President Barack Obama will deliver a major speech on Friday regarding the National Security Agency’s, or NSA’s, intelligence collection activities, both in the United States and around the world. While various news outlets have reported on changes he will propose, overall, there has been great controversy and confusion around these activities since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden began leaking details of these and other NSA programs last June. Many Americans were particularly shocked by the revelation that the government maintained a secret database of all the telephone calls made by or to phones in the United States. The existence of government data collection on this scale could influence the choices Americans make with profound negative effects on our society and economy.
Modern communications technologies have dramatically improved Americans’ ability to stay connected with one another. Other modern information technology has provided greater access to more information for more people than ever before, and it has significantly lowered the barriers to participation in public discussion and debate. As a result, our country is undergoing an information revolution that is driving the kind of innovation that will protect America’s global economic leadership. Although this transformation has not come without costs, it has enormously benefited American democracy, our economy, and our global competitiveness.
At the same time, these new technologies create huge amounts of unique data about the daily activities and beliefs of millions of Americans. Regardless of whether the information is freely turned over to third parties by the traditional legal definition established by the Supreme Court in the days of rotary telephones and before personal computing, it is simply not possible to actively participate in American society today without leaving a digital trail from which a detailed picture of one’s life can be drawn. Who you talk to, what you read, what you buy, and who you consider friends are all easily and precisely found in our modern digital world.
The reality of the telephone metadata program on its own clearly does not sweep in all of our digital data. This is not the only such collection program, however, and the NSA’s Internet metadata program was suspended at the end of 2011 only because of excessive cost, not due to an NSA judgment that the program violated legal limits. Regardless, the government being in the mass digital data collection business at all is the problem Furthermore, it does not require a conspiratorial mind to be concerned about what other programs are out there when a secret government database of all the call records of all Americans has existed for nearly a decade. It would prove extremely damaging to our society if Americans began to feel they needed to choose between fully participating in American public and economic life and their right to keep the intimate details of their core activities and beliefs out of the hands of the government.
The president has the authority right now to suspend this bulk collection and instead require the NSA to seek an order from the court that oversees this activity each time it wants to search phone records. Doing so in this manner would not harm national security but would get the government out of the mass data collection business and re-establish meaningful checks on the NSA when searching Americans’ phone records.
Ending the practice of mass digital data collection by the government is essential as we navigate our way into the global information age. Requiring the NSA to seek individual orders to search Americans’ telephone-call records in a database not controlled by the government would maintain the capability to use this information for legitimate counterterrorism purposes. Conversely, preserving a government-held database of such a large scale approved by an informed Congress would establish an enduring legal framework of mass digital data collection by the government that could impact the way Americans choose to live their lives with negative effects on our democracy and our economy. It’s time to get the government out of the mass data collection business.
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Ken Gude is a Senior Fellow with the National Security Team at the Center for American Progress.