As you may have heard, it appears the government is keeping track of many if not all of the phone calls made in the US. This is supposed to help defeat Al Qaeda, though I’m not clear how – the President says it’s not fishing or data mining, but the reason to collect such large data sets is almost by definition data mining.
Some important things come out of this. First, if it isn’t illegal for the government to do, it appears it is for the phone companies. There has been a negative bi-partisan reaction to the news, though a poll released today suggests that a majority of Americans are in favor of this (not, as the linked article claims, ‘most’, but certainly a very significant number), so it shouldn’t be long before Republicans at least start to back away from that (“What, you don’t mind? Really? Well obviously I’ve been pushing for this for some time now…”)
I’m a little conflicted about the whole thing. I understand that it’s not much of a sacrifice of my liberties, not least because even if there was something generally questionable in there (a call to a dominatrix, for example, and no I don’t have the number of one) it’s unlikely to be questionable enough to actually gain attention. And while I see the wisdom in it, I’m greatly irritated by the quote attributed to Franklin that “those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety”.
On the other hand, I think distrust of the government is one of the healthiest characteristics of any citizen. I don’t doubt that all governments do things that would be seen as unacceptable by the people, and that these things are at least notionally done in the name of those same people. Yet every new revelation about how far the government goes highlights just how much further they must have gone behind closed doors, and that says nothing about whether their aims are ultimately just or not.
If the government is tracking all these calls, and if as has been suggested the size of the database they’ve amassed can’t be explained just by raw data on to/from/duration, then it seems naive in the extreme to assume that they aren’t recording at least some portion of the calls. And given their track record so far, I see no reason to think that such recordings will be meaningfully restricted to potential terrorists.