Cost and Benefit and the Fourth Ammendment

From Reuters via Zero Hedge:

The Obama administration on Thursday acknowledged that it is collecting a massive amount of telephone records from at least one carrier, reopening the debate over privacy even as it defended the practice as necessary to protect Americans against attack.

The admission comes after the Guardian newspaper published a secret court order related to the records of millions of Verizon Communications customers on its website on Wednesday.

A senior administration official said the court order pertains only to data such as a telephone number or the length of a call, and not the subscribers' identities or the content of the telephone calls.

Such information is "a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States," the official said, speaking on the condition of not being named.

"It allows counter terrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States," the official added.

The revelation raises fresh concerns about President Barack Obama's handling of privacy and free speech issues. His administration is already under fire for searching Associated Press journalists' calling records and the emails of a Fox television reporter as part of its inquiries into leaked government information.

A few thoughts:

  1. I have no doubt that this makes the job of tracking terrorists easier.  So would the ability to break down any door anywhere and do random house searches without a warrant.  The issue is not effectiveness, but the cost in terms of lost liberty and the potential for abuse.  The IRS scandal should remind us how easy it is to use government power to harass political enemies and out-groups
  2. The FISA court is a bad joke, as it seems willing to issue "all information on all people" warrants.  I think there is little doubt that similar data gathering is going on at all the other carriers.
  3. Luckily, Susan Rice is now the National Security Adviser.  I am sure with her proven history of not just being a political puppet but really digging in to challenge White House talking points that she will quickly get to the bottom of this.


  1. Joshua Vanderberg:

    Did a spit take on #3

  2. Nehemiah:

    Thankfully the war on terror is over so the govmint will be able to stop collecting this information. In any event, are you saying you don't trust the govmint to be judicial in the use of this info?

  3. mlhouse:

    I have less problem with this issue than a specific target of media and political opponents.
    When you are talking about "lost liberty", in a mass of data like this your loss is very minimal. To compare it to the government "kicking your door down" is ridiculous. And, the value fo the data to finding patterns and identifying terrorists could be invaluable.
    Here is a analogous example. I used to develop statistical models in the marketing world. I had access to a database of over 10 million women and their underwear purchases. The sheer mass of data meant that the marginal privacy issues to the people in the database rounded down to zero. The same is true of your "phone records". No one cares who you call as long as you are not engaged in a pattern of calling Middle Eastern telephone numbers. Then your pattern of calls and the network of other telephone numbers are important.
    This is just an example of how Libertarians overreact to minimal "losses of liberty".

  4. MingoV:

    I'm glad that a media outlet published about the abuse of investigative powers. Unfortunately, it was a British newspaper. American media bosses dumped investigative reporters years ago and mostly rely on wire services.

    I expect the fed to demolish our rights. That's what massive government does. But, something else bothers me more (see below).

    An average American couple talks about the issue.

    Wife: "Isn't it just awful that the government is snooping on everyone without cause?"

    Husband: "Yeah, it's terrible. [pause] What's for dinner?"

  5. Tim:

    Just one minor correction: It isn't "millions of Verizon customers"; it's *ALL* Verizon customers. Every last call from or to every Verizon customer. And, to contrast to mlhouse's underwear 'research', each record is completely tagged with it's metadata; including numbers, cell phone IDs, and location data.

    Oh, and what's the alternate ID you typically use for all those loyalty cards? Your phone number. (or Jenny's phone number). Your cell phone number is a pretty good tag into credit reporting because the cell companies traditionally report to credit bureaus.

    Even if you trust "The Government"; do you trust the low level flunkies that have access to this huge aggregation of data -- one that has enough information in it to completely strip your privacy bare?

    And, as to the "minimal loss of liberty", this is the perfect illustration of the slippery slope -- it started with Bush Jr. using the FISA court to get warrantless data collection on phone calls that originated or ended in a foreign country from particular groups -- and rapidly expanded to *ALL* calls, both domestic and international, from presumably *ALL* carriers.

  6. mesaeconoguy:

    “Luckily, Susan Rice is now the National Security Adviser.”

    That alone should scare everyone shitless.

    Apply the Coyote rule (most powerful rule/tool in the hands of your worst AND most incompetent political enemy) using her as the protagonist.

