The U.S. government is trying “to create a database of every [phone] call ever made.”
That’s how one informed person described the National Security Agency’s effort to USA Today. That newspaper also confirmed that not only is the government collecting every phone record from Verizon — as first reported by the British newspaper The Guardian — but it’s also collecting similar data from other phone companies.
It’s important to emphasize that the NSA isn’t listening to the content of these calls. Indeed, it couldn’t if it wanted to, given the sheer volume of conversations. It’d be like one person trying to eavesdrop on every single conversation in a packed football stadium.
The revelation has caused some giddiness among President Obama’s critics. This news is just the latest example of how so much of Obama’s “change we can believe in” has really been “continuity kept secret from us.” As a senator and presidential candidate, Obama routinely tore into the Patriot Act as if it was worse than the Espionage Act of 1917. Now, not only is he using the Patriot Act to spy on, well, pretty much everyone, his Justice Department actually used the Espionage Act to label a journalist a possible co-conspirator in espionage.
But after the schadenfreude wears off, the question remains: Is this bad policy? Just because Obama might be a hypocrite for employing the tactics he decried when his predecessor used them, it doesn’t mean he’s wrong. One can flip-flop from the wrong position to the right one.
Andrew McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor (he put away the “Blind Sheikh” who masterminded the first World Trade Center bombing), makes a strong case that the NSA program is not only legal, important and necessary, but also that the outrage over these revelations is overblown. Phone records — as opposed to the content of phone conversations — are not private under the Fourth Amendment. Moreover, the “metadata” collected by the NSA is essential for tracking terrorists’ patterns before they attack.
After every terrorist attack, everyone always asks, “Why didn’t the government connect the dots?” Well, what the NSA is doing is connecting dots. Moreover, McCarthy notes in his National Review Online article, this is no rogue operation. It’s true, every branch of government was kept in the loop. Congressional leadership was briefed. The administration sought these warrants from a judge. This isn’t a scandal so much as it is a controversy over a legal policy. To which I say, fair enough.
For McCarthy, the “problem here is not government power. It is the government officials we’ve elected to wield it.”
Still, I think McCarthy’s missing something. No, I don’t have much confidence in this administration. But I don’t have an abundance of confidence in government generally. That’s one of the things I love about America: The default position is to be skeptical of government, no matter who’s in charge.
Necessity may be the mother of invention, but sometimes it can work the other way around. Invention creates obligations and opportunities that never existed before. Fifty years ago, nobody needed to charge their cellphones — because they didn’t have cellphones. Before the smallpox vaccine was invented, it would never have occurred to someone in government to require that all children be inoculated for smallpox. I’m not against mandatory inoculations; my point is to illustrate that invention often creates new necessities.
The arrival of “big data” — the ability to crunch massive amounts of information to find patterns and, ultimately, to manipulate human behavior — creates opportunities for government (and corporations) that were literally unimaginable not long ago. Behavioral economists, neuroscientists and liberal policy wonks have already fallen in love with the idea of using these new technologies and insights to “nudge” Americans into making “better” decisions. No doubt some of these decisions really are better, but the scare quotes are necessary because the final arbiters of what constitutes the right choice are the would-be social engineers.
Until recently there was great anonymity in crowds. But the near-magic of math has changed that equation. Given a big enough data set, data-crunchers can figure out a great deal about every face in the crowd.
I’m no Luddite. Just because government could, in theory, poison people doesn’t mean it shouldn’t, in practice, inoculate people. But we’re in uncharted territory, and a healthy dose of old-fashioned American skepticism seems warranted, no matter who’s in charge.
JONAH GOLDBERG’s column is distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc.