Data Security and War Support

Article excerpt


For three reasons, there is a sad quality in recent headlines concerning the National Security Agency sucking billions of telephone records into a monster governmental database and stories of police buying telephone records from information brokers to save time.

* First, and most important, these concerns can undermine investigation techniques which actually can work and enjoy public support. The debate over the legality of this extreme NSA intrusion, the lack of oversight of NSA methods and the selling of private information, seriously endanger public belief in and acceptance of necessary telephone data searches. Wholesale intrusion erodes public trust not only in security and intelligence services but also in telephone companies, whose executives now find their companies face billion-dollar lawsuits.

* Second, such a trawl through private records is not only unnecessary to achieve results from telephone investigation but worse: If as reported, the NSA data are not complete, it would be very difficult to identify meaningful call patterns of, for example, a terrorist cell.

All the data should be left where they are and searched from there with speed and accuracy. The key is all the data. Not some. Not quite a bit. Nothing less than all. Without all the records, search patterns are, at best, flawed.

* Third, since the NSA will seldom share its entire "product" immediately with federal, state and local police, those on the frontline of any operations, it undermines the latter's ability to see the full picture and do their jobs accordingly. Further, law enforcement is frustrated by the time it takes telecoms to respond to subpoenas, so they turn to unreliable and unmonitored third parties to obtain required data.

It would be far more efficient and acceptable to have telephone data investigation systems directly support law enforcement and the intelligence community, rather than have some data collected in a top-secret supercomputer and the rest obtained by dubious means.

There is much debate about the legality, even constitutionality, of the NSA trawl. Some argue the FISA laws already accommodate these data-collection exercises or, if not, it is a straightforward task to propose amendments. This would be a justified debate if one could at least argue it works. But does it really? That's a key question I hear few ask.

FBI Director Robert Mueller, said in April 2002: "[The September 11 hijackers] used hundreds of different pay phones and cell phones, often with prepaid calling cards that are extremely difficult to trace. In short, the terrorists had managed to exploit loopholes and vulnerabilities in our systems, to stay out of sight, and to not let anyone know what they were up to beyond a very closed circle. …