Over 200 years ago, the United States set the standard for promoting liberty. Our founding documents established a free people entitled to a zone of privacy. We were not walking suspects waiting to be checked out by the government. But that is not how the Obama administration sees it. A new set of rules governing counterterrorism will allow an intelligence agency to sort through and maintain massive government databases of personal information on innocent Americans. This unjustified surveillance has come about without public debate and asks Americans to give up too much privacy.
New data-mining and storage rules for the National Counterterrorism Center, a little-known intelligence agency charged with connecting dots on terror-related information, have already been secretly authorized by Attorney General Eric Holder, according to the Wall Street Journal. They were approved over the objections of privacy advocates within the administration.
Previously the NCTC had been barred from storing information on Americans unless it was related to a terror suspect or an investigation. Now that has changed. The NCTC can copy the entirety of huge databases, including flight records, casino employee lists, the names of Americans hosting foreign exchange students, and others. Information on innocent Americans can be kept for up to five years so that it can be rifled through for suspicious patterns of behavior. The data can even be shared with a foreign government in a joint effort to tease out potential future crimes.
Where once privacy constraints had kept the NCTC from acting as a massive storehouse of data and an all-seeing eye, those limits have been wiped away for the sake of expediency. One administration official called the changes "breathtaking" in scope, according to the Journal. And privacy officers at the Department of Homeland Security and Justice Department reportedly objected to the civil liberties implications and have since left their posts.
The move by the administration points up a glaring deficiency in the privacy rights of Americans. The Fourth Amendment keeps the government from snooping into people's private records without probable cause, but it doesn't shield records held by the government. To fill this gap, Congress passed the Privacy Act of 1974. It was intended to prevent information that was collected by government for one use from being used for an unrelated purpose. But agencies have been circumventing the rule by publishing notices in the Federal Register of their intention to share data, and Congress hasn't acted to close the loophole.
If the extent of data sharing were known, Americans might be less willing to provide details to government, and with good reason. The administration should suspend the new rules until they are fully vetted. The country is not made safer when every American is turned into a terrorist suspect.