    Frightening beyond belief.

  7. mlhouse:

    You don't think the underwear data was tagged with its metadata? Like size, color, cut, TELEPHONE NUMBER. In a huge database liek "ALL VERIZON CUSTOMERS", no one cares. The data only yields patterns and needs to be significantly aggregated to make any meaningful conclusion. No one cares that you called your grandma for 37 minutes last Tuesday.

  8. mlhouse:

    My last comment on this issue: Any government that did not do this type of analysis would be negligent in protecting the security of the nation.

  9. mesaeconoguy:

    Until they do.

    That's the point. When you put this technology and power in the hands of incompetents like Susan Rice and Obama, bad things happen, if not now, eventually.

  10. mlhouse:

    This is were your imagination and watching too many Hollywood movies shapes a misunderstanding of the data. "Until they do" what? From phone records the government knows you called your grandma for 37 minutes last Tuesday, your wife for 2 minutes on Wednesday, and your mistress for 2 hours of phone sex right after. Who cares. Your records are meaningless in the vast sea of data, an indistinguishable drop in the bucket that NO ONE CARES ABOUT.

    Now, maybe some devious person in or out of government gets ahold of your records and discovers that you are having the affair (in example above). But, that is totally independent of the government program. Most likely, that person would need to have some pretext or suspicions about you in the first place (maybe, like, your wife), and the records are available in other ways rather than having to come from a government source. In some context, by utilizing 3rd parties for services you give up some privacy (the 3rd party is allowed to keep records) and your security cannot be guaranteed. But that was a choice YOU made at the very beginning of the transaction.

    On the other hand, if the governemnt discovers that there is a pattern in your phone calls to some number identified as a terror or criminal source, that the 2 hour phone call was not phone sex but in reality plannign a terroristic or criminal activity, then you have something to worry about. AND I WANT YOU TO HAVE SOMETHING TO WORRY ABOUT. It is simply idiotic to give people who would cause harm to the country and individuals complete independence of communication, and when viewed in a cost (of personal liberty)/benefit the choice is very clear. Only radical, fantasy land libertarians think otherwise.

  11. mesaeconoguy:

    Until they care.

    This is where your irrational faith in bureaucracy completely destroys you.

    If you have learned only 1 thing from 4 years of this shockingly bad administration, it should be that bureaucracy is completely incompetent, and whenever the wrong application or conclusion can be reached by it, it will, to maximum damage. You have absolutely zero expectation that they are doing as they say they are, and that they will continue to do so.

    You are blindingly naive not to see this.

    Apparently, you haven’t learned that singular lesson (yet).

  12. James:

    What if you're making phone calls to Tea Party members, will you get
    audited by the IRS? See why people care about this? One of the ways to
    suppress dissidents is to track who they associate with and harass them.
    This has another benefit of scaring off others from joining the dissident groups.
    What if you're a reporter, and sources are calling you - well I guess
    there probably are a lot fewer sources now that they know that every
    call, web site visit, and credit card transaction is captured for ALL
    Americans.I think J. Edgar Hoover excelled in these tactics, imagine if it was so easy back then.

  13. mlhouse:

    LOL...your assumption destroys your conclusion. The data is such that incompetents cannot do anything with it.

    Next, your fear of them is out of place. Again, SO WHAT. Some bureaucrat knows you called your grandma for 37 minutes last week. Big deal. What do you think they are going to do to you? Now, maybe your grandma is a known terrorist and in that case I can understand why you have something to hide. But if you are worried that someone is looking at a list of the telephone numbers you called or called you then you are too paranoid to have a legitimate opinion.

  14. James:

    Really? How about random home searches, or even searches of all homes and vehicles at random times? That would provide even more security! That's how it worked in the places where the founders of our country came from, and it's why they didn't want that to happen here. Sure, maybe you catch more criminals and even prevent some crimes. At the same time, the majority of the people, who are innocent, live under the thumb of those in power. Free societies don't assume that everyone is a criminal just waiting to be caught.

  15. mesaeconoguy:


    Heard from the IRS lately?

    See James' excellent comment below.

    And they absolutely can do whatever they want with that data, and they will.

    This will be fun to watch.

