Skip navigation

Call Me Maybe (The NSA Knows, Definitely)

When Susan Landau wrote Surveillance and Security: The Risks Posed by New Wiretapping Technologies, it was against the backdrop of wiretapping technologies being buit into telecommunications systems, and the risks that such technologies posed to both freedom and security. Near the end of that book, Landau laid out a series of principles that need to be part of "getting communications security right." Among them: "Communications surveillance should not impede the working of the press." Reporters are the canaries in the coal mine, she added, noting that if their privacy is compromised, ours can't be far behind.

Proof of this principle arrived recently with the revelation that the government, under the authority of the PATRIOT Act, is collecting large amounts of data from the telecommunications provider Verizon, data that include the numbers of both ends of the call, as well as its length and location. As Landau notes in a sharp, passionate blog on the Huffington Post, the FBI illegally solicted phone records of journalists in 2004. The government eventually apologized, but no further action was taken. "And so it should be no surprise what happened next. Now it's not just the reporters who are being targeted; it is all of us."

But what can anyone really do with just that data? you might wonder. They're not actually listening to the content of anyone's calls. But, Landau warns in quotes from a recent piece by The New Yorker's Jane Mayer,the government can find out "who you call, and who they call. If you can track that, you know exactly what is happening—you don’t need the content." Mayer continues the story:

For example, [Landau] said, in the world of business, a pattern of phone calls from key executives can reveal impending corporate takeovers. Personal phone calls can also reveal sensitive medical information: “You can see a call to a gynecologist, and then a call to an oncologist, and then a call to close family members.” And information from cell-phone towers can reveal the caller’s location. Metadata, she pointed out, can be so revelatory about whom reporters talk to in order to get sensitive stories that it can make more traditional tools in leak investigations, like search warrants and subpoenas, look quaint. “You can see the sources,” she said. When the F.B.I. obtains such records from news agencies, the Attorney General is required to sign off on each invasion of privacy. When the N.S.A. sweeps up millions of records a minute, it’s unclear if any such brakes are applied.

It is unclear how large this program is, and how far this story will go. But as Landau writes, somewhat ruefully: "The invasiveness of this data is hard to underestimate. It is data that reveals where every connected person is during the day, with whom they speak, when, how often...That it is occurring in the United States is a nightmare."


  • Posted at 02:48 pm on Fri, 07 Jun 2013 in


Or, if you prefer to use an RSS reader, you can subscribe to the Blog RSS feed.


Books, news, and ideas from MIT Press

The MIT PressLog is the official blog of MIT Press. Founded in 2005, the Log chronicles news about MIT Press authors and books. The MIT PressLog also serves as forum for our authors to discuss issues related to their books and scholarship. Views expressed by guest contributors to the blog do not necessarily represent those of MIT Press.