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Sunday, May 14, 2006

Government Intrusion into Privacy

The "NSA domestic wiretapping" story is the latest in the on-going parade of manufactured "get Bush" campaigns orchestrated by liberals and their publicists who masquerade as objective reporters in the lame-stream media. The hysterical media frenzy is nothing more than the latest political mud that has been thrown on the President and the Republican party in the hope that it will stick. It will not because, like the others that preceded it, the story is long on hype and short on truth.

Liberals are whining about alleged violations of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments which, among other things, protect citizens from self-incrimination and unwarranted searches of their persons or property by the government. This argument is not valid as, for one, the information sought by the NSA belongs to the phone company, not the citizen. While citizens do have legal protections against the misuse of such information they do not own or control the data or its dissemination. On the other hand, the phone companies are regulated (and often over-regulated) by several government agencies and are obliged to cooperate with the government under certain circumstances.

Setting aside the fact that there is no constitutional right to privacy per se (you can get the text of the constitution from several sources on line and search the text yourself for "privacy"), the liberal hand wringers completely ignore the fact that nobody's privacy is violated under the NSA program. The program essentially just collects a population of ordered pairs of call sources and destinations. These are just a collection of numbers (a whole lot of them) that are meaningless unless and until a given number is associated with a person or entity. These numbers are generally phone company proprietary codes (e.g. the numbers are assigned, tracked, and interpreted by individual phone companies, not the government) and are not the same as the numbers one would enter into their phone to call a given person. In other words, the government does not know who or what a given transaction number represents until it is interpreted by the phone company that generated the data.

The government knows the significance of only a relatively small subset of the billions of numbers that are collected. This information has been garnered through the lawful arrest of known terrorists in the US and abroad, raids on terrorists camps by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan (including data captured from Sadaam Hussein's govenment), and intelligence operations. The NSA program filters out call transactions that involve identification numbers associated with known terrorists. If a given transaction involves another number not on the known list it may be subjected to further statistical analysis against other transactions and, if a pattern is detected, may be kicked out for further investigation.

The software that processes the information is efficiently dispassionate and sophisticated enough to detect whether or not a given call had a reasonably high probability of being linked to terrorist communication. For example, if a salesman randomly called on one of Osama's minions to try to sell him aluminum siding as one of several similar calls to others in the same calling area, the salesman would probably never be tagged as being suspicious because there would be no statistically significant pattern. If, however, the salesman was repeatedly calling several known terrorists he would probably be flagged for investigation.

While the practice of data mining has become more sophisticated through technological advancement, the practice is not new. For example, in the 1970's a major break in the hunt for a serial killer came when the analysis of oil company credit card usage data showed a statistical correlation between the movements of Ted Bundy and the disappearance of the victims. Bundy was one of many suspects being watched but, until he was tagged by the data analysis, investigators had little or nothing to direct their attention toward him over any of the other suspects. Undoubtedly the oil company data identified the gasoline purchases of thousands of other people (some that may have been using their vehicles to travel to destinations that they would rather not have known by spouses or law enforcement) interspersed with the data for Bundy. This data was electronically rummaged through in the processing of identifying Bundy as a murder suspect but, because the analysis process was looking for a specific pattern, the "privacy" of the others was not violated. Though the scale of the NSA program is much larger the same principle applies.

Basically the NSA program is no more intrusive on the privacy of innocent citizens than the use of traffic cameras on our highways. If you travel the main arteries of the cities the image of your vehicle is probably captured hundreds of times a week. Even worse, if you utilize the HOV lanes and have an electronic detector on your vehicle every trip through the interchange is logged for billing purposes. Does the general public have a problem if, after a hit-and-run occurs, the traffic camera and HOV billing data is used to identify and apprehend the perpetrator?

It's interesting how many of the hysterical liberals who are suggesting that President Bush's approval of the NSA program may be grounds for impeachment are the same people who claimed the President failed to "connect the dots" before 9/11. James Lileks, a local blogger and newspaper columnist, summed it up well this week on Hugh Hewitt's radio program when he stated that the liberals "want Bush to connect the dots but don't want him to collect the dots". They apparently think that the "dots" are just going to voluntarily present themselves to the government for connection.

Clearly this non-issue of "government spying" and "violation of privacy" is nothing more than the latest effort by the left to politically damage the President. It's pretty sad that the people behind this campaign are too stupid to realize, or could care less, that their smear campaigns are hampering the war on terror. If the libs are serious about fighting government intrusion of privacy, they should direct their wrath toward the IRS rather than at the NSA. Form 1040 and the accompanying plethora of attachments that citizens "voluntarily" submit to the government every year contains many more real violations of privacy that would appear to be protected by the Fourth and Fifth Amendments than anything the NSA can derive from phone records.

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