Law and technology
Keeping track of
The creation of a statistical index of U.S. telecommunications surveillance activities and their results
will benefit both civil liberties and law enforcement.
TELECoMMUniCations sUrVEiL- LanCE raisEs complex policy and political issues. It is also a matter of great concern for the general public. Surprisingly enough, however, the phenomenon of telecommunications surveillance is poorly measured in the U.S.
at present. As a result, any attempt at
rational inquiry about telecommunications surveillance is hampered by
the haphazard and incomplete information the U.S. government collects
about its own behavior and activities.
Neither the U.S. government nor
outside experts know basic facts
about the level of surveillance practices. As a consequence, U.S. citizens
have limited ability to decide if there
is too much or too little telecommunications surveillance. It is also impossible to determine if telecommunications surveillance is increasing
or decreasing, or if law enforcement
is using its surveillance capacities
most effectively. 4
Ideally, it would be possible to
reach conclusions about these issues
by examining data about U.S. govern-
ment surveillance practices and their
results. As a general model, federal
and state crime statistics are publicly
available and criminologists pore over
these databases to spot trends and
determine police activities that are effective. No such database is available
about the full range of telecommunications surveillance.
create one annual
Congress should create one annual
report card that measures and publicizes government’s performance
of telecommunications surveillance.
This index will replace the bits and
pieces of scattered reports that different governmental entities sometimes release. Such an index will
allow year-by-year comparisons of
changes in the levels of government
and permit meaningful judgments
about the extent of privacy invasions
and the effectiveness of the activity.
In this column, I describe the gap
left by the reporting provisions in
current statutes, which create only
an incomplete and discontinuous
picture of the governmental activity.
The creation of an annual telecommunications surveillance index is an
urgent matter, and I will conclude by
discussing four issues related to this
To understand the shortcomings of
the statutes that permit U.S. telecommunications surveillance, one needs a