Potential For Mistakes
We're all capable of mistakes, but I do not care to enlighten you on the mistakes we may or may not have made.
As surveillance tools become more powerful and more pervasive, national security and law enforcement agencies increasingly depend on them to identify potential suspects. But mistakes are inevitable. Information can be recorded incorrectly, data can be retained when it should be deleted, automated analysis can produce errors and bits of data taken out of context can be misinterpreted. There errors may not be detected and can lead agencies to make serious mistakes.
Mass surveillance increases the problems that mistakes create. According to a secret internal audit leaked to reporters, in one year the NSA logged 2,776 incidents of illegal collection, storage, or access of private communications data. (This number only includes incidents found at the agency’s headquarters. If the audit had included the NSA’s other units, the number would likely have been much higher.) In one jarring instance, the NSA intercepted a “large number” of phone calls to and from Washington, D.C., due to a simple typo: The agency’s computer system confused the D.C. area code (202) with Egypt’s country code (20).
Similarly, the U.S. government maintains several massive “watch lists” of possible terrorist suspects. Agencies frequently add names to these lists based on unreliable, outdated, and poorly reviewed information. The result is a blacklist of over a million names that is not properly vetted or updated. The list has included members of Congress and their family members, U.S. military veterans, movie stars – even Nelson Mandela. The people on these lists face travel restrictions, screening or interrogation at airports and border crossings, traffic stops, and perhaps even clandestine surveillance in the communities where they live.
If you are improperly caught in the surveillance dragnet or if the government has inaccurate information about you, you have few options. Government agencies typically conceal the capabilities of their surveillance systems and the contents of their databases. If incorrect information lands you on a list of criminal suspects, you may never have the opportunity to review that information and correct it. In 2012, for example, 53 nonviolent anti-war and anti-death penalty activists received letters from the Maryland State Police informing them that the MSP’s anti-terror surveillance unit had labeled them terror suspects and loaded records of their information into federal databases.
Examples of Use
When government agencies consider acquiring and using surveillance systems, communities and their elected officials must both weigh the benefits against the costs to civil liberties and carefully craft policies and procedures that help to limit the negative effects that surveillance will have on fundamental rights. For a useful list of considerations, please visit the recommendations page.