Editorial: Phone records collection is way beyond the limit


Published Jun 7, 2013 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

Don’t you believe that cellphone carrier Verizon is the only one being required to turn virtually all its call records over to the National Security Agency, the exception being calls made outside the U.S. to locations outside the U.S. In fact, don’t be surprised if every service provider in the United States is doing the same thing.

News that Verizon is handing over information about calls — telephone numbers, duration of call and locations of caller and recipient — to the NSA was published this week in Great Britain’s Guardian newspaper. The story has an Orwellian quality that should give every American pause.

The information grab may be perfectly legal, as the Obama administration and, before it, the George W. Bush administration contend. Orders for it have been issued regularly by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for seven years, U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., say. The court was established in 1978 and expanded in the Patriot Act passed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

It may be, as Chambliss claimed Thursday, that no citizen has complained about it — though if the information grab has been secret, it’s hard to see how one would know to complain. In fact, some have. Both Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Mark Udall, D-Colo., have objected loudly for years.

We’ll bet citizens are complaining now, as they should. It’s one thing to track phone calls because there’s something about the caller or recipient that makes the government suspicious. It’s another to do it just because it can be done.

National security is a critical issue worldwide, and Americans are right to worry about it. We allow ourselves to be frisked at airports in the name of safe flying. We show our birth certificates when our driver’s licenses are renewed, and not just to ferret out people in the country without legal permission. And so on.

There are limits, however, to what the government should be able to require in its effort to keep us safe. A blanket demand for private information — without any indication of suspicious activity — is way, way beyond that limit.