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NSA surveillance controversy: Much ado about nothing new?

Taylor Armerding | June 12, 2013
The only thing new about last week's "explosive" stories about telephone and Internet surveillance of American citizens by the National Security Agency (NSA) is that it made official what everybody has known, or should have known, for years.

"Government leaders are playing a syntax game with the public," Herold said. "Even though the actual conversation/communications content is not being recorded —at least as far as we know at this point —the metadata associated with the conversation can provide insights that can go far beyond the recordings and content anyway: Locations, times, days, frequencies, the parties involved. "

"Sophisticated analytics can match this type of data with other databases to clarify and illuminate the context of the communications, and also to put the parties involved in specific locations at specific days and times, and reveal associations and collaborations between different individuals, groups," she said.

That is the point the Electronic Frontier Foundation made in its statement on the matter last week. In a post by staff attorneys Cindy Cohn and Mark Rumold said the recent revelations, "should end, once and for all, the government's long-discredited secrecy claims about its dragnet domestic surveillance programs. It should spur Congress and the American people to make the president finally tell the truth about the government's spying on innocent Americans."

The outrage is not universal, however. Stewart Baker, former first assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and now a partner at Steptoe & Johnson, wrote in a post on his blog, "Skating on Stilts,"that, "the only way to make the system work, and the only way to identify and monitor the one American who is plotting with al Qaedas operatives in Yemen, is to pool all the carriers' data on U.S. calls to and from Yemen and to search it all together — and for the costs to be borne by all of us, not by the carriers. In short, the government has to do it."

And Joel Harding, a retired military intelligence officer and now information operations expert and consultant, said while he believes the government is operating in good faith to maintain the balance between privacy and security, "all too often we have seen examples of abuse. If we take our leaders at their word, these programs are for our good. I only pray our trust is well placed."


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