But metadata about phone calls can be quite revealing. Whom someone is talking to may be just as sensitive as what’s being said. Calls to doctors or health-care providers can suggest certain medical conditions. Calls to businesses say something about a person’s interests and lifestyle. Calls to friends reveal associations, potentially pointing to someone’s political, religious or philosophical beliefs.
Even when individual calls are innocuous, a detailed phone record can present a telling portrait of the person associated with a telephone number. Collect millions of those records, and there’s the potential to trace the entire country’s social and professional connections.
2. Surveillance must be secret to protect us.
The administration and intelligence agencies have been quick to defend the classified status of the phone and Internet surveillance programs. “Disclosing information about the specific methods the government uses to collect communications can obviously give our enemies a ‘playbook’ of how to avoid detection,” said Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander went further: “Grave harm has already been done by opening this up.” Presidents Obama and George W. Bush have both perpetuated this myth.
Of course, if the government is trying to gather data about a particular suspect, keeping the specifics of surveillance efforts secret will decrease the likelihood of that suspect altering his or her behavior.
But secrecy at the level of an individual suspect is different from keeping the very existence of massive surveillance programs secret. The public must know about the general outlines of surveillance activities in order to evaluate whether the government is achieving the appropriate balance between privacy and security. What kind of information is gathered? How is it used? How securely is it kept? What kind of oversight is there? Are these activities even legal? These questions can’t be answered, and the government can’t be held accountable, if surveillance programs are completely classified.
With the phone and Internet programs, it isn’t clear that sufficient protective measures are in place. The president and security officials assure us there are, but without transparency, we can’t really know.
3. Only people with something to hide should be concerned about their privacy.
In the wake of the leaks about government surveillance, writer and privacy supporter Daniel Sieradski started a Twitter account with the handle @_nothingtohide and has been retweeting variations on this myth. A typical tweet: “I don’t care if the government knows everything I do. I am fully confident that I will not be arrested.”