We recently learned that the National Security Agency has a database with the records of almost every phone call made in the U.S. To address public concerns over its surveillance activities, the agency has begun to explain how it uses the metadata — information including when calls are made, how long they last and to whom they are placed — it has accumulated over the last seven years.
Although Americans deserve this explanation, they shouldn’t delude themselves. Even if the NSA’s controversial program were shut down tomorrow, another government agency that is busy collecting and retaining personal data would keep humming along. True accountability for the government’s surveillance activities should also include an airing of — and tighter restrictions on — the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s power to collect and store substantial amounts of innocuous information about Americans.
Since 2008, for instance, the FBI has had the authority to conduct “assessments” — investigations that require no suspicion of criminal activity. In service of these low-level investigations, an FBI agent may use various invasive methods, including infiltrating public meetings of groups as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union or Alcoholics Anonymous, using informants, and even putting the target of the investigation under full-time physical surveillance.
In light of this power to intrude on people’s lives, one would hope that these assessments pay off most of the time and that the FBI discards any superfluous information quickly when they don’t. The numbers, however, tell a different story.
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