CRF Blog

NSA Surveillance

In Look who’s listening, The Economist reports on NSA spying.

The order does not give the government the right to listen to the content of calls, as Barack Obama, in response to the leak, emphatically told Americans. For that, law-enforcement agents need a separate warrant: one far harder to obtain because it requires suspicion of particular individuals and proof that “normal investigative procedures have been tried and failed”. Instead, the NSA has hoovered up “metadata” — the records of who people call, when, for how long, and so on.

Back when telephones were plugged into walls and data analysis was done by humans, the usefulness of metadata was limited: hence the lower evidentiary standards required to obtain them. But thanks to powerful computers that can map people’s associations, and mobile phones that pinpoint a person’s movements, metadata can now provide a detailed portrait of who people know, where they go and their daily routines. The NSA may be able to use metadata to identify connections between people even if they have never shared a direct link, just as Facebook can predict which people a user may know. From a security point of view, what matters is getting all the information available. At the same time, the need to examine data at a moment’s notice has shifted the regime to “collection first” and analysis later, under FISA approval. [more]