Reductio ad Absurdum

Posted on May 31st, 2006 by

The security expert Bruce Schneier published a Commentary in today’s Star Tribune claiming to show why the NSA’s gathering large amounts of phone call records is useless, rather than merely spooky. (This op-ed is largely self-plagiarized from an earlier publication in Wired News.) The thrust of the commentary is to imagine one possible use for the data, show that it would be worthless, and conclude that therefore the NSA must be doing something worthless. A more logical conclusion would be that the NSA must be doing something different than Schneier imagines. Defending privacy is important enough to deserve well-reasoned arguments. With that in mind, I submitted a letter to the editor to the Star Tribune:

I share Bruce Schneier’s concern regarding governmental dragnets through personal information. However, this concern gives me no cause to suspend my logical reasoning.

Schneier’s May 31st commentary sketches one possible use the National Security Agency (NSA) might make of large quantities of phone call records. Schneier shows this hypothetical scenario would cause 27 million false alarms per day. He concludes that “We’re giving up privacy without getting any security in return.”

The correct logical conclusion — given that the NSA employs people just as smart as Schneier — is that this hypothetical scenario must not be what they use the data for. Supposing that the NSA collects large amounts of phone call data, they must have some other use in mind. Whether that other use provides national security commensurate with the privacy loss will remain an open question until we have a confidence-inspiring level of congressional and judicial oversight.


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