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Wiretapping and Boiling the Frog

May 16th, 2006

It seems that the Bush administration is trying to survive the massive violation of Constitutional rights by dripping out the story in small, step-by-step revelations. First, in mid-December, we heard that the government was only eavesdropping on a very small, limited number of phone conversations between US and foreign numbers where the foreign phones belonged to al Qaeda suspects. The Bush administration spent time defending that, getting the people used to the idea, getting them to accept it as a necessary counter-terrorism step. We’re only listening in on the bad guys, and this is necessary for national security. A whole arsenal of fraudulent reasons was claimed, and it worked–Americans accepted it.

Then we heard that it was more than just people connected to al Qaeda; that the eavesdropping was potentially on all telephone calls between the US and foreign locales. Again, time was spent defending this, getting the American people acclimated, making sure there was no major outburst. We’re just doing this on foreign phone calls, it’s all about finding al Qaeda operatives, we’re not invading you’re privacy, we’re protecting it. The calls are not all being listened to, we have software looking for keywords.

Much later, we now hear that there is a massive database of all phone calls within the US. But hey, everyone, don’t worry, we’re not actually listening in, we’re just tracking phone numbers, times, and duration–the database is anonymous, no names are being taken. The “anonymous” angle was pressed hard, with media outlets like Fox News pushing hard to get that across, hoping that most Americans are so dumb that they won’t recognize that phone numbers can be effortlessly connected to people’s identities, or that a truly “anonymous” database of such calls would be completely useless. And again, we are being assured that it’s only about finding al Qaeda cells, and it’s necessary to protect us. The press further attempted to cover for the Bush administration, widely reporting an instant poll that claimed most Americans approved of the domestic wiretapping–even though the poll was taken so quickly that most people polled could not possibly have digested the news they were being asked about. (Later polls showed that a majority disapproved, but the initial poll provided deniability, which right-wing bloggers immediately jumped on, claiming undeniable victory.)

Don’t you kind of feel like the apocryphal boiling frog, the one which jumps out if it’s thrown into boiling water, but will stay and get cooked if the heat is turned up slowly? How long before we hear that the database actually does contain more than just phone numbers and times? There exists technology to use computers to transcribe spoken words to text without human intervention–such was already revealed in the first stage, when the claim was that the government was only eavesdropping on foreign calls, and keywords were being screened for. Will we learn that all domestic calls are being transcribed? It’s not even impossible that all are being recorded–despite the massive number of calls, compression and storage technology make it possible to do so.

And even at this stage in the boiling process, the dangers of even just phone number tracking abuse are becoming clear. Now news reporters are hearing that the government is keeping track of all calls made to and from their lines. Remember, almost all phone calls are now logged by the NSA, and there’s no difficulty connecting numbers with people’s names. So if the government doesn’t like the fact that a reporter got ahold of a story they didn’t want out, they just find the numbers associated with the reporter, then find all the numbers associated with that number, and before long, they can uncover the source of the story. Instant First Amendment violation.

How much would you like to wager that what we’ve heard is just the tip of the iceberg, and that more and more levels will slowly be uncovered? So far, the frog is not jumping out of the pot, despite the fact that the water is already starting to boil. Most Americans seem to be accepting this, or at least not reacting strongly to the idea that the government is monitoring their calls.

I remember back in the 70’s and 80’s seeing films and TV shows depicting oppressive life within the Soviet Union, where if people wanted to have a private conversation, they would partially turn a rotary phone dial and stick a pencil in the dial to hold it there, so as to defeat the KGB from listening in.

That’s what America is becoming.

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