The NSA, Just a Phone Call Away

By Leonard Fein

Published May 19, 2006, issue of May 19, 2006.
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There’s a small detail in the latest New York Times/CBS poll that President Bush apparently missed: “If George W. Bush,” the 1,241 respondents were asked, “supported a candidate for political office, would that make you more likely to vote for that candidate, less likely to vote for that candidate, or wouldn’t it affect how you vote one way or another?” While 54% of Americans said it wouldn’t affect their vote, 36% said it would make them less likely to vote for the candidate, and only 6% said it would make them more likely to vote for him or her.

What leads me to conclude that Bush missed this somewhat embarrassing information is that in the same week it was published, the president told reporters in Florida that he’s been encouraging his brother, Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, to run for president. (Their father said a year ago that Jeb would be “awfully good” as president.)

How out of touch can you be? Jeb Bush may be a wonderful fellow, but the notion that the country is ready to walk the Bush plank again, coming as it does as the president seems more and more to be in free fall, is preposterous.

The disenchantment is both personal and ideological: Polls taken in the last several weeks tell us that a majority of Americans, 55%, think the words “honest and trustworthy” don’t apply to Bush. Whereas 28% of Americans think that his political views are “about right,” 45% now say those views are “too conservative.”

Indeed, the latest Harris poll reports that the president’s approval rating has dropped below 30%. Still, there’s an even split, 47%-47%, on the question of whether the president is competent, so designating his current tumble as a “free fall” may be a bit premature.

The latest news about the National Security Administration’s data-mining operation does not appear likely to accelerate the downward slide. The nation is just about evenly split about the propriety of the NSA program.

Maybe it’s just outrage fatigue at work, a kind of natural limit to how often we can do more than groan, if even that. That would explain why very few people are indignant about the Senate’s most recent round of tax cuts, which will save people who earn more than $1 million a year about $42,700 and people who earn between $40,000 and $50,000 a year about $47. (Blame for that obviously belongs to the Senate as much as to the president.)

Regarding the NSA, however, there’s a more proximate explanation: Many people apparently believe that since data on our personal habits are collected by credit bureaus, by retailers, by Internet advertisers and, obviously, by telephone companies, the availability of such data to government agencies is no big deal — especially if the data are used to enhance our safety from terrorist attack.

But the NSA issue goes well beyond terrorism. Though a problem in and of itself, it’s more than that: It’s a symptom of a much more pervasive problem.

To wit: As concerned as we may be regarding government’s intrusions, the principal invasions of our privacy so far have come from the business sector rather than from government. Government’s intrusions are in the name of security; business’s are in the name of efficiency, or marketing, or “customer outreach.”

It doesn’t matter, not really, that just about all the experts agree that NSA’s technological capability is not yet sufficiently sophisticated to enable it to trace patterns within the data sets, that the billions of transactions it stores are almost surely useless. (By the way: Why, as is apparently the case, do the phone companies preserve the data on the numbers we’ve dialed for much longer than can be justified by potential billing disputes?)

What happens as our technological ability catches up to the insatiable appetite of both government and business for more and more information, information about our conversations, our purchases, our love life, our appetites, our ideas? What happens, that is, when “linkage analysis” becomes routinely feasible? Data by ZIP code, then by block, then by house or apartment, then by family and then, finally, by each of us?

There’s a wonderful 1955 short story by the late Isaac Asimov. It’s called “Franchise,” and was the first of his stories about a fictional computer called “Multivac.” The heart of the story is a presidential election in which Multivac has identified the single most typical American. He is, therefore, the designated elector. On election day, with appropriate fanfare, he marches off to the polling place and there — no, he does not cast his ballot. Multivac casts his ballot, based on everything it knows about him, which is pretty much everything there is.

If this is an exaggerated, even paranoid vision, then the Internet is only a dream, and then a central clearinghouse for all the information on every medical issue that’s ever taken us to a doctor or a hospital or a clinic or a first aid station is not just around the corner.

Are our lives in their entirety on their way to becoming an eavesdropper’s, or a voyeur’s, paradise? Yes: Consider the likely scenario if the NSA does find in our phone calls a suspicious pattern.

Say, for example, that the agency suspects John Doe of Islamist convictions. Are we not entitled to suppose that once they’ve identified the numbers Mr. Doe has phoned, they will — in the name of our security — listen in to the conversations themselves? And then, in ever expanding circles, to the conversations of the people with whom Mr. Doe has conversed, and so on? If not, then what’s the point?

But if so, where’s the warrant? And: Where’s the limit?

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