Sunday, February 05, 2006

Big Brother is watching

Tomorrow begins the Senate Judiciary Committee's Hearing on the NSA's wiretapping program. So far, there's only one witness on the list--Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The Senate committee could (and should) subpeona telecommunications companies. If there's any more evidence that these people are in the pockets of the Republicans, it's their silence:

Tapped Out - Why Congress won't get through to the NSA. By Patrick Radden Keefe
The ranking Democrat on the House judiciary committee, John Conyers, D-Mich., wrote to 20 telecom companies and Internet providers two weeks ago, asking about their involvement in the NSA program. He has yet to receive any responses. But if representatives of those companies were subpoenaed by the Senate committee, for public-relations and legal reasons, they would have to appear. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights nonprofit, just launched a class-action lawsuit against AT&T, alleging that the company let the NSA access its powerful database of customer call information. A corporation can't hide from that sort of bad publicity forever, and it would look decidedly dodgy if the telecom CEOs refused to show up.
It's unlikely, however that the committee will take the next necessary step and subpoena the executives. Why not write your senators and ask them to do so?

The EFF is doing the job our government should be doing. They've filed a class-action suit against AT&T.

The article quoted from above compares the current hearing to the Church committee hearings from the Vietnam era which eventually led to the creation of FISA. It's distressing to see how much backbone we've all lost. Maybe you could fight with your pocketbooks too. Check your privacy statements on your telephone accounts and then write those companies, telling them that you won't do business with them if they do business with the NSA.

The worst part about the whole NSA wiretapping program is that time and time again, people say it's not even effective:

Surveillance Net Yields Few Suspects
The scale of warrantless surveillance, and the high proportion of bystanders swept in, sheds new light on Bush's circumvention of the courts. National security lawyers, in and out of government, said the washout rate raised fresh doubts about the program's lawfulness under the Fourth Amendment, because a search cannot be judged "reasonable" if it is based on evidence that experience shows to be unreliable. Other officials said the disclosures might shift the terms of public debate, altering perceptions about the balance between privacy lost and security gained.
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The minimum legal definition of probable cause, said a government official who has studied the program closely, is that evidence used to support eavesdropping ought to turn out to be "right for one out of every two guys at least." Those who devised the surveillance plan, the official said, "knew they could never meet that standard -- that's why they didn't go through" the court that supervises the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.

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But pattern matching, he argued, will not find it. Techniques that "look at people's behavior to predict terrorist intent," he said, "are so far from reaching the level of accuracy that's necessary that I see them as nothing but civil liberty infringement engines."

"Frankly, we'll probably be wrong 99 percent of the time," he said, "but 1 percent is far better than 1 in 100 million times if you were just guessing at random. And this is where the culture has to make some decisions."
Gonzales, of course, claims that the media is all wrong:

TIME.com: How Gonzales Plans to Defend Eavesdropping -- Page 1
"Contrary to the speculation reflected in some media reporting," Gonzales writes, "the terrorist surveillance program is not a dragnet that sucks in all conversations and uses computer searches to pick out calls of interest. No communications are intercepted unless first it is determined that one end of the call is outside of the country and professional intelligence experts have probable cause (that is, ‘reasonable grounds to believe') that a party to the communication is a member or agent of al-Qaeda or an affiliated terrorist organization."
But knowing what I know of how much upper level management understands about the nitty gritty of how technology tools work, I'd say it's more likely that Gonzales is deluding himself. The White House may be hoping that the program doesn't work the way the media says it does, that is sweeping up data fairly indiscriminately, but it's probable that computers just aren't that smart yet. And knowing that Dear Leader doesn't like to be contradicted, it's equally likely that the NSA has told him, even though it's not true, that the program works in a targeted way.

I think we have to fight this. Here's the main committee page on the hearing itself--pretty much empty:
United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary

And here's the list of members. Write them. And then in 2006, vote against the ones who fail us.