NSA’s phone data collection and cosmic relevance


Sky by Mayank Chhaya

At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I presume that all my phone calls and emails are surveilled. Once you accept that as reality, whether or not it actually exists, life becomes surprisingly free from any concern about privacy.

As I read The Guardian story about how the National Security Agency (NSA) of America has been collecting telephone records of millions of customers of mobile operator Verizon, I am struck by the futility of protesting what some are calling Orwellian intrusion. Government intrusion is now part of human evolution. There is no escaping it in some form or the other. Short of your breathing, almost everything you do has some electronic trail or paper trail somewhere which someone could potentially watch.

Although in the past the NSA has been known to collect phone data from all carriers, including AT&T, this particular story relates only to Verizon. AT&T customers are in any case immune to NSA surveillance because most of their calls drop even before they leave their phones. So unless NSA employs tens of millions of people with a wire net standing next to you to catch dropped calls you can be sure you are safe. In my case, the NSA would notice that the only communication I receive is from AT&T to tell me that my phone bill is overdue by days and unless I paid right away I should expect service termination. I once asked an AT&T customer service rep how I would know whether my service was active in the first place because calls drop all the time anyway.

Before I turn this post into my tirade against AT&T, let me return to the issue at hand. My approach to surveillance may come across as pessimistic, even defeatist, but I sincerely think that it is no longer possible to lead an insulated life. It is no longer sensible to guard privacy. The trick now is to do and say whatever one does and say with complete conviction. Let it all hang out. A vast majority of us has nothing incriminating to hide anyway.

The Guardian story by Glenn Greenwald says, “The secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (Fisa) granted the order to the FBI on April 25, giving the government unlimited authority to obtain the data for a specified three-month period ending on July 19.

Under the terms of the blanket order, the numbers of both parties on a call are handed over, as is location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls. The contents of the conversation itself are not covered.”

Taking the claim that it does not collect the content of the conversation at its face value, the NSA does not seem to know what is actually being said in these calls. However, the NSA has enough data to basically map the entire social networks of those whose phone data is being mined whether or not they are under any investigation or suspicion. That is crucial information for sure but not such that it betrays what it is that you are talking about. Is that a mitigating factor? I don’t know. I am not sure if I have a clear position on that. Everything in the story says that I should feel outraged. Do I feel outraged? Meh is what I feel from a purely personal standpoint. Perhaps as government national security policy what is being done is inexcusable.

At the heart of the debate is the question of how much we value privacy. Personally, I think privacy is relative and it is a luxury that citizens of rich countries can afford to debate. In most poor countries poverty robs people of something far more fundamental than just the ability guard phone conversations and emails. Think of a young woman having to surreptitiously bathe fully clothed on a grimy sidewalk in Mumbai, for instance. Or, think of a boy rummaging through a trash can in Dhaka for some food.  Privacy for them has a wholly different meaning, if any at all. Privacy depends on where one lives and what one’s status in that society is. Contrary to popular notions, privacy is still a lofty idea for a vast number of people. It may be an objective well worth aspiring to but it is mostly trumped by much lower level subsistence challenges for a large number of people.

I am not entirely clear what I should feel about the revelation that the NSA collects phone data. Is it “obscenely outrageous” as former U.S. Vice President Al Gore thinks or is it just an inevitable consequence of the information age driven by technology?  If there is a technology to do something pernicious, one can be fairly certain that someone, somewhere will use it to do something pernicious. Misuse or abuse of any technology is intrinsic to that technology. Of course, societies have to build checks and balances in order that such misuse or abuse is kept at the bare minimum acceptable levels. Going by The Guardian story it is obvious that the NSA has willfully defied those standards.

My response to such earthly debates as privacy has always been to put them in a cosmic context. We live on a planet that orbits around the Sun at the average speed about 67,500 miles an hour (about 108,00 kilometers an hour). We may not feel the dizzying speed because of our miniscule size relative to the Earth but that is fast. In the time that you took to come to this sentence you would have probably traveled 2400 miles. My point, if there is any at all, is that it is all very fast and transient. So take it easy. Collect what you want. It has no cosmic relevance whatsoever.


About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: