New US counter-terrorism guidelines can hold data on citizens for years

Filed Under: Law & order, Privacy

NCTC logoThe US government has granted permission to its counter-terrorism officials to stretch out how long they can retain information about citizens, even if those citizens aren't tied to terrorism.

The new guidelines [PDF] were agreed Tuesday last week, according to The Washington Post.

The changes allow the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC)—the intelligence community’s clearinghouse for terrorism data—to hold, search and retrieve information for up to five years.

That is ten times longer than they were formerly allowed to retain records. Under old guidelines, the NCTC was generally required to destroy data about US citizens or residents within 180 days, unless the center had evidence that a given individual could be connected with terrorism.

The NCTC was created by the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act. It collects information from various federal agencies, including visa and travel information, as well as data from the FBI.

Senior intelligence officials told the Washington Post that privacy safeguards vary across the agencies that handle the 30 or so data sets maintained by the center, which may stymie counter-terrorism efforts, they claim.

Here's what Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House intelligence committee, told the Post:

“We have been pushing for this because NCTC’s success depends on having full access to all of the data that the U.S. has lawfully collected. I don’t want to leave any possibility of another catastrophic attack that was not prevented because an important piece of information was hidden in some filing cabinet.”

Another official anonymously told the Post that entire databases cannot be shared, that only specific information within a given data set can be handed over, and then only with the approval of the agency that provided the data.

Privacy advocates are bristling nonetheless.

binocularsAs the Public Broadcasting System highlighted in a recent Frontline TV news show episode titled Are We Safer?, expansion and sharing of intelligence databases between federal agencies has resulted in the creation of a massive database that tracks thousands of US citizens whom haven't been accused of wrongdoing.

One such case profiled by Frontline involved 53 activists affiliated primarily with the anti-death penalty, environmental issues, racial justice and anti-war groups (including several Catholic nuns). The activists became the subjects of what Frontline called "an elaborate 14-month covert surveillance program by the Maryland State Police" that was enabled by the new shared databases.

Another case reported by the Associated Press involves the New York Police Department's use of counter-terrorism tactics to monitor lawful activities, including infiltrating meetings of liberal political organizations and keeping intelligence files on activists who planned protests around the country.

The American Civil Liberties Union’s national security policy counsel, Michael German, told the Post that the new data retention guidelines will bolster exactly this kind of Big Brother behavior. His words:

“Watering down those rules raises significant concerns that U.S. persons are being targeted or swept up in these collection programs and can be harmed by continuing investigations for as long as these agencies hold the data.”

According to a startling cover story in Wired, The NSA Is Building the Country’s Biggest Spy Center (Watch What You Say), the government is not abiding by its own Constitution post-9/11. If that is the case, it is difficult to see how one would fight government changes like this one.

The spy center is shrouded in secrecy, according to Wired, but one of its known goals is to advance computer speed a thousandfold, creating a machine that could execute a petaflop—that's a quadrillion, or 10 to the 15th power—operations a second. Another goal is to host servers with a mind-boggling storage capacity.

Put them together, and you get the processing speed and what Wired calls the "near-bottomless databases" to hold and process any and all forms of communication, including "the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital 'pocket litter.'"

New guidelines allow our words and actions to be tracked, retained and cross-referenced for years, while new, stunningly powerful computing power is in the works—power that will give the government the ability to crack even Advanced Encryption Standard (AES), according to Wired.

Watch what you say, indeed.

NCTC logo courtesy of
Binoculars courtesy of Shuttershock
Activist cartoon courtesy of Shuttershock

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3 Responses to New US counter-terrorism guidelines can hold data on citizens for years

  1. Terry · 1296 days ago

    The USA is and always has been a dictatorship, as are Britain, the rest of the EU, Russia, China, Japan et al.

    We have two options with dictatorships of any and every kind: suffer them or overthrow them. Make your choice and act accordingly.

    • Nigel · 1285 days ago

      The problem with your statement about the USA being a dictatorship is that, while it is true in certain respects, it is sufficiently untrue in other respects that few people take it seriously. Most people make relative judgments, not principle-based judgments. Calling the U.S. a dictatorship will invoke a reaction in which most Americans will compare the U.S. to the likes of the Soviet Union, or Hitler's Germany, or Mao's China.

      Sure...there are unquestionably some aspects of the U.S. state that are totalitarian, but the differences in the degree of totalitarianism between the U.S. and the more repressive regimes mentioned above are too great for most people to see them as being the same in essence, and different only in degree. They're likely to conclude that you're a raving lunatic without paying any attention to the nugget of truth in your statement.

      Unfortunately, that mutes your voice on the specific issue addressed by Lisa's article. If you think the tenfold increase in holding time for data collected on private citizens is wrong (I certainly do), then you evidently suspect those who collect it of having the potential for using it with unjust and malicious intent. Nonetheless, they're already doing it. That's a fact. The very LAST thing you should do is talk about overthrowing the U.S. political system.

      For my part, I don't favor the "overthrow" option anyway. Those who commit violence to get their way are just as likely to impose it on others. Haven't we had enough of that?

  2. DR Rose · 1296 days ago

    I have had firsthand experience with beiing spyed on by the US government. My phone was tapped while I was in communication with a Romanian friend that I was making arrangements for her visit to me. I suppose what triggered the "spying" was the heavy phone activity to a post-communist country that was unusual for my phone habits. Yes, our constitutional rights are under constant attack by the progressive liberals who seek to control the US.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.