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NSA's "Virtual Lockbox" of Metadata

In the above video, NSA Director Gen. Alexander described the NSA archive of telecom “metadata” about all phone calls in the US, but not their content, and who knows what about all e-mail traffic and web traffic as being in a “virtual lockbox”. He adds that last year it was searched only for 300 “selectors” such as names or phone numbers. Previously NSA indicated that only 20 analysts and their 2 supervisors had authority to make such queries.

The issue in the eyes of your blogger is not whether this is adequate protection of civil liberties which Gen. Alexander acknowledges is a twin goal along with national security. “It’s not one or the other”, he added. The key issue is that the decision to do this, like the Bush Administration predecessor, was built on a very twisted legal foundation that was not clear to the Congress, let alone the public. Further the “virtual lockbox” is not established by law, but appears to be a construction of the Intelligence Community with unstated checks and balances.

Perhaps this “virtual lockbox” is essential for our national security in this day and age. But it needs a clear legal foundation and clear checks and balances to make sure it isn’t abused. Since NSA didn’t know that Snowden was stealing a large number of documents and DoD didn’t know that Manning was doing likewise, how does the public get assured that the “virtual lockbox” is never used for either political purposes or for Passport Office-style voyeurism?

Watergate happened so we can’t always assume that the highest leaders are benign. Nixon tried to misused the CIA to cover up Watergate and failed, but what assurances are there that such political misuse might not happen again?

“Metadata” is the raw material for “traffic analysis”. With records of several years of phone call “metadata” an analysts can identify all your friends and relatives, all organizations you belong to, all you medical providers, probably figure out your medical conditions, etc. Add to this information on e-mail “metadata” and URLs requested one can get a very good dossier on anyone that would have put J. Edgar Hoover to shame. (It is ironic that there is an oral tradition within FCC that FCC’s WWII-era Radio Intelligence Division was a pioneer in traffic analysis before NSA existed. RID left FCC at the end of the war for “parts unknown”.) It is ironic that 2 open literature cryptography pioneers, Susan Landau and Whitfield Diffie, have written that “traffic analysis, not cryptanalysis, is the backbone of communications intelligence.” Such is thee power of traffic analysis given a large amount of “metadata”.

If this program is as beneficial as Gen. Alexander claims, it deserves statutory protections and safeguards and a set of independent watchers and auditors who verify that the limited access under court supervision is the only access to this information.

Another viewpoint:

NYTimes op-ed that program is fundamentally illegal and unconstitutional and that NSA behavior has been “criminal”


A surprising FCC connection: Snowden’s father has hired former FCC General Counsel, from the Reagan era, Bruce Fein as his attorney in an attempt to negotiate a voluptuary return of his son under certain conditions which seem unlikely to be accepted.
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