December 30, 2005
Would You Rather Be Watched By Computers Or People?

Since I think the death of privacy is inevitable anyway the idea of computer programs looking for patterns in huge numbers of phone call records does not bother me much and it seems preferable to human spying.

What has not been publicly acknowledged is that N.S.A. technicians, besides actually eavesdropping on specific conversations, have combed through large volumes of phone and Internet traffic in search of patterns that might point to terrorism suspects. Some officials describe the program as a large data-mining operation.


Officials in the government and the telecommunications industry who have knowledge of parts of the program say the N.S.A. has sought to analyze communications patterns to glean clues from details like who is calling whom, how long a phone call lasts and what time of day it is made, and the origins and destinations of phone calls and e-mail messages. Calls to and from Afghanistan, for instance, are known to have been of particular interest to the N.S.A. since the Sept. 11 attacks, the officials said.

If a computer program analyzes tens or hundreds of billions of call records and some dozens of those records are from calls you made do you feel like your privacy has been invaded? I don't. Statistical analysis of massive gobs of data doesn't make me feel like I'm being watched. It just isn't personal enough. I like the idea that such impersonal means of analysis of data can lead to the identification of circles of friends and associates around terrorists.

If intelligence agencies were restricted to using conventional wiretapping court orders aimed at watching specific individuals there'd be no way for data mining computer programs to analyse to look for useful patterns. The whole idea of the approach is to try to find the needle in a haystack by rapidly comparing very large numbers of objects. Each object gets a very limited examination and few of the objects get looked at by real humans.

What it is about privacy invasion that most bothers you? Do you simply not like the idea of people watching you? Or is the objection more along the lines of specific harms incurred as a result? Are you afraid someone who watches you will use the information thus gleaned to blackmail or otherwise harm you?

Also, if someone is going to watch you would you prefer it is employees of an intelligence agency or local police or your neighbor?

I'd rather have governments discover the identity of terrorists by doing statistical analysis of large numbers of phone calls or credit card transactions or flight reservations rather than by, say, planting bugs to listen to conversations of people with ties to the Middle East. Computer analyses seem less invasive because human minds are not finding out intimate details of lives.

The use of computers seems preferable to having law enforcement personnel going around questioning lots of people about the personal lives of other people they know. The questioning can quite unfairly hurt a person's reputation. Whereas a computer program comparing billions of records in databases does not make your neighbors or employers or co-workers or friends think you might be involved in nefarious activities.

Update: When I present the choice as computers or people watching us I think this is an accurate representation of the truth. Intelligence agencies are searching for the terrorist needle in the human haystack. Either they use automation to find the terrorists or they employ much larger (orders of magnitude larger in all likelihood) numbers of people to sit in cars watching who comes to whose apartment, who has lunch with whom, or where someone goes when they fly out of the country and so on.

See Heather MacDonald's City Journal article where Heather explains how the TIA project could have linked all the al-Qaeda operatives together before 9/11.

Why DARPA’s interest in commercial repositories? Because that is where the terror tracks are. Even if members of sleeper cells are not in government intelligence databases, they are almost certainly in commercial databases. Acxiom, for example, the country’s largest data aggregator, has 20 billion customer records covering 96 percent of U.S. households. After 9/11, it discovered 11 of the 19 hijackers in its databases, Fortune magazine reports. The remaining eight were undoubtedly in other commercial banks: data aggregator Seisint, for example, found five of the terrorists in its repository.

Had a system been in place in 2001 for rapidly accessing commercial and government data, the FBI’s intelligence investigators could have located every single one of the 9/11 team once it learned in August 2001 that al-Qaida operatives Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq al-Hazmi, two of the 9/11 suicide pilots, were in the country. By using a process known as link analysis (simpler than data mining), investigators would have come up with the following picture: al-Midhar’s and al-Hazmi’s San Diego addresses were listed in the phone book under their own names, and they had shared those addresses with Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehi (who flew United 175 into the South Tower of the World Trade Center). A fifth hijacker, Majed Moqed, shared a frequent-flier number with al-Midhar. Five other hijackers used the same phone number Atta had used to book his flight reservations to book theirs. The rest of the hijackers (who crashed in Pennsylvania) could have been tracked down from addresses and phones shared with hijacker Ahmed Alghamdi, a visa violator—had the INS bothered to locate him before the flight by running his name on its overstayer watch list.

