Brennan Center: Broad Data Collection on Americans Does Little to Stop Terrorism

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October 24, 2013

According to the Brennan Center for Justice report, What the Government Does With American’s Data, the United States government’s data mining practices have problematic implications for American citizens as well as for the U.S. government itself. The U. S. government’s sweeping information- gathering powers dramatically expanded post-9/11. Federal government agencies are now authorized to obtain information without any suspicion of criminal activity and are able to keep the collected information for decades. The report expressed concern with how the government handles innocuous information collected about Americans. The report concludes that the retention, sharing, and use of data by federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies harms civil liberties and offers little benefit to stopping terrorism.

The report examines five distinct categories of information: Suspicious Activity Reports, Assessments, National Security Letters, Electronic searches at the border, and National Security Agency.  The Federal Data Mining Reporting Act of 2007 requires federal agencies to report to Congress on their data mining activities. As stated in this report, one argument for retaining and sharing all information regardless of its immediate or likely value is that information can be analyzed to identify hard to see patterns that might predict terrorist activity. However, research has shown that acts of terrorism are so rare and disparate in origin that no regular pattern can be discerned based on a person’s everyday activities. According to this assessment, this leaves government counterterrorism databases so cluttered with information analysis is impossible. The report also finds that in many cases information carrying no apparent investigative value is treated no differently from information that does give rise to reasonable suspicion of criminal or terrorist activity, raising the risk and likelihood of both innocent individuals and organizations being continuously targeted for their activism.

In order to preserve the government’s ability to share critical information and safeguard the nation’s security while simultaneously limiting the amount of innocuous information about innocent people that is kept and shared, the report recommends the following reforms:

  • Ensure that policies governing the sharing and retention of information about Americans are accessible and transparent.
  • Prohibit the retention of domestically gathered data about Americans for law enforcement or intelligence purposes in the absence of reasonable suspicion of criminal activity
  • Impose further limitations on the dissemination of personally identifiable information to better reflect First-Amendment- protected activity.
  • Reform of the Privacy Act of 1974 which has fallen short of protecting the privacy of Americans’ personal information and the establishment of an independent oversight board.
  • Increase of public oversight over the national Counterterrorism center, a massive federal data repository that is increasingly engaged in large-scale aggregation, retention, and analysis of non-terrorism information about Americans.
  • Requirement of regular and robust audits of federal agencies’ retention and sharing of non-criminal information about Americans