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NSA knows how many times you've ordered pizza this month

June 8, 2013 - Andrea Johnson
Well, our fine National Security Agency and Verizon have given me one more reason (not that I needed any more) to fear for our civil liberties.

Thanks to the London-based Guardian newspaper, the general public now knows that the NSA has been mining data about all of our cell phone usage for at least the past seven years. Somewhere in its files, the government has a record of every call you made to Domino's, every call you made to your mother or best friend or lawyer or boss. They know what phone you used to call them and how long each conversation was. I suppose it's small comfort that the NSA is apparently most interested in the phone conversations of suspicious foreigners and probably hasn't even bothered to look into why you have been ordering so much pizza from Domino's.

This latest egregious attack on our civil liberties is perfectly legal under the Patriot Act. It was done with the knowledge of every member of Congress and with court permission. However, no public debate was ever held and the public was never informed just what the NSA was up to. I have a problem with that. I also have a problem with many provisions of the Patriot Act, the sweeping legislation passed after 9/11. The legislation allows for "sneak and peek" warrants permitting law enforcement to break into your home without your knowledge, look around to see if there's anything there, and then use what they saw to obtain a traditional search warrant. The Patriot Act also gave the government the right to snoop through your library check-out records. It also allows law enforcement to obtain roving wire taps, which greatly expanded law enforcement's ability to spy on your phone use, since a surveillance court order need not specify all common carriers and third parties.

President Obama seems to believe that all of this is necessary to protect the country and that national security must be balanced with privacy. However, if the government keeps encroaching on our civil liberties in this way, just what does it think will be left of our freedoms to protect?

One of the greatest dangers is that all of this surveillance will result in people being afraid to exercise their right to freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and freedom of association. I remember the first time that fear of the government caused me to exercise self-censorship. During the first Gulf War, when I was in college and on the fringes of what passed for the anti-war movement, I decided against going to a war protest that had been planned downtown. My college roommate, who had relatives who had reason to know, had told me that the FBI would be at that protest and would be taking pictures and probably writing down the names of every college student there holding a picket sign. If I showed up there, she implied, I would probably have my very own FBI file and it might even prevent me from getting a government job someday. Granted, half of what she told me was probably sheer paranoia and I might have gone anyway if I had felt more strongly about the war, but fear still caused me to hold my tongue. How much more damage will fear of the government do to potential dissenters and whistle blowers, now that they know they have real reason to fear?

Already, there are signs that people are practicing self-censorship following the revelation last month that the Obama administration had subpoenaed phone records from news reporters in a bid to find who in the administration was leaking information. Associated Press reporters have said that sources are afraid to talk to the press, fearing reprisals. This likely pleases the Obama Administration, but it should most definitely not please anyone who cares about freedom or where this nation is headed.


Article Comments



Jun-10-13 5:55 PM

The question is how many of your civil liberties are you willing to give up for the promise of security. To quote Thomas Jefferson: "I would rather be exposed to the inconveniencies attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it."


Jun-10-13 5:04 PM

It "appears to have gone far beyond what was envisioned," eh?

What was envisioned was another 9/11.


Jun-10-13 4:30 PM

Jim Sensenbrenner, an author of the original PATRIOT Act now says that the NSA appears to have gone far beyond what was envisioned when the legislation was passed. Yes, it started in the Bush administration and was continued and apparently expanded upon in the Obama administration. It was wrong-headed in 2001 and it's wrongheaded now, regardless of whether the Republicans or the Democrats are behind it. They need to be called to account and a public debate needs to be had over the NSA's actions. I think the PATRIOT Act should be repealed; failing that, it should be amended to require that the NSA establish probable cause and get a search warrant before mining anyone's metadata.


Jun-10-13 4:24 PM

I am speaking for myself.

These NSA programs were all started under Republican George Bush -- who twice took this state in a landslide.

One's disagreement with this or that individual policy matters little. Voters don't set policy -- they vote to make changes or to "stay the course."

I can get exact election statistics, if needed -- but I'm sure we can all agree this was a decidely "stay the course" red state.


Jun-10-13 2:41 PM

"Both Democrats and Republicans are guilty here. The system itself is corrupt."

