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Don’t blame the phone company

Posted: June 7, 2013 10:28 a.m.
Updated: June 10, 2013 5:00 a.m.

 

A lot of people have become outraged at the idea that Verizon is turning over -- on a daily basis -- huge amounts of data to the National Security Agency (NSA) tied to American cell and other phone usage.

Even former Star Trek: The Next Generation actor Wil Wheaton -- who has a great online following thanks to his missives about everything from parenthood to gaming -- expressed his outrage.

“I’ve been a Verizon customer for almost a decade and I’m cancelling tomorrow, taking all my personal and business lines somewhere else,” he shared on Facebook. “I encourage you to do the same, so there is a mass exodus from Verizon -- I’m talking in the tens of thousands if not more -- to signal to wireless providers and the politicians that they bankroll that we as consumers and voters won’t tolerate this.”

I actually commented on his post: “Wil, I appreciate your passion about this. As a Verizon customer, I’m upset, too, but this is not the company’s fault as far as I can tell. It’s the government and traces back to the implementation of the Patriot Act more than a decade ago. I’m a newspaper editor for a three times weekly -- back when I was still just a reporter, I wrote a column warning about the possible negative consequences of that legislation ... and here we are. If we must criticize Verizon in any way it might be -- and I don’t know that they didn’t -- fight this harder.”

Unfortunately, the combination of my old way of filing my columns and the loss of our online archives when we switched to our new website in 2010 means I can’t find my old column to tell you exactly what I wrote back then.

In any case, my point to Wheaton -- one that many other fans made as well -- is that Verizon isn’t at fault here. It’s NSA and other government agencies, not to mention the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) that grants orders like this one.

Verizon had no choice but to agree to turn over the data.

The most recent order, according to The Guardian, the British newspaper that broke the story, was granted April 25 for approximately three months to end on July 19.

“Under the terms of the blanket order, the numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as is location data, call duration, unique identifiers and duration of all calls. The contents of the conversation itself are not covered,” The Guardian reported Wednesday.

The Washington Post covered the story Thursday, with commentary from former NSA employees. One, former analyst Kirk Wiebe, told the Post he quit the agency after 9/11 because the NSA wasn’t effectively analyzing large amounts of data nor with the proper privacy protections. Wiebe also pointed out that Verizon is likely not the only carrier having to comply with such orders. Another former NSA employee, Thomas Drake, said such orders are routine. The only surprise this time was that the public was made aware of the order.

Wiebe said he thinks the vast scale of the NSA’s current data mining operation -- a fellow colleague who left at the same time he did estimates it’s 3 billion calls a day -- means the NSA “isn’t doing things right.”

In a separate Facebook post of my own linking to the Post article, I wrote the following:

“Sadly, I’m not surprised. As a Verizon customer, I’m outraged that my service provider is forced to hand over anything about my activity to any government agency under these conditions.... My bottom line has always been: does the end justify the means and does legislation borne of the kind of fear generated 12 years ago truly serve the United States of America.”

One comment to my post was that we shouldn’t care if it means less terrorism. My response:

“I’m all for fighting terrorism, but not necessarily to the point of having our rights, freedoms and privacy compromised at this level. A line has to be drawn somewhere. I’ve read (or heard) somewhere that terrorism wins when the terror felt is strong enough to compromise your principles in an effort to fight back. Parts of our government compromised some of our country’s principles when it drafted and passed the Patriot Act, in my opinion.”

As an example of what I’m talking about, the Post published a separate article Thursday relating the contents of a top-secret document showing that the NSA and U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation are “tapping directly into the servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, emails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets.”

The companies whose servers were tapped: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple.

As with the Patriot Act, it is Congress that made this possible through the Protect America Act (2007) and FISA Amendments Act of 2008. The only saving grace appears to be that only foreign communication was targeted, but the precedent has been set.

I don’t have a problem with protecting America, but it should not be done at this level, this way. Certainly, there should be no such thing as a secret court and secret court orders. Some of the companies involved -- Facebook, for one -- denied allowing direct access to their servers.

There’s a chance the Post’s sources aren’t being entirely accurate. Still, if you’re upset about all this, as I am, blame those in government who allow this to happen and not the companies being forced to go along with it.

 

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