Phony baloney — Database won’t be of much help against al-Qaida.

Prof C Explains
3 min readMay 21, 2006

by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist.

To believe the National Security Agency’s phone call database is an effective tool in fighting terrorism, you have to make two assumptions: first, that terrorists regularly use the public telephone network to communicate; second, that the NSA can divine what terrorists are doing by browsing through a list of several billion calls made between people living in the United States. Both are shaky assumptions.

As early as 1996, al-Qaida had started to abandon use of the public telephone system. That year, Ziyad Khalil, a student living here in Columbia, purchased a satellite phone that was used by al-Qaida to plan the attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. When President Bill Clinton launched reprisals against remote locations in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden learned satellite phones could also be traced.

An article from Parameters, the U.S. Army’s senior professional journal, analyzed al-Qaida’s use of the Internet: “Evidence strongly suggests that terrorists used the Internet to plan their operations for 9/11. … As recently as 16 September 2002, al Qaeda cells operating in America reportedly were using Internet-based phone services to communicate with cells overseas.”

These “Internet-based phone services” are readily available for download and allow you to make a call from one PC to another over the Internet by means of Voice Over IP (VoIP, pronounced vee-oh-eye-pea or sometimes voyp). VoIP calls don’t register with telephone companies and would not be in the NSA’s call-record database. VoIP calls also have the advantage of being nearly impossible to wiretap because they can be automatically encrypted.

Even if you assume al-Qaida is still using the public telephone network to communicate, the utility of such a database is highly questionable.

“Terrorist activity is so limited, and we have so little to go on, that you’re not going to be able to put together a pattern you can search for,” said Jim Harper of the Cato Institute, an adviser to the Department of Homeland Security. “You can’t put together an algorithm that finds it.” The proverbial needle in a haystack.

The NSA program might be legal. Telephone call records are not necessarily protected information and can be purchased from commercial companies. But we can’t seriously believe this database is effective in…



Prof C Explains

J Scott Christianson: UM Teaching Prof, Technologist & Entrepreneur. Connect with me here: