Following the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001 that brought down the World Trade Center towers in New York and punched a hole in the Pentagon in northern Virginia, the United States government ramped up a massive data collection campaign that effectively claimed privacy rights have become another casualty of the War on Terror.
A new report from the Brennan Center, a nonpartisan think tank and public interest law firm at New York University School of Law, details the government’s enormous data collection and storage efforts fueled by the fear of another Sept. 11.
According to the report, the U.S. government can collect your public Facebook posts and tweets, all non-deleted and non-encrypted information from your computer, telephone, or iPad, your e-mails, where you travel, who you meet with, your credit history and your driving record.
Every 30 days the National Security Agency stores 41 billion communications records through its XKEYSCORE program that tracks a wide range of Internet activity and e-mails. Through the program, some data with no connections to terrorism can be saved for more 75 years.
“One of the things that comes up often is that there was too much information in the system and that really did hinder accurate analysis,” said Rachel Levinson-Waldman the author of the Brennan Center report, titled “What The Government Does With Americans’ Data.”
The report stated, “The failure of the intelligence community to intercept the so-called ‘underwear bomber’ – the suicide bomber who nearly brought down a plane to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 – was blamed in significant part not on insufficient information but on an overabundance of data.”
Levinson-Wardman said democracy works best when there is a lot of information flowing from the government to the people and, by and large, that pattern has been reversed. “There’s a lot of information flowing from us and there is very little transparency in reverse,” she said.
The government’s surveillance powers have grown under the Obama administration, even as experts warn that the current approach to data collection clogs the system making it harder to find the real terrorists. Some experts warn that a billion “false alarms” could be generated from the administration’s current levels of data collection.
In 2012, the National Counterterrorism Center [NCTC] received a new mandate that allowed for increased collection of American data that had no current link to terrorism – “a ten-fold increase from the previous limit,” according to the Brennan Center.
The report states, “the NCTC may utilize, keep, or share information about Americans in order to monitor their First Amendment-protected activities or other constitutional rights as long as that is not the sole justification for using the data.”
When the National Security Agency was audited in 2012, investigators found that the organization had violated privacy rights of thousands of Americans that ultimately led to zero terrorism plots.
“NSA analysts have also misused the agency’s surveillance systems to spy on spouses or romantic interests,” stated the Brennan Center report. Even though the NSA vowed to comply with all privacy laws, experts say that the violations highlight the need for greater transparency and independent oversight of the surveillance programs.
The Brennan Center report outlined a number of recommendations including making sure that the data set has a “publicly available policy” to increase transparency of the programs, that government agencies “require reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to retain or share information about Americans for law enforcement or intelligence purposes,” and “Reform the Privacy Act to better protect against the long-term retention and broad sharing of innocuous, sensitive personal information, and institute oversight mechanisms.”
Levinson-Wardman said that experts from the CIA, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense have said that there is so much information flowing from the public to the government that the system that it’s overloaded.
“It’s impossible to find the important parts, it clogs up the system, but people are afraid not to bring it all in,” said Levinson-Wardman. “They are afraid of missing something, but the fact that there is so much [data] makes it almost inevitable that they are going to.”