The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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June 20, 2013

Be cautious about limiting surveillance

We have a security problem. Virtually every terrorism analyst agrees that terrorist attacks, both foreign and domestic, will continue. Inevitably, some of the attacks will succeed. Most analysts also believe that it is only a matter of time before some terrorist group gains access to weapons of mass destruction.

Political leaders know this too, and they know that the recriminations will be enormous, particularly if a Democrat is in power; Republicans have generated more noise over the Benghazi witch hunt than they did about 9/11, when they essentially gave Bush and Cheney a “Mulligan.”

That helps explain the four NSA programs that were recently revealed. No political leader, much less a Democrat, can appear to leave an important tool unused; this tips the balance toward more intelligence collection and less freedom. (Disclosure: I had access to NSA data for 25 years and once served as a backup linguist/intercept operator for NSA overseas.)

Full-time surveillance has become a fact of life for Americans. Security technologist Bruce Schneier wrote recently that “The Internet is a surveillance state … we're being tracked all the time.” Austrian law student Max Shrems found out first hand: in response to a 2011 complaint he filed with the European regulator, he received a computer disc with 1,222 pages of information that Facebook had collected on him, all for sale to any bidder.

The National Security Agency has been tracking us “all the time,” as well. The Washington Post reports that NSA collects trillions of metadata records — the times, places, devices and participants in electronic communication, but not their contents — for storage and analysis. A typical smartphone broadcasts nearly 100 pieces of technical data through calls, texts and other activities, according to University of Ontario researcher Tracy Ann Kosa.

The Wall Street Journal claims that this metadata provides one of the most powerful investigative tools ever devised. It can electronically map a person's movements, contacts, and the contacts' contacts, and a suspect's location down to the specific floor in a building.

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