The NSA, Metadata and Straw Men

For the people expecting President Barack Obama to announce sweeping changes to the NSA’s surveillance programs, his speech on Friday likely was a major disappointment. Obama laid out some new controls and limits for some of the more controversial programs, specifically the phone metadata collection system, but much of the speech focused on why the NSA’s programs work and why the existing oversight keeps it in check. Many privacy advocates and former intelligence officials decried the changes as window dressing, but in the wake of his speech, it’s become clear that some key government officials support Obama’s position and see little need for reform.

The metadata program has become the poster child for the NSA’s alleged abuses, overreaching and invasions of privacy. The program enables the agency to collect hundreds of millions of phone records from mobile providers every month and store them, under the theory that the agency might at some point need to query that database and see whether there are any calls that could pertain to a terror investigation. Obama announced some new limits on the ways those queries work and also said the government should no longer store that data, but it should instead rest with some third party. The message from Obama was clear: this program is not going away.

“I believe it is important that the capability that this program is designed to meet is preserved,” Obama said.

Two days later, Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Diane Feinstein, Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, appeared together on TV to discuss the president’s proposed reforms, and an interesting thing happened: they agreed. Asked whether the NSA metadata program would be killed, Feinstein said she couldn’t see it happening and believed that the program was necessary and appropriate.

“I don’t believe so. The president has very clearly said he wants to keep the capability,” Feinstein said. “We would agree with him. The NSA are professionals. They are vetted and carefully supervised.”

“The most important victory was the president standing up and saying the program didn’t have abuses,” Rogers said in the interview on Meet the Press.

As the chairs of the powerful intelligence committees, both Rogers and Feinstein have had classified knowledge of the NSA’s programs for years now, so the revelations have the last few months would have come as little surprise to them. They’ve had months and years to construct their positions on this issue, and what they came up with was an echo of a talking point. Metadata collection is important because it could prevent a terror attack. It never has, mind you, but it could.

Feinstein, who in Senate hearings has consistently defended the NSA and its programs, has used a variety of different arguments to support her position, including the debunked story line that metadata collection could have prevented 9/11. But she broke out a new one on Sunday, saying that the government is actually less of a threat to users’ privacy than corporate America is.

“When you look at what companies collect, the government doesn’t seem to be a major offender at all,” she said.

This is an argument that will be familiar to every parent on earth. It’s the equivalent of a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar saying, “But I only took one! Johnny took five!” While Feinstein’s statements may have some kernel of truth to them, her argument doesn’t hold up. Users typically have some level of awareness that they’re giving up data to ad companies, mobile phone carriers, Google, Apple and other companies. It’s the foundation of the Internet economy. We trade our personal information for convenience, discounts and access. But in the case of the NSA’s collection methods, only a tiny fraction of the population had any idea before these leaks started that the agency was amassing astounding quantities of data on Americans’ online activities, and those who did were in no position to discuss it.

But now that these programs are common knowledge and we’ve seen their scope and reach, using data collection by private companies as a distraction from the NSA’s activities is disingenuous. Certainly private companies collect massive amounts of data on their customers, and that’s a serious problem in its own right. But the government is not a for-profit organization and it’s meant to protect its citizens, not to treat them as suspects in pre-crime scenarios. Change, not misdirection, is what’s needed.

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