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September 25, 2009

On Wednesday, Wired’s Ryan Singel reported the FBI’s National Security Branch Analysis Center (NSAC), a datamining center, has collected 1.5 billion records on citizens and noncitizens alike for use in domestic criminal investigations. This wouldn’t shock us, frankly, except Singel found that private companies like Sears, car rental company Avis and the Wyndham Worldwide hotel chain (parent company of budget hotels such as Travelodge, Ramada and Days Inn), have shared customer information with NSAC.

If this kind of government-private sector collusion doesn’t worry you, then you can stop reading now.

But if it does, know this:’s analysis of more than 800 pages of documents obtained under our Freedom of Information Act request show the FBI has been continuously expanding the NSAC system and its goals since 2004. By 2008, NSAC comprised 103 full-time employees and contractors, and the FBI was seeking budget approval for another 71 employees, plus more than $8 million for outside contractors to help analyze its growing pool of private and public data.

A long-term planning document from the same year shows the bureau ultimately wants to expand the center to 439 people.

This kind of long-term plan to expand the FBI’s datamining capabilities without congressional oversight is extremely worrying. As Singel points out, NSAC is the closest the FBI has gotten to resurrecting its Total Information Awareness (TIA) program, which was so far-reaching and scary that Congress, with bipartisan support, defunded it in 2003. Singel adds:

The FBI also has ambitious plans to expand its data set, the budget request shows. Among the items on its wish list is the database of the Airlines Reporting Corporation — a company that runs a backend system for travel agencies and airlines. A complete database would include billions of American’s itineraries, as well as the information they give to travel agencies, such as date of birth, credit card numbers, names of friends and family, e-mail addresses, meal preferences and health information.

If you don’t care that the FBI knows that you prefer vegan meals on your flights, no biggie. But your credit card numbers? The federal government isn’t known for its foolproof protection of private information, so start worrying.

ACLU Legislative Counsel Legislative Counsel Christopher Calabrese said in a statement yesterday:

It is not only troubling that the FBI is collecting this vast amount of information, but also that the information remains in the possession of the FBI, whether or not it is relevant to suspected criminal activity or reliable. The way this collection and retention works, if you happened to be staying at the same hotel or renting a car the same day as someone currently under FBI investigation, your private information is swept up and locked into one of these databases forever. The presumption of innocence is turned on its head and everyone becomes a suspect.

So the next time you’re staying at a Howard Johnson, make sure your in-room movie selection is something you wouldn’t mind the government keeping forever in its database.

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