  16. James:

    "No one cares who you call as long as you are not engaged in a pattern of calling Middle Eastern telephone numbers." Or you're a journalist about to embarrass the man in power.

  17. mesaeconoguy:

    Or you're a customer of an "enemy" company. Or you're a member of a large group easily tracked via this data.

  18. mlhouse:

    WHAT CAN THEY DO WITH THIS DATA???????????? Seriously. Unless you are committing crimes and have something to hide the "assault" on your "liberty" is equal to zero.

    The next question is the most relevant: If you are committing crimes, what expecation of privacy do you have when using phone lines? I say your protection should be very limited. That if by some statistical method they identify patterns in your phone calls that the government would then be able to get a warrant to tap your line.

  19. James:

    One more thought, you suggest that somehow someone calling the middle east has less right to privacy? I would bet that most people calling the middle east are just talking to family or friends, but are treated as suspects. If you're associated with the wrong people, you might get drone-bombed even on US soil according to the administration!

  20. mesaeconoguy:


    See above.

    Any number of nefarious applications exist, and there is no reason they cannot and will not acquire all the metadata. They probably won't even ask you before they do, mlhouse. If you call and ask nicely, they might listen...


    Dude, this is such a bad thing on so many levels.

    Here's a better question: if this technique is so "critical" to the war on terror, how come it completely and utterly failed to detect the Boston bombers?

  21. mlhouse:

    Again, you have watched too many Hollywood movies if you believe that some "nefarious" application exists. If you can tell me ONE way that your telephone records could be used against you maybe I will agree.

  22. mlhouse:

    Random searches involve a much more significant breach of your privacy. So, yours is a ridiculous statement.

  23. mesaeconoguy:

    James & I just gave you several above, and I predict (actually mostly know) they already have all the metadata if they need it.

    There is no reason for this power, and the only "check" against it is a secret "court" answerable to no one.

  24. mesaeconoguy:

    I suggest it is you who have watched too many Hollywood movies where government is portrayed as a benevolent actor.

    This government is especially dangerous.

  25. mlhouse:

    There are WAY more effective ways of doing that than to comb through ALL of Verizon's phone records. Your ignorance of what data mining is and your paranoid filled imagination are leading you in the wrong direction on this.

  26. James:

    I'm not sure about all of the things they can do with the data. James Rosen, the Fox News reporter that received information from a leak in the administration and facing serious criminal charges, might be able to give you some ideas. Why don't you give him a call? If he doesn't answer, just keep calling until you get swept up into the mess as well.

  27. mlhouse:

    Again, this is why you are talking about something that you know NOTHING about. There is a huge difference between targeting an individual for these tactics and getting a mass file of data. Phone record data that is being described can only be effective by aggregating the data to find patterns.

  28. mlhouse:

    You have not given me ONE actionable consequence that can be done to a normal, average,law abiding citizen from this data.

  29. mesaeconoguy:

    Larry, is that you?

  30. mlhouse:

    THat is the best you got?

  31. mesaeconoguy:

    "No, because I said so" is the best you got? Ipse dixit is not an argument.

  32. mesaeconoguy:

    Again, you're missing the point.

    They claim they have no metadata; prior to this, they supposedly had no data at all.

    Is the pattern 1) government acquiring less data, and your privacy increasing, or;
    2) government "leaking" and slowly fessing up to having a lot more information than they originally disclosed?

  33. mesaeconoguy:

    Correct, more information gathering.

    They likely have much more than they are admitting currently.

    Now, given that they probably have it, what are they doing (or will they do) with it?

    Ahhhhh, the fun begins.......

  34. mesaeconoguy:

    Large bureaucracies have penchants for spawning poor objectives and outcomes, and government is the worst example of this.

    What makes you think that they even need an objective to create a “problem” which will then be addressed by abuse of this data?

    The fact that this data is in their possession creates problems.

    Warren says this far more eloquently than I do given his engineering background, but the theme is: if government can fuck it up, it will, and this gives them a huge reservoir of shit to fuck up.

  35. James:

    So sure you are that the man with this power won't use it to crush his political enemies.

  36. mesaeconoguy:

    Channeling Yoda there, a bit?

