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What Would People Think?

Saturday, May 13, 2006

You Have Been Spied Upon

As you doubtlessly know by know, USA Today recently reported that AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth all gave over all of their records to the NSA for data mining. That means if you, like me, use those phone companies, the government knows who you called and how long you spoke to that person............for every phone call you've made since 2001.

Now obviously they are looking for terrorists, but I still don't like anybody having that kind of information without - at the least - some form of oversight.

But I actually wanted to ask a more vexing question: Since when did USA Today become a real newspaper?

Just kidding. Impressive as that paper's foray into actual journalism is, my question is: should they have revealed the names of the phone companies who did and did not cooperate with the NSA?

I'm torn. If I were a terrorist, I sure as hell would be switching to Qwest, the one company that refused to cooperate with the NSA activity....and thus the one company whose records are not under complete surveillance. On the other hand, as an American who loves his civil liberties, I might just do the same. If USA Today had simply said "3 of the 4 major telecommunications companies cooperated with the NSA"....you can bet there would have been an outcry among civil libertarians. MoveOn would have circulated petitions demanding to know which companies threw our privacy in the toilet. On the other hand, I find it perfectly plausible that USA Today could have reported on this gross violation of our civil liberties without giving the terrorists a handbook on how to avoid surveillance. This is not quite as ridiculous as the claims that the New York Times' exposure of the OTHER NSA program would tip off the terrorists to the possibility that they are being watched.

Your thoughts?

Oh yeah, also I'm graduating today and Christy graduated yesterday.


  • Congratulations to both of you.

    I honestly don't see what's so difficult about going to a court, saying "hey, we think terrorists are using this phone company's lines, make them turn over some records," getting the court to okay it, and then taking the records. But then, I haven't blatantly ignored 90% of the laws Congress has passed in the past five years as a matter of personal convenience.

    By Blogger Jeff, at 5/13/2006 9:55 AM  

  • I agree with everything you said (including the congratulations, if that makes sense), but you haven't answered my question.

    Was it responsible for USA Today to reveal specifically which phone companies cooperated with the NSA and which did not?

    By Blogger Ben, at 5/14/2006 12:18 AM  

  • Yes. They're journalists. They have a responsibility to deliver as much information as possible to the people, no matter how that information is come by. That's why the CIA secret prison thing is good journalism, even though the main source broke laws by revealing classified information. In reality, that's no different than the journalists pointing out which targets are the most vulnerable, which is good journalism because it creates the political will to make such targets less vulnerable.

    It's the NSA's job to keep information that would hurt us if it got out under wraps. That's what we pay them for. Seriously. If you want to keep a secret, don't tell someone with a megaphone.

    By Blogger Jeff, at 5/14/2006 12:53 AM  

  • How about use some common sense and don't print stuff that shouldn't be printed. If the media was doing this for say "the rights of the people" or something then maybe I could think that what they're doing is understandable though stupid. But they didn't print this or anything else they do nowadays for good journalism. They did/do it to sell papers. Yeah, I know thats the #1 on their list but it seems nowadays that they
    A. Don't check their facts before they print way to often
    B. Bend the truth way to much and C. Don't think about what actions could happen from it. Just look at the Duke thing a few days ago. When they said that there was DNA on the finger nails linking the accused they completely made that up. There was no DNA on the fingernail from any of the accused Duke players, there was some from other players(who have been cleared already) on the team but it most likely came off tissue, TP, and whatever else the nail was sitting on in the bathroom trash can. Did they bother to check the facts before they went "LIVE". No, and the attorney for the accused completely owned them. Common sense is lost with 95% of all journalists. Remember Dan Rathers blunder during the election? Or how about putting important things on the back burner cause some pretty white girl has gone missing. Forget that pretty black/asian/etc go missing too but you never here about that.

    Yeah, they have a responsibility to deliver as much information as possible to the people, its just that they deliver the wrong info.

    By Anonymous other white meat, at 5/14/2006 10:29 AM  

  • oh and about the whole

    "It's the NSA's job to keep information that would hurt us if it got out under wraps. That's what we pay them for. Seriously. If you want to keep a secret, don't tell someone with a megaphone"

    If you have enough people in one place you have the risk of stuff leaking out. It sucks but it happens. The media needs to stop and think "should we be publishing this? Is there a risk of putting lives in danger? Is it worth it in the long run?"

