It seems that many are equating meta data records as being invasive as listening to individual conversations, which of course, it is not.
If we take at face value that this operation prevented one significant terrorist attack I would still wonder about the ongoing efficacy of the operation. Al Queda and other organizations are still around because they are very effective in adapting tactics based on government actions. It is very doubtful to me that it is of any ongoing benefit to allocate massive assets when it is unlikely that they continue to use cell phones in the same way. In the same way that tens of millions of air passengers will needlessly take off their shoes it is highly doubtful that terrorists will use cell phone for communications when they can anonymously set up an email account and send it in an untraceable fashion.
I wonder about the enormous cost of all of these intelligence operations that are added at significant cost because they were useful once but not now. A much smaller irregular use would certainly save tens of millions and have the same effect in the same way that randomly checking shoes would likely have the same effect as making every passenger take off their shoes, the asymmetrical opponent simply makes a change in tactic.
A much more insidious invasion of personal privacy
It appears that the reaction to the metadata is in part because it has to do with telephones and the feeling that it involves individual surveillance, which it does not.
A much greater invasion of personal privacy is the ongoing effort by the federal government to track every single financial transaction. This is justified on two fronts, stopping repatriation of revenue to drug Cartels and choking off liquidity to terrorists.
It used to be that reporting on transactions used to have a reasonable ceiling of $ 9,999. That ceiling appears to be dropping and recently when helping a friend get a relatively small amount (less than $ 500) on a Western Union transaction at a bank I was astonished at how much information was now required by the government for the bank to report.
I am a lot less concerned about the telephone meta data operation than the creeping increase of the government collecting more and more financial information which is not done on a meta basis but on a micro-transaction basis.
I suspect that in neither case was the level of surveillance that now exists was ever imagined at the time the security people started the operations, but that there is an element of operational creep involved that pushes the bureaucracy to slowly demand more and more.
Not only should this be pruned back from time to time with a demanding eye for civil liberty reasons it should also be done to reduce bureaucracy and wasteful use of limited resources. In the same way that we continue to buy tanks that would have been great for WWII but are no longer needed I suspect that this meta data mining is another wasted expenditure that is no longer useful because the enemy has made tactical adjustments.
In the example of the purchase of the tanks, however, the resources used are accountable and not secret and it is the government bureaucracy (the army) that pushes against the economic and political interests requesting that no more tanks be purchased. In a world of secret intelligence budgets without public scrutiny the public is left trying to balance unknown safety issues against unknown civil liberty issues with unknown financial costs.
Beyond the civil liberty issues there are also pressing issues of efficacy and cost and more transparency is needed.
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