The National Security Agency (NSA) is obtaining a complete set of users' phone records from Verizon by means of a secret court order under the auspices of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), so reports the UK Guardian. We are assured by President Obama that no one is actually listening to the calls. This is being overseen by the FISA court, you see. That would be the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court overseeing a program to gather data about domestic phone calls. But the kind of data being collected by the government is just metadata, and so nothing to worry about. So says Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).
Simply put, metadata is data about data. Here's an experiment involving metadata that you can carry out with relative safety. Visit this website: Numberguru. Put your own 10 digit phone number in the box that says Phone Number and click Search. Most people will see where the phone is, most likely billing address, carrier, and if any negative comments have been recorded about the number. Geographical area, public comments related to the number, and carrier are all metadata. The name of the person who owns the number is data, not metadata. Is the actual phone number metadata? That would probably depend on how the FISA court defines metadata in the secret order to Verizon to turn the records over. The secret court order from the secret court is, unfortunately, secret. So who knows?
But let's say phone numbers are metadata, not data, and can be obtained under the same FISA court document. Back to NumberGuru, most people will see a prominent button that says Show Name. Clicking this leads to another website where, for a fee, you can find out who owns the number. This is how many steps it takes to get from metadata to data. But the government needs to obtain a warrant to get the actual data. A warrant issued by a FISA court, no doubt. Feeling better now?
At least an American citizen can send and receive mail in private, right? It's called sanctity of the mail, or something like that. In a word, no; American citizens do not have this degree of privacy according to The Smoking Gun. USPS employs a Mail Isolation Control and Tracking (MICT) program. MICT photographs each flat piece of mail and each package handled by USPS. Ah, but to get any use out of that someone would need to manually go through all of those photographs and interpret them all, right? Sadly, no, it isn't nearly that difficult. Here's another website to visit where you can watch a short video about a class of software called Intelligent Capture that you can buy for your own business: Captiva.
To review, there is software on the market, available to anyone, that can examine printed or handwritten documents, collect the data, organize the data, and share the data within the entire organization. It is not clear whether the government is using this particular family of software or not, but is it that much of a stretch to suggest that they are using something like it?
Let's go back to 2005. George W. Bush had been re-elected president the previous year. The price of gas hit a whopping $3.07 following Hurricane Katrina. USPS was still turning a profit, albeit down from the previous year. In 2005 USPS entered an agreement to acquire some technology from EMC. USPS needed this technology to help manage explosive growth and increasing complexity of information under management. EMC makes some really great mass storage systems, so it only made sense that USPS should by from this great American company.
EMC acquired Captiva, the Intelligent Capture company, in October, 2005. At any point in the transaction between USPS and EMC was there a single thought that this technology could be used to gather metadata on American citizens? If so, was there any discussion that the technology could be used to gather metadata about American citizens without their knowledge or consent? Probably not; it was probably nothing more than people doing what they know, trying to do the best job that they can in a competitive environment. USPS needs to meet an obligation to deliver mail, and EMC needs to meet an obligation to return a profit to stockholders.
But could this technology be used for nefarious purposes? Could metadata about mail be gathered and processed as easily as metadata about telephone conversations?
The last questions were rhetorical. The real question is who defends the individual when government begins to see citizens as resources. The FISA law was passed in 1978 by a Democrat president and a Democrat Congress. The law was amended in 2001 by the USA Patriot Act, passed by a Republican president with a Republican House of Representatives and a 50/50 Senate.
But the loss of privacy to the greater good as defined by those in power to dictate the greater good has been going on much longer. The predecessor of the IRS was formed in 1862 to collect funds to pay for the Civil War. After some fits and starts in the late nineteenth century, it got going in a big way following the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913, and formally became known as the Internal Revenue Service in 1918. This is the agency that will soon become responsible for monitoring your health records.
The IRS will collect this data about every citizen under the auspices of the Affordable Healthcare Act, more commonly known as ObamaCare. Because the law is essentially a tax (after all, so says Chief Justice Roberts), it only makes sense that the IRS should manage all of that data. As we learned from the video earlier, the technology is there for that data to be shared among departments easily and efficiently. Is there a plan to use this information against American citizens? No evidence supporting this is apparent, but the possibility that it could be used in this way exists. The technology is simply a tool; tools can be used for whatever purpose the craftsman chooses.
Just over one hundred years ago there was a struggle whether government could tax at all. Today, by force of law and judicial dictate, the government has the unlimited power to tax. There is no limit to amount or form, and the power to collect whatever tax is imposed is also unlimited. Have we arrived at a point where the government takes not only income and property in the form of taxes, but also information? If so, do property rights exist in an age of big metadata?
Tom Bruner has no professional or personal relationship with Number Guru, EMC Captiva, IRS, or USPS beyond the normal extent enjoyed by anyone.