Question: What could happen when a guy goes into a store and buys some chemicals for his child’s science fair project, and while he’s there, also picks up a timer for his sprinkler?
Answer: He could go on a terrorist watch list.
If that sounds like a joke, it isn’t. Thanks to the results of a meeting of U.S. intelligence officials in the White House Situation Room in March 2012, counterterrorism officials have succeeded in establishing a legal government dragnet that sweeps up records about U.S. citizens, including those suspected of no crimes.
Previously, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) was barred from storing information about ordinary Americans unless they were terror suspects or were related to investigations. But now, the NCTC is allowed to copy entire government databases, including flight records, names of Americans hosting foreign exchange students and many others. And it can keep data about those innocent citizens for five years in order to analyze it for suspicious patterns of behavior.
I recently read an article on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, U.S. Terrorism Agency to Tap a Vast Database of Citizens. It’s pretty long, but well worth your time if you want to learn just how far this unprecedented government surveillance reaches.
One former senior administration official called this new law “breathtaking” in its scope. Even the former chief privacy officer of the Department of Homeland Security argued against it due to its potential for intruding into the lives of law-abiding U.S. citizens!
But legally, it does not appear that privacy advocates can successfully fight this. When it passed the Federal Privacy Act in 1974, Congress was trying to prevent government agencies from going through government files indiscriminately, but it turned out the act had no teeth. And the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which states that searches of persons, houses, papers and effects should not be conducted without probable cause, doesn’t help either because it does not cover records that the government creates in the normal course of business with citizens.
What do you think about this? Should counterterrorism agencies such as NTCT be allowed to access government databases of ordinary citizens who have never been convicted – or even suspected – of a crime, on the extremely remote chance that someday they might commit a terrorist act? Is that a good use of counterterrorism agencies’ time? Let me know your reaction to this!