Neil Macdonald: Big Brother is listening in and no one seems to care

Along with their president, most Americans don't seem perturbed that the super-secret NSA is keeping tabs on every phone call and download in the country. But anyone who thinks this is just a U.S. story doesn't understand global intelligence gathering, Neil Macdonald writes.

Repeat after me: You have nothing to worry about if you don't talk to terrorists

The National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters building in Fort Meade, Maryland, the biggest owner of personal data anywhere in the world. (Reuters)

In 1975, Senator Frank Church of Idaho issued a warning to Americans about the mushrooming power of the federal government's eavesdropping machinery.

Most people didn't know the super-secret National Security Agency even existed back then. But Church, the Democratic chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, had privileged access, and understood the NSA's breathtaking capability.

"That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn't matter. There would be no place to hide."

Last week, 38 years after Church issued his caution, journalists learned the NSA has — for seven years — been almost certainly logging every phone call, every email, every upload and every download in America, creating an aggregation of private data unprecedented in history.

The broad American public, meanwhile, even those rugged individualists who bristle ferociously at any government attempt to learn how many guns they might possess, took the news with almost bovine equanimity.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a modern contemporary of Church who sits on at least four influential Senate committees, emerged to lead the herd.

"I'm a Verizon customer," Graham declared after the publication Thursday of a secret federal court order compelling a subsidiary of the phone carrier to give the NSA all records of all calls by all its customers.

Senator Lindsey Graham, flanked by fellow Republican Senators John McCain (L) and Saxby Chambliss (R). 'If you don't talk to terrorists you have nothing to fear.' (Associated Press)

"I don't mind Verizon turning over records to the government, if the government is gonna … match up a known terrorist phone with someone in the United States.

"I don't think you're talking to terrorists. I know I'm not. So we got nothing to worry about."

Time to get angry?

Soon after the story broke in the British newspaper The Guardian, it quickly became clear that most other phone companies here were operating under similar top-secret court orders.

(The practice is authorized by George W. Bush-era legislation, but the very existence of the specific orders is an official secret; the companies are forbidden to discuss them.)

Then the Washington Post revealed the NSA is also mining data directly from the servers of the country's biggest internet companies: Microsoft, Google, Apple, Facebook and YouTube, among others.

As the story grew, privacy advocates screamed.

"It's time to get angry," said the American Civil Liberties Union, which compared the NSA's "massive spying on the American people" to having an FBI agent stationed outside every home in America, tracking the movements of citizens.

But this is the post-9/11 era. And while the outright fear-mongering of the Bush administration has dissipated, many Americans clearly agree with Senator Graham.

If you're not talking to terrorists, one caller told a National Public Radio call-in show, you don't have a problem.

"If it helps in matters of security, I'm all for it," a Verizon customer told a CBC camera crew after emerging from one of the phone company's shops in downtown Washington. "Security is number one."

The data trawl

It turns out that leading members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, had been briefed on the data trawl from the beginning.

And when President Barack Obama finally spoke, he effectively shrugged. "What the intelligence community is doing is looking at phone numbers and durations of calls," said Obama, as if that were a mere trifle.

"Nobody is listening to your telephone calls."

Well, one suspects the intelligence agencies are indeed listening to telephone calls. They have been since telephones were invented.

The amassing of data, though, is a much grander scheme. Basically, the NSA is building a giant haystack of information, and developing software, as one security expert put it, to find the needle.

When the FBI, say, or the CIA identifies a suspect in a plot, the NSA can then see all the calls that suspect's phone has made, and all the numbers that called that phone, and then all the calls to all those numbers, and so on.

Another NSA listening post. This one near Munich, Germany, operated in conjunction with the General Communications Head Quarters of England, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) of Canada, the Australian Defense Security Directorate (DSD), and the General Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) of New Zealand. (Reuters)

An intelligence agency's dream, in other words. But at what cost to the privacy of innocent Americans?

Obama himself put it nicely in 2005, speaking forcefully against the Patriot Act, the very legislation that authorized the secret court orders to the phone companies.

Echoing Frank Church, then-senator Obama told Congress that the U.S. government "has decided to go on a fishing expedition through every personal record, or private document … the phone calls you make, the emails you've sent. This legislation gives no rights to appeal … in a court of law.

"No judge will hear your plea, no jury will hear your case. This is just plain wrong."

Today, though, with exactly that happening, Obama sounds more like George W. Bush, talking about thwarting "folks who might engage in terrorism."

Canadians too?

Many Democrats and Republicans in Congress support the data trawl. And everyone seems to agree it would have been best had the American public not learned about this practice at all.

Americans, of course, have the right to toss their liberties aside in the name of security. They've done that a lot since 9/11.

But anyone who thinks this is just an American story doesn't understand global intelligence gathering.

The NSA is linked by treaty to official eavesdroppers in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Canada's agency, the Communications Security Establishment, shares data with the Americans, and vice versa.

It's also instructive to read the fine print of the secret order forcing Verizon to co-operate with the NSA. No doubt similar wording appears in orders to other phone companies.

Verizon is instructed to hand over not only all call records beginning and terminating in the U.S., but "all call detail records … between the United States and abroad."

Given the millions of calls daily between Americans and Canadians, it's a safe bet the colossal, ever-expanding data haystack has a good-size Canadian chunk already.

Senator Lindsey Graham would probably tell Canadians they have nothing to fear, as long as they aren't talking to the wrong people.

Personally, I prefer the advice of Senator Frank Church. He's long since passed away, but he was something of a prophet.