Storage wars: The threat of government's vast data lockers

Cellphone cell phone NSA National Security Agency records Verizon Generic

This post originally appeared in National Journal.

I'm going to try to tie together strands of information NSA-style and see if a pattern emerges. I will be looking for signs that America's historic definition and understanding of privacy are being eroded. I will also try to understand if that erosion could fundamentally alter an individual American's relationship to government power.

Privacy is not the only definition of individual freedom. But freedom cannot exist in a world where search and seizure without suspicion or probable cause does. Freedom is merely a word, and its definition a putrid joke in a world where a life's history--encoded in DNA alleles or via Internet or telephone communications--resides forever in a vast government database.

Last week visited upon the country the latest, but by no means the first, examples of ever-expanding government powers to collect data on innocents and keep it for extended periods of time and on the government's terms. One example was surveillance. The other was in obtaining DNA swabs from arrestees. The first example raised considerable alarms. The second did not. Make no mistake, both are a threat to individual freedom, and both will feed the coming Storage Wars. Those wars will be fought over definitional American legal terrain--what that is uniquely yours belongs to you, and what belongs to the government for how long and why.

We learned last week about vast telephone tracking conducted by the National Security Agency. Then came revelations about PRISM, a massive Internet data-trolling system so successful in terms of intelligence aggregation that its handiwork routinely shows up in President Obama's daily briefing.

The revelations generated global headlines and immediately revived a privacy-versus-government-power debate in hibernation since the first USA Patriot Act reauthorization battles in 2005 and 2006. But they shouldn't have. More precisely, the revelations should not have surprised us. Consider the following paragraph, published in Wired magazine in March 2012, about a vast NSA data-collection center under construction in Bluffdale, Utah.

"In the process--and for the first time since Watergate and the other scandals of the Nixon administration--the NSA has turned its surveillance apparatus on the U.S. and its citizens. It has established listening posts throughout the nation to collect and sift through billions of e-mail messages and phone calls, whether they originate within the country or overseas. It has created a supercomputer of almost unimaginable speed to look for patterns and unscramble codes."

The NSA facility will store a mind-boggling amount of information. Some estimates say the facility, due for completion in September, could hold a yoyobyte of data. It is beyond my ken to explain how big a yoyobyte is, but Forbes takes a pretty good crack at it. What all of us can do is wonder, and do so without a whiff of paranoia, about the frightening implications of a government-monitored, government-secured, and highly secret trove of personal data held in perpetuity in the name of public safety.

Those concerns grow when, as Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., alleges, those who sit atop the NSA data-collection system mislead Congress about the sweeping scope of its surveillance. When Wyden asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper if the NSA collected "any data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans," Clapper said no. We've learned that was a lie. Clapper recently defended the answer as the "least untruthful" he could give. Reassurances about congressional oversight--which issue forth from the White House with metronomic monotony--are meaningless when direct questions are met with dishonest answers.

Does the surveillance work in stopping terrorist attacks? Yes, if you believe government explanations of the Najibullah Zazi bust. But even that story has holes.