I think it's clear who the REAL partisans are in this board. You know...the people who want to pin this thing entirely to one or the other...


Jun-10-13 1:51 PM

Speak for yourself. I was against the PATRIOT Act in 2001 and said so. I have always been against government intrusion on our civil liberties. Both Democrats and Republicans are guilty here. The system itself is corrupt. Fourth Amendment protections must protect speech on the Internet, cell phones, and other 21st century communications. The laws have not caught up with the way people actually live their lives. The NSA's actions are no different from what was common practice by the British prior to the start of the Revolutionary War -- warrantless searches of people's homes and valuables. These days, what happens online is as or more valuable than the physical property that the government should be prohibited from invading without a warrant under the Fourth Amendment.


Jun-10-13 1:37 PM

Now the Tea Partisans want to play act like they're naive newbies to the war on terror.

The government's widespread data surveillance was specifically declared legal under the old Patriot Act.

Remember the Patriot Act?

You should . . . you happily approved of it and its creators: the Republican Fear-mongers of the Bush Administration. And, you continue to vote for Republicans to this day!

Feigning shock and ignorance simply will not work. You, as lock-step Republican voters, are directly responsible for these policies.

You are being monitored and tracked by your government. What's more, you are paying exorbitant amounts of money for it.


Because that's what you people voted for.


Jun-10-13 1:24 PM

LOL Minot, I do indeed suggest that people contact their Congressional representatives to express their opinions on this surveillance.

On the other hand, I presume that some peon in the administration has been charged with tracking all news articles, blog entries and online comments on this issue. If so, he's about to get an earful.


Jun-10-13 1:21 PM

The system itself is at fault here. Neither Republicans or Democrats are blameless. There are supporters and opponents of this action from both parties.

If this level of surveillance is, in fact, necessary for some reason, let these people make their case in the public square. It's unacceptable that it has been done in secret for seven or more years. We did not elect kings or dictators.


Jun-10-13 1:21 PM

The system itself is at fault here. Neither Republicans or Democrats are blameless. There are supporters and opponents of this action from both parties.

If this level of surveillance is, in fact, necessary for some reason, let these people make their case in the public square. It's unacceptable that it has been done in secret for seven or more years. We did not elect kings or dictators.


Jun-10-13 1:17 PM

First, it's not just Verizon who was ordered to provide information. It's Google, Facebook, AT&T, etc.

Second, if you don't like what's happening you can either b!tch about it here or contact your elected officials in Washington. Call and write repeatedly.

Third, nobody should be surprised at this. You should be surprised it took this long for a British newspaper to break the story.

Finally, isn't this exactly what those who hold the 2nd Amendment sacred cling to as their right to protect themselves from tyrannical Government?


Jun-10-13 1:08 PM

"I suppose it's small comfort that the NSA is apparently most interested in the phone conversations of suspicious foreigners and probably hasn't even bothered to look into why you have been ordering so much pizza from Domino's."

It is little comfort indeed.


Jun-10-13 12:05 PM

As for the foiled attack on the New York subway, I question whether PRISM or similar secret programs were ecessary to obtain that information. It sounds like they were targeting accounts associated with known terrorist groups. Why do they need to sweep up the phone and e-mail records of every American -- my e-mail to my mom, someone else's call to Domino's, etc. -- to figure out what a terrorist suspect might be up to. They should have been able to prove probable cause and gain access anyway. I've also seen some reports that suggest that NYPD police work actually foiled that plot.

Again, we need open debate about this in Congress and in the courts and we should not permit officials to outright lie to Congress about the extent of the surveillance of the population.


Jun-10-13 11:56 AM

I think the point of all the uproar is that all of us are being monitored and tracked. The point is that the fear of being monitored and tracked has the potential to scare people away from exercising their right to freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly and other constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms.

Paul was quoted as saying that he doesn't object to the government tracking the activities of suspected terrorists, but accessing over a billion calls of ordinary citizens is a clear abuse of power. Probable cause should be required for mining metadata as well as for wiretaps.


Jun-10-13 11:28 AM

Yeah, well you tell that to your pal, Najibullah Zazi.

