Over the weekend, The New York Times and Washington Post reported that the NSA, on top of collecting Americans’ phone records, has been collecting other information that could detail social connections, travel companions, and locations at certain points of time. It appears that the NSA collected this information through credit agencies, social media, passenger manifests from airlines, insurance agencies, and other public and private sources. The program seems to be either closely linked or a part of the PRISM program leaked by Edward Snowden a few months ago.
According to NSA documents, the program was originally limited to foreigners. Sometime around 2010, the NSA changed its policy in order to track connections between foreign terrorists and American citizens. It now seems that there are no restrictions whatsoever on the Agency’s ability to monitor citizens, although the NSA has declined to comment on how many Americans have been tracked using these methods. NSA officials are still claiming that the information gathered through PRISM and related programs has not been misused and has been limited to use for counterterrorism and cybersecurity purposes. They have also been quick to point out that the Supreme Court has held that metadata is not constitutionally protected.
I’ve been quasi-defending the NSA ever since Snowden first leaked information on PRISM. I still don’t see any of the abuses that Congress and the media keep talking about and I don’t think that the Agency would have the time or manpower to sift though all this data for any purpose other than counterterrorism. Having said that, the NSA just keeps teeing up its critics. I feel like it’s pretty foreseeable that there will be public outcry any time a government agency is found rifling through insurance and credit records, not to mention social media.
Still, let’s take a minute to think about this. The NSA is facing one of the most difficult tasks imaginable in tracking and stopping terrorist activity. There are literally millions of potential suspects at any point in time. Is it really that unbelievable that the NSA would utilize this kind of information, some of which we voluntarily put out into the public domain? I keep saying this and I’ll keep saying it until it’s not true; there has not been a single reported instance where the NSA has used metadata to arrest or even accuse an American citizen of anything that isn’t related to terrorism.
Are there ways to refine the NSA’s surveillance programs? Of course there are. There are obviously going to be issues with the solution to an unbelievably difficult problem like terrorism. Until the NSA actually starts abusing its power though, I think we need to relax a bit.
Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research