reveal all. "Happily-married" Joe makes multiple calls a day to "Sweet Sue" (not his wife) -- what does that tell you? Congresswoman Moralista is a regular customer of the Good Vibrations online store -- what would her constituents think?

Now government agencies have all this data revealing all these personal patterns. Can a prosecutor subpoena them? What about a divorce attorney? Might State's Attorney Nogoodnick who's in a tight reelection race ask his agency buddies for some inside dope on his opponent? There's a long and sordid history of American police and intelligence agencies leaking private information for political purposes such as discrediting a critic, or threatening to do so unless whomever agrees to do whatever, now all this pattern info is just a few tempting keystrokes away. And not just in the Obama administration, but in all future administrations to come.

Fortunately we know that the honor and honesty of every single person in government is above reproach, so of course we can thankfully be confident that none of the hundreds (thousands?) of bureaucrats with access to this pattern-revealing metadata would ever download any of it for personal gain through blackmail, or insider trading, or career advancement, or just personal titillation. And I'm sure that all the employees of private defense contractors and security consultants are of equally high moral character. But what about hackers? If they can hack into the Air Force computers what can't they hack in to?

But our President and Congressional leaders assure us no one is listening to our calls or reading our emails (unless the FISA court permits them to), so what's all the fuss about?