Data mining can find the needle in the haystack. It can do this without listening on phone conversations. Of course, there is a third choice: let terrorist attacks happen.

Also see my posts "Privacy Concerns Block Response To Terrorist Threat" (which includes a discussion of science fiction writer David Brin's argument that the death of privacy really is inevitable), "Heather Mac Donald on US Senate TIA Ban", and my favorite on the absurd: "Heather Mac Donald: Government Panel Opposes Google Searches By Spies".

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 December 30 10:22 PM  Surveillance Computers

Pablo said at December 30, 2005 10:52 PM:

Very well said: "Since I think the death of privacy is inevitable anyway the idea of computer programs looking for patterns in huge numbers of phone call records does not bother me much and it seems preferable to human spying."

My reaction when it all came out in the press was: "What, you didn't assume they were doing that already??"

Lars said at December 31, 2005 7:18 AM:

They were allowed to see who called who without a warrant already. Which is one of the reasons that section the patriot act got shot down, we just dont need it.

I don't like it because it gives the government too much power. Whats to stop such information from being used for political purposes? Whats the difference between a "terrorist" and someone who disagrees with your politics?"


odograph said at December 31, 2005 7:26 AM:

I'm not sure the computers-or-people argument is that useful, because we are talking about a level of datamining that would be impossible with just people.

Anyway, the key concerns are:

- who watches the watchers?

- what level of monitoring will be "normal" (no warrant) and what will be a "search" in the Constitutional sense (with warrant)?

- when a computer trigger trips, how much will a curious human operater be able to do? Will he have "full access?"

FWIW, I do remember the days when government maintained "firewalls" between data types and departments. I was actually pretty comfortable with that, and I think the "fear factor" presented now is overblown.

There is a terrorist risk, but I believe it was managable under the laws and moral standards we had a decade ago. No need to become a wiretapping, torturing, nation.

Jake said at December 31, 2005 7:30 AM:


"What, you didn't assume they were doing that already??"

The NSA computers have been analyzing the voice content of all overseas calls since Jimmy Carter. The President's right to do that has been upheld 5 times in the last 30 years. Once by the Supreme Court and 4 times by appeals courts.

That's why these press reports are so disingenuous. Bush is continuing programs started by Carter and approved by every president since then.

odograph said at December 31, 2005 7:34 AM:

BTW, how effective do tech-savvy futurists think communications data mining is going to be?

I hope no one assumes terrorists will say "the bomb is set for XX" on the phone, when they can say "the package will be delivered on XX." I mean jeez, people learn that level of "spycraft" from TV.

I'm sure the NSA is quite good at identifying and breaking genuinely "encrypted" messages, but they aren't going to fulfill their "fear factor" promise to "stop the terrorists" until they can detect when an invitation to a Birthday Party is just that .. or when it means something else.

odograph said at December 31, 2005 7:37 AM:

Jake - I agree the press is behind the curve. The rubber meets the road on one spacific issue, did this President exceed rules set for those programs, which have indeed been around for decades?

Jake said at December 31, 2005 7:50 AM:

Government computers have been analyzing your financial transactions for a number of years:

SEC computers analyze every stock trade made looking for patterns of insider trading.

Bank computers under orders from the IRS look for possible sources of unreported income.

Bank computers under orders from the FBI look for possible patterns of money laundering.

Americans have survived having every overseas phone call, and every financial transaction monitored by government computers for decades. I guess we will survive for another 30 years also.

If individuals abuse that computer information, they will go to jail because it is against the law. Just as a terrorist setting off a dirty bomb in Chicago that kills 200,000 people will go to jail because it is against the law.

odograph said at December 31, 2005 7:59 AM:

We did start some changes with the Patriot Act, didn't we? IIRC, that (or maybe the Homeland Security Act) broke down some of the "firewalls" that existed between, say the IRS and other departments?

