If it turns out to be true, President Obama's decision to end the National Security Agency's metadata storage program is absolutely a lateral move, both politically and practically. Politically, it scores him some points on his left flank while disarming libertarian cranks like Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY). Meanwhile, the high-fives being tossed around among the pro-Snowden crowd in reaction to the trial balloon only manages to underscore the emerging pro-corporation libertarianism of that clique.
Yesterday, an unnamed source close to the administration told The New York Times that the president plans to ask Congress to pass legislation that would shut down NSA's phone metadata storage program, authorized under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, and, instead, force the telecoms to retain the metadata from which NSA could continue to access information about targets.
In other words, the Section 215 program is being privatized. And this is somehow good news.
First of all, corporations have a terrible track record when it comes to securing storing customer data. I'm old enough to remember how hackers -- or as Greenwald calls them: activists exercising their speech rights -- broke into Target's servers and stole millions of credit card numbers. The same thing happened to Neiman Marcus days later.
Now toss into the equation the fact that, yes, the phone companies not only store your metadata, but also couple it with your name, address and billing information. NSA's metadata storage, which is considerably more secure in the bowels of its Fort Meade facility, is completely anonymous and all inadvertent collection is minimized per the law.
What else separates NSA storage from corporate storage? How about layers of congressional and judicial oversight that doesn't exist at Sprint or T-Mobile. Sure, much of NSA's work takes place in secret, but likewise try getting your hands on corporate secrets from Verizon or AT&T beyond what's posted on their privacy pages. Good luck with that.
When this topic came up on Twitter last night, thanks in part to a predictably cranky straw-man argument from Balloon Juice's John Cole, I was again reminded of the popular pro-Snowden counterpoint: corporations aren't a threat to our lives and liberty. Yes, because corporations never kill people or destroy lives with near impunity. By the way, guess who's back drilling for oil in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico? A corporate "person" named British Petroleum. And anyone who thinks corporations can't destroy you with a single keystroke clearly has avoided the wrath of the credit ratings agencies.
It's also unintentionally hilarious to hear from progressives who insist that they can easily opt out of corporate data collection. But how do they think NSA acquires its metadata? From corporations.
From here, the proposal will have to endure the sausage factory on the Hill where anything can happen. Hell, it might turn out that a third party entity will be created to store the metadata, not unlike the third party entity assigned to vet national security and military officials such as Snowden and the Navy Yard shooter.
Make no mistake, NSA's metadata collection program needs to be streamlined. But privatization isn't the answer. Call me a dreamer, but given the choice between the federal government or corporations handling a program like this, I'll take the government any day. The question is: why do so many self-identified progressives disagree?
Adding... It's important to remind Team Snowden: it was Snowden's dramatic flair that began this process, not his leaking of the Verizon phone metadata thing. Indeed, we've known about telephone metadata collection for nearly eight years.
UPDATE: I wrote the following in the comments and thought I'd re-post it up here:
This is all to illustrate a point that too many pro-Snowden people are far more accepting of corporate data collection and retention than they are of government data collection and retention. Perhaps I needed to more clear with that point. Again, why is it okay for Verizon to have your personally identifiable metadata, but not okay for the USG to have your anonymous metadata?
Furthermore, what difference does it make whether it's 18 months or five years? If the government gets a FISA order to target your metadata from 17 months ago rather than four years ago, does that make a significant difference to you and your privacy?
Corrected: The president confirmed the proposal at The Hague today.