Roost: A welcome pendulum swing toward privacy protection

By Amy Roost

Last Friday, President Obama announced he’s ending the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records; the U.S. will no longer eavesdrop on allied leaders; the NSA will now need judicial permission before accessing the metadata about calls; and a panel of outside advocates will be empowered to make arguments before the FISA court in order to protect the privacy rights of American citizens.

Amy Roost

As to Dick’s question whether these changes are good for the country, there are two levels of debate.

The first is philosophical. Do we want to live in a society that takes zero risk with terrorism? If our answer is yes then the president’s reforms are a step in the wrong direction for our country.

The second level of debate is more practical. Does the collection of metadata really protect us from terrorism? If your answer is yes, then the president’s reforms are a step in the right direction for our country.

To the philosophical debate, the U.S. has made it known to the world that we stand for the values of democracy and liberty, and civil liberties of any individual. Mass surveillance is probably not the message that we want to portray to the world.

To the practical debate, consider what happened in the lead-up to 9/11. Numerous reports suggested it wasn’t that intelligence agencies needed more information; it’s that they didn’t do a very good job sharing the information in the way that would have thwarted the attacks.

Metadata is the electronic equivalent of the outside of a mailed envelope. It tells you about the origin and the destination of the communication but nothing about its content. Currently, the NSA broadly gathers sweeping metadata first, whether there is any probable cause or not, and then sorts it out. This turns the previous model known as signals intelligence on its head. Signals intelligence had very strict rules about what the government could collect and when, but once they did collect it, they could look at it in any way they wanted.

Like all institutions, the NSA is prone to protect their own raison d’etre. Hence, it creates new methodologies, such as metadata collection to justify its existence. It may also be guilty of manipulating public opinion via “threat inflation” in order to garnish a bigger piece of the $80 billion in taxpayer money that goes to our nation’s intelligence agencies.

Our intelligence community might do better with more targeted, limited searches, encrypted or de-identified data than with a wholesale importation of data into the government’s hands or into the hands of a third party. I say “might” because no one really knows how many actual terrorist attacks have been prevented due to metadata analysis.

I’ve been disappointed in Obama’s policies with regard to privacy protection and despite campaign promises to the contrary, his administration’s embrace of the most onerous clauses of the Patriot Act. But a president’s task of striking a balance between the protection of an individual privacy rights and the prevention of more terrorist attacks is not an enviable one.

The reforms he outlined last week mark a welcome pendulum swing in the direction of privacy protection. Also keep in mind that the president is not the only actor on the stage. Were Congress not rendered virtually useless by parochial concerns and partisan conflict, it could have blocked NSA overreach long before Edward Snowden came along.

Legitimate limited surveillance for national security purposes is something almost everyone can support. But we have to be a lot clearer about what the rules are and about it being targeted and strategic, not a wholesale collection of metadata.

Roost is executive director of Silver Age Yoga Community Outreach and a freelance book publicist. A former Poway resident, she now lives in Solana Beach. Reader comments, through letters to the editor or online, are encouraged.

Short URL:

Posted by Staff on Jan 22 2014. Filed under Columnists. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

11 Comments for “Roost: A welcome pendulum swing toward privacy protection”

  1. guest

    Of course if you believe Obama has turned over a new leaf and spoke the truth. Actually we know his history and this topic is no different. There will be no changes.

  2. Senator Obama had a "come to Jesus" moment on he first CIA Briefing, after which he uttered the same words issued by every new president, "Holy S&$t" — the world is a vastly different place than most Americans believe. Even high Congressional people, who alternate between Washington, DC and their home district in Des Moines or Petaluma, that the do not understand the world in which we live.

    Obama lived in Hawaii, Harvard and Chicago. He traveled in a liberal cocoon overseas, never seeing the Huns. The Huns exist, but they are not in the halls of academe where ersatz radicals walk the hall.

    When the NYC subway started searching bags, and libertarians (among whom I am numbered) revolted, I suggested that the last car of the subway could be a "Search Free" zone, separated from the rest of the subway cars by a car filled with sand.

    Similarly, perhaps all of our privacy advocates should be given their own state outside the protection of the US NSA, or military.

  3. Frank

    They're having to bring Jack Bauer back this spring to thwart terrorist attacks and other threats to national security. He needs all the intell he can get because it's one perilous situation after another he has to save us from. I say it's well worth giving Jack all of our communications logs and content data. He may be sneaky and brutal, but he's honest and always does the right thing – plus he kills tons of thugs and evil terrorists. Like Jack says " To H*ll with qualms about sending a mass surveillance message to the world, we're trying to preempt criminal and terrorist attacks here!" Don't mess with Jack. Yogi Berra, who knows all about wearing protection, said it best: " If ya ain't got nuthin' to hide, don't hide it!"

  4. Amy Roost

    Good ol' Yogi! Little did he know he was malapropizing Goebbels.

    • Frank

      Ah…'malapropizing'. Verbing is O.K., perhaps even chic, and verbing long, multisyllabic words like 'malapropism' may also be grammatically permissible, but doing so risks syntactical awkwardness to the point where it can lead to mismalapropizing…. so to speak. Then again, I've found verbing, along with malapropizing and even mismalapropizing quite useful in my discussions with Mr. Berra. Aspirin helps too.

  5. guest

    Guess barack and mooshell are spliting. I wonder if she will get the presidential plane or the helicopter. I also wonder if they will meet at Burger King for the child exchanges. Lastly, when ur higness was elected, Mooshell said this was the first time she felt proud to be an American. Wonder if she is still feelin proud.

    • MarriageIntact

      If you actually researched the "divorce" you'd realize it's speculation. I suspect all presidential marriages go through the wringer. Even Mitt Romney's wife said she couldn't take another presidential election.

    • Amy Roost

      I guess I missed that one. I don't usually read the National Enquirer while standing in line at the market.

  6. guest

    Typical blind liberal. Sees nothing, knows nothing, hears nothing that Liberal politicians do. But if a Republican says hello, then Libitards are protesting.

Leave a Reply