WRT "If individuals abuse that computer information," that is the current question. The President's "sound-bite" is that he can do what he wants (supported by Mr. Yoo?). I expect we'll have some Congressional investigations into that.

Jake said at December 31, 2005 8:37 AM:


There never was a firewall between the IRS and other government departments. In 1998, a friend of mine was interviewed by the SEC on a guy's insider trading. The SEC people had every tax return the guy ever filed.

If you want to worry about privacy, worry about the warrantless search powers of the IRS. A lowly supervisor (one step above the agent) at the IRS has more warrantless search powers than the President. I am aware of the IRS's police powers because I used to be a CPA.

On his say so, a supervisor can order agents to break into your home and office and take away every piece a paper they find. From their analysis, they can assess a tax and confiscate any property you own. Your only recourse is to take them to court to prove that THEY are wrong.

Why the ACLU is unconcerned about the IRS's unbridled police powers is a great mystery to me.

Bob Badour said at December 31, 2005 8:53 AM:

I just don't understand the big deal. Even if it were completely and totally against the law, I would expect a US President to order clandestine operations as needed to protect the sovereignty of the United States.

In a situation where intelligence reports even begin to suggest that something really bad is imminent, I demand the President act swiftly to ascertain the actual risk.

Randall Parker said at December 31, 2005 9:16 AM:


A couple of arguments have been made by people who accept the death of privacy:

1) Allow data mining and other activities but in government units whose outflows of information are monitored by independent auditors of some sort. The computers will make all sorts of discoveries. But have rules on which sorts of discoveries are usable.

2) Allow us to watch each other as much as governments can watch us. This is science fiction writer David Brin's argument. For example, if there's a camera watching a street let anyone call up that camera on the internet and see what it is seeing. After exploring the death of privacy in an entertaining science fiction book (whose title eludes me) he fleshed out his argument into a book entitled The Transparent Society.

Fly said at December 31, 2005 10:54 AM:

In the mid-80’s a 10 MIP workstation was considered a good AI platform. Today a Playstation 3 contains three Cell processors each capable of 256 GFLOPS. The Cell processors were designed to support large, multi-processor architectures. Every year processor power increases. The potential for extensive pattern matching is clear. At some point the computer “listening” will exceed human ability to “understand” and “connect the dots”.

Google operates very large “processor farms”. I suspect that the NSA does more data mining than any other organization. My guess is that the ramifications of all this computation power applied to all the data available through communication channels, including the Internet, will be very significant.

It is easy to imagine a scenario where a person’s name is entered and a report is generated based on his school history, purchases, phone calls, emails, and Internet activity that indicates whether that individual would be likely to support terrorism.

That same technology could detect criminal activity.

Or target with a tailored spiel people who might contribute money to a political organization.

This technology isn’t just available to governments.

Privacy won’t be possible in an advanced information technology society. Cheap, mobile, miniature cameras, remotely piloted through a wireless Internet connection, will mean that anyone could annonymously spy on other people.

We live in strange times.

John said at December 31, 2005 11:14 AM:

The idea that it's acceptable for the government to invade your privacy because they "know what they're doing" is naive.

Power corrupts. Do not give the government any more power than is absolutely necessary.

Think of Watergate. There have already been documented abuses of the current wiretapping rules. All the FBI or CIA has to do is mention "terrorism" or "national security" and they're allowed free rein on US citizens! Secret courts, secret laws (that can't be challenged, or even stated)... The U.S. has become a totalitarian state.

wcw said at December 31, 2005 11:58 AM:

There was no Red Brigade in East Germany, but I would not wish life under the Stasi on my worst enemy. You "no big deal" people, on the other hand, almost deserve it. It just depresses me that then we'd have to share the same tasty police-state existence.

For the record, GWB's illegal, warrantless NSA program is both explicitly illegal and facially unconstitutional. There is absolutely no gray area.

On-topic: computerized information sifting could, potentially, both satisfy the 4th Amendment and generally protect the US sense of civil liberties, while being somewhat effective. However, I doubt it. The main problem, imo, is false positives. Do you know how much data traffic there is out there? Can you imagine the effect of even a tiny false-positive rate?

