The problem with government watchlists: Yahoo News Explains

In the days before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. government had an estimated 20 names on a master watchlist maintained by the Department of Transportation — but in the 20 years since, the federal Terrorist Screening Database now tracks over 1 million people, including U.S. citizens. Hugh Handeyside, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU National Security Project, explains how the post-9/11 response to collect and share information between government agencies has created a system that threatens civil liberties.

Video Transcript

HUGH HANDEYSIDE: If I could correct a single myth, it would be that if you're on a watch list, it must be because you did something to deserve that. The TSDB, or the Terrorist Screening Database-- it is a now massive compilation of names that the government has instituted in the years since 9/11. And it has grown explosively.

At the time of 9/11, there were perhaps 20-something people on a watch list maintained by the Department of Transportation. Today, there are well over a million names on the master watch list. And that list is disseminated out to agencies across the government. It's shared with a number of private entities, scores of them, and also well over 60 foreign governments.

The consequences of placement on the watch list can be extreme. They can-- in fact, they can ruin a person's life-- difficulty traveling, invasive searches at airports or the border, police surveillance-- to say nothing of the stigma and social isolation with-- that comes with being labeled a suspected terrorist.

After 9/11, there was this government-wide emphasis on information sharing, which, in retrospect, really does look like a euphemistic way of saying that we need to deprioritize individual privacy at every possible juncture. Disseminating the personal information that's on the watch list out to government agencies across the country is part of that. But there are other databases that include information drawn from suspicionless searches of people's digital devices-- their smartphones, their laptops-- when they cross the border.

We have more information today on our smartphones than could be gleaned from a very, very thorough search of our homes, for which you would clearly need a warrant. The government at the border does not need a warrant to search and retain the information from our smartphones and laptops, which can include extremely sensitive information about our health, our contacts, our emails, our communications, our finances. Our whole lives are contained on these devices. That information can be sucked up into these databases and transmitted and disseminated across the government.

Government officers are not supposed to query these databases for no reason whatsoever. They're not supposed to simply start gathering information about people without at least some basis. The problem is that information is there. It's at their fingertips. And there really aren't any consequences. There's very little accountability for misconduct related to accessing this kind of information.

Ensuring that officers in myriad contexts across the government can access information gathered in completely different contexts or for completely different reasons, which just means that officers who work at the border or officers in federal law enforcement have access to an astonishing array of information that is extremely personal and sensitive about everyone--

Part of the problem here is that our privacy laws date from the mid-1970s. So we need to update our privacy laws in ways that account for the sort of rapid advancement in technology. It's long past time to reexamine this assumption that took hold after 9/11 that all information needs to be shared, and it needs to be shared as widely as possible.

The expansion of this information availability and sharing is one of the gravest threats to privacy today and one of the reasons why abuse and misconduct for federal law enforcement officers is becoming routine. In reality, the government's policies and its practices related to the watch list virtually ensure that the vast majority of the people who have been placed on a watch list have done nothing wrong, will do nothing wrong, and should not be on those watch lists.