Apr 8, 2015 · 2 minutes

Perhaps the most controversial National Security Agency surveillance program is the one that collects metadata describing Americans' phone calls with people in other countries. But the NSA didn't pioneer this practice -- it appears that similar data was collected by the Drug Enforcement Administration for more than two decades.

USA Today reports that the DEA collected information about every phone call made between the United States and 116 other countries from around the world. These efforts started more than a decade before the September 11 attacks led the NSA to create a similar program that used such information in the war on terror.

The program itself was revealed to the public by the Department of Justice in January. But the USA Today report is the first to show the program's scope and to explain why the collection of this data was so problematic. The program is said to have been shut down in 2013 -- yet some aren't convinced it's truly gone.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, acting on behalf of Human Rights Watch, has filed a suit against the DEA because of the program. It says in a blog post:

This lawsuit will ensure that the program is actually terminated—and that it can’t be started again. It’s also one thing to say that a database has been deleted, but data migrates, especially in law enforcement’s hands. We know that agencies other than the DEA—such as the Department of Homeland Security—had access to the data collected under the program and that they used it for purposes entirely unrelated to the war on drugs. Our lawsuit seeks to root out the data illegally collected by the DEA, wherever that data has gone, and ensure its permanent deletion.
The American Civil Liberties Union says this program is another symptom of the war on drugs, which is so invasive because drug use is a "victimless crime" that therefore requires police to "proactively search out wrongdoing: insert themselves into people's lives, monitor their behavior, search their cars, etc." in order to fight it.

Yet those efforts haven't curbed drug use. As the Guardian notes in its report on the lawsuit Human Rights Watch and the EFF have filed against the DEA:

The warrantless bulk phone records collection, though cited by former officials as a valuable tool, has not stopped the upward growth of domestic narcotics consumption. In 2012, according to the National Institutes of Health, 9.2 % of Americans had consumed an illicit or controlled substance in the past month, up from 8.3% a decade earlier. Repeated studies have shown that enforcement of drug laws disproportionately impacts black and Hispanic Americans despite white people’s comparable rates of marijuana consumption.
So what has the war on drugs gotten us? Programs that track millions of Americans' license plates; planes equipped with sophisticated surveillance tools across the country; and campaigns that take photos of drivers and passengers to run through facial recognition software. The result of those programs? The US is still losing the war on drugs.

The so-called war on terror hasn't fared much better. NSA programs haven't stopped terrorist attacks any more than the DEA's efforts have curbed drug use. What these "wars" on abstract concepts like "drugs" and "terror" have led to is the degradation of privacy for an untold number of people around the entire planet.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]