IN MAY, USA Today reported that the federal government is collecting data on the phone calls made and received by tens of million of Americans. According to the program's defenders, your grocery store, your cable company, and your credit card company can identify you based on your phone number, but the National Security Agency (NSA) can't. At least, that's the implication when people say the database is legal because the information in it has been "anonymized"--i.e., stripped of names and addresses.
But phone numbers can readily be linked to names and addresses using publicly available information. The claim that there's really nothing personal or private about the phone call records--which tell the NSA who calls whom, when, and for how long--is a tenuous basis for defending data collection that ordinarily requires a court order or the customer's consent.
One major phone company, Qwest, refused to give the NSA its customers' records. Officials there knew they could face hefty penalties under at least two statutes, the Communications Act and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, if they revealed this information without their customers' permission unless they were legally required to do so.
The NSA's defenders cite Qwest's...