The astonishing thing about the report yesterday that a secret court had ordered Verizon to turn over – en masse – the metadata concerning every phone call placed on that network isn’t that it happened. It’s that it’s probably perfectly legal. If you’re a Verizon customer, file suit. The 4th Amendment is interpreted to protect you from government surveillance, search, and seizure with respect to matters in which you have a “reasonable expectation of privacy”.
Because the content of your messages and phone calls are not generally collected by phone carriers, you have an expectation of privacy with respect to what you say. But the metadata is automatically transmitted to the company, so it will likely be argued that you have no similar expectation that this would remain private, since Verizon also has it.
The USA PATRIOT Act (Uniting & Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept & Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001), which Congress passed just six weeks after the 9/11 attacks, greatly enhanced the government’s ability to surveil US citizens with respect to their involvement in terrorism, and it was extended in 2011 under President Obama.
Here, the government sought and obtained a federal court order from a secret court that our government set up through a rushed process immediately after a catastrophic terrorist attack. Furthermore, the order in question was sought immediately after the Boston Marathon attack in April. There’s a possibility it was sought in response to that in order to track any unusual call patterns to determine if there were more attacks in the pipeline.
I don’t mean to excuse what is obviously a very troubling case of government surveillance. What I mean to do is point out that this is the world we’ve collectively chosen. In response to 9/11, we turned America into a very weak, cosmetic police state in the name of public protection. We don’t have a Stasi that will arrest you for your political dissent activities based on the warrantless taps on your phone, but we do have a government that indiscriminately collects call data to see if there are odd and suspicious call patterns related to terrorism.
If you want this sort of thing to stop, you have to change Washington and the whole notion of a department of pre-crime. The NSA, Bush, or Obama didn’t do this to us; we did this to us.