Massive New Surveillance Program Uncovered

from When a former senior White House official describes a nationwide
surveillance effort as “breathtaking,” you know civil liberties
activists are preparing for a fight.

The Wall Street Journal reported today
that the little-known National Counterterrorism Center, based in an
unmarked building in McLean, Va., has been granted sweeping new
authority to store and monitor massive data-sets about innocent

After internal wrangling over privacy and civil liberties issues, the
Justice Department reportedly signed off on controversial new guidelines
earlier this year.
The guidelines allow the NCTC, for the first time,
to keep data about innocent U.S. citizens for up to five years, using
“predictive pattern-matching,”
to analyze it for suspicious patterns of
. The data the counter-terrorism center has access to, according
to the Journal, includes “entire government databases—flight
records, casino-employee lists, the names of Americans hosting
foreign-exchange students and many others.”

Notably, the Journal reports that these changes also allow
databases about U.S. civilians to be handed over to foreign governments
for analysis,
presumably so that they too can attempt to determine
future criminal actions. The Department of Homeland Security’s former
chief privacy officer said that it represents a “sea change in the way
that the government interacts with the general public.”

Public Buses Across Country Quietly Adding Microphones To Record Passenger Conversations

The snooping effort, which officials say is subject to “rigorous
oversight,” is reminiscent of the so-called Total Information Awareness initiative, dreamt up in the aftermath of 9/11 by the Pentagon’s
research unit DARPA. The aim of the TIA initiative was essentially to
create a kind of ubiquitous pre-crime surveillance regime monitoring
public and private databases.
It was largely defunded in 2003, after
civil liberties concerns. However, other similar efforts have continued,
such as through the work of the Department of Homeland Security’s
intelligence-gathering “Fusion Centers.” Most recently, Fusion Centers
were subjected to scathing criticism
from congressional investigators, who found that they were accumulating
masses of data about “suspicious” activity that was not of any use.
intelligence being swept up, the investigators found, was “oftentimes
shoddy, rarely timely, sometimes endangering citizens’ civil liberties
and Privacy Act protections.”

Such sweeping surveillance efforts pose difficulties for the
authorities because they can end up drowning in data, attempting to find
a needle in a haystack, in the process deeming innocent people
suspicious. As the Journal’s Julia Angwin notes, the risk is
that “innocent behavior gets misunderstood—say, a man buying chemicals
(for a child’s science fair) and a timer (for the sprinkler) sets off
false alarms.” The U.S. government clearly feels far-reaching
surveillance initiatives are necessary to help detect potential future
terror attacks.
But ultimately, in a democracy, the decision should
surely rest in the hands of the American public.
It is a question of
balance: How much liberty should be sacrificed in the name of security?
The revelations about the NCTC’s activities may be about to rekindle
that debate.

Leave a Reply