USA Today reports that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been collecting, without warrants, the phone call records of millions of Americans, assisted by such phone companies as AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth.
The secret program is intended as a means of analyzing patterns to search for terrorist activity, even though most of the data being collected is from people who are not suspected of any crime. The scope is far greater than the White House has acknowledged; President Bush has claimed to only have authorized warrantless eavesdrops on international calls.The NSA's ultimate goal is to create a database of every U.S. call ever made. Of the larger telecommunications companies, only Qwest, which thought the legality of warrantless information collection was questionable, has refused to assist the NSA.
This news comes just months after the Bush administration acknowledged reports that it had allowed the NSA to eavesdrop on Americans communicating with people overseas without first obtaining a warrant. This feeds worries among privacy activists that the government is engaged in broad-scale data-mining activities.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a non-profit group that works on protecting privacy, contends that the phone company cannot give customer data to the federal government without a warrant.
They point to the Penn Register Statute that requires a court order for the government to capture call-detail information such as the caller, recipient, and the length and date of the call.
The Fourth Amendment of the Constitution also protects Americans' right to privacy.
The NY Times reported that in the weeks after the September 11 attacks, Vice President Dick Cheney argued that the National Security Agency should intercept purely domestic telephone calls and e-mail messages without warrants in the hunt for terrorists.
But NSA lawyers, trained in the agency's strict rules against domestic spying and reluctant to approve any eavesdropping without warrants, insisted that it should be limited to communications into and out of the country.
This is a blatant example that Americans are losing more of their freedoms, all under the guise of terrorism protection. It is the typical pattern of the government to introduce a problem, generate a reaction -- fear -- and then come up with a solution that takes away your freedom in exchange for their protection from the perceived threat.
The bird flu hoax and many others are classic examples of this pattern.
Believe me, I am no major fan of AT&T and the other big phone companies either, and the willingness of most of them to turn over your information without a second thought is a good reason why.
Interestingly though, not all phone companies complied with the government's request for this clear privacy violation. Qwest concluded that these requests violated the privacy requirements of the Telecommications Act and did not hand over any of their records to the NSA.
The reemergence of giant phone companies after their breakup many years ago is not a reassuring sign. This reassembling of the "Baby Bells" is one of the reasons you'll want to seriously consider voice-over-Internet protocol (VoIP) service. Not only is VoIP less expensive, it should reduce the government's ability to do this type of tracking and monitoring of your phone calls.
More than 2.5 million Americans have made the switch to VoIP, and I switched my personal and buisness phones over almost four years ago.
No surprise, this amazing piece of original investigation done by USA Today spread like wildfire through Capitol Hill, as legislators reacted angrily to more details coming out about the Bush administration's eavesdropping and data-mining programs.
One Massachusetts Congressman summed it up best when he called the news another telecom merger between the NSA and AT&T.
If you want to express your outrage at this major loss of personal privacy you can let your congressman know about it. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving your privacy. You can contact your congressman through a form they set up and let them know you don't want them to rubberstamp these wiretaps.
Fortunately, it seems that a signed petition is not the only challenge these companies will be facing, as Verizon is being sued for $50 billion in a federal lawsuit filed in New York on May 12.