Today was a pretty big day for privacy fans. The NSA’s bulk collection of metadata has been ruled likely unconstitutional. Why is this a big deal? It’s “Just” metadata. Well, as the CBS 60 Minutes report showed the NSA is able to convert that information into a network. Networks show everyone that you talked with and despite assurances otherwise that phone numbers weren’t used, it’s fairly easy to unmask a person in a network based on the network characteristics. I wrote a blog post about this a while back that talked about a paper showing the power of metadata. I think it’s important to reiterate here what that is.
In the article, titled Using Metadata to find Paul Revere, the author explains by using who talks who it is possible to construct a large network and that it was likely to determine the major players of the US revolutionary war. Just using club membership, it wasn’t even what they talked about, just what groups they were members of and how they were all associated. Based on the metadata Paul Revere is a pretty central figure and knows a lot of the other leaders of the revolution.
The NSA would take this view and say, “See it could have caught those terrorists back before the revolution!” However, the judge in this case says that the government did not do a sufficient job showing that this actually worked. It is, in fact, likely that the British had some of this membership information but wasn’t able to put it to good use. In this case, the judge ruled that the collection of Bulk metadata is a violation of the 4th amendment.
What can we expect next? Well, the ACLU has a very similar case that is being heard. If the judge rules differently the Supreme Court may need to weigh in to deal with the problem once and for all. Which depending on how these cases are dealt with could be a good or bad thing.
It is unclear at this point how this will change the conversation in DC, it will likely just lead to more denials from the NSA and White House. They will argue it’s still legal and that they will appeal to the highest court that they can. If they lose this case, it will likely lead to a lot of other questions being asked and possibly calls for impeachment and resignations. I would not be surprised if some of the more extreme on the right call for Obama’s arrest as well.
The other piece that is of interest to me is the question about the companies that have been complicit with sharing of our metadata. Are they going to be in the clear or not? In the case of AT&T there was a law that protected them retroactively. I am interested to know if that will also be ruled unconstitutional as it enabled the government to break the law farther than it could have before.
In general this is something really good, but I believe it opens many more questions than it answers about the long term repercussions of this program. I will continue to blog about this topic!