More Background on U.S. Electronic Surveillance; Lawful Access

24 Dec ’05

The NYT runs a story today on deepening concerns over the scale of recently disclosed large scale electronic surveillance operations run by the NSA. Gist:

The National Security Agency has traced and analyzed large volumes of telephone and Internet communications flowing into and out of the United States as part of the eavesdropping program that President Bush approved after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to hunt for evidence of terrorist activity, according to current and former government officials.

The volume of information harvested from telecommunication data and voice networks, without court-approved warrants, is much larger than the White House has acknowledged, the officials said. It was collected by tapping directly into some of the American telecommunication system’s main arteries, they said.

The story caps a week that saw the resignation of a federal judge from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the court that oversees government surveillance in intelligence cases, “in protest of President Bush’s secret authorization of a domestic spying program”, and a WaPo op-ed by Judge Richard Posner (of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit) that suggested that large scale electronic surveillance does not raise privacy concerns because the data is collected and sifted by machines. Clearly our American friends are struggling to find the proper role for surveillance conducted by law enforcement, and are having difficulty determining the appropriate degree of deference to accord their Executive branch to make such decisions.

While it’s difficult to draw comparisons between the U.S. experience and our own, it seems to me that the backlash we’ve seen in the U.S. over this story ought to be kept in mind here as we prepare for the return of lawful access legislation, presumably soon after the upcoming election, and consider how much confidence we ought to place in our government to ensure that the measures eventually taken strike an appropriate balance.

Citizens seeking to become more involved can get up to speed and can petition the government here and here.

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