How is the government going to find anything in the Verizon phone data?

The National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland, as seen from the air, January 29, 2010

blockbuster Guardian scoop says the National Security Agency has ordered Verizon to provide customer call records, including who calls whom, how long the call was for and caller location. The administration won’t confirm the Verizon program, but says reviewing phone records is a “critical tool” in fighting terror.

The report has renewed post-9/11 debates about balancing privacy and security, while stirring up partisan fury. But it raises other questions as to how exactly such a massive database could be used by the government. It contains an unfathomable amount of information. So big, it’s worth little without some kind of tip on where to look.

Stewart Baker is the NSA’s former top lawyer. He imagines a situation where intelligence in Yemen revealed that a known bad guy gave instructions to someone to talk on the phone with al-Qaida associates in America at certain times. Standard terror tradecraft would involve multiple calls using different, disposable phones.

If a search of a phone database reveals a phone user in America whose calls match that pattern, “that’s highly likely to be somebody who’s tied to al-Qaida,” says Baker, now a partner at Steptoe & Johnson.

He believes that without information that specific, investigators won’t be able to access this phone database. He also suspects such a database probably also has detailed information from other phone companies, not just Verizon.

Baker says it’s not clear what guidelines the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has laid out as to who can get permission to look into this database and how deeply they can dig. “Only when we have some idea what those rules are will we know how worried to be about this,” Baker says.

Even eager data miners marvel at the amount of information the government is apparently getting. “I was surprised at the breadth of it,” says Will Riegel, who helps companies use data to reach customers.

In the corporate world or in counterterrorism, searchers will get a lot more out of a big pile of data if they narrow it down. At that point, they can translate their question into a formula that goes into the data and looks for answers. But there’s no formula for disarming critics who say the government shouldn’t have all that phone data in the first place.

About the author

Mark Garrison is a reporter for Marketplace and substitute host for the Marketplace Morning Report, based in New York.
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It's quite disconcerting and what they should really be doing is ensuring that consumer privacy is taken care of; once data goes into storage, it shouldn't be released unless on criminal investigation or the like. Shouldn't there be some law in place that allows us the right to privacy or something? Maybe we should make storage of information of a private nature like this should be left to person who is creating the data - the end user. Then those who don't protect themselves have no one to blame but themselves.

This is an excerpt from a transcript of a 60 Minutes program I saw in 2/27/2000, before Bush or Obama and before the Patriot Act and 911. >>> STEVE KROFT, co-host:
If you made a phone call today or sent an e-mail to a friend, there's a good chance what you said or wrote was captured and screened by the country's largest intelligence agency. The top-secret Global Surveillance Network is called Echelon, and it's run by the National Security Agency and four English-speaking allies: Canada, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
The mission is to eavesdrop on enemies of the state: foreign countries, terrorist groups and drug cartels. But in the process, Echelon's computers capture virtually every electronic conversation around the world.
How does it work, and what happens to all the information that's gathered? A lot of people have begun to ask that question, and some suspect that the information is being used for more than just catching bad guys. >>>>
STEVE KROFT: Is it possible for people like you and I, innocent civilians, to be targeted by Echelon? Mr. FROST: Not only possible, not only probable, but factual. While I was at CSE, a classic example: A lady had been to a school play the night before, and her son was in the school play and she thought he did a--a lousy job. Next morning, she was talking on the telephone to her friend, and she said to her friend something like this, 'Oh, Danny really bombed last night,' just like that. The computer spit that conversation out. The analyst that was looking at it was not too sure about what the conversation w--was referring to, so erring on the side of caution, he listed that lady and her phone number in the database as a possible terrorist. <<<<
So folks since this was 13 years ago, just imagine the improved technology now. The government's Utah data collection storage facility is soon to be completed.

The President said today "no one is listening to your phone calls".

Yet this is the same president who has distanced himself from each scandal by claiming he had no knowledge of them prior to reading about them in leaks to the newspapers.

Can you claim ignorance and speak authoritatively about the state of the Federal government? It wouldn't seem likely.

"Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?"

Not the administration, apparently.

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