The Washington Post had a breathlessly worded account yesterday of the federal government’s way-cool neato computer-networked domestic intelligent system that will link it to the databases of several thousand law enforcement agencies.
From the article:
As federal authorities struggled to meet information-sharing mandates after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, police agencies from Alaska and California to the Washington region poured millions of criminal and investigative records into shared digital repositories called data warehouses, giving investigators and analysts new power to discern links among people, patterns of behavior and other hidden clues.
Those network efforts will begin expanding further this month, as some local and state agencies connect to a fledgling Justice Department system called the National Data Exchange, or N-DEx. Federal authorities hope N-DEx will become what one called a “one-stop shop” enabling federal law enforcement, counterterrorism and intelligence analysts to automatically examine the enormous caches of local and state records for the first time.
OK, the first obvious question: So just what have these people been doing for the past eight years? Under an administration whose No. 1 priority – supposedly – has been “the War on Terrorism,” you’d think they would have been able to cobble together a decent database by now. But then I guess they’ve been too busy randomly snooping through all our e-mails.
Secondly: Does this make anyone else a bit nervous? Me too. But it’s interesting that it didn’t seem to bother much the two reporters who wrote the story. They treat the potential for privacy abuses as a mere afterthought – something thrown in the story to appease those nit-picky pro-Bill of Rights people (and the government knows who you are).
Here’s how the article addresses the concern (way near the end of the story):
Authorities are aware that all of this is unsettling to people worried about privacy and civil liberties. Mark D. Rasch, a former federal prosecutor who is now a security consultant for FTI Consulting, said that the mining of police information by intelligence agencies could lead to improper targeting of U.S. citizens even when they’ve done nothing wrong.
The article then goes on to explain that there’s really nothing to worry about because everybody promises to be really really good about not abusing the system. Whew, that’s a relief.
But Washington Post investigative reporter Dana Priest, who didn’t pen the original story, explains the very real concerns in her weekly on-line chat.
Here is the exchange with a reader.
From Savannah, Ga.: Dana, what’s the flap about this new info sharing system? From what I read in the article, it only shares existing data. This presumably is collected legally, and I would hope that if something illegal were put into the system others would notice and highlight it. Anyway, this seems to be merely a case of reality catching up to Hollywood … after all, we’ve been watching “CSI” and “NCIS” for years where they make a few keystrokes and a suspect’s entire life comes pouring out. This was supposed to be one of the things put in after Sept. 11, correct?
Dana Priest: Ah ha? but was is “legal” information. Sure, if you get arrested that’s one thing; or even picked up as a suspect in a crime. Let’s use the example in the story: You have a flat tire near a nuclear power plant. The cop puts that into the data bases and discovers you’ve had three flat tires outside nuclear power plants in the last year. Now that’s interesting and worth looking into, right? But does that mean something as simple and innocent has a flat tire gets added into the data base. Would that be legal? Switch out “flat tire” for “defaulting on a loan” or “attending a political rally” or “gun purchases” all legal things. Does it bother you that the police could link up your political rally attendance if they had some other reason to query your information? You see where it’s going….lots of questions. Would have to have safeguards to make it acceptable, I’m certain.
Sadly, that point was never addressed in the original article.
Lauri in York