Uncle Sam is drunk on data, pooh-poohing privacy

Newly leaked documents reveal how much data the government is gathering on innocent Americans. The answer: A lot

Are you being watched? Listened to? Spied upon? You don't have to catch too many episodes of "Homeland" to believe that. You just have to follow the news and connect the dots.

Anyone who's been paying attention to the growing surveillance industrial complex knows about the uber-secret $2 billion data storage and analysis facility being built in the Utah desert. (In fact, one of my readers says she was asked to sign on to that project, which began shortly after 9/11.) That facility is scheduled to go online in September 2013.

[ Also on InfoWorld: When links are outlawed, only outlaws will use links | For a humorous take on the tech industry's shenanigans, subscribe to Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. | Get the latest insight on the tech news that matters from InfoWorld's Tech Watch blog. ]

Now, thanks to an investigative report that appeared in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week, we know a bit more about some of the data going into that facility.

One of the ways in which the Obama administration has not differed in virtually any respect from its predecessor is its insatiable appetite for data on you and me. You could even argue the Obamanistas have expanded upon the excesses of the Bushies, building out a national security infrastructure that is unprecedented in its ability to hoover up information on law-abiding American citizens.

So when the administration decided to update some 2008 restrictions on what types of domestic data the spooks can shovel onto their plates, it also decided to loosen its belt and ask for a second helping. Per the WSJ's Julia Angwin:

The rules now allow the little-known National Counterterrorism Center to examine the government files of U.S. citizens for possible criminal behavior, even if there is no reason to suspect them. That is a departure from past practice, which barred the agency from storing information about ordinary Americans unless a person was a terror suspect or related to an investigation.

Now, NCTC can copy entire government databases -- flight records, casino-employee lists, the names of Americans hosting foreign-exchange students and many others. The agency has new authority to keep data about innocent U.S. citizens for up to five years, and to analyze it for suspicious patterns of behavior. Previously, both were prohibited. Data about Americans "reasonably believed to constitute terrorism information" may be permanently retained.

You like to hit the casino at the local reservation and host exchange students from Islamic-leaning countries? You, my friend, are on a watch list.

After Watergate, Nixon's enemies list, and news about the CIA's many abuses of power came to light in the early 1970s, Congress passed one of its exceedingly rare pieces of privacy legislation. The Federal Privacy Act of 1974 was specifically designed to keep Uncle Sam from maintaining a Big Brother-like database on American citizens.

But as Angwin notes, the law carved out a few loopholes -- like the requirement to simply post a notice about the data you plan to collect in the Federal Register -- which the NCTC is taking advantage of. Everything it's doing is perfectly legal.

1 2 Page 1