Wednesday, December 18, 2013

How should I know? I'm just a federal judge!

NSA data collection. Photo by Julian Stratenschulte/EPA, via The Guardian.
Adam Serwer at MSNBC, showing how

Judge destroys ‘just metadata’ argument

it is the collection of metadata that Snowden’s leaked court order exposed – the frequency, duration, and identifying numbers for the calls – which can reveal a universe of information about a target even without capturing the content of the conversation. 
“A call to a suicide hot line, Alcoholics Anonymous, or a gay sex chat room at 2 a.m. are all more sensitive” than what a person might actually say on the phone, Christopher Soghoian of the ACLU told the New York Times in June.
For what it's worth, the fact that the number your target is calling is a suicide hot line or AA or your sister in Parsippany is not part of the metadata. What General Alexander is claiming is that the NSA does not and cannot know what that number is, only that it's in an interesting pattern with respect to the target number; and all the NSA can do about it, if it is a US number, is to inform the FBI that it's an interesting number. That's what "just metadata" means in the context of the NSA bulk telephony data collection.

I'm not sure how the argument would apply to Internet communications like a "gay sex chat room" (I don't think one makes telephone calls to those)—the data the NSA looked at could have been comparable to the telephony data, just IP addresses and time-and-date, or there could have been more, like the subject line; in any case the government claims they stopped doing it on US persons in 2011. They don't have that data now except for what they've picked up by mistake (which could be quite a lot, actually, I fear) or what they've "chained out" from the foreign addresses they are allowed to investigate.

Not that General Alexander couldn't be being a little less than truthful. Alas. It was reassuring to see on the television, though, that they really have the kind of kind of software I imagined, displaying a classic social network diagram with numbers, and only numbers, on the nodes. And that they had discovered Edward Snowden's peculiar typing habits (typing with a blanket or something over his head and monitor so the girlfriend wouldn't be able to see) by good old-fashioned humint and not, as some early reports suggested (no link, I can't remember) by the reputed FBI trick of turning his personal computer into a webcam. If somewhat disquieting to see the general sort of acknowledging that the agency had listened to some calls on the Bundeskanzlerin's Handy (at the request, Alexander insisted, of other agencies, and not on the NSA's account). What on earth were they thinking? That a German chancellor could somehow have a personal association with an enemy agent? (Just saying—I don't myself think that makes a valid excuse or that tapping Willi Brandt's phone would have helped back then.)

It's exaggerating a little, though, to say that Judge Leon "destroyed" anything, with a ruling so feeble—"probably unconstitutional"—that it's not a ruling at all.
Via Pegasus Librarian, a handy hypertext refresher on metadata (needs updating to reflect the new federal-court non-decision—"Can't say if it's illegal," ruled the judge, "but it probably is").

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