Much ado about metadata

by Isaiah Webster III

WASHINGTON — At some point in early 2014, President Obama will announce which modifications, if any, he will make to the National Security Agency’s “metadata” surveillance program. The president’s own review commission is recommending 46 changes to the intelligence gathering policy. Most of the panel’s recommendations pertain to foreign citizens, but there are a few recommendations that go to the heart of recent controversies — the government’s ongoing practice of looking for trends in Americans’ phone records. This collection of metadata have been characterized in the press as the government monitoring or listening in on phone calls.

Yes, the government has access to phone records, and yes it has the ability to listen in on phone calls by private citizens. But common sense dictates this is not happening. From a practical standpoint, it would be impossible to listen to even a small cross section of conversations people are having. The only usefulness of these records is to look for trends — and follow-up on trends that are suspicious in nature. This is precisely how the program works, and the FISA court is already in place to provide oversight.

Unlike many Americans, I was not surprised to learn that the government was monitoring our phone and Internet communications. Following the 9/11 attacks, I assumed that the government instituted many covert activities to prevent further terrorist attacks within the United States. In fact, the passage of the Patriot Act made clear that some American liberties would be rolled by in the name of national security. I’m fine with that, too. It’s worth remembering that the Patriot Act was overwhelmingly passed in the Congress, and has been rolled back over time, in part, because it was so effective in preventing terrorist attacks against the United States. As people feel more and more secure, they begin to believe that they no longer need to take so many precautions to prevent terrorist acts.

But the trade off is clear — if the government monitoring our mundane phone conversations can help prevent another 9/11, is it a worthwhile infringement on our free society and the liberties that come with it? I think, yes.

One final point. When it comes to intelligence gathering, we must apply common sense. Americans will never know about the most top secret activities our government is undertaking to protect us. If these activities were brought to light, they’d be useless. No matter what the NSA says publicly, it will always monitor our communications for patterns. And quite frankly, I’m grateful it will.