Massive System Growing Exponentially Without Oversight
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WASHINGTON – The FBI and its National Security Branch Analysis Center (NSAC) have collected 1.5 billion records from public and private sources for a massive data mining operation, according to documents recently obtained by Wired magazine. The records collected by the FBI include financial records from corporate databases, such as hotel and rental car company transactions; millions of “suspicious activity reports” from financial institutions; millions of records from commercial data aggregators; a multitude of law enforcement and non-law enforcement government databases; and public information gleaned from telephone books and news articles. The NSAC records include the FBI’s Investigative Data Warehouse, which was identified in a 2007 Department of Justice Inspector General report as the database storing information collected by the FBI through the use of National Security Letters (NSLs).
“Once again, the FBI has been found to be using invasive ‘counterterrorism’ tools to collect personal information about innocent Americans,” said Michael Macleod-Ball, Acting Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “It also appears that the FBI has continued its habit of gathering bulk amounts of personal information with little or no oversight.”
The USA Patriot Act vastly expanded the FBI’s authority to collect information about people it does not suspect of wrongdoing, including financial, credit and communications information, using NSLs and enhanced suspicious activity reporting requirements from banks, casinos and car dealerships. Congress is beginning to debate these and other Patriot Act provisions set to expire at the end of this year.
“The Patriot Act continues to allow the FBI to collect detailed private information about Americans without suspicion of wrongdoing,” added Macleod-Ball. “As Congress debates the reauthorization of the Patriot Act, it needs to determine exactly how the FBI is using its intelligence collection tools and what it is doing with the information it collects about innocent Americans.”
The documents obtained by Wired also point to a possible resurrection of the Total Information Awareness (TIA) program. Shortly after 9/11, the government sought to build TIA, a mammoth data mining operation that would trawl through an extensive list of databases containing personal information about Americans – including communications, medical, travel, education and financial data – in an attempt to detect supposedly "suspicious" patterns. Congress shut down the program amid bipartisan objections that it was the most far-reaching domestic surveillance proposal that had ever been offered. The ACLU has long suspected that the congressional dissent over and public demise of the Pentagon’s TIA program would result in a concealed and more invasive version of the program.
“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,” said Christopher Calabrese, ACLU Legislative Counsel. “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.”