The Phone Book Analogy

It started out with Representative Michelle Bachmann.  On the floor of the house she made a speech where she compared the NSA’s 215 spying program to a phone book.  The NSA’s 215 spying program is the one where the NSA is collecting every single phone number that is called and received by every citizen of the United States.

Rep. Bachmann said said there is more information in your phonebook then there is in the NSA database.  You can see the video of Rep. Bachmann’s comments at the bottom of this Mediate article.  This same argument was pushed by Representative Mike Rogers today on ABC’s this week.  The video clip of his statement can be found here.

The analogy seems to be constructed as follows.  A phone book contains the address, name, and phone number of each person with a listed number.  The NSA program only collects phone numbers dialed.  Thus, the NSA program has less information then the phone book concerning each individual record collected.

This phone book analogy is insulting.  First things first, I don’t have a land line.  I only own a cell phone.  That means that my information is not found in a phone book.  So the argument fails there as it pertains to myself and to many others.

What if I did have a land line and my phone number name and address did appear in a phone book?  The information printed in a phone book is distinctly different from the information the NSA collects.  The NSA collects what phone numbers every American citizen has called, the time of the call, and the duration of the call (I think they also collect the location of the call, but there is no hard evidence yet).  The phone book simply does not contain that information.  Knowing that you have a phone number and knowing what numbers that phone number has dialed is an apples and oranges comparison.

The information that is collected by the NSA cannot be viewed in piecemeal.  The government has roundly argued that they are collecting a haystack to look for a needle.  That means, they posit, that we have to look at their collection as a compilation of billions of pieces of information.  We must look at it as one database collection, not billions of individual collections.  They then take an about face and would like to use the phone book analogy and say that the proper comparison is to look at one phone number in a phone book and one record of a collected call record.

In other words the NSA wants to have its cake and eat it too.  They want to justify the collection by saying that it is the mass collection that is important and that each individual record must be viewed as a whole in order to explain how it is related to a terrorism investigation.  This is necessary because the Patriot Act says the records must relate to a foreign terrorism investigation.

The government then wants to turn around and rationalize this massive collection by arguing that each individual bit of information collected is actually less, piece by piece, than if you look at an individual record of a phone book.

Also, the information that can be gleaned from a phone book and the NSA spying is completely different.  The phone book information will tell me what your phone number is and where you live.  If you move and your address changes then I can learn where you moved.  The information can be used a bit more broadly if there is some sort of a pattern related to your movements and other people’s movements.  By movements I mean complete changes of address from one apartment or house to another.

The NSA information gives us a much more complete picture of how information travels.  They know every person you communicate with on the phone.  They argue that there are no names collected, but this is an even more absurd argument.  They can track who you call after you speak to certain persons.  They can see how different groups interact and that gives them an amazing ability to understand how information is traveling and what persons are integral in the dissemination of this information.

I won’t belabor the point, but this 60 minutes segment called Counterinsurgency Cops, starting at around the 8:00 minute mark, shows you what data collection can do.  Granted the Counterinsurgency Cops collect more information than the NSA is ‘supposedly’ collecting, but it is a useful video to start learning just how much little bits of information can teach you about a person.

Also, if the value of the information collected is less than what is in a phone book then why are we collecting it?  It speaks volumes about their argument.  They say the collection of this information has been essential in stopping terrorist attacks, yet the information collected tells us so little that we should not be concerned that collecting it is violating our privacy.  Another example of wanting to eat their cake and have it too.  It’s almost as if each argument they make exists in its own vacuum and the prior facts and arguments don’t exist.

Lastly, the fact that two representatives of the people, one is the chairman of the intelligence committee, would be willing to use such a fatuous argument makes me skeptical of the value of their oversight of the NSA.  The argument is clearly aimed at someone who has much less than a basic understanding of the facts.

Because the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, lied to Congress and the American people with impunity the NSA and the government have a credibility gap.  In order to fill that gap they have to insure confidence in their actions.  Remember, each time they make an argument they are implicitly saying ‘trust us.’  They won’t let us see the programs so it is all about their word.  When they put forth the phone book analogy it makes that trust gap wider not more narrow.  If these programs truly have value that is greater than their privacy intrusion arguments like these do not help.


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