  37. mesaeconoguy:

    What a stupid contention.

    Most identity theft is online, and electronic transmission of NPI (Non-public Information) is a multi-billion dollar industry.

    Government is effectively trafficking in identity theft, and, not to give anything away, may actually be guilty of just that offense if the Romney donor whose tax records were apparently released to a "progressive" political group who later used it against Romney can substantiate that fact.

    Major lawsuit brewing there, and abuse of government data and information.

    Yours is an absurd existence.

  38. mlhouse:

    Identity theft? Regardless, the "crime" you identify has nothing to do with the data search that is being discussed. That IS an abuse of government power. But the data we are talking about with Verizon is much more limited and if yu want to find ROmney donors to harrass there are much more effective ways of doing that, like getting records from the Federal Election Commission, much of which is public information. SO, in other words,the ACT of giving money to a candidate means that you lose some aspect of privacy. There are obvious reasons for this, and although I am not a proponent of all campaign finance laws, there needs to be a balance between making contributions public and having clean elections. Of course, you cannot see this balance because you live in a conspiracy world were everyone is out to get you.

  39. mlhouse:

    There is SIGNIFICANT reason for this "power". There are patterns in communications that can be used to detect terroristic plans/plots against this country, home and abroad. Searching mass phone records can be an effective tool in security that has zero impact on normal citizens.

  40. mlhouse:

    What would they "leak" against YOU? Seriously? What do you do that is so special that you need this extraordinary level of privacy?

  41. mesaeconoguy:

    Give me one reason.

    You have given none.

    See? I can do this too.

    Incidentally, I absolutely agree with your statement

    There are patterns in communications that can be used to detect terroristic plans/plots against this country, home and abroad.

    There are also many, many more worse ways it can (and will) be abused. That’s the tradeoff.

    This is called cost/benefit analysis. It involves weighing the positive and negative effects of a particular course of action.

    That is the title of this post, above (see above).

    The Founders ™ recognized this, and said this:

    They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little
    temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

    Quiz later.

  42. mlhouse:

    LOL...I have given you a reason. I will again. Patterns of communication can be used to detect terrorist plans and plots. That you say I have NOT given you a reason then give the reason I satated just demonstrates you are nothing but a moron.

    And, you have not shown one NEFARIOUS way this data can be abused. It exists already. And, you have given up your aboslute right to privacy by conducting hte transactions. Since you cannot demonstrate a SINGLE way that this can be used against an average person that is not committing a crime I guess the cost benefit analysis is pretty easy. Again, demonstrate one way that the data in question (mass call data) can be abused.

    As far as the quote about "temporary safety" it always has been a stupid quote. Obviously Franklin believed in temporary safety as demonstrated by his efforts during the war. BUt, nice try.

  43. mesaeconoguy:

    LMFAO, more.

    You have given no plausible reason why fundamentally dumb people, like Barack Obama, and Susan Rice, should ever have this power.


    What you need to do is go understand why that power exists, where it comes from, and why it may not be there.

  44. James:

    One of my favorite quotes from Glenn Reynolds (or if he didn't author it, he uses it): just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. All of these invasions, the targeted IRS audits, the dragnets of phone/internet/credit card transaction records, the surveillance of so many AP reporters are things that TWO WEEKS AGO WERE CONSIDERED DREAMS OF THE PARANOID are now showing up to be true! What is happening that we don't even know of yet? 1984 is supposed to be fiction, not an instruction manual.

  45. mesaeconoguy:

    That's NPI, if true, and is very, very prosecutable.

  46. mesaeconoguy:

    Identity Theft?



    Larry, seriously, is that you? Did DNC reincarnate you…….you’ve been unusually quiet lately. But just as incoherent here.

  47. mesaeconoguy:

    Orwell was a Socialist.

    Their wacko economist Julio Yglesias says so -

    Takes one to know one, I guess.

  48. mesaeconoguy:

    I suggest you rethink your strategy.

    I’m starting to think you work for some government agency, and this is a direct warning:

    If any one of us on this blog mysteriously finds ourselves the victim of random, arbitrary prosecution, I assure you, you will be sued. And it will be very, very well publicized.

    That is both a direct threat, and a guarantee.

    Now, you were saying?