The revelation that the government has been collecting the phone records of Verizon customers courtesy of a top secret court order has renewed debate on an issue the United States has been struggling with since 9/11: how to balance national security with citizens' civil liberties and right to privacy. The order made it legal for the telecommunications company to turn over metadata from users' phone conversations, including phone numbers, location, time and duration of all calls. The actual content of the calls is not included.
The blogosphere reacted to the report, and what it means for the public, the future of government surveillance and an Obama administration known for aggressively pursuing leaks:
Andrew Kirell at Mediaite said the Obama administration's program shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone:
In the post-9/11 world, the US government has increasingly found ways to expand its surveillance capabilities through secretive court orders, malleable standards, and blanket laws — seemingly without restraint. This latest NSA news, as broken by the venerable Glenn Greenwald, only serves to confirm what civil libertarians have long suspected: the NSA has repeatedly engaged in massive surveillance of domestic communications of millions of Americans, regardless of whether they are suspected of a crime.
This latest example of Obama overreach is sure to rankle the feathers of conservatives already rightfully disturbed by the DOJ's extensive snooping on journalists and the IRS's intentional targeting of tea party organizations. While many of these same conservatives were rah-rah'ing the expansion of the NSA and United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court during the Bush years, it is a pleasant change to see them finally care about FISA. Welcome aboard.
Gerg Weiner of Library of Law and Liberty said that our political culture's obsession over blame makes it difficult for leaders to strike a balance between national security and privacy invasion:
[W]hen the Obama Administration first met to review the NSA snooping program, it almost certainly went down like this: "Mr. President, this program has ensnared the following plots. Without it, they would have gone forward. Do you want to be responsible for the attacks that proceed because this program was canceled?"
Setting aside the question of whether the plots could have been otherwise foiled, any president is going to feel placed in an impossible position by the challenge—except, that is, a president willing to treat the public like adults. Since we seem bent on treating presidents like father figures anyway, why not look to one for a teachable moment, as in: "The world is big and scary, and the only way I can protect you against every eventuality is to limit your liberty to a degree that ought to be unacceptable to us both. So let's strike a grown-up bargain: I don't attempt to invade your lives and you don't hold me responsible for that which I can't control without invading your lives."
James Joyner of Outside the Beltway said it all depends upon whether or not the government is truly collecting mass amounts of data, or if they are using the court order to get around obtaining warrants to monitor specific individuals:
Despite my libertarian leanings, I'm not convinced this is outrageous. As with the Bush program, it strikes me as potentially defensible depending on how it's used. That is, I have no inherent problem with pure "data mining." If all the government is doing is collecting mass amounts of phone record data and then sifting it using computer algorithms for patterns that comport with known terrorist habits, I'm not sure why that's problematic. Nobody's privacy is meaningfully invaded if that's all that's happening. If, on the other hand, individuals are being targeted without reasonable suspicion and the mass collection is a way to get around the requirement to prove the need for a warrant, then this is outrageous and unconstitutional. And, of course, even if the intent is the former, the mere possession of this information leads to the possibility of rogue agents abusing it. But that may well be outweighed by the intelligence value.