The initial revelations about NSA’s collection of metadata on telephone calls has triggered an avalanche of stories about previously unknown, or only suspected, surveillance projects. First the Washington Post reported (maybe inaccurately) on the PRISM project; then the Wall Street Journal reported that the NSA also collects “purchase information from credit-card providers;” today it came out that the post office photographs the front and back of every piece of mail, and preserves the images for criminal/terrorist investigations. Who knew?
We also learned from the Wall Street Journal that requests for data from private companies (like Verizon), which were virtually dying out under President Bush, have exploded during the Obama administration:
In general, a broad division can be drawn between collection of metadata (as on phone calls and emails) and collection of content. With respect to telephone calls and emails, we are being assured that only metadata, not content, is swept up broadly, although there have been reports to the contrary. But what about credit card purchase information? That isn’t metadata, that is content. And what assurance do we have that the technical means to sweep up billions of items of email metadata aren’t also picking up the content of the emails? (Phone calls would be more difficult.)
All of this reinforces the point I made last night: it is time for a much fuller and more systematic disclosure of what the federal government is currently doing by way of data collection, so that we can have a rational discussion of what expectations of privacy Americans have in the 21st century. As a starting point, we could use some truthful testimony by Obama administration officials before Congressional committees.