Implementation Will be Key to Judging Obama Administration's New Intelligence Practices
The latest controversy over the Obama Administration's use of intelligence is the news that (as Fox News puts it), "The U.S. intelligence community will be able to store information about Americans with no ties to terrorism for up to five years," an initiative driven partly by our failure to connect the dots leading up to the attempted Christmas airline bombing in 2009.
I think the basic idea is sensible, but it all depends on how the data is used, stored and protected. The problem is created by two factors: a) terrorist attacks threaten harms against the United States far beyond any simple crime, and b) terrorists succeed by disguising themselves as civilians and hiding their activities within apparently innocent conduct.
One thing that we learned in the wake of 9-11 is that if the government's main object is to stop terrorist attacks before they occur, our intelligence and law enforcement agencies must have the ability to search data for patterns of movement, money laundering, and suspicious activity. Pulling together the information after the government has already identified a target may be insufficient, because an attack itself may be the first criminal act of the terrorist.
In order to find the target in the first place, our agencies may need to search through billions of transactions and movements. The key for protecting civil liberties is that safeguards be built in to the process, such as limiting the use of the information to preventing attacks (not for unrelated civilian law enforcement), and requiring that much of the searching be done by computers, with human involvement only when a certain level of suspicious activity has been reached.