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New Study: Is the Government Keeping Too Much of Your Data?

For the first time in one report, the Brennan Center takes a comprehensive look at how Americans’ data is collected by U.S. intelligence agencies, with whom it’s shared, and where and for how long the information is stored.

October 8, 2013

Washington, D.C.  – In a report released today, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law surveys five methods of data collection and finds that intelligence and law enforcement agencies not only collect massive amounts of innocent Americans’ data, but can share and store this data for up to 75 years or more, creating opportunities for abuse and clogging government databases.

For the first time in one report, the Brennan Center takes a comprehensive look at how Americans’ data is collected, with whom it’s shared, and where and for how long the information is stored. (See infographic)

“Intelligence agencies are treating the chaff much the same as the wheat,” said Rachel Levinson-Waldman, counsel at the Brennan Center and author of the report. “We expect the government to collect and share information that is critical to national security, but creating an electronic dossier on every American citizen is inefficient and ineffective. We need modern policies that limit how and with whom innocent Americans’ data can be shared and stored.”

Among the report’s highlights:

  • The FBI’s policy is to keep all information it gathers — regardless of whether it’s on innocent Americans or is relevant to an investigation — for 20 to 30 years.
  • In the five years after 9/11, the FBI improperly gathered and retained information on individuals because of their political and social activism — in violation of the First Amendment — and put this data into federal databases from which it became almost impossible to escape, according a 2010 report by the Inspector General of the Department of Justice.
  • Suspicious Activity Reports (“See something, say something”) ostensibly related to terrorism are kept in a widely accessible FBI database for 30 years, even if the FBI concludes they have NO nexus to terrorism.
  • The NSA broke privacy rules thousands of times between 2011 and 2012, including acquiring information on “more than 3,000 Americans and green-card holders” and using search terms for communications that were guaranteed to yield results with no connection to terrorism, according to a 2012 audit.
  • Without a warrant, Americans’ electronic communications may be kept for up to six years, may be searched using Americans’ email addresses or phone numbers, and can be shared if they are evidence of a crime.

As technological advances allow for easier collection, storage, and sharing of information, greater transparency and stronger, more modern policies are needed to ensure that an effective national security system does not erode or violate Americans’ civil liberties.

The Brennan Center’s report offers multiple reform proposals, including:

  • Prohibiting the retention and sharing of domestically-gathered data about Americans without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.
  • Increasing public oversight over the National Counterterrorism Center, which can amass, retain, and analyze large quantities of non-terrorism information about Americans.
  • Reforming the outdated Privacy Act of 1974, which is ill-equipped to protect the privacy of Americans’ personal information in a digital age.
  • Requiring regular and robust audits of federal agencies’ retention and sharing of noncriminal information about Americans, and ensuring existing policies are accessible and transparent.

Read the full report here.

View the full infographic here.