Brad dissects the Best Show on TV. – NSA has massive database of Americans’ phone calls

Here’s my thoughts about the laws that might apply to the NSA’s collection of call data about American citizens.

Sections 18 USC 2709 and 50 USC 1861 govern collection of transactional data (like phone numbers dialed) and customer records for national security purposes.

Section 2709 says that the FBI can ask for these records if the Director or his designee certifies that they are relevant to an authorized investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities. There’s no judicial review. The process is called a national security letter or NSL. The FBI must report the use of this tactic to Congress.

Section 1861 allows the FBI to get an ex parte judicial order requiring the production of business records for an investigation to obtain foreign intelligence information.

Neither of these procedures does much at all to protect privacy. Basically the FBI can get revealing information about you without having to do much. With the NSLs, they don’t even need to ask a judge, there’s no advance oversight whatsoever, and the person targeted doesn’t get any notice.

Though the law provides little to no protection for these records, the NSA may nonetheless have gone too far. We don’t know what the NSA was doing, what legal authority it asserted, why, what happens to the information it collects or how it was used. Still, the NSA’s mission does not include spying on American citizens. These statutes only authorize FBI access to this information.

We’re likely to see a lot of wrangling over what these provisions mean. Proponents of NSA access may argue that the NSA is allowed to access this information, but the FBI must jump through these minimal hoops. Opponents will argue that the FBI must jump through minimal hoops, otherwise the government doesn’t get access to this information at all.

What’s obvious is that the statutes we have are filled with loopholes and our rights are falling through. You can tell an immense amount about someone from the phone numbers they call. Their job, friends, whether they are seeing a doctor or a psychiatrist, their religion, where their children go to school. The fact that this information isn’t better protected by the law is dangerous. The fact that the government is secretly ignoring even the minimal safeguards we have is deadly.

The Geek Entertainment TV episode on NerdSalon and
Roomba cockfights! hosted by the lovely Violet Blue and featuring me, Annalee Newitz and Roomba hacker extraordinaire Phil Torrone is now available.

MAKE: Blog: Bring your Roombas to Nerd Salon! Roomba fights!

NerdSalon was last night. Thanks, everyone. That was fun. Here’s some pix. Any advice for next time?

The next NerdSalon is coming up March 14. If you are obsessed with puzzles, build robots, help geeks stay out of jail, build things that might get you sent to jail, own a piece of furniture that has an RSS feed, can recite Morpheus’ speech about “the desert of the real” from Matrix, or spend all day writing about any of the above topics, then come to NerdSalon.

A new monthly event in San Francisco, NerdSalon is a place for geeks and friends to meet, discuss issues, and solve puzzles.

This month, join your hosts Jennifer Granick and Annalee Newitz for a head-twisting puzzle from Elonka Dunin, author of The Mammoth Book of Secret Code Puzzles. A bottle of champagne for the first to solve it! Plus, San Francisco’s premiere mashup DJs, Adrian and the Mysterious D, will spin barely-legal tunes.

The geeking lasts from 6:30 to 9:00, at 111 Minna Gallery, on Tuesday March 14. Check us out and join our mailing list.