06/05/2015 04:34 pm ET Updated Jun 05, 2016

Metadata Is Our Security Blanket

Like a child carrying around a security blanket for protection, metadata is our security blanket. This bulk collection of telephone data is supposed to help us against terrorist attacks. Metadata consists of noting the telephone number calling, the number called, and the time and duration of the call. It does not collect content. (However, if the number is known, the person possessing the phone can become known).

According to The New York Times of June 1 (p. A11), "The program's greatest achievement was leading the F.B.I. to scrutinize a man in San Diego who turned out to have donated several thousand dollars to the Shahab, the Islamist group in Somalia. The man was not accused of plotting any attack." What is more, according to Steve Inskeep of National Public Radio, who interviewed the former deputy head of the NSA, John Inglis, the Presidential Review Group that examined the Edward Snowden disclosures did not even validate the San Diego case, and Inskeep questioned whether the metadata program was worth its tremendous political cost. (Lengthy excerpts from this interview are contained in my article entitled, "They Thought They Were Doing No Wrong: NSA and the Snowden Documents").

But Inglis countered Inskeep's contention by saying, "the question remains as to whether you're going to have a capability to find something that is the connection of a foreign plot to a domestic extension of that plot." Inglis did acknowledge that "The government doesn't need to hold the data, it could be held by a third party."

This is now exactly what it happening. A main feature of the USA Freedom Act, which replaced the expired USA Patriot Act and was passed by both the House and on June 2 by the Senate, provides for the telecom companies to hold the metadata and not the National Security Agency. In addition, the Government must petition a special federal court to search them. This change would take effect in six months' time, after the companies have demonstrated they have the techniques to store such data.

But hold on: it appears that the chief merit of the NSA's bulk collection of telephone metadata relates more to the past. According to a recent report of the National Academy of Science Working Group on Signals Intelligence, "There is no software technique that will fully substitute for bulk collection where it is relied on to answer queries about the past after new targets become known." (Wall Street Journal June 2, p. A12). This opens up the question as to whether the telecom companies can be as efficient as the NSA in this aspect of past retrieval of metadata.