A report released Tuesday synthesizes much of what Americans have been learning about piecemeal for the last few months: The U.S. government collects vast amounts of data from millions of American citizens who are not suspected of any wrongdoing.
The 80-page report, published by New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice, surveys the legal landscape that allows the federal government to collect and store data about Americans’ Internet activities, computer files, email and phone metadata, travel records and other information – often without a warrant or suspicion of criminal activity.
While the data collection is usually performed under the banner of increased security, the report concludes that there is little proof the practice has made the country safer, and that the programs have weakened Americans’ civil liberties.
“Having these storehouses (of data) begs for abuse, either now or down the line,” the study’s author, Rachel Levinson-Waldman, told Al Jazeera. “That's always one of the dangers, and we know that from our history.”
Levinson-Waldman points to various incidences, like the revelations in 1974 that the Central Intelligence Agency was illegally monitoring thousands of Americans, as proof that an under-regulated intelligence community with little oversight will inevitably overstep its bounds.
But, she says, the difference between then and now is that new technology allows the government to collect exponentially more data than before, only increasing the likelihood that the data will be misused.
The Brennan Center report focuses on what it calls “misses” – the majority of data collected by government agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency that does not lead to or help with identifying criminal or “terrorist” activity.
The report’s researchers relied mostly on publicly available data and legal texts to analyze how the collection of information has changed from the Cold War until now, and the effect that may have on Americans’ perceived freedom and the security of the country.
The report found that after Sept. 11, 2001, several governmental agencies – spurred on by new laws such as the Patriot Act – began collecting more data on the innocuous activities of Americans than ever before. The report estimates that the government now collects 10 petabytes of data each year, “the equivalent of 10 million four-drawer file cabinets of text.”
Much of that information is never connected to any criminal wrongdoing, Levinson-Waldman said.
The length of time each agency is allowed to keep this information depends on a complex web of laws and policy directives. Under some programs, data must be deleted within a few weeks. Under others, governments can keep data for decades.
While much of the data simply sits on government servers without being used, Levinson-Waldman says that doesn’t mean it won’t be mishandled in the future.
“If we change nothing, I think we risk having quite significant databases of Americans that haven’t done anything wrong,” she said. “That might have a chilling effect on protests and people speaking out. Even moderate voices might say, 'It’s not worth it for me to speak out, because it might end up on a database.'"
The report argues that the amount of data being collected is not only a threat to civil liberties, but a threat to American security.
Bruce Schneier, an author and technology expert who helped The Guardian newspaper sift through Edward Snowden’s leaks of NSA data, agrees.
“If you’re looking for a needle in a haystack, a bigger haystack doesn’t help,” he told Al Jazeera. “In general, if you look at all the successes we have against the 'bad guys,' they come from following the leads ... you don’t need to surveil every American.”
The Brennan Center’s report and experts like Schneier suggest that completely ending surveillance programs isn’t the way to curb their inefficiencies and potential for ethically questionable uses.
Experts say that with better laws and oversight, surveillance programs can keep Americans secure without sacrificing civil liberties.
Even as agencies like the NSA collect more and more data, the backlash against the data collectors grows. Levinson-Waldman points out that a recent bill to defund the NSA’s metadata collection program only narrowly failed in the House of Representatives.
She believes that’s a sign that the country’s vast surveillance system could be reined in sooner rather than later.
"Privacy is one of the few issues that has been bipartisan," she said. “I think we’re actually at a very hopeful moment.”