The Naval Postgraduate School & The U.S. Department of Homeland Security

What the Government Does With Americans' Data

Early this week the Brennan Center for Justice released its newest report on the US government and data collection, entitled "What the Government Does with Americans' Data." The report consults five U.S. intelligence agencies to uncover what changes were made in information-collecting policy following the attacks of September 11, 2001 and what happens to that information once it has been collected from American citizens. The findings conclude that under new collection policies, "non-terrorism related data can be kept for up to 75 years or more, clogging national security databases and creating opportunities for abuse."

The 9/11 attacks, and the intelligence failures that preceded them, created an impetus for greater government access to information and dramatically lowered the standard level of suspicion previously required to investigate individuals. This resulted in the collection of vast amounts of information on all Americans, including law-abiding citizens without any sort of criminal record. This report does not focus on the data that is collected and proven "useful" to law enforcement and intelligence agencies, but rather on the legitimacy and legality of stockpiling huge stores of information on Americans that do not indicate criminal or terrorist behavior, and on the sharing of that information with other agencies, private entities, and foreign governments.

The report offers the following policy recommendations for imposing limitations on, and providing transparency to, the long-term retention and sharing of non-criminal information about Americans:

  1. Ensure that every dataset and database has a publicly available policy, and make the government's use, sharing, and retention practices as transparent as possible.
  2. Require reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to retain or share information about Americans or law enforcement or intelligence purposes.
  3. Reform the Privacy Act to better protect against the long-term retention and broad sharing of innocuous, sensitive personal information, and institute oversight mechanisms.
  4. Increase public oversight over the National Counterterrorism Center.
  5. Require regular and robust reviews of agency collection, retention, and use of Americans' information.