Well, this is pretty terrifying: A little known agency called the National Counterterrorism Center has a big ole database of civilian information that it can use to monitor innocent people for suspicious behavior, without probable cause. Oh, and it can also give that data to foreign nations if it wants to. That database includes flight records, lists of casino employee, the names of Americans hosting foreign exchange students, and anything the government can prove is "reasonably believed" to contain "terrorism information," per The Wall Street Journal's Julia Angwin, who got a look at the database after a Freedom of Information Act request. The NCTC super-database could potentially balloon to include information from any government database, from flight information to health records.
Of course, counter-terrorism officials don't want you to think that the agency will use this information in an abusive way. "The guidelines provide rigorous oversight to protect the information that we have, for authorized and narrow purposes," Alexander Joel, civil liberties protection officer for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the parent agency of the National Counterterrorism Center, told Angwin. But it doesn't quite sound like it works like that. The NCTC can get around the rules by exempting themselves from certain Federal Privacy Act restraints, something that Angwin makes sound fairly easy. "All you have to do is publish a notice in the Federal Register and you can do whatever you want," a privacy expert told Angwin.
In theory, all this information will give the government information it needs to stop terrorists. The NCTC argued for this huge expansion of power as a direct response to the Detroit underwear bomber, who boarded a flight on Christmas Day 2009 with explosive sewn into his underwear because he didn't make it onto a watch list. Following that, President Obama asked for a database overhaul. And, following internal resistance from privacy officials at the Department of Justice and Homeland security, the results was a "sea change in the way that the government interacts with the general public," as Mary Ellen Callahan, chief privacy officer of the Department of Homeland Security puts it.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.