It’s the metadata, stoopid

This morning’s Observer column.

“To be remembered after we are dead,” wrote Hazlitt, “is but poor recompense for being treated with contempt while we are living.” Cue President “George W” Obama in the matter of telephone surveillance by his National Security Agency. The fact that for the past seven years the agency has been collecting details of every telephone call placed in the United States without a warrant was, he intoned, no reason for Americans to be alarmed. “Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” he cooed. The torch was then passed to Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate intelligence committee, who was likewise on bromide-dispensing duty. “This is just metadata,” she burbled, “there is no content involved.”

At which point the thought uppermost in one’s mind is: what kind of idiots do they take us for? Of course there’s no content involved, for the simple reason that content is a pain in the butt from the point of view of modern surveillance. First, you have to listen to the damned recordings, and that requires people (because even today, computers are not great at understanding everyday conversation) and time. And although Senator Feinstein let slip that the FBI already employs 10,000 people “doing intelligence on counter-terrorism”, even that Stasi-scale mob isn’t a match for the torrent of voice recordings that Verizon and co could cough up daily for the spooks…

While we’re on the George W. Obama theme, John Perry Barlow claimed this morning that the Obama administration has now prosecuted seven officials under the Espionage Act and goes on to point out that the total for all his predecessors since 1917 is 3.

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