There is most likely never going to be a substitute for good, old-fashioned police work and, as the pros say, "humint". I'd pay for more of that long before I countenanced computerized, warrantless datamining.

Randall Parker said at December 31, 2005 12:35 PM:


There will never be a substitute for good old fashioned hand-made goods. You can't beat hand-crafted quality. No sirree. A car made by robots would be really inferior and no one would want to buy it. Any young whipper-snappers who think some new-fangled computers can take over human jobs in manufacturing are like those people who think that machines can take over the work of horses. Everyone knows that is nonsense.

Also, computers can't take over service jobs. You have to have a human to do the work of a bank teller or to book travel plans. How could computers understand us? Computers do not know how to write down orders on pieces of paper. There's no way computers could do service jobs.

And guards are safe from computer automation. You need human eyes to watch buildings and walk through hallways after hours looking for people who do not belong there.

As for the US Constitution's 4th amendment in the Bill Of Rights and warrantless searches: Obviously James Madison saw this eventuality and expressly added a well known and prescient 4th amendment subclause that says:

"Your home and its contents extend into the reaches of commercial computers and the records that they generate when you use their services. So when the government goes data mining in corporate databases it is violating your right to privacy which the constitution explicitly prohibits as part of its explicit granting of the right to privacy".

Or at least the US Constitution must say that in the parallel universe where some inter-universe political commentators obviously come from.

(though perhaps those inter-universe travellers will be surprised to learn that in the United States of America in this universe there is no explicitly granted right to privacy that even includes a detailed description of its application to corporate databases)

(and the ability to travel between causally similar universes is a long time fantasy of mine. So I envy those who obviously come from these parallel universes who have different versions of the US Constitution)

K said at December 31, 2005 1:05 PM:

While terrorism seems a significant threat we will have little or no privacy. Has any government has ever chosen civil liberties over survival? The true debate is whether we can have both.

Oddly enough, even when electronic surveilence(?sp) and data-mining efforts fail they still help. The very effort worries the other side.

The fact that your communications may not be secure poses a problem to terrorists. They cannot be sure what is known and which agents and movements have been detected. They must therefore expend resources defensively on internal security.

My personal opinion is that no right to privacy exists for communication through common carriers. Too bad the Constitution doesn't answer clearly.

Would anyone argue that terrorists do not use communication through common carriers? Therefore information is out there. The Constitution does not require impossible things. A warrant describing the exact time, site, or message to be intercepted is normally impossible. Thus authorities can be given a great deal of leeway in the matter by general law. I think it is a legal question but not a constitutional one.

odograph said at December 31, 2005 1:36 PM:

I'm surprised by all this, because a few decades ago we were seeing very similar arguments back and forth about "gun control" and "murders." Certainly the murder totals are higher than the terrorism ones. Have we seen a sea change in American views of their own freedoms? Will we see an increase in gun control? Or is this specifically a surrender on personal privacy?

(Certainly given advances in technology we will have no limits on privacy unless we specifically define, and create, them.)

K said at December 31, 2005 2:50 PM:

to Odograph. Do arguments about gun control apply. Isn't that about wording, i.e. exactly how does the militia phrase alter the rest of the text? Did it give rights to organized groups of "the people" or to individuals "a person". I think if it meant "a person" it would say "a person".

The warrant situation is even less clear. First, what is unreasonable? Oh, it means without probable cause.

And must a warrant meet all stated conditions or just those sensible to the situation? We don't expect a warrant to be good when the person is at home but invalid when he is walking down the street. We accept evidence discovered during reasonable activities even without a warrant. Even if it involves a persons "effects".

Many rights people think are so utterly clear are not. Courts can read narrowly or broadly. The Civil War is often cited in discussions of what courts can do and will do. But WW I imposed far more limits on civil liberties.

I totally agree with your last sentence. Define what we mean. Otherwise why be astonished when government takes actions not clearly prohibited? Or perplexed that some people would allow more leeway than others.

gmoke said at December 31, 2005 3:03 PM:

The wiretaps that weren't even brought before the FISA court (which allows the US gov to wiretap for three days before even going before the court for permission) seem to have cast a very wide net. It seems to be the Total Information Awareness panopticon, monitoring ALL communications foreign and domestic, without any oversight or control whatsoever.

