It turns out that the National Security Agency demanded and got Verizon phone records of all US telephone calls, mobile and otherwise, within the US and between the US and abroad, from mid-April of this year. The order, obtained by The Guardian and which I guess the government would say it is illegal for us to even look at, is being reprinted in the US press.
The secret demand, which itself was classified, was made under the so-called USA PATRIOT Act of 2001, which desperately needs to be repealed or struck down as unconstitutional.
Note that the NSA did not do wiretapping. It isn’t looking at the content of the calls. Nor is personal information attached, so it is just records of one number calling other numbers. They have been data-mining the millions of records. By now the NSA and CIA have databases of numbers used by suspected al-Qaeda operatives, against which the calls could be matched. If an interesting pattern emerged (30 US Chechens regularly calling a certain number in Daghestan, e.g.), the NSA would have to get a warrant to discover the identities of the callers. But of course they could easily arrange that, having established that a pattern exists that justifies further investigation.
This sort of fishing expedition can sometimes be useful to counter-terrorism, but fishing expeditions into private papers and records are a violation of the US constitution. The government should only be allowed to see private information if there is reasonable cause to think something illegal is going on. Going looking into private records to see if patterns emerge that suggest illegality is the action of a totalitarian government, not a democratic one. The USA PATRIOT Act was a Sovietization of American law and practice and 2001 was year one of the fall of the Republic, when the Fourth Amendment and aspects of the First Amendment were abrogated.
Unfortunately, as Joshua Foust points out, the US Congress has repeatedly shot down attempts to stop these fishing expeditions, most judges seem pusillanimous in the face of national security considerations, and public outrage outside the circle of human and civil rights activists is limited.
The problem is not focused data-mining for counter-terrorism purposes. It is the temptation of FBI, NSA and CIA officials to advance their careers by using the data to set in motion prosecutions they could not pursue if they had had to convince a judge to give them a warrant.
Say a US government official was in the circle of corrupt financiers who were afraid of a rising, upright public prosecutor threatening to investigate them, and say that official could get access to the NSA database and demonstrate that the prosecutor was dealing with a medical pot dispensary (illegal federally but not in some states). The official could leak the information to the press and ruin the young prosecutor’s career. The phone numbers involved might be public information, so no further warrant would have been necessary, just matching the numbers. (There are facilities where inter-agency sharing of databases is facilitated, so we can’t be sure it is only the NSA that has the records).
Annoying Congressmen could be targeted for unofficial investigation and then blackmailed to back off certain investigations or legislation. Access to millions of phone calls is potentially Mafia-like power.
The potential for insider trading is also enormous. It might be possible to data-mine the investment community in one’s spare time. We will be told that there are safeguards against that sort of thing, but we already know that the information has been used in ways Congress did not originally intend, and after the meltdown in 2008 one would have to be terminally naive to think that people who can use privileged information for private gain will not do so. Congress only recently made insider trading for congressmen an issue, and although it passed a reform it has subsequently attempted to make it difficult to enforce.
I believe I may have been targeted for inappropriate surveillance on political grounds, myself.
I just hope I live long enough to see the USA PATRIOT Act, the most un-American and anti-patriotic piece of legislation since the Alien and Sedition Act, repealed or struck down. Until then, I don’t really accept that I am living in the United States of America. We are living, folks, in the United States of Total Information Awareness.