A major investigation by the Wall Street Journal has revealed how the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) has been given permission to access a vast database containing thousands of US citizen’s personal information, raising concerns that the country has just taken another huge step towards becoming a total big brother state.
You can read the article in full on the WSJ here. It’s pretty long-winded, but basically it states that the NCTC has been granted powers to examine government-held files of some US citizens, even when these people have no criminal record or done anything suspicious. Previously, the agency was only allowed to store information on people when they had reasons to suspect they were involved in terrorism, or else otherwise related to an ongoing terrorism investigation.
According to the WSJ, the NCTC now has access to a vast database of government data, including lists of casino employees, flight records and many more. Worse still, the agency will be allowed to analyze these records for ‘suspicious patterns’ whilst holding them for up to five years.
Now, in order to understand why this has happened, we need to look back to the attempted Christmas Day plane bombing by suspected Al Qaeda terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who stored explosives in his underpants and was only just prevented from detonating these in the nick of time. A Senate investigation later came to the conclusion that the NCTC had in fact been in possession of intelligence about Abdulmutallab’s plans, but it failed to pass on this information or ask other agencies about him. Had they done so, Abdulmutallab could have been prevented from boarding his flight to the US and the near miss would never have happened.
Responding to this, President Obama issued an order that all government agencies must now forward their information to the NCTC, so that it could “pursue thoroughly and exhaustively terrorism threat threads”.
Had things stayed this way, innocent persons would have had little to worry about, but apparently this measure didn’t satisfy the agency. Being the relatively small, unknown agency that it is, the NCTC came back that it lacked the resources necessary to “exhaustively” investigate all of the leads it had received as it had been ordered to, which meant that it was falling behind with its work.
To remedy this problem, the NCTC requested unlimited access to all of the data held by US government agencies, for as long as it needed this access, for both suspects and those citizens that were not suspected of any wrongdoing.
Incredibly, following a high level meeting between intelligence chiefs and Eric Holder at the White House, the NCTC’s request was granted, effectively granting it total freedom to investigate any citizen it wants, for as long as it wants, utilizing all of the information held on them by government agencies.
The WSJ sums it up best:
“”It’s breathtaking” in its scope. Under the new rules, [NCTC] can obtain almost any database the government collects that it says is “reasonably believed” to contain “terrorism information.” The list could potentially include almost any government database, from financial forms submitted by people seeking federally backed mortgages to the health records of people who sought treatment at Veterans Administration hospitals.
We’ve seen similar steps taken before, most notably with the Bush administration’s Total Information Awareness data-mining program which would have been able to trawl through not just government records, but any records ever collected about someone. We were lucky in that public outrage put a stop to this obscene invasion of privacy, but so far we haven’t seen any similar outcry regarding the NCTC, most likely because no one knows what it’s now capable of doing.
There is one small safeguard in all of this. According to the WSJ, should the NCTC requested access to a new database, a notice of this action will be posted on the Federal Register. At this point, any citizen whose information is stored on that particular database will be allowed to post comments to the register, and will at least be aware that the NCTC is looking at them. Sadly though, just knowing that your privacy is being compromised doesn’t put a stop to it.
Say “hello” to big brother everyone.