USA Today single-handedly revived the NSA scandal with a scoop on data harvesting – unleashing a political bombshell for the Bush administratrion by revealing that the The National Security Agency has been tapping in and gathering the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans.
…"It’s the largest database ever assembled in the world," said one person, who, like the others who agreed to talk about the NSA’s activities, declined to be identified by name or affiliation. The agency’s goal is "to create a database of every call ever made" within the nation’s borders, this person added.
…The usefulness of the NSA’s domestic phone-call database as a counterterrorism tool is unclear. Also unclear is whether the database has been used for other purposes.
Other purposes being the operative word because datamining for terrorists is like picking needles from a haystack – and it’s impossible according to Bruce Schneier from Wired Magazine.
This unrealistically accurate system will generate 1 billion false alarms for every real terrorist plot it uncovers. Every day of every year, the police will have to investigate 27 million potential plots in order to find the one real terrorist plot per month. Raise that false-positive accuracy to an absurd 99.9999 percent and you’re still chasing 2,750 false alarms per day — but that will inevitably raise your false negatives, and you’re going to miss some of those 10 real plots.
This isn’t anything new. In statistics, it’s called the "base rate fallacy," and it applies in other domains as well. For example, even highly accurate medical tests are useless as diagnostic tools if the incidence of the disease is rare in the general population. Terrorist attacks are also rare, any "test" is going to result in an endless stream of false alarms. This is exactly the sort of thing we saw with the NSA’s eavesdropping program: the New York Times reported that the computers spat out thousands of tips per month. Every one of them turned out to be a false alarm. And the cost was enormous — not just for the FBI agents running around chasing dead-end leads instead of doing things that might actually make us safer, but also the cost in civil liberties. The fundamental freedoms that make our country the envy of the world are valuable, and not something that we should throw away lightly.
So who is the NSA spying on and why? After all – It’s not 25 million calls that count, it’s the 8-10 calls on your enemies list. Imagine the use of being able to type in journalist Seymour Hersh and find out every person he talked to on the phone for the past 12 months?
It’s all about social networks – whether they be dissidents, Democrats, political opponents or ‘terrorists’. Basically… anyone who is against Bush and the way he is fighting the "War on Terror".
"You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror." George Bush, November 6, 2001
More from the USA Today article.
…With access to records of billions of domestic calls, the NSA has gained a secret window into the communications habits of millions of Americans. Customers’ names, street addresses and other personal information are not being handed over as part of NSA’s domestic program, the sources said. But the phone numbers the NSA collects can easily be cross-checked with other databases to obtain that information.
…Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, nominated last Monday by President Bush to become the director of the CIA, headed the NSA from March 1999 to April 2005. In that post, Hayden would have overseen the agency’s domestic call-tracking program.
In the fall of 2001, NSA director, Hayden allegedly began ignoring the FISA law. Instead of allowing FISA court judges to decide which Americans should be targeted, as the law required, he secretly gave the responsibility back to agency shift supervisors, as was done during Watergate. And months later, President Bush issued an order approving and continuing the operation, just as President Nixon did.
And Hayden simply did what all corporations love – give them money.
…The sources said the NSA made clear that it was willing to pay for the cooperation. AT&T, which at the time was headed by C. Michael Armstrong, agreed to help the NSA. So did BellSouth, headed by F. Duane Ackerman; SBC, headed by Ed Whitacre; and Verizon, headed by Ivan Seidenberg. With that, the NSA’s domestic program began in earnest.
One major telecommunications company declined to participate in the program: Qwest. And they were berated and threatened with exclusion in the corporate welfare merry-go-round.
…Trying to put pressure on Qwest, NSA representatives pointedly told Qwest that it was the lone holdout among the big telecommunications companies. It also tried appealing to Qwest’s patriotic side: In one meeting, an NSA representative suggested that Qwest’s refusal to contribute to the database could compromise national security, one person recalled. In addition, the agency suggested that Qwest’s foot-dragging might affect its ability to get future classified work with the government. Like other big telecommunications companies, Qwest already had classified contracts and hoped to get more.
Member’s of Daily Kos have now formed an action group to push people to switch to Qwest.