Justice Department Asks FISC to Let U.S. Keep NSA Phone Records Longer

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2014-02-27 Print this article Print

Of course, what the government's lawyers will be pointing at is really the vague presence of digital phone records quietly aging on the NSA's storage network. It would be impossible to print the material out because even the government doesn't have that much paper. Likewise, there's no other really good way to get a look at all that data. That's a big problem with big data.

So what will the government do with all of those extra phone records? The court motion indicates that the NSA wouldn't be allowed to look at them. It's unlikely that any other agency would even have the ability to look at them. It's even unclear what the Justice Department would be able to do with the data, even if it wanted to use it for something.

What might happen is that the DoJ, assuming it has to prove something with all of those phone records, would hire an expert witness who would characterize the data in some way to explain it to the court. The opponents to that data collection would then have to hire their own expert witnesses to examine that data in some way, and then say that whatever the government said was wrong.

The actual data, those phone records that everyone is worried about getting into the wrong hands, will be sitting there in the NSA's database, where the NSA itself can't touch it, while someone at the DoJ tries to think of some way to use it to prove that the privacy advocates are wrong. But they won't be able to use the actual metadata to accomplish that because there's so much of it and Justice doesn't have a good way to access it without the help of the NSA, which is forbidden to see it.

While it's possible that some judge somewhere can think of a way to write an order that would perhaps provide a look at the data without the NSA actually seeing it, I think the idea is unlikely. What is likely is that this excess data will just accumulate without limit, requiring that the NSA spend more of its money on storage, but ultimately will prove to be useless for any valuable purpose.

By now you're wondering why the lawyers are doing this to themselves and to each other. The answer, of course, is they don't really know why. It's like the hoarder who packs the used foil from candy bars into drawers just in case he finds a use for it. That day will never come, but in the meantime all that foil, or all that data, is just sitting around waiting for something to happen. Perhaps it will.



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