Personally, I've assumed that all my communications are subject to tapping since the 1970s. That's why I've answered my phone with Impeach Bush for the last year or so. Freedom is either exercised or lost.

John Yoo believes that George W. Bush has the right to order the crushing of the testicles of a child in front of its parent in order to make said parent talk (check for the tape). Incidentally, this torturing of a child in front of its parent(s) is something our ally in the "War on Terror," Uzbekistan, has done and we continue to use such information derived from such torture to imprison and surveille people. John Yoo is the White house lawyer whose memos provided the "legal" foundation for this Imperial Presidency.


NSA spied on its own employees, other U.S. intelligence personnel, journalists, and members of Congress

By Wayne Madsen

NSA spied on its own employees, other U.S. intelligence personnel, and their journalist and congressional contacts. WMR has learned that the National Security Agency (NSA), on the orders of the Bush administration, eavesdropped on the private conversations and e-mail of its own employees, employees of other U.S. intelligence agencies -- including the CIA and DIA -- and their contacts in the media, Congress, and oversight agencies and offices.

The journalist surveillance program, code named "Firstfruits," was part of a Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) program that was maintained at least until October 2004 and was authorized by then-DCI Porter Goss. Firstfruits was authorized as part of a DCI "Countering Denial and Deception" program responsible to an entity known as the Foreign Denial and Deception Committee (FDDC). Since the intelligence community's reorganization, the DCI has been replaced by the Director of National Intelligence headed by John Negroponte and his deputy, former NSA director Gen. Michael Hayden.

Firstfruits was a database that contained both the articles and the transcripts of telephone and other communications of particular Washington journalists known to report on sensitive U.S. intelligence activities, particularly those involving NSA. According to NSA sources, the targeted journalists included author James Bamford, the New York Times' James Risen, the Washington Post's Vernon Loeb, the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh, the Washington Times' Bill Gertz, UPI's John C. K. Daly, and this editor [Wayne Madsen], who has written about NSA for The Village Voice, CAQ , Intelligence Online, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

In addition, beginning in 2001 but before the 9-11 attacks, NSA began to target anyone in the U.S. intelligence community who was deemed a "disgruntled employee." According to NSA sources, this surveillance was a violation of United States Signals Intelligence Directive (USSID) 18 and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. The surveillance of U.S. intelligence personnel by other intelligence personnel in the United States and abroad was conducted without any warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The targeted U.S. intelligence agency personnel included those who made contact with members of the media, including the journalists targeted by Firstfruits, as well as members of Congress, Inspectors General, and other oversight agencies. Those discovered to have spoken to journalists and oversight personnel were subjected to sudden clearance revocation and termination as "security risks."

In 2001, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court rejected a number of FISA wiretap applications from Michael Resnick, the FBI supervisor in charge of counter-terrorism surveillance. The court said that some 75 warrant requests from the FBI were erroneous and that the FBI, under Louis Freeh and Robert Mueller, had misled the court and misused the FISA law on dozens of occasions. In a May 17, 2002 opinion, the presiding FISA Judge, Royce C. Lamberth (a Texan appointed by Ronald Reagan), barred Resnick from ever appearing before the court again. The ruling, released by Lamberth's successor, Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelley, stated in extremely strong terms, "In virtually every instance, the government's misstatements and omissions in FISA applications and violations of the Court's orders involved information sharing and unauthorized disseminations to criminal investigators and prosecutors . . . How these misrepresentations occurred remains unexplained to the court."

After the Justice Department appealed the FISC decision, the FISA Review court met for the first time in its history. The three-member review court, composed of Ralph Guy of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Edward Leavy of the 9th Circuit, and Laurence Silberman [of the Robb-Silberman Commission on 911 "intelligence failures"] of the D.C. Circuit, overturned the FISC decision on the Bush administration's wiretap requests.

Based on recent disclosures that the Bush administration has been using the NSA to conduct illegal surveillance of U.S. citizens, it is now becoming apparent what vexed the FISC to the point that it rejected, in an unprecedented manner, numerous wiretap requests and sanctioned Resnick.


