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Mining data to nab terrorists: fair?

Digital minutiae could be used to track terror networks, but it could produce false positives.

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"This is nothing but an illegal fishing expedition into the private records of every American," says Kevin Bankston, EFF staff attorney. "No order could be valid that asked for every single phone record in America."

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But Charles Fried, a Harvard law professor, dismisses what he sees as a lot of huffing and puffing by civil libertarians amid precious little legal protection for such phone records.

"Nobody has made the case so far that this violates any law," he says. "What violations of civil liberties are involved? This is just an exercise in mindless labeling, trotting out the word and applying it to something you don't like."

The government is defending its ability to collect such data. On Friday, the Justice Department sought dismissal of the EFF lawsuit, announcing it would "assert the military and state secrets privilege," according to a "statement of interest" it filed in federal court in San Francisco.

Traditionally, phone companies have closely guarded phone records, which are protected by the laws cited by Professor Kerr. But the USA Today report named AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth as all having voluntarily handed over years of call- history data to the NSA. Qwest, worried about legal fallout, reportedly declined to share its data.

Contacted by the Monitor about the USA Today report, AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth issued statements. BellSouth says it "does not provide any confidential customer information to the NSA or any governmental agency without proper legal authority." Verizon said it "acts in full compliance with the law and we are committed to safeguarding our customers' privacy."

Responding to Monitor questions about the sharing of at least parts of its Hawkeye database with the NSA, AT&T noted its "long history of vigorously protecting customer privacy. Our customers expect, deserve, and receive nothing less than our fullest commitment to their privacy."

AT&T also noted that "we also have an obligation to assist law enforcement and other government agencies responsible for protecting the public welfare, whether it be an individual or the security interests of the entire nation."

A divided public

Many Americans see giving up some of their civil liberties or privacy as necessary to help aid the war on terror. Opinion polls show Americans are split over an NSA program the president has acknowledged authorizing - one that permits the agency to eavesdrop, without getting warrants, on communications from abroad.

In a poll released Saturday, Newsweek found that a 53 percent of Americans say the NSA's surveillance program "goes too far in invading people's privacy." Forty-one percent, the poll showed, see it as a vital tool for combatting terrorism.

Last week's revelation "makes me feel terrible, like my privacy is being invaded," says Brandi Dawson, a receptionist from Somerville, Mass. "The fact they have access to all these records, even in the fight on terror, that's going too far."

But some say giving up calling records - and some privacy - may be sad but worth it, even if computers misidentify them and they end up being investigated by the government.

"It doesn't really bother me because I have nothing to hide," says Dale Wyman, a computer network engineer eating lunch in the mall at the foot of the Prudential Tower in Boston's Back Bay.

"I personally would rather have a false-positive come at me than be sitting here and having a building come down on me because of a terrorist."