NSA builds up massive database of Americans' phone calls
In the land of the brave and the free, Big Brother knows who you've called. That is the bottom line of a report published by USA Today.
The National Security Agency, the country's most secretive intelligence agency (it used to be joked that its acronym NSA stood for "No Such Agency") has been collecting phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, apparently since shortly after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. It seems that the NSA has obtained the data directly from the United States' three biggest telephone companies, AT&T, Bell South and Verizon who collectively service more than 200 mio customers. The result is apparently the biggest database in the world.
Remarkably, this giant data collection exercise seems to have taken place purely on a voluntary basis — since no court orders exist which would require the companies to hand over the data. Apparently the NSA's claim that national security was at risk was all that it took for the companies to oblige with the request. Even though a procedure exists to protect American citizens' rights in this area (the FISA court named after the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, passed after an illegal snooping operation by the NSA had been uncovered), it was not used.
Denver-based phone company Qwest, however, refused to hand over data, after the company's request to obtain FISA authorisation had been turned down by the NSA, who also refused to provide the firm with a letter of authorization from the U.S. attorney general's office.
My personal comment: if I lived in the States, I know which company would get my telephone business. And I am curious whether this story (if it turns out to be completely correct) will cause the public outcry it deserves.
The most serious question this raises, in my opinion, is: What is the point of installing protection mechanisms for civil liberties like FISA if public authorities collude with private companies to bypass them?
Update: Further reports on this can be found (in German) at Spiegel Online and on the BBC Website. The BBC reports that US senators have announced that they would order the phone companies to testify about this. It also points out that the NSA's director when the operation was launched was General Michael Hayden, who this week was nominated to head the CIA. These revelations may endanger his confirmation in the Senate.
Further update: CNN has the story here, and President Bush's remarks concerning it are here. He emphasizes that "the privacy of ordinary Americans is fiercely protected in all our activities. We're not mining or trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans. Our efforts are focused on links to al Qaeda and their known affiliates."
Yet another update: A poll conducted by the Washington Post and ABC shows that a majority (63%) of US citizens thinks that the NSA's data collection is an acceptable way to investigate terrorism, while only 35% thought it unacceptable. The poll (more details here) also shows that 65% of those interviewed said it was more important to investigate potential terrorist threats "even if it intrudes on privacy."
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