Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Verizon, the NSA, and You

There has been a lot of jaw-flapping in Washington over the past week about the scandalous revelation that the National Security Agency (NSA) is compiling a database of every phone call made by customers of Verizon and several other cellular and land-line phone companies. Republicans in Congress are taking the Obama administration to task for this 'government overreach' spying program that is, apparently, the scandal to end all scandals.

Congressional Selective Amnesia

Listening to the outrage on the Congressional Right, one is quickly reminded of Casablanca's Prefect of Police Louis Renault, who was "Shocked, shocked!" to find that gambling was going on at Rick's Cafe  (while one of Rick's employees was handing him his winnings). This is particularly true of the primary GOP attack dog, Darrel Issa (R-CA), but it also applies to many other members of Congress who seem to have become so senile in their long tenure that they have forgotten that it was Congress that authorized the collection of this data, and the creation of the NSA database.

Darrel Issa was elected to the House in 2000 and began his service in January of 2001. The NSA data collection program was initially part of the Patriot Act, which passed the House on October 24, 2001 by a vote of 357 to 66. Issa voted in favor. The Patriot Act was re-authorized in 2006 - Issa voted in favor again. In fact, this 'great revelation' of the past few weeks is just to much smoke and blather. This exact program was 'exposed' in 2006, in articles published in newspapers across the nation. It has been challenged in court several times. And yet, Darrel Issa and his friends on the Right Wing seem to have been unaware of the program until it's existence was 'leaked' to The Guardian.

So, just to summarize...

  • The GOP is attacking President Obama and his administration for this secret NSA data collection program.
  • This secret program has been in place since 2004.
  • This secret program was made public in 2006.
  • This secret program has been challenged in court several times.
  • This secret program was authorized by Congress in 2001 as part of the Patriot Act.
  • Many of the same people who are up in arms about this secret program were in Congress when the Patriot Act was passed. 
  • This includes Darrel Issa
  • This does not include Barack Obama.
It really makes one wonder how gullible these Congressmen think we are. But maybe they are banking on the idea that, since they apparently don't remember authorizing this program, maybe voters won't remember it, either.

I will make one more point before moving on: if members of Congress don't like this program, and think that it represents an unconstitutional invasion of privacy, then why don't they act to end it? This program was authorized by an act of Congress, and could therefore be ended by an act of Congress. But to date, our Representatives and Senators seem more interested in the controversy they can stir up than they are with protecting the rights of their constituents. I am interested to see how long it will be before Congress, to paraphrase Mark Twain, stops complaining about the program and does something about it.

But Is This Unconstitutional?

Before Congress acts to end the program, though, they really should examine the legal ramifications of what the NSA is doing. Is this program, in fact, a violation of a person's Fourth Amendment right to privacy? And the answer to that issue boils down to one simple question - who owns the data?

I am a Verizon customer. Verizon provides me a service, for which I pay. In order for them to provide me this service, I first had to give them some information about myself - after all, they have to ship the phone to someone, they have to bill someone, and when I use the phone, they have to know how to connect it. 

When I make a call, Verizon has to know which number is making the call and which number is receiving it. They have to know the location of those two phones in order to efficiently route the call. They need to know the duration of the call, since many plans charge by the minute. Even if your plan does not, Verizon still has a legitimate business reason to retain call duration information - measuring network traffic, identifying dropped calls, planning future upgrades, and routing around bottlenecks are just a few. 

What does Verizon do with this data? Aside from their own internal billing and planning, they can do many other things. They can sell it to advertisers who want to know how many pizzas you order in a year. They can mine it for trends that might indicate a change in your family situation. They can sell new customer information to companies that want to market add-ons, like phone covers with your favorite team logo. They can sell that data to companies like Experian or Equifax that compile real Big Brother data on you. They can report you to credit agencies of you don't pay your bill. In short, Verizon can do almost anything that that data, with our without your permission.

This makes it clear that the data they collect about your phone calls belongs to them, not to you. This is a choice you made when you signed up to be a customer - part of the Verizon service agreement allows them to share information with third parties as required or allowed by law.

To be fair, I want to be clear that this does not give Verizon rights to the content of your calls, the content of your e-mails, the content of your text messages, or the content of files or images that you share across their network - and Verizon is not sharing that information without a specific court order targeting a specific user for a valid reason. The NSA cannot simply demand that sort of data, and they don't. 

So as much as I don't like the idea of my phone records being in an NSA database, I have to admit that the data they collect is not my personal data. Yes, it is data that Verizon collect about my phone usage, but it is not my data, it is Verizon's data, and they can share it as they like and as law demands.

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