The director of national intelligence announced on July 19 that a court had renewed one of the government’s most controversial surveillance programs — the collection of a vast database of metadata from Americans’ phone calls. The effort does not appear to be an obviously unconstitutional abuse of civil liberties. Yet at least two things should bother Americans about it.
First, the government is gathering so much information to track what should be a relatively small number of targets. Collecting and keeping the country’s phone records results in a powerful surveillance tool that, if abused, could give government agents tremendous insight into how Americans are conducting their lives.
Second are the justifications for amassing all of that information. Section 215 of the Patriot Act allows the government to obtain records as long as they are relevant to a terrorism investigation. Government lawyers argue that detecting patterns of communications has yielded information that has contributed to foiling potential terror plots. In order to produce those benefits, they say, they must have, somewhere, the whole universe of this sort of metadata.
By that logic, nearly every record anywhere could be considered relevant. If misused, they would also pose a threat to Americans’ privacy.
The House recently considered an amendment to a defense funding bill that would scale back the NSA’s wholesale gathering of phone or other metadata. The amendment didn’t pass and rightly so: Tacking it onto an appropriations bill is hardly the way to hash out complex national security policy.
The focus of any politically realistic reform should be on ensuring that government agents use only bits of metadata when they must. One idea is for Congress to require communications companies to store their records separately and force investigators to approach those firms to gain access.
Another is to make sure the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is tightly involved in the metadata program.
The Washington Post (July 29)