Wayne Madsen is a Washington DC-based muckraking journalist and columnist. He was a communications security analyst with the National Security Agency in the 1980s, and an intelligence officer in the US Navy. His investigative reports regularly appear at his website: Wayne Madsen Report

Randall Parker said at December 31, 2005 3:45 PM:


The bulk of the people who fear the government is listening in on their phone conversations are completely uninteresting to the government. You are flattering yourself to think they care what you say.

Bob Badour said at December 31, 2005 7:21 PM:

I'd rather be watched by dogs. Australian shepherds to be precise. They watch with an eager attentiveness and never let me out of their site.

I won't get away with anything under their watchful gaze. (Unless I pony up some pig's ears or a milkbone or something.)


The real problem here is most folks are returning to complacency and are unmoved by the implications of the war against Islamism. Two major office buildings, 4 passenger jets, two or three thousand lives -- means a lot the day after but very little 4 years later. The more successful Bush is at stopping attacks on US soil, the more he opens himself up to criticism for his success.

odograph said at January 1, 2006 6:38 AM:

Randal - are you setting any limits? will they start listening to me if I send money to environmental groups?

Bob Badour - faulty logic - we don't know if "legal" or "illegal" actions stopped those attacks.

I'd guess it was the legal ones, and that the illegal ones were just feel-good side shows, distratcions, by the cognitively impaired.

(Happy New Year!)

odograph said at January 1, 2006 6:39 AM:

sorry ... "Randal" += "l"

aa2 said at January 1, 2006 2:46 PM:

Most terrorists have the ultimate code way of talking to get around 55 year old cia workers.. They speak in Arabic or some other language.

I remember when they were trying to find bin Laden in Afghanistan they realized only 2 employees in the entire CIA spoke the language of that area, which I don't even know what it is.

Bringing on a bunch of arabs and others who can speak that language raises its own set of problems.. think Ahmed Chalabi.

aa2 said at January 1, 2006 2:50 PM:

K for me personally I would much rather have intermitant terrorist attacks then destroy our rule of law, rights and freedoms. America could easily survive a 9'11 every year, and the private sector would find ways to defend against it if allowed. -They begged congress to allow pilots to carry guns in the mid-90's fearing hijackings for example.

But if the restraints are taken off the government, America would slowly but surely begin descending into third world status.

gmoke said at January 1, 2006 5:15 PM:

I flatter myself that anybody at all listens to me let alone understands anything of what I'm saying but that's another story.

Keyword monitoring has been discussed openly since the 1970s. I assume that all communications can be keyword monitored and recorded for whatever purposes that any agent of the government, legal or illegal, deigns. I believe it is as silly as not looking both ways before crossing the street not to be aware that there could be somebody somewhere listening to your and my conversations. The likelihood that any specific conversation is being recorded is small but....

Doesn't change the way I conduct my business or life. Doesn't make me feel like a bare chested revolutionary hero. Just makes me feel prudent, as George H W Bush might say.

I believe that, in general, my government cares pretty much only about my tax returns and the check that accompanies them. I believe that the present administration does not care a fig whether I live or die and that if I want any security I will have to provide it for myself (New Orleans much?). I ain't paranoid, just ready.

wcw said at January 1, 2006 5:18 PM:

Holy hannah, I love how an incompetent rhetorical attack takes me back to my high-school debate days. Thanks for making me feel twenty years younger for a minute.

One, your delightfully insulting buggy-whip declamations completely elide the issue of false positives. I noted, "the main false positives." It is a canonical sophomore's error to let the clever retort waste time better spent on actual refutation. Give the latter a try next time. Dropped arguments, for the record, are customarily scored automatically.

Two, while wasting your time mocking a constitutional argument I did not make, you forgot to address the one I did, this time making an even more elementary error. It is transparent that Bush's program violates FISA, which is, as I said, "explicitly illegal and facially unconstitutional." To spell out a point I would have thought obvious, when the President directs lawbreaking, he facially violates Article II, Section 3.