In the meantime . . . just know you're being monitored and tracked.


Jun-10-13 11:28 AM

What qualifies as treason? Just when is it acceptable to bypass the Fourth Amendment and how should it be applied in the 21st century? That's a debate that should have been held in the open and hasn't been, either in the Obama administration or in the Bush administration. Both Democrats and Republicans are guilty here; protests against this have nothing to do with Obama's race. Any attempt to blame racism for legitimate concerns is just derailing the argument.

Rand Paul has introduced legislation called "The Fourth Amendment Preservation and Protection Act of 2013" that would require the government to establish probable cause and obtain a warrant before mining this type of information from phone records. He's also threatening a class action lawsuit. I wouldn't say Paul is entirely trustworthy either, but so far he seems to be one of the few politicians trying to do anything about these activities.


Jun-10-13 10:07 AM

In their unbridled rush to be against anything our first Black President is for -- the Tea Party patriots have now aligned themselves with terrorists like Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis.

This enemy of the state is one of the would-be bombers who -- thanks to the NSA's data mining operation -- was prevented from blowing up the Federal Reserve Building in Manhattan.


Any person, group or organization who supports terrorists can expect to have their phones tapped and their email read.

Treason will not be tolerated -- we don't care how many funny old period costumes you wear.


Jun-10-13 3:13 AM

I won't say that these measures are definitely unnecessary in regards to surveillance of terrorist suspects. My objection is to the scope of the operation, to the "ends justify the means" attitudes and the secrecy, which appears to have included lying to Congress or at least to telling half truths. also of interest is the upcoming trial of the guy who allegedly leaked classified material to Wikileaks. The government is seeking up to life in prison. Both of the leakers, Manning and Snowden, are looking at significant consequences. I think an argument can be made that they did the public a service, even though both may have broken the law.


Jun-09-13 9:38 PM

Time will tell. He supposedly wants political asylum in Iceland. I think he probably went public with the whole thing to limit the chances that the U.S. can make him "disappear."


Jun-09-13 9:15 PM

Why is this brave, Tea Party patriot blowing his whistle from China? China? That's where this hero's protest for transparency in government took him?

Most likely he's been working for China this whole time.


Jun-09-13 7:37 PM

--continued -- by Democracy Now! in an interview conducted by Amy Goodman of Glenn Greenwald.

There's also more coming out about the guy who leaked the information, a 29-year-old guy named Edward Snowden, who is currently holed up in a hotel room in Hong Kong. He was employed by the government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton in Hawaii and had previously worked at the CIA.


Jun-09-13 7:34 PM

It really isn't possible to stay off the phone or off the Internet and live in this society, nor should we have to. There's nothing particularly damning about my calls to family members or Internet browing habits, but those are things that everyone has a right to keep private. Presumably the NSA is NOT paying attention to the vast majority of the data it has collected, but that data is there and ready to use if they ever decide they want to destroy someone -- a terrorist, political target, someone they want to use as leverage to take someone else down.

I'd also add that it looks like James Clapper, the U.S. intelligence chief, told some untruths to Congress about the extent of NSA spying back in March. Sen. Ron Wyden asked him, "Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?" Clapper said in response: "Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect, but not wittingly." That was repor


Jun-09-13 6:55 PM

If you're really so worried -- you're perfectly free to hang up the phone and stay off the Internet.


Jun-09-13 4:46 PM

Oh, really? Metadata can tell the government quite a bit about its targets -- who you are calling, when you are calling, where you are calling from, how often you are calling the same number. It can be used to detect a pattern, track down the members of a particular group or to tell which government employee might be speaking to which reporter. It can be used just as easily against political groups like the Tea Party or the ACLU as it could against terrorist groups. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. This is pretty close to absolute power and, without appropriate limits, there is a good chance that this technology could be abused by the government and stifle freedoms.

I'm also a Verizon customer and I DO object. Boundaries need to be set and the entire program needs to be the subject of open debate at the Congressional level and probably at the court level, as well.


Jun-09-13 10:21 AM

Oh, I spoke and wrote about my concerns about the Patriot Act 12 years ago,too. I think it should be amended. More oversight in general is required.


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