To date, there have been practically no examples of a terrorist plot being pre-emptively thwarted by data mining these huge electronic caches. (Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has said that the metadatabase has helped thwart a terrorist attack “in the last few years,” but the details have not been disclosed.)
When I was writing my book, “The Watchers,” about the rise of these big surveillance systems, I met analyst after analyst who said that data mining tends to produce big, unwieldy masses of potential bad actors and threats, but rarely does it produce a solid lead on a terrorist plot.
Those leads tend to come from more pedestrian investigative techniques, such as interviews and interrogations of detainees, or follow-ups on lists of phone numbers or e-mail addresses found in terrorists’ laptops. That shoe-leather detective work is how the United States has tracked down so many terrorists. In fact, it’s exactly how we found Osama bin Laden.
While I’m certainly against the government having such extensive access to private communications, I do believe that this is one of those cases where there probably are examples of this technology stopping terrorism – but they won’t tell us because that might tell the terrorists what not to do.
But if anyone would know that a terrorist plot was foiled, wouldn’t it be the people that were organizing it to begin with? This seems like a case where the government might as well be open. The terrorists are already going to adapt their tactics to avoid repeating the actions that have gotten them caught. The American people might as well be told why their privacy being taken away is worth it.