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

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Follow Mark Garrison at @GarrisonMark