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Profile: James W. Pennebaker

James W. Pennebaker was a participant or observer in the following events:

A Washington Post article repeats assertions by the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Bush administration that even if the NSA is automatically intercepting and storing millions of domestic phone calls and emails (see January 16, 2004), such computerized surveillance does not legally “count” unless it is examined—i.e. read or listened to—by human analysts. As the Post reports, NSA rules state that “‘acquisition’ of content does not take place until a conversation is interrupted and processed ‘into an intelligible form intended for human inspection.’” The Post article says that “nearly all” of the intercepted “overseas” communications from American citizens have been “dismissed” by intelligence officers who found nothing of interest in them. The Post observes: “Fewer than 10 US citizens or residents a year, according to an authoritative account, have aroused enough suspicion during warrantless eavesdropping to justify interception of their domestic calls, as well. That step still requires a warrant from a federal judge, for which the government must supply evidence of probable cause.” And, according to the Post’s “knowledgeable sources,” no more than 5,000 Americans have had their conversations recorded or their emails examined by intelligence analysts. According to Bush administration officials, the Post reports, “[s]urveillance takes place in several stages… the earliest by machine. Computer-controlled systems collect and sift basic information about hundreds of thousands of faxes, emails, and telephone calls into and out of the United States before selecting the ones for scrutiny by human eyes and ears. Successive stages of filtering grow more intrusive as artificial intelligence systems rank voice and data traffic in order of likeliest interest to human analysts. But intelligence officers, who test the computer judgments by listening initially to brief fragments of conversation, ‘wash out’ most of the leads within days or weeks.” People who have helped develop the computer analysis technology say that “it is a triumph for artificial intelligence if a fraction of one percent of the computer-flagged conversations guide human analysts to meaningful leads.”
Controversy over Legality, Usefulness of Surveillance - National security lawyers say that the high proportion of false leads and innocent bystanders being wiretapped contravenes the “reasonable” search provisions of the Fourth Amendment. One government official says the success rate should be closer to 50 percent—one out of every two persons surveilled—and not less than one percent. “Those who devised the surveillance plan, the official says, “knew they could never meet that standard—that’s why they didn’t go through” the court that supervises the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. Bush officials refuse to say whether the NSA is discarding the more than 99 percent of communications that it intercepts and deems useless for further analysis. Jeff Jonas, an IBM scientist who invented a data-mining system now in use by both private and governmental entities, says that the kind of pattern-matching data analysis used by the NSA in its surveillance program is neither useful nor accurate. Those analysis techniques that “look at people’s behavior to predict terrorist intent,” he says, “are so far from reaching the level of accuracy that’s necessary that I see them as nothing but civil liberty infringement engines.” Psychology professor James W. Pennebaker disagrees. “Frankly, we’ll probably be wrong 99 percent of the time,” he says, “but one percent is far better than one in 100 million times if you were just guessing at random. And this is where the culture has to make some decisions.” [Washington Post, 2/5/2006]
Former AT&T Technician: AT&T, NSA Violating Fourth Amendment - Former AT&T senior technician Mark Klein (see July 7, 2009 and May 2004) will later take a different view of the issue. In 2009, he will write: “[T]he illegal act happens at the point of seizure by the government, i.e. the splitter—not later, whether or not a medium is involved (see January 16, 2004). That is the whole part of the Fourth Amendment, which demands the government get a warrant to show ‘probable cause’ for seizing things, whatever the government does with it afterwards. What they do later is unknown, and at any rate, their word on anything has proven to be an exercise in prevarication.” [Klein, 2009, pp. 48-49]

Entity Tags: Jeff Jonas, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Bush administration (43), James W. Pennebaker, Mark Klein, National Security Agency, Washington Post

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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