Chapter 4:
Government Data Collection and Use

The Temptation to Abuse Government Databases

Governments at every level collect personal data, with varying degrees of scope and detail. Data is necessary for many parts of government to function, from providing social services, to enrolling students in public schools, to issuing passports. The scale of collection is expansive and growing, but it’s also difficult to quantify,[103] particularly because private companies often play a central role in helping governments gather and store data.[104] Data needs to be accessible to government employees and contractors for legitimate purposes. But, in far too many instances, the availability of personal data—and government’s inability to properly manage and oversee its own staff’s activities—has led to abuse.

At a local level, women appear over-represented among the targets of such abuse, especially by police.

At a local level, women appear over-represented among the targets of such abuse, especially by police. Law enforcement officers have been accused of inappropriately using databases to stalk women in Minnesota,[105] Illinois,[106] New Jersey,[107] New York,[108] and North Carolina.[109] One officer went so far as to travel to a woman’s vehicle and leave a note for her.[110] Another extensive episode involved an NYPD detective who “hacked into computers to collect private email accounts and passwords of 21 fellow officers and nine other people to snoop on his ex-girlfriend.”[111] Officers have also been accused of using databases to look up individuals at the request of women they were trying to impress in Connecticut[112] and Alaska.[113]

The federal government maintains an enormous amount of data, raising similar issues on a national scale. For example, Edward Snowden recently claimed that it was common for analysts at the NSA to share nude photos they find in the course of their duties.[114] A similar story emerged in 2008 when two former NSA analysts came forward to discuss their access to the personal communications of US citizens living abroad. They reported that the analysts would recommend particular calls to each other based on their sexual content and that the list of calls is “stored the way you’d look at songs on your iPod and you could pull up a song on your iPod” using a person’s phone number.[115]

In a series of cases commonly referred to as LOVEINT, the NSA confirmed that, in the last decade, there were at least 12 cases of individual analysts using the SIGINT (signals intelligence) system to inappropriately track individuals, as well as two other cases currently under investigation.[116] In most cases, analysts were searching for information on people they knew socially or romantically.[117] The NSA Director of Compliance argued that the number of incidents by the agency was extremely low compared with its overall activities[118] But most of the incidents were self-reported,[119] so its not unreasonable to believe that the actual number of infractions taking place is higher than the reported number.

Collecting, storing and analyzing massive amounts of personal data enhances the government’s ability to help and protect ordinary citizens. But the availability of data can pose a temptation too great for a small percentage of those individuals who have access. As governments expand their use of data, there is significant room to improve the policies and practices to further lower the risk that this data is abused.

[103] The Washington Post, The Top Secret Network of the Government and it’s Contractors (Sep. 2010),

[104] The Washington Post, NSA slides explain the PRISM data-collection program (Jul. 10, 2013),

[105] Jessica Lussenhop, Is Anne Marie Rasmusson too hot to have a driver’s license?, City Pages (Feb. 22, 2012),

[106] Lauren Sher, Cop Issues Speeding Ticket, Asks Driver for a Date and She Sues Him, ABC News Blogs (Jan. 5, 2012),

[107] John Barna, Voorhees Township cop suspended on allegations he looked up woman’s license information, ‘friended’ her on Facebook, Glouster County Times (Jul. 24, 2012),

[108] Dareh Gregorian & Ginger Adams Otis, NYPD detective hacked into computers to get fellow officers’ email, cell phone info: Feds, N.Y. Daily News (May. 21, 2013),

[109] NC policeman misused database to stalk woman, authorities say, WNCT News (Nov. 26, 2013),

[110] See Sher, supra note 106.

[111] See Gregorian & Otis, supra note 108.

[112] Frank Washkuch Jr., Conn. police sergeant charged with computer crime, S.C. Magazine (Feb. 7, 2008),

[113] Jerzy Shedlock, ‘Boneheaded’ former Anchorage officer sentenced for misuse of police database, Alaska Dispatch News (Apr. 11, 2014),

[114] Cyrus Farivar, Snowden: NSA employees routinely pass around intercepted nude photos, Ars Technica (Jul. 17, 2014),

[115] Brian Ross, Vic Walter & Anna Schecter, Exclusive: Inside Account of U.S. Eavesdropping on Americans, ABC News (Oct. 9, 2008),

[116] Letter from Dr. George Ellard, Inspector General, National Security Agency, to Senator Charles E. Grassley (Sep. 11, 2013),

[117] Timothy B. Lee, 5 Americans who used NSA facilities to spy on lovers, The Switch—The Washington Post (Sep. 27, 2013),

[118] Charlie Savage, N.S.A. Calls Violations of Privacy ‘Minuscule’, N.Y. Times (Aug. 16, 2013), (“The report showed about 100 errors by analysts in making queries of databases of already-collected communications data; by comparison, he said, the agency performs about 20 million such queries each month.”).

[119] Siobhan Gorman, NSA Officers Spy on Love Interests, Wall St. J. (Aug. 23, 2013),