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Home > Past Releases and Reports > NSA Database Violates All Americans' Privacy

For Immediate Release
May 11, 2006

Contact: Jim Harper

(202) 218-4602

NSA Database Violates All Americans' Privacy

Harper Comments on Revelation of Secret Database Containing Americans' Phone Calling Records

Washington, D.C. - Jim Harper, Editor of and Director of Information Policy Studies, The Cato Institute, made the following statement today on the revelation of a secret database of Americans’ phone calls:

"Additional surveillance by the National Security Agency, hinted at and suspected for some time, has now been revealed. This can no longer be called a 'terrorist surveillance program' because the surveillance extends to every American’s phone calling.

"It is sometimes an exaggeration to talk about Big Brother. In this case, it is not.

"The NSA’s phone surveillance database is concerning for a variety of reasons:

  • "It flies in the face of Fourth Amendment principles that call for reasonableness or probable cause. It is not reasonable to monitor every American’s phone calling in a search for terrorists.
  • "The program was not authorized by Congress and it flies in the face of Congress’ intent when it defunded the Total Information Awareness program because of concerns about the privacy consequences of 'data mining.'
  • “'Data mining' for terrorism — the idea that searching through masses of data can find terrorist patterns or suspicious anomalies — is provably flawed. Probability theory shows that searching for extremely rare events or conditions using even slightly flawed formulae will return mostly false positives. In other words, investigators searching through data about millions of Americans for the very few terrorists will send themselves on wild goose chases after innocent law-abiding citizens, with only the slimmest chance of stumbling onto terrorists or terrorism planning.
  • "It is no defense of the program to say that it only includes information about calls, and not the content of calls themselves. Traffic information is very revealing — it includes the times and frequency of Americans’ calls to their doctors, psychologists, paramours, and priests. And there is no way to know whether this surveillance is limited only to telephone traffic information.
  • "It is unlikely that authorities could restrict their use of a database of all Americans’ phone calls. If it hasn’t been put to new purposes yet, before long this database will be used for general investigative purposes. As we’ve seen in the past, surveillance powers given to government officials are ultimately used even for political purposes.
"For these reasons, oversight is essential. But the secrecy that surrounds the NSA’s domestic surveillance programs prevents Congress from debating the issues, prevents researchers and critics from testing the techniques, and prevents testing in the courts to determine whether the programs are lawful.

"Congratulations are due to Qwest, the one telecommunications company that resisted the NSA’s demand for information because of concerns about its legality. Jeers are due to AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth, who have violated the privacy of their customers. It is not patriotic to obey the demands of government officials. It is patriotic to hold government officials to the laws and the Constitution." ( is an innovative Web site that captures "privacy" as a public policy issue. Privacilla has been described as a "privacy policy portal" and an "online think-tank."


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