Your Congress, Your NSA Spying

The National Security Agency is collecting records of every domestic and cross-border Verizon phone call between now and July 19th. The secret court order requiring Verizon to hand over these records has been leaked to the Guardian.

You may find that outrageous. 1984 has arrived. Big Brother is watching you.

But the author of this story is not George Orwell. It’s Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, Senator Diane Feinstein of California, and you.

Here’s what I mean: In June of last year, Representative Smith (R) introduced H.R. 5949, the FISA Amendments Act Reauthorization Act of 2012. Its purpose was to extend the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 for five years, continuing the government’s authority to collect data like this under secret court orders. The House Judiciary Committee reported the bill to the full House a few days later. The House Intelligence Committee, having joint jurisdiction over the bill, reported it at the beginning of August. And in mid-September, the House passed the bill by a vote of 301 to 118.

Sent to the Senate, the bill languished until very late in the year. But with the government’s secret wiretapping authority set to expire, the Senate took up the bill on December 27th. Whether by plan or coincidence, the Senate debated secret surveillance of Americans’ communications during the lazy, distracted period between Christmas and the new year.

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D) was the bill’s chief defender on the Senate floor. She parried arguments doggedly advanced by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) that the surveillance law lacks sufficient oversight. My colleague Julian Sanchez showed ably at the time that modest amendments proposed by Wyden and others would improve oversight and in no way compromise security. But false urgency created by the Senate’s schedule won the day, and on December 28th of last year, the Senate passed the bill, sending it to the president, who signed it on December 30th.

The news that every Verizon call is going to the NSA not only vindicates Senator Wyden’s argument that oversight in this area is lacking. It reveals the upshot of that failed oversight: The secret FISA court has been issuing general warrants for communications surveillance.

That is contrary to the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which requires warrants to issue “particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” When a court requires “all call detail records” to be handed over “on an ongoing daily basis,” this is in no sense particular. Data about millions of our phone calls are now housed at the NSA. Data about calls you make and receive today will be housed at the NSA.

The reason given for secret mass surveillance of all our phone calls, according to an unofficial comment from the Obama administration, is that it is a “critical tool” against terrorism. These arguments should be put to public proof. For too long, government officials have waved off the rule of law and privacy using “terrorism” as their shibboleth. This time, show us exactly how gathering data about every domestic call on one of the largest telecommunications networks roots out the tiny number of stray-dog terrorists in the country. If the argument is based on data mining, it has a lot to overcome, including my 2008 paper with IBM data mining expert Jeff Jonas, “Effective Counterterrorism and the Limited Role of Predictive Data Mining.”

The ultimate author of the American surveillance state is you. If you’re like most Americans, you allowed yourself to remain mostly ignorant of the late-December debate over FISA reauthorization. You may not have finished digesting your Christmas ham until May, when it was revealed that IRS agents had targeted groups applying for tax exempt status for closer scrutiny based on their names or political themes.

The veneer of beneficent government is off. The National Security Agency is collecting records of your phone calls. The votes in Congress that allowed this to happen are linked above in this post. What are you going to do about it?