The Dubious Value of Dragnet Surveillance

Ron Wyden, Mark Udall, and Martin Heinrich, senators from Oregon, Colorado, and New Mexico respectively, have a strong editorial in the Times calling for an end to the NSA’s dragnet surveillance programs:

The framers of the Constitution declared that government officials had no power to seize the records of individual Americans without evidence of wrongdoing, and they embedded this principle in the Fourth Amendment. The bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records — so-called metadata — by the National Security Agency is, in our view, a clear case of a general warrant that violates the spirit of the framers’ intentions.

And they make the excellent point that, even today, there is no conclusive evidence of a single instance of necessary intelligence-gathering that could not have been done without dragnet programs:

The usefulness of the bulk collection program has been greatly exaggerated. We have yet to see any proof that it provides real, unique value in protecting national security. In spite of our repeated requests, the N.S.A. has not provided evidence of any instance when the agency used this program to review phone records that could not have been obtained using a regular court order or emergency authorization.

What about the reforms recently passed out of the Senate Intelligence Committee? They don’t deserve the name:

…the surveillance reform bill recently ratified by the Senate Intelligence Committee would explicitly permit the government to engage in dragnet collection as long as there were rules about when officials could look at these phone records. It would also give intelligence agencies wide latitude to conduct warrantless searches for Americans’ phone calls and emails.

If you read Marcy Wheeler (and you definitely should be), it’s clear that the NSA always collects as much as possible, combing its statutes for any conceivable loophole to enable mass data collection wherever possible, or just going for it outright. Actual proven utility of the program is a secondary consideration at most.

This seems to be a general tendency for dragnet programs. For instance, the NYPD ran a Muslim surveillance program for years, where whole mosques were designated as terrorist organizations so informants could spy without any evidence of wrongdoing. Last summer the head of the program testified, “I never made a lead from rhetoric that came from a Demographics report, and I’m here since 2006.”

In many ways this is not so surprising. Mass surveillance is hugely expensive, logistically cumbersome, and by definition has a minuscule signal-to-noise ratio. Simply reducing the space of possible leads by forcing police to justify their suspicions is an important part of responsible and effective policing.

It’s time for these dragnet programs to go.

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.