My husband and I own an independent bookstore and one of the things I’ve always prepared myself for is what I would do if I ever got handed one of those “National Security Letters,” demanding information about what products our customers bought. The PATRIOT Act allows the government to demand business records if their need for those records involves some kind of terrorist investigation and people receiving those letters not only have to obey them, but also have to remain silent about having received one.

Now that the news has broken that Verizon has been turning over ALL U.S. and international phone call records for at least seven years, and that U.S. and British intelligence agencies have also been mining Internet data, one question that always niggled at me came up to the surface the other night at dinner. As is often the case, Derrick is the one who asked “Someone’s got to be making money off of this. Who pays for all the work involved in compiling, storing, turning over, and sifting through those records?”

In case you’re wondering, before I go further, my plan for what I would do if the FBI showed up with one of those letters has been to do something that would probably get me in trouble, but as I had to do back in the days when I worked in the intelligence field, we’ll keep that information classified since none of you really have a need to know. And I think it is legal for me to say that we have never been given one of those letters.

Here’s where the big question comes up though, which I haven’t seen anyone else ask. Who pays for the work that would have to be done to obey one of those letters? For example, if the FBI came into my shop and demanded the records of all the books we sold over a period of three months, and to whom we sold them, and if I were to actually comply with that order, it would take me many hours of labor to pull that information together. I’d have to match credit card transactions with my register records which for our current system are not automatically merged. Who pays for my time to do that? Now imagine if you were a giant phone company and you were being told to turn over all of your records for months and months and months and months…….

Surely Verizon can’t be eating the cost of providing that data to the government. Surely the government has to be paying Verizon to cover the costs? Surely big business would be screaming bloody murder if the government was causing it to spend all of that time and money complying with secret orders for which they had no way to recoup their costs?

Should I stop calling you surely now?

I simply can not believe that big or small businesses would allow an “unfunded mandate” to impact them with what has to be hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars, of cost. No, in fact, you would expect big business to find a way to make money from the government. Hmmmmmmmmm……..

Have any of the rest of you ever wondered how these social media sites have managed to make all the money they rake in? Seriously, when’s the last time you clicked on one of those ads that showed up for…… well, I won’t share what ads show up on my Facebook page except to say that they somehow know I’m gay and need underwear. Could it be that Verizon and Internet companies get paid for the equivalent of “mining rights” just to allow the governments of Britain and the United States to dig into their treasure troves of information?

Let’s go back, for a moment, to me as an independent bookstore owner. There’s no law right now that requires me to keep information about who buys what products from my shop. Of course I have to keep records that would satisfy the IRS if I were to be audited, but there’s absolutely nothing requiring me to keep the very specific purchase information for each of my customers. So, I don’t actually do any work to keep that information in a form that would be easy to share. Nor, do I think, would the phone companies and social media sites have a built-in and easy way to provide the government with specific information about who is talking to whom and about what. So, there must have been some kind of work done to make that information accessible and useful for the purpose of intelligence gathering. Who paid for that?

Now taking off my bookstore hat and putting my intelligence hat back on, I know in my heart and soul that phone conversations between American citizens on U.S. soil are private and should not be tapped into without a very specific court order from a judge, that judge having been provided with evidence that one of those citizens is reasonably suspected of being involved in some sort of crime. So how could it be Constitutional for records of EVERY phone call placed through Verizon’s network to be collected by the U.S. government? According to this NBC News story, intelligence officials claim that they are not violating the Constitution by forcing Verizon to keep and provide them with all of this information, it is only when the intelligence agencies actually “mine” this information that they are searching and seizing. And, they only do that with a court order….. except for the times when the make a little oops and do, in fact, listen to the conversations and read the emails of completely innocent Americans.

Here’s what Retired Admiral Dennis Blair, former Director of National Intelligence said during a hearing:

“Blair drew a distinction between the “collection” or mining of data on specific U.S. citizens by NSA and the massive trove of phone call information that was turned over to the NSA under a negotiated agreement among intelligence officials, the telecommunications companies and the FISA judges. The purpose of the FISA order was to store information in the event that U.S. intelligence agencies need to access it after getting specific intelligence that somebody in the U.S. might be tied to terrorism. It is only at that point, he explained, that the NSA goes back to the court to get permission to mine or “collect” the data.”

The little oops I mentioned. Here’s the skinny on that:

Ret. Adm. Dennis Blair, who served as President Obama’s DNI in 2009 and 2010, told NBC News that, in one instance in 2009, analysts entered a phone number into agency computers and “put one digit wrong,” and mined a large volume of information about Americans with no connection to terror. The matter was reported to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, whose judges required that all the data be destroyed, he said.

To quote Steve Urkel: “Oops! Did I do that?”

Back in my days in the biz, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that the rights of U.S. citizens to privacy were sacred and not to be infringed upon. It’s nice to know that at least once, the FISA court agreed, according to the NBC News story:

In another instance that was made public in July 2012, a U.S. intelligence official acknowledged in a letter to Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon that “on at least one occasion” the national security court found that “some collection” by the intelligence community “was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment” to the U.S. Constitution. The official also wrote that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence believed that the government’s collection of information “has sometimes circumvented the spirit of the law” and that “on at least one occasion” the national security court had “reached this same conclusion.”

So now we know, without a doubt, that every single phone call we make, every email we send, every like, comment, poke, tweet, live chat, search, instagram……. etc……… can be and probably is being “collected” and stored for future analysis by the U.S. government. Here’s what we don’t know. Who is making money off this? How much money? Are corporations getting contracts to collect, store, and sift through all this data, and are corporations also getting to use that private data for other purposes (like marketing to us)?

Now that the Top Secret / NOFORN cat is out of the bag, and we know for an absolute fact that anyone who has used a Verizon phone over the past seven years has had his or her calling records turned over to U.S. spy agencies (and probably to private companies with giant contracts to mine that data), can we not finally go to court and sue the government over this breach of our privacy? In the past the courts have held that you had to prove that your rights had been infringed and you couldn’t prove anything because you couldn’t produce any evidence that what was happening was in fact happening. Now that The Guardian has released the Top Secret / NOFORN court order to Verizon, and that the PRISM program has been isn’t that argument moot?

Something tells me the ACLU folks were up late on Thursday and Friday figuring this one out! If they need a plaintiff, I have a Verizon phone sitting on my belt and I’m not afraid to use it.

Finally, in closing, since I started writing this post and now, I have not been served with a National Security Letter. From today on, whenever I write a post, I’ll let you know if I haven’t been served one of those. It is still legal to say that I haven’t been served with one. If I ever am served with one, I guess I’ll have to stop closing my posts with that statement. Would that be a crime? Hmmmmm………

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