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NSA: Can they hear us now?

Of course, the buzz inside the Beltway is USA Today's big scoop Thursday about the country's big telecoms handing over all their call data so the National Security Agency can put it in a big database and mine it.

Slate.com's Today's Papers has a round-up of the brouhaha that the whole story generated. CNet has a FAQ on this story.

Here at Federal Computer Week, as we assess how to spend our time and energies, we decided not to do a story even though this is clearly a government technology story.

There are a few reasons. First, everybody else is covering this, so what are you going to get from us that you are not getting from, according to Google News, 1,685 other places?

We have done quite a few stories on data mining itself, of course.

GAO: Federal data mining not obeying privacy rules [FCW.com, Aug. 29, 2005]
Federal agencies are not adequately protecting citizens' privacy when they query databases containing personal information, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

Pentagon builds a database to recruit teens for military [Federal Computer Week, July 11, 2005]
Privacy advocates say the program is a 'bad idea'

The end of the beginning [Federal Computer Week, Dec. 5, 2005]
The technology available for strengthening homeland security may very well be turning a corner in terms of scope and sophistication. That's what a number of other experts in the field believe.

We always want to do something that everybody else is not doing – find a new or different angle. So if you have an idea or two, let me know. But it is probably time to revisit the data mining issue.

I was also listening to the President's statement on this subject on Thursday and I found it somewhat interesting.

After September the 11th, I vowed to the American people that our government would do everything within the law to protect them against another terrorist attack. As part of this effort, I authorized the National Security Agency to intercept the international communications of people with known links to al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations. In other words, if al Qaeda or their associates are making calls into the United States or out of the United States, we want to know what they're saying.

OK. This we already knew.

Today there are new claims about other ways we are tracking down al Qaeda to prevent attacks on America. I want to make some important points about what the government is doing and what the government is not doing.

First, our international activities strictly target al Qaeda and their known affiliates.

Strictly target? Collecting everybody's telephone data doesn't seem particularly targeted to me, but…

Al Qaeda is our enemy, and we want to know their plans. Second, the government does not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval.

This could be true. The USA Today story doesn't say anything about listening. It is about collecting the data.

Third, the intelligence activities I authorized are lawful and have been briefed to appropriate members of Congress, both Republican and Democrat. Fourth, 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. So far we've been very successful in preventing another attack on our soil.

This is the graph that caught me because it seems that either the USA Today story is not true or the President isn't being up front. If they are collecting it, I hope they are mining it. I would hate to think that all that data is being collected for no reason. Perhaps if you take the President at his precise words – 'mining… through the personal lives' – that is true, although I would think that most people would consider their phone data at least somewhat personal.

As a general matter, every time sensitive intelligence is leaked, it hurts our ability to defeat this enemy. Our most important job is to protect the American people from another attack, and we will do so within the laws of our country.

The statement seems like it could all be true, but one sure has to read pretty carefully.

I guess my immediate thought is that the government already has a lot of data that it does not use effectively. The most obvious one is the terrorist database, which the FBI has acknowledged that even today is still not complete. Before gobbling up even more data, shouldn't we effectively use the data it has?

Posted by Christopher Dorobek on May 12, 2006 at 12:15 PM


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