Business

The White House gives an obvious defense for widespread phone spying: protecting you from terrorism

This shirt looks official, but the AT&T icon in the middle of the National Security Agency is a clue to the sarcasm of the image.

The White House wants you to know that it’s still protecting you from terrorism, even if has to spy on literally all of your communication to do so.

Last night The Guardian revealed that the National Security Agency has for months demanded that Verizon hand over the data for calls made on its network. While it’s been clear to whistleblowers that the government has been vacuuming up call records for years, the leak was some of  most conclusive proof of how far these surveillance programs actually go. (We’ve written a  brief explainer of what the order says, and what it means to you.)

While it would appear that the Obama administration has been caught red-handed, the administration’s reaction to the leak is both generic and unsurprising. Here’s one of the White House’s talking points, which was sent to The Week by an unnamed official:

Information of the sort described in the Guardian article has been a critical tool in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States, as it allows counterterrorism 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.

As expected, the White House also defended some of the content of the order itself, which says that Verizon must hand over the metadata related to phone calls, not the content of the calls themselves. (Recording phone calls would be another matter entirely from a legal perspective — not that the government isn’t already doing secret wiretaps, of course.)

Core to the general defense of any metadata-related call surveillance is the logic that a call’s metadata — where it was made, how long it lasted, who it was made to — is public, not private information. The NSA’s logic is that metadata is like the information on an envelope: By making a call, you’re consenting to making that information public, which means that law enforcement should have easy access to it.

That logic may not be particularly sound, but it’s certainly been compelling enough to members of Congress, who have repeatedly approved such widespread domestic surveillance programs in the defense of national security.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one from Benjamin Franklin: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”