FBI Director James Comey warned last week that the American Islamists who tried to assassinate free-speech advocates at a cartoon exhibition near Dallas are not alone. There are “hundreds, maybe thousands” of potential terrorists in the U.S. being inspired by overseas groups. “The haystack is the entire country,” he said. “We are looking for the needles, but increasingly the needles are unavailable to us.”
The needles will be even harder to find if Congress weakens the Patriot Act by reducing the intelligence available to national security. With the rise of Islamic State and its global recruiting tools, intelligence agencies should be allowed to join the “big data” revolution.
Edward Snowden’s data theft raised privacy alarms, but by now it’s clear no one working for the National Security Agency leaked confidential data other than Snowden himself. He evaded the 300 lawyers and compliance officers who monitor how NSA staff use data.
President Obama last year recalled how the 9/11 hijackers escaped detection because laws prohibited the NSA from gathering and connecting the dots. He explained that the Patriot Act was passed to “address a gap identified after 9/11” by having intelligence agencies collect anonymous metadata—date, time and duration—of phone calls.
But Mr. Obama reversed himself and now wants to gut the program. Instead of the NSA gathering call information, phone companies would hold the data. With multiple, unconnected databases, the NSA would no longer be able to access data to mine. There wouldn’t be dots to connect to threats. As for privacy, the phone companies’ databases would be less secure than the NSA’s.
Lawmakers will decide this month whether to extend the Patriot Act or to water it down. Instead they should update it to maximize both privacy and intelligence. Technology now has the answer, if only politicians will get out of the way. (more…)