Three, in your haste to interpret the 4th Amendment as a zealous advocate for a criminal President, you neglected my actual point about protecting "the US sense of civil liberties." Illegal, warrantless datamining feels more Stasi than Patrick Henry, and I doubt all the time-machine cracks in the world would convince Ben "essential Liberty" Franklin.

If you had any actual points, I am afraid I missed them. Would you like to try again? We may approach the issue from different ideological perspectives, but that doesn't mean I am uninterested in any substantive points you may have.

Randall Parker said at January 1, 2006 5:57 PM:


You said:

GWB's illegal, warrantless NSA program is both explicitly illegal and facially unconstitutional.

Which particular NSA program do you refer to? I get the sense that a lot of people are taking the press accounts and turning their imaginations loose to imagine far more than has been reported. If by "NSA program" you refer to data mining of billions of call records to trace connections between nodes on the telecom web then is that unconstitutional? If so, (and I'd sincerely like to know) by which Supreme Court ruling(s)?

My impression is that data mining is definitely a gray area. I even linked to Heather Mac Donald (she with a J.D. from Stanford Law School btw) for some of her commentary on what is constitutional and legal in this area.

Or are you assuming the NSA must have had lots of people listening in to lots of telephone calls?

Or what exactly?

No, I did not respond to every point you make. I usually do not respond to every point that every commenter makes. If I did the comments section would be twice as long just from my own responses. That'd just bore the others and I'd hog sections that I think are mostly for readers.

I spent most of my response on this sentence fragment:

There is most likely never going to be a substitute for good, old-fashioned police work

This goes directly to the purpose of this blog (the future) and I started out responding to that by drawing analogies with other ares where machines have certainly taken over. Police work has been revolutionized by technology. Instead of complex investigations of motives some cases are solved by DNA tests and other lab tests. I expect artificial intelligences to eventually do policing far more effectively than humans can.

False positives: These are a problem for conventional policing as well. Wiretaps get ordered against innocent people. Quite innocent people get watched, their friends and neighbors get questioned, and innocents even get arrested and tried. Et cetera. But data mining probably reduces the rate of false positives by allowing filters to take account of a much much larger set of supporting facts about each person who falls under suspicion.

Why make error rates of anti-terrorist agents higher by forcing them to use less information? That's effectively what restrictions on data mining would do.

K said at January 1, 2006 9:21 PM:

aa2 wrote:
K for me personally I would much rather have intermitant terrorist attacks then destroy our rule of law, rights and freedoms. America could easily survive a 9'11 every year, and the private sector would find ways to defend against it if allowed. - They begged congress to allow pilots to carry guns in the mid-90's fearing hijackings for example.

But if the restraints are taken off the government, America would slowly but surely begin descending into third world status.

K replies:
My point was that history indicates civil liberties will be sacrificed to preserve security. Our question is - can we have both? And both, not in theory land, or idea land, but in 2006 land, in Bush land, where we live. The combinations are both, neither, security only, freedom only. How that last one would work is beyond me; but it is on Ye Olde Venn Diagram.

My other point was that civil liberties are not quite as embedded in the Constitution as many believe. In the past our courts have contorted to make interesting rulings. The peak was in WWI. What the courts ultimately may depend upon how serious they gauge the terrorist problem to be as much as upon the law.

But I must disagree that we could take 9/11 attacks repeatedly. Economically true and no one will miss 3000 people a year. But a nation's conception of itself and ability to function will disintegrate if attacks seem inevitable and unstoppable. And past that point life will not be pleasant.

The bombings of WW2 do not apply. Britain, Germany, et al. took years of pounding. But the populace had two incentives that we do not enjoy. First, the way to win was defined. The identity, manpower, resources, and methods of the enemy were known. Little was uncertain. Second, all populations believed that loss would be absolutely unbearable.

Today we have little knowledge of how to win and the population is unsure what losing would mean. Indeed, we do not know what winning will mean. Or to whom surrender would be made. I can't see repeated 9/11s as some sort of nuisance that the nation will live through.

Bigelow said at January 2, 2006 1:54 PM:

Hello 1984! The line I see everywhere is you are surprised they do bad stuff? [Do ironic pose here]
They always do bad stuff. It is old news. The other party does bad stuff too. They all do bad stuff, go back to sleep.
This is disgusting.
Happily give up more and more privacy and freedom for the security of infinite surveillance and you deserve the Totalitarian State. The U.S. citizen's motto ought to be "Bend over and smile".

