As the controversy surrounding the revelation that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been collecting metadata regarding the telephonic and Internet activities of average Americans continued to swirl out of control -- including the name and video confession of the admitted leaker -- the following question was posed to me: "How do I communicate with folks without having it casually Hoovered up by the NSA?"
Ignoring for a moment the slander involved in invoking both the names of the former FBI director and the renowned international vacuum company in connection with the most recent intelligence security debacle, the quick answer to the question is: "You can't." Absent the use of one-time encryption on closed communication systems, both the Internet and virtually all telephonic conversations are capable of being intercepted.
In fact, all types of electronic data are collected, collated, stored, and analyzed for retrieval by almost every modern industry in existence. It is not just the NSA that is doing the mass collection of data. Everyone is tapping into metadata, toll records, Internet data logs, credit reports, and public databases that collect millions of mundane bits of information. Doctors, lawyers, credit agencies, banks and real estate brokers, and every city, state, and federal government agency that regulates our lives collect and store digital information about all of us. The information they collect is there for the asking and can be purchased by anyone.
If this sounds onerous and Orwellian to you, it is simply because of the erroneous belief that collecting metadata is intrusive and a violation of privacy rights. After all, the United States has a long-standing tradition of resisting government intrusion into private lives. But the collection of metadata has been conducted as long as there have been companies willing to do the collecting.
Before there was Google, there were reverse telephone directories, reverse address books, business locator encyclopedias, tax records, and voter registration rolls -- along with myriad private services that would research a name, address, or telephone number for you. Reporters of a certain vintage will remember all of these data-collection tools. The key to understanding modern data collection is that (1) everyone is doing it and everyone is in the data, and (2) publicly available information about known or potential bad guys collected by both government and non-governmental companies is how modern-day investigators, including the FBI, solve crime. That is a fact. And if it makes you uncomfortable, perhaps you should emulate Ted Kaczynski, become a neo-luddite, and live the rest of your life in a remote Montana cabin writing manifestos in long-hand or on a typewriter. Living as a hermit is about the only way that you will avoid the digital collection onslaught that has become part of modern daily life.
In the current dust-up involving the NSA, people seem to be offended that it is the government using the data. They seem to miss the point that government isn't actually doing the collecting; the metadata is merely being provided pursuant to legal court order after first being collected by both the telephone companies and Internet service providers. Both industries have way more information about you than the government has ever sought to collect.
There have been many good articles describing the legal rationale for the NSA's collection of the data, including one by Stewart Baker, former general counsel for the agency. I will not attempt to repeat the legal or civil libertarian counterarguments here that have been made by others far more informed than me. Rather, since Americans can't avoid the collection of our digital signatures by either the government or private corporations that knowingly sell it to anyone willing to pay a fee, perhaps it's time to take a closer look at exactly how the government uses the information that it has "Hoovered," in order to help lower our collective anxiety about Big Brother.