Friday, February 18, 2011

No New Surveillance Powers For The War On Drugs

At two hearings over the past month, including one yesterday, senior officials from the Department of Justice asked Congress to significantly expand its ability to monitor and investigate the online communications of Americans.

Law enforcement officials claim that it is too difficult to snoop on users of modern services like Skype, Blackberry, Facebook and Google, as the companies have not built wiretap capabilities into their services. The Department of Justice would also like wireless and residential Internet Service Providers to keep records that would make it easier to determine after-the-fact which particular customer visited specific websites.

These officials argue that technology companies should be required to build new surveillance capabilities in order to more effectively investigate child pornographers and terrorists. This is a politically savvy argument, as no member of Congress will want to risk appearing weak on terrorism or child pornography.

The reality is that most law enforcement surveillance powers are used in support of the war on drugs, not to investigate terrorists or pedophiles. As such, Congress should first demand reliable statistics on law enforcement’s existing Internet surveillance activities before even considering the FBI’s request for more powers.

The American public may be willing to give up their privacy and civil liberties in order to actually prevent terrorism and the sexual exploitation of children. This deal is far less attractive if the new surveillance powers will instead be used to to continue a failed prohibition opposed by millions of Americans.

Statistics are useful

Each year, federal and state law enforcement agencies obtain thousands of court orders that allow them to secretly wiretap the telephones of American citizens. We know this because Congress requires annual reports regarding the use of these surveillance powers.

The first documented instances of law enforcement wiretaps were used to investigate bootleggers during the prohibition. Decades later, as the wiretap reports confirm, the vast majority of intercepts are used to enforce our modern day prohibition: the war on drugs. For example, of the 2,376 wiretap orders issued in 2009, 86% (2,046) were obtained as part of narcotics investigations.

Similarly, of the 763 “sneak and peek” search warrants obtained in 2009, 474 were obtained in investigations of drugs, and only 3 were used in investigations of terrorism. These surveillance orders allow government agents to search a home without telling the owner or resident until weeks or months later. Law enforcement agencies were given this authority as part of the Patriot Act, after the Department of Justice claimed that the powers were necessary to allow “law enforcement to conduct investigations without tipping off terrorists.” However, a report published by the Administrative Office of the Courts in 2009 revealed that the powers are primarily used to investigate drugs, not terrorism.

Unfortunately, while accurate statistics exist for wiretaps, and for the sneak and peek authority granted as part of the Patriot Act, we are largely in the dark regarding most of the tens of thousands of requests made each year to phone companies and Internet service providers. There are no statistics that document law enforcement requests for email, instant messaging, social network profiles, search engine history, or geographic location information from mobile phones.

Not only do we have no way of knowing the total number of requests made by law enforcement officers each year, but we also do not know what kinds of crimes they are investigating. Instead, all we have are unverifiable anecdotes from law enforcement officials, who selectively reveal them in order to justify their push for increased surveillance powers.

If the statements of law enforcement officials are to be believed, most of their online investigations involve child pornography. However, the published statistics for other forms of surveillance suggest that they are likely in support of the war on drugs. The only way to be sure would be for Congress to require the collection and publication of statistics covering law enforcement agencies’ surveillance of Internet applications and communications. As Senator Leahy noted more than 10 years ago, surveillance statistics serve as a “more reliable basis than anecdotal evidence on which to assess law enforcement needs and make sensible policy in this area.”

Rather than granting the Department of Justice the sweeping new surveillance powers it seeks, Congress should first seek and obtain detailed reports on the use of modern surveillance techniques. There is no need to rush the passage of new authority; especially since, as the debate over the renewal of the Patriot Act has clearly demonstrated, rolling back powers is much tougher than granting new ones.

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