Friday, August 23, 2013

Our privacy is an important issue

There is the story of the little girl who, during the Camp David Peace talks of the 1970s that pre-empted her favorite TV shows, said to her father: “I know it’s important Daddy, but it’s boring.”

Well, the discussion about your First and Fourth Amendment rights is anything but scintillating, and the revelations — shocking, really — about the extent to which the federal National Security Agency has gathered information about private citizens seems to be eliciting little more than a collective yawn from the general public.

Nevertheless, someone needs to pay attention.

And there was  good news this week from the give-credit-where-credit-is-due category. 

The federal government launched “IC ON THE RECORD” with  the goal of providing the public with direct access to factual information related to the surveillance activities carried out by the intelligence community.

At the same time, the NSA declassified three secret U.S. court opinions Wednesday showing how it obtained as many as 56,000 emails and other communications by Americans with no connection to terrorism annually over three years, how it revealed the error to the court and changed how it gathered Internet communications.

The opinions show that when the NSA reported that to the court in 2011, the court ordered the NSA to find ways to limit what it collects and how long it keeps it.

The NSA reported the problems it discovered in how it was gathering Internet communications to the court and shortly thereafter to Congress in the fall of 2011, according to the Associated Press.

Three senior U.S. intelligence officials said  that the NSA realized that when it was gathering up bundled Internet communications from fiber optic cables, with the cooperation of telecommunications providers like AT&T, that it was often collecting thousands of emails or other Internet transactions by Americans who had no connection to the intended terror target being tracked.

While the NSA is allowed to keep the metadata — the address or phone number and the duration, but not the content, of the communication — of Americans for up to five years, the court ruled that when it gathered up such large packets of information, they included actual emails between American citizens, it violated the Constitution’s ban against unauthorized search and seizure.

In the opinion by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court denouncing the practice, the judge wrote that the NSA had advised the court that “the volume and nature of the information it had been collecting is fundamentally different than what the court had been led to believe,” and went on to say the court must consider “whether targeting and minimization procedures comport with the Fourth Amendment.”

Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan warned about complacency on the subject of privacy.

“The end of the expectation that citizens' communications are and will remain private will probably change us as a people, and a country,” she wrote.

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