The NSA's Data Gluttony

By Jason Keiber

The NSA has a seemingly insatiable appetite for personal data. No morsel of data is too small; no producer of data is too insignificant. Soon it will be more challenging to find people who are not targeted by the NSA than those who are.

Gluttony, however, has consequences. The U.S. cannot glibly reach into other states, spy on their citizens and expect the global community to assent.

The U.S. now has a nasty image problem to overcome. On the global stage the U.S. exalts the rule-of-law, due process and freedom of expression. NSA spying on millions of people abroad makes a mockery of these ideas, as Russian President Vladimir Putin recently expressed admiration for Obama's surveillance measures. The comment, presumably made in jest, was nevertheless suggestive.

From a national security perspective countries will now think twice before working with the U.S. on sensitive projects. German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly told President Obama that the NSA activity is worse than surveillance by the East German Stasi.

Mass surveillance is also bad for business. Companies like Microsoft now view the NSA as a ‘threat.' IT firms like Cisco are concerned that the NSA's activities are causing sales to drop.

Adding insult to injury, the NSA bulk collection programs are simply unnecessary. Research by Gary LaFree and his colleagues shows that from 1970 to 2004 only three percent of attacks by U.S. designated terrorist organizations actually targeted U.S. persons worldwide.

The domestic threat posed by Muslim extremists has also been exaggerated. There have been around 60 plots by wannabe jihadists since 9/11. Almost all of them were either plotted by idiots or helped along by an FBI sting. Only five have been successful, killing 20. (29 have been killed by 'non-jihadist extremists' during the same time.) Mass data collection by the NSA was not required to foil the other (roughly 55) plots.

The chance of a U.S. citizen dying in a terrorist attack is about 1 in 3.5 million. Using risk-based analysis, political scientist John Mueller and Mark Stewart suggest the U.S. would have to be preventing hundreds of significant attacks each year to justify current expenditures on homeland security (to say nothing of NSA spending). This is certainly not happening.

There is of course a terrorist threat. It just doesn't warrant massive, invasive data collection to fight it. The good news is that a better method exists, and the U.S. is already using it.

The U.S. has what I call a "public surveillance regime" that relies on information sharing agreements, liaison relationships and foreign capacity building. All of this activity is at least nominally public and accomplished with the full knowledge of all states involved. Moreover, it works.

Bilaterally the U.S. relies heavily on the exchange of terrorist screening information with foreign partners. As of September 2012, the U.S. exchanges data on terrorist identities with over 40 countries. In Congressional testimony, the director of the Terrorist Screening Center (which manages the "Watch List" data) described it as "the world's most comprehensive and widely shared database of terrorist identities."

In a similar vein, the U.S. and global partners share criminal databases and suspicious financial information through international organizations like INTERPOL and the Financial Action Task Force.

Law enforcement liaisons provide yet another boon to surveillance. The FBI has 64 legal attaché offices overseas. The FBI is not stationed abroad for spying purposes; rather, the FBI works with counterparts to learn about potential threats to the U.S.

The U.S. also works bilaterally to build the counterterrorism security capacity of other countries. For example, the State Department's Terrorist Interdiction Program provides watch-listing and border security systems for other countries to use. As of last year these systems were working at 184 ports of entry across 18 states checking the identity of travelers against criminal and terrorist databases.

This public surveillance regime is not without its problems, but it is a healthy and effective alternative to the NSA activity. The regime is relatively uncontroversial because it works through accepted foreign policy practices. The NSA programs are clouded in secrecy and deeply invasive. And whereas the NSA information intake is superfluous, the more measured practice of public surveillance is well suited to the actual terrorist threats facing the U.S.

Jason Keiber is finishing his PhD in International Relations and teaches at The Ohio State University. His dissertation, "The Politics of International Surveillance," will be completed in the spring.

(AP Photo)

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