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Counterterrorism database stores all Americans as potential domestic terrorists

Mar 27, 20125 mins
Data and Information SecurityData CenterMicrosoft

Just when you thought domestic spying couldn't get any crazier, the new counterterrorism guidelines basically claim we all may be domestic terrorists. Innocent American citizens, your personal info will be stored for five years in a government database and datamined to connect the dots. The Orwellian Total Information Awareness program seems to be alive and kicking, reborn under another name but still ripe for abuse.

Terrorism is not a 4-letter cuss word, but it might be a curse word . . . a five year curse on every American citizen that is. By using terrorism as a justification, the government will collect and store personal information on Americans who have absolutely no ties to terrorism and are suspected of no crime. Your info will be dumped into a database and stored for five years. Why? So U.S. intelligence agencies can better connect the dots between terrorists.

The EFF, ACLU and EPIC sounded the red alert alarm, since we are all at the mercy of the new National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) guidelines and will be treated as potential terrorists. This government database is eerily similar to the rebirth of President Bush’s Total Information Awareness program that We the People freaked out about and Congress killed in 2003.

You may not be concerned because you know you are not tied to terrorism, but that could change based off the ridiculous lists that continue to be leaked. The lists claim “You might be a domestic terrorist if” you pay with cash, if you actually believe in your Constitutional rights, if you yawn during a conversation or check your watch, if you use Skype, VPN, Tor, or PGP for security and privacy reasons, or even if you go out in public armed with camera! Any number of innocent behaviors are now considered suspicious activity in this fear-filled world. Does it surprise you to know the intelligence community has been secretly writing these new NCTC rules for about 18 months? The excuse being used points at government intelligence agencies inability to “connect the dots” about the Dec. 25, 2009 “underwear bomber.”

So last week the Obama administration had Attorney General Eric Holder sign new guidelines for the NCTC [PDF]. The New York Times reported:

The guidelines will lengthen to five years – from 180 days – the amount of time the center can retain private information about Americans when there is no suspicion that they are tied to terrorism, intelligence officials said. The guidelines are also expected to result in the center making more copies of entire databases and “data mining them” using complex algorithms to search for patterns that could indicate a threat.

The ACLU’s Mike German wrote:

Authorizing the “temporary” retention of nonterrorism-related citizen and resident information for five years essentially removes the restraint against wholesale collection of our personal information by the government, and puts all Americans at risk of unjustified scrutiny….Making the haystack bigger will only make it harder to find the needle, endangering both privacy and security.

American citizens and residents should not be considered potential terrorists until the NCTC decides otherwise. Having innocent people’s information in intelligence databases for five years without any suspicion of wrongdoing creates an unacceptable risk to Americans’ privacy through error and abuse.

EPIC reported on the expanded NCTC datamining power. “Intelligence agency officials will be able to profile and track American citizens, suspected of no crime, for up to five years. The change represents a dramatic expansion of government surveillance and appears to violate the Privacy Act of 1974, which limits data exchanges across federal agencies and establishes legal rights for US citizens.”

“Unfortunately, the new NCTC guidelines are yet another example of the government using the word ‘terrorism’ to infringe on the rights of innocent Americans,” the EFF said. This new power granted to the NCTC “expands the amount of time the government can keep private information on innocent individuals by a factor of ten.”

For the second time this month, it seems the government is trying to breathe new life into the Total Information Awareness (TIA) domestic spying program. First, William Binney, a former senior NSA official, told NSA expert James Bamford, “You can watch everybody all the time with datamining. Everything a person does becomes charted on a graph, ‘financial transactions or travel or anything.’ Thus, as data like bookstore receipts, bank statements, and commuter toll records flow in, the NSA is able to paint a more and more detailed picture of someone’s life.” Few people where surprised when, in front of Congress, the NSA Chief denied Total Information Awareness spying on Americans. Then End the Lie said, the new counterterrorism rules happened “just when you thought the ludicrously paranoid federal government of the United States of America couldn’t get any worse.”

Think back to all the you might be a terrorist if lists released by our government. With all your personal information being stored in databases for the next five years . . . who knows what ‘suspicious behavior’ will be considered a terrorism indicator during that time? As EmptyWheel wrote, “So in addition to all of us in government databases-that is, all of us-being deemed domestic terrorists, the data the government keeps to track our travel, our taxes, our benefits, our identity? It just got transformed from bureaucratic data into national security intelligence….We are all, now, first and foremost potential terrorists now.”

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.