Five myths about telephone snooping and our government

Former Sen. Joe Lieberman, (I-Conn.), on the NSA scandal.


The recent revelation that our government captures and analyzes our telephone data has created a media frenzy, with histrionic headline writers and apoplectic commentators. Yet despite the outcry from the media, the ACLU and the Tea Party, according to a recent Pew/Washington Post poll, 56 percent of Americans have no problem with the program.

All of the hype has generated lots of myths about the National Security Administration’s (NSA) anti-terrorism, phone-monitoring program. 

We can’t allow hyperbole and fear to blind us to the reality that in order to stay safe, we have to give government access to certain information. This is not unconstitutional and it does not mean the government is spying on us. I have broken the myths down into five common misconceptions:


1. Collecting my telephone data is unconstitutional.

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Our Constitution bans “unreasonable searches and seizures” and sets the basis for search warrants. “Administrative” searches targeting big groups such as airline travelers or drivers stopped by a roadblock for sobriety tests have been held constitutional. 

The Bush-Obama program that allows the government to obtain our phone data is even safer legally, as it uses a process created by Congress relying on judge-approved warrants. 

What makes the warrants unusual is that they apply to every American using a telephone.

However, government can monitor only external features of calls: the number dialed and the duration. They cannot listen to the call itself. 

Our calling data is certainly less personal than fingerprinting, tax returns and medical records under ObamaCare. 

The Supreme Court will likely hold that the limited scope of the searches, minimal intrusion, and the need to avoid a terrorist event, coupled with the fact that the majority of Americans consider the program necessary, do not categorize the NSA program as “unreasonable.”

2. This violates my privacy.

You may feel whom you call is your private information, but legally it can be obtained in criminal, divorce, tort and almost any other lawsuit, even if you are not a party. 

In a way, privacy in phone records is like privacy in so-called "snail mail": your right to privacy ensures others do not read the letter, but anyone can see the name on the envelope.

3. This proves the government is monitoring my telephone calls.

Not true. The government is not listening to your calls. The NSA program simply uses telephone company records to analyze which numbers are being called and the duration of the calls. They have access to your phone records, not what you said.

4. Government employees should not be looking at my call data.

With an estimated 20 trillion phone “transactions” in the database, the chances of becoming the subject of a human analyst’s review of your records – especially if you’re not a person of interest engaging in suspicious behavior – are infinitesimal. 

A data set that large requires sophisticated computer programs to sift through and look for significant data anomalies that highlight people in sensitive positions who are talking to people who are talking to terrorists. 

If TSA agents, commercial pilots, nuclear and chemical engineers, biologists, bomb experts and others with the ability to kill large numbers of Americans are talking to people who are talking to terrorists, I want our government to know. 

Don’t you?

5. My call information does not help fight terrorism.

This would almost certainly be true if it was your information alone. But aggregated with other call information, it allows the government to see patterns which may predict a risk of terrorism. 

Your credit card company monitors your buying patterns so it can alert you if it thinks your card has been stolen. The government’s telephone data collection program does this in aggregate to identify patterns of calls which may be linked to a terrorist plot.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks changed the rules. While our intelligence efforts before relied on feet on the ground and Mata Hari-style infiltration, we cannot rely on these techniques to protect us from radical Muslim terrorists.

Our best tool is American ingenuity. This ingenuity allows us to create algorithms which sift through massive amounts of data to find patterns of information. 

Yes, we are trading some privacy for greater safety. But that is a tradeoff we make every day, and in this case the benefits of thwarting even one terrorist plot outweigh the tiny burden of sharing our phone records.

We must be smarter, more innovative and take advantage of our technological edge in our battle with terrorists. We must also preserve our liberty and constitutional rights. The current telephone data program does both.

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA)™, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,200 consumer technology companies, and a NYT best-selling author.