The big news of the day about the National Security Agency (NSA) datamining hundreds of millions of phone records with the direct cooperation of U.S. telecommunications corporations seem to push this issue far enough in the public's face that president George W. Bush actually took the time to read a brief statement before hopping on air force one for a post-Katrina photo junket. The prepared statement was undoubtedly crafted for the benefit of cable and nightly news soundbytes to give the Bushworld side of this.
I can appreciate the value of getting the NSA story out to the public in venues with larger audiences, like USA Today and Good Morning America. Many Americans don't go online, and don't read news only two minutes old, and don't read news alerts in their email, and they certainly don't read any of a million blogs with endless opinion and commentary. Many Americans need to be reminded to sign up for Medicare part D by the May 15th deadline with TV and print newspaper stories and advertisements.
To be honest, I think it's great that the non-digital demographic is starting to pay attention to this issue. Oftentimes, the younger crowd is either too self-absorbed or apathetic to some issues about the nature of our country. Older people, with a sense of history, often take a great interest in it.
Other than some policy wonks in cyber rights, law, constitutional issues, or politics -- and conspiracy theorists -- most of the general public had no interest in this issue. Many people simply channel surf among evening TV news outlets while trying to relax and have dinner. Apparently, "keep me safe" and "keep gas affordable" are the top Pavlovian soundbytes expected while dining.
In politics, this story is news not only for reaching a wider audience, but also because of the upcoming confirmation hearings for CIA director. The Bush nominee, General Michael Hayden, will likely have to dodge questions concerning the scope and nature of the NSA programs. Call it "warrantless wiretapping," "terrorist surveillance," or "impeachable high crimes." It doesn't matter. Label it in the languages of the libertarian, dittohead or moonbat, the Puzzle Palace datamining of phone records is just the tip of the data iceberg.
In December 2005, the story broke in the New York Times -- six months ago. The Democrusader immediately responded by trotting out Alberto Gonzales (DOJ) and General Hayden (DNI) for the dog and pony show. You might have missed that.
Days later, Senate Judiciary committee member Joseph Biden had an Op-Ed in the Miami Herald on January 1st, "No President is Above Our Constitution." Perhaps you were too hung over to read a newspaper that day.
The president is taking actions incompatible with the expressed will of Congress and the intent of the Constitution .... The president needs to stop this unconstitutional, and, I believe, illegal expansion of executive power. No president is limitless in his power.
The term datamining, itself, came swimming up to the public focus around the time of the 911 Commission and the news about a military program called Able Danger. It was talked about in Congress quite a bit by Representative Curt Weldon and in his book, Countdown to Terror. Some history of the pre-911 datamining ops of the military by Able Danger can be found on the Early Warning Washington Post blog of William M. Arkin -- history, demise, and future impacts.
Outside of normal oversight, the DOD has been using the excuse of force protection to physically surveil U.S. persons for some time. These programs are generally done in secret. Since no politician is going to cut the defense budget, don't expect this activity to change anytime soon.
People in business and marketing have also used datamining for some time. Did you know that the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a class action lawsuit against one of the telecom giants, AT&T, over this NSA privacy issue? Don't you also remember the fight between DOJ and Google over your surfing habits?
Most online Terms of Service and Privacy statements generally strike a mutual bargain between the use of the service and the privacy of your data. When your personal data is commonly being sold or given away for doing evil, or stupid things, Google is the exception to the rule. Just about every company quickly co-operates with any idea law enforcement or governmental security concerns put forth. Terrorists and Sexual Predators are the popular bogeymen to use in order to ignore the U.S. Constitution and laws.
Honestly, I think the majority of people leading corporations fold immediately because they don't want any trouble from the government at all, especially after seeing the Enron example. Only the minority actually have to wait to fold after subtle insuation of greater legal hassles by an alphabet of federal agency acronyms, like EPA, or IRS, or FTC, or SEC, or DOJ, or FBI. Even more rare is the corporation that tells the government to fuck off and try again.
By February, this fun fact wasn't aired much in the local TV news, but it did get published in Government Security News magazine. Here is an excerpt from Jacob Goodwin's article, "Wal-Mart defends itself with new intel unit," in which he interviews David Harrison of the Wal-Mart Analytical Research Center:
The company maintains personal data – names, addresses, social security numbers – on its 1.6 million current employees; millions of additional former employees; and 47 million members of its Sam's Club operations. It keeps records of anyone who has tried to use fraudulent checks or filed a claim against Wall-Mart; anyone who uses a Wal-Mart's pharmacy; as well as the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), license plate number and home address of any motorist who has had his automobile's oil changed at a Wal-Mart, said Harrison.
Even more noteworthy, Wal-Mart keeps track of any customer who has a history of buying propane tanks at its stores or anyone making "bulk purchases" of prepaid handheld cell phones, which some law enforcement officials have tied in the past to terrorist or criminal activities. "If you try to buy more than three cell phones at one time, it will be tracked," said Harrison.
The vast majority of the data being collected by Wal-Mart is not currently being used for any investigation purposes, said Harrison, but the company would be willing to cooperate with law enforcement officials, if necessary, to fight terrorism, or to defend itself against criminal activity.
Let's not debate the wrong thing. Security and Civil Liberties are not mutally exclusve of each other, no matter what entity wishes to erode your constitutional rights for whatever reason. Don't let the NSA, Walmart, or Bushworld make excuses to do it to you.
Believe or not, the erosion of civil liberties under Bush has become so bad that the idea of a rebel alliance between the far left and the far right is gaining popularity. The unchecked reality of an all-powerful American Emperor/Dictator/CEO president isn't what most Americans want.