John said at January 2, 2006 6:40 PM:

K sez: "Did it give rights to organized groups of "the people" or to individuals "a person". I think if it meant "a person" it would say "a person".

Interesting. The people have the right to be secure in their possessions against unreasonable searches; does that imply that an individual, a person, does not? The people have a right to petition the government for a redress of grievances; does this mean a person does not?

K said at January 2, 2006 11:33 PM:

John... excellent comment. I stick with my view that the amendment was about militia rather than individuals. But you may have the syntax edge.

I contend the Constitution is not clear enough. The second and fourth keep arguments alive, but there are many other points that should be adjusted.

The second amendment, if taken literally could mean that any weapon, even atomic bombs, can be kept by the people, or any person.

To me the problem in the fourth is mostly communications and transit. i.e. information or effects you do not physically control. Suppose you send a letter to a friend describing illegal activities. Just exactly what is your right to privacy? We know the friend is not obligated to keep your privacy. But what if, for one reason or another, the letter cannot be delivered or returned. It is opened in the dead-letter office. Are you screwed?

Suppose you put the information in a package instead. Nothing else in the package is illegal. The package is opened for safety - it is too fuzzy on the Xray. Can your note then be evidence?

The courts deal with problems like this. In the long run it is better that Congress propose amendments about chronic issues. (After 200+ years of fourth amendment cases I think it may be chronic.)

I haven't decided about the NSA business, being content to let it be studied for a while by those paid the big bucks. That gives purists fits. Too bad! Why be surprised when gray areas are exploited - that is what people do. I'm sure Teddy K can masterfully explain it all - he does have like 80 years on the judical committee.

Lono said at January 3, 2006 12:33 PM:

Sad sad commentary that we are even contemplating which way we least mind an Orwellian society being imposed upon us.

Lemme give you two facts for the uniformed out there:

1) These systems are designed to control society not defend it

2) Al-Qaeda does not exist except as a construct of the U.S. intelligence agencies

and if you can handle the likes of these two facts here's number 3:

3) 9/11 was a Reichstag event

Qui Bono, eh?

Wake up people - history has an awful tendency to repeat itself.

"First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me."

- Pastor Martin Niemöller

Jaye said at January 30, 2006 10:02 AM:

You know what else might have stopped 9-11? Having a meeting about Terrorism. There were plenty of dots out there, but the Bush Administration did a terrible job putting them together.

We are now supposed to believe that they would have done a better job monitoring two men who were living with a FBI informant if the Bush Administration could have ignored the law. Are they for real?

Heather MacDonald would gladly sacrifice her privacy and freedoms for some nebulous idea of "security." Fine, go live in China or some other country that has strong authoritarian government. She can hand over her freedoms, but she has no right to surrender mine.

The Total Information Awareness plan was not some benign project as Ms MacDonald tries to imply, and was beyond the purview of the Pentagon. It was not something a nation that prides itself on limited government would want.

She also distorted the truth about the Total Information Awareness program's history. Yes components predated Poindexter’s arrival at DARPA, but Poindexter was the one who pulled it together, and lets face it Poindexter has proven he is not one to feel constrained by the law.

It would also be great to see Ms. MacDonald take on Ms. Dowd, because Maureen would kick her ass. Its funny how a woman can rip another for being a sneering know-nothingism while being a sneering know-nothing.

Carl Barron said at December 27, 2009 11:50 AM:

How many ‘Job Tenders’ might have been intercepted and details sold to contacts for large sums of money. Was your company one of those companies who missed vital contracts to remain business due to interception of details given?

It is most likely that large International Companies, are becoming increasingly aware that all of their Business Transmissions through the UK are at risk, and important contracts may well be in jeopardy due to interception. Hence Britain now becomes a non-place to do business in by, phone, e-mail.

All political Parties are to blame for allowing (by not contesting) such abuses to run out of control and jeopardizing our country’s chances of economic survival.

Signed Carl Barron Chairman of agpcuk

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