Bothered that the government has the metadata from all your calls, so that it can map out the details of your life at the click of a button? If you really are, little in President Barack Obama’s much-hyped speech on intelligence gathering should allay your concerns.
True, Obama announced that he would “end” the metadata- collection program “as it currently exists.” But he never explained how, ignoring the recommendations of his own handpicked review group and instead asking his administration for new technical options on the bulk storage of data by the end of March.
If you remember the president’s promise to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, you know that “ending” something means doing it subject to realistic constraints — which may keep the program from ending at all. And if you don’t have short-term amnesia, you’ll recall that the Obama administration isn’t exactly bristling with skilled high-tech advisers who can build complicated new solutions to technological problems.
The president must have realized that skeptics might be unimpressed by a promise to try to do something unspecified at an indeterminate future time. So he added some reforms related to the bulk collection of metadata that could be implemented right away. In one, he announced that the intelligence community would from now on only “pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of three.” In the other, he directed the attorney general to arrange that “during this transition period” the database would be queried “only after a judicial finding, or in a true emergency.”
On the surface, these proposals sound pretty substantial — but they aren’t. In a game of Six Degrees of Osama bin Laden, the move from three “hops” to two is minimal. If the suspected target phone numbers belong to people in the United States, the odds are good that they have called some widely used number — the Comcast helpline, for example. Anyone else who has ever called that number would still be within bounds. Your friends’ friends are still two hops away, even if your friends’ friends’ friends’ are now not within the standard range. Ask yourself: Would the intelligence community have agreed to the three to two reduction if they thought it would substantially reduce their capacity to monitor terrorists?