On Wednesday, The Guardian released a story detailing how the National Security Agency obtained a secret court order compelling telephone giant Verizon Wireless to hand over phone records detailing all domestic calls made by its customers. Specifically, the order, signed by a federal judge on April 25th, gave the NSA unlimited authority to collect phone numbers, location data, time and duration of calls, and other unique identifying data until July 19th. As the article points out, the court order was unusual in that it targeted such a wide range of people. Normally, this type of court order would be limited to an individual or a small group of people.
Now, I would venture to say that when most Americans first heard about this story, they envisioned a government agent sitting in a van with headphones on, listening to their individual phone calls. However, as a follow-up article by The Washington Post explains, this is probably not the case. Information obtained regarding the court order made no actual mention of audio recordings. Although it is not out of the question that the NSA may have other programs aimed at obtaining audio files, they would not be able to acquire them under this order. It appears that the NSA is only seeking paper and electronic records at this point.
But why would the NSA want these phone records? Although the reasoning behind the court order is largely unknown at this point, the White House responded quickly by claiming that this was an anti-terrorism move. Particularly, the NSA is probably seeking out patterns in the records that could reveal possible terrorist plots against the United States. Even if this is the case, the methods the NSA uses to find these patterns have not been proven and have actually been questioned by experts in recent years.
The story has already sparked a great deal of outrage among the American public. We have a high expectation of privacy and tend to think that we are immune to this type of surveillance, especially when it has not been proven to be effective. But since specific details are still being withheld, we can’t be sure whether the NSA’s program is actually constitutional. Putting that aside, there are a few different ways to look at the situation. Like I said before, we tend to place a high value on privacy in the U.S. The idea that the government can monitor our phone calls without notice of permission is unsettling to most, and understandably so. Even if the government is not actively listening to our phone calls, it’s hard to say what else they ARE monitoring. Prior to the enactment of the Patriot Act, this kind of surveillance would have been unthinkable.
On the other hand, some Americans are ok with the idea of the government monitoring private phone calls. The program even received some support in Congress. Senator Lindsey Graham defended the NSA’s program on Fox News, stating that it was a necessary step toward thwarting “homegrown terrorism.” There are undoubtedly some Americans who agree and are ok with trading some amount of privacy for increased national security. In the post-9/11 era, this is also understandable. After all, what does the average American have to worry about if they have nothing to hide? It’s not like the government has released the actual records to the public. This might be true, and that argument might hold water, but the fact is that we don’t know where it stops. Just to reiterate, specifics regarding the program are still unknown, and the NSA may have place self-imposed limitations on their surveillance, but we just won’t know until more details are released. That’s the part that makes so many Americans uneasy.
Until then, we again have to ask ourselves a question that been asked over and over for the past decade: What amount of privacy and liberty are we willing to give up in the name of national security?
Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research