    If someone came up to me and said "hey, so and so is gay but he's been trying to keep it quiet" Do I have a right to go out and spread it around. Now I understand that is apples/oranges compared to phone records/war/intel leaks but still. Just because they have the info doesn't mean they have the right(moral right, I mean) to print it. There are some things the general public probably shouldn't know.

    Jay: Why the big secret? People are smart, they can handle it.
    Kay: A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it. "Men in Black"

    Oh and the other from MIB that kinda fits

    Kay: We do not discharge our weapons in view of the public!
    Jay: Man, we ain't got time for this cover-up bullshit! I don't know whether or not you've forgotten, but there's an Arquillian Battle Cruiser that's about to--
    Kay: There's always an Arquillian Battle Cruiser, or a Corillian Death Ray, or an intergalactic plague that is about to wipe out all life on this miserable little planet, and the only way these people can get on with their happy lives is that they Do... Not... Know about it!

    By Anonymous other white meat, at 5/14/2006 10:47 AM  

  • I've got to come out somewhere between the two of you.

    Jeff, there IS a limit to what people should know. For instance, if we are in the midst of WWII and the American government is about to do a sneak attack on Hitler's bunker, the Washington Post should NOT broadcast that on their front page. It's not enough to say it's the NSA's job to keep secrets and the media's job to broadcast information. Failure on the NSA's part does not absolve media of all responsibility.

    That said, the "Men in Black" ethic should not be the rule of thumb. That is repulsive and antithetical to everything the 1st Amendment stands for. One of the central tenants of democracy is giving people information and letting them make decisions, right or wrong.

    I absolutely believe we have the right to know that our phone records are now part of a massive database kept by the government. And I believe policy consequences should follow. I believe a program involving such massive access to personal information and calling patterns (and, yes, names are easily accessable since they have our phone numbers) should involve some oversight by Congress or a judge. I do not trust any agency, no matter how well intentioned, to properly safeguard our liberties.

    That said, I'm not sure if it was right of USA Today to point a big neon arrow toward Qwest and say "THIS is the hole in the security system. If you want to not be watched, use this company." Unlike the December revelation of the warrantless wiretapping, this is information that would be useful to terrorists....is not common knowledge. I'm not sure it was responsible of USA Today to broadcast this.

    By Blogger Ben, at 5/14/2006 6:27 PM  

  • Responsible? No, I don't think so. I agree with Aaron and Ben that there are some limits as to what information should be printed. For example, I was and am INFURIATED at the Valerie Plame thing -- not just for the administration's leaking it (though they are the primary target of my ire), but also at Robert Novak for printing it.

    And yet, at the same time, I have to agree with Jeff that a journalist who comes upon information that will be compelling and useful to the public is under something of an obligation to print it. Do I wish that journalists would exercise a certain amount of restraint and not print items sensitive to national security? Yes. But the consequences of a free press is exactly that they won't - not always, anyway. I more wish the government would do a better job of guarding classified information.

    So, rant aside, I think I ultimately agree with Ben that the "big neon arrow" is probably a bad thing -- but then again, that big neon arrow also pointed to Google's search engine a few months back (link). I guess I'd say I'm torn for now -- and more importantly, need to resume working.

    By Blogger Mike, at 5/15/2006 11:24 AM  

  • I evaluate these kinds of issues by asking one question:

    Does this create the kind of world I want to live in?

    I do not want to live in a world in which everyone is always under suspicion. That's dysfunctional.

    It's also contrary to the values expressed in our Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

    Spying on personal activities without probable cause is odious, heinous, despicable. It pollutes the world I want to live in.

    When my government violates my trust it makes my world worse. Reporting that violation exemplifies the values of our Constitution.

    Invoking shadowy bad guys is a distraction. Rationalizing that ends justify means is a distraction. If we cannot live up to our own values, if we cannot maintain our own basis of freedom, then bad guys elsewhere become irrelevant.

    By Blogger etbnc, at 5/18/2006 9:21 AM  

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