Privacy today faces growing threats from a growing surveillance apparatus that is often justified in the name of national security. Numerous government agencies—including the National Security Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security, and state and local law enforcement agencies—intrude upon the private communications of innocent citizens, amass vast databases of who we call and when, and catalog “suspicious activities” based on the vaguest standards.
The government’s collection of this sensitive information is itself an invasion of privacy. But its use of this data is also rife with abuse. Innocuous data is fed into bloated watchlists, with severe consequences—innocent individuals have found themselves unable to board planes, barred from certain types of jobs, shut out of their bank accounts, and repeatedly questioned by authorities. Once information is in the government’s hands, it can be shared widely and retained for years, and the rules about access and use can be changed entirely in secret without the public ever knowing.
Our Constitution and democratic system demand that the government be transparent and accountable to the people, not the other way around. History has shown that powerful, secret surveillance tools will almost certainly be abused for political ends and turned disproportionately on disfavored minorities.
The ACLU has been at the forefront of the struggle to prevent the entrenchment of a surveillance state by challenging the secrecy of the government’s surveillance and watchlisting practices; its violations of our rights to privacy, free speech, due process, and association; and its stigmatization of minority communities and activists disproportionately targeted by surveillance.
The U.S. government maintains a massive watchlist system that risks stigmatizing hundreds of thousands of people—including U.S. citizens—as terrorism suspects based on vague, overbroad, and often secret standards and evidence.
The consequences of being placed on a government watchlist can be far-reaching. They can include questioning, harassment, or detention by authorities, or even an indefinite ban on air travel. And while the government keeps the evidence it uses to blacklist people in this manner secret, government watchdogs have found that as many as 35 percent of the nominations to the network of watchlists are outdated and tens of thousands of names were placed on lists without an adequate factual basis. To make matters worse, the government denies watchlisted individuals any meaningful way to correct errors and clear their names.
The ACLU is seeking reform of this broken watchlisting system in a variety of ways. We filed a landmark challenge to the No Fly List in which a federal judge struck down the government’s redress process, ruling that it “falls far short of satisfying the requirements of due process” and is “wholly ineffective.” The ACLU continues to advocate for broad reform of the watchlisting system, consistent with the court’s ruling and the Constitution.
A bloated, opaque watch listing system is neither fair nor effective. A system in which innocent people languish on blacklists indefinitely, with their rights curtailed and their names sullied, is at odds with our Constitution and values