Last week, the nation was jarred by the news that a couple searched "backpack" and "pressure cooker," then found armed police at their door soon thereafter. While it turned out that their internet provider actually turned in the tip, other NSA scandals have enraged and frightened many.
Defenders of information collection argue that what is collected rarely gets used. And then, only by professionals with good reason to use it. Unfortunately, people being who they are, abuse can always happen.
The Washington Guardian recently reported that New York City Police Department detectives have routinely abused the privilege of accessing the FBI's National Crime Information Center database. While only authorized to use it during car stops and investigations, some officers have used it to snoop on fellow officers and even tip off criminals. Some of the most egregious cases involve officers identifying drug criminals so that they can rob them.
Safeguards exist, but experts claim that abusers can easily circumvent them.
This adds to worries that the National Security Agency has distributed information to agencies that investigate domestic crime and not national security. Reuters reports that the NSA sent information to the Drug Enforcement Agency's Special Operations Division. Although the information shared cannot be used because of Constitutional restrictions, DEA investigators are trained to backtrack and build a conventional looking investigation that does not use illegal data.
Many fear that high level politicians will always face temptations to misuse information at their disposal. The administrations of Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, and Barack Obama all misused IRS information. Eliot Spitzer, while governor of New York, misused police documents to smear a Republican opponent.
Information gained for law enforcement and/or national security purposes can help to protect the nation, lives, and property. Living without it means accepting complete vulnerability. But like any other extension of government power, the intelligence and law enforcement fields need to have strong boundaries and competent oversight. Rule of law and natural rights principles demand no less.