• December 14, 2012

    by Joseph Jerome

    Whenever an American citizen interacts with her government, the government’s first concern is increasingly ascertaining whether that individual is a terrorist. The Wall Street Journal’s Julia Angwin reports that top intelligence and law enforcement officials met in March to establish new rules permitting the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) “to create a government dragnet, sweeping up millions of records about U.S. citizens -- even people suspected of no crime.”  Flight records, the names of Americans hosting foreign-exchange students, and even casino-employee lists can be stored for up to five years, analyzed for suspicious behavior, and shared with foreign governments all in the name of fighting terrorism.

    According to Angwin, the impetus of the program came in the wake of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s failed Christmas Day 2009 bombing. After President Obama directed government agencies to send NCTC any and all leads on terrorist threats, the Department of Homeland Security provided NCTC with a vast database of information on the condition that any data of innocent U.S. persons be purged within 30 days. The tiny, unknown NCTC was unable to process the number of leads it received, so its solution was to seek unlimited access to any government information with no time limits imposed on the data’s analysis and study. 

    “All of this happened in secret,” the ACLU’s Chris Calabrese bemoans. “No public debate or comment and suddenly, every citizen can be put under the terrorism microscope.”

  • September 8, 2009
    After mounting criticism from civil liberties organizations, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has taken steps to provide greater oversight of border searches of travelers' laptops and other electronic devices.

    DHS issued, late last month, a statement on "new directives to enhance and clarify oversight for searches of computers and other electronic media at U.S. ports of entry - a critical step designed to bolster the Department's efforts to combat transnational crime and terrorism while protecting privacy and civil liberties."

    The statement continued:

    The directives, available at DHS.gov, will enhance transparency, accountability and oversight of electronic media searches at U.S. ports of entry and includes new administrative procedures designed to reflect broad considerations of civil liberties and privacy protections-measures designed to ensure that officers and agents understand their responsibilities to protect individual private information and that individuals understand their rights. 

    The new guidelines, reported the Associated Press, include requiring a supervisor to approve holding a traveler's computer or other property for more than five days. Additionally, the directives maintain that any information culled from travelers' media devices that is not pertinent to criminal activity will be quickly destroyed.

    During the Bush administration, DHS issued policy allowing agents of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to seize, without suspicion of criminal activity, travelers' laptops and other electronic tools at border crossings, and retain and share information found on the devices with other federal authorities. In 2008, Sen. Russell Feingold called the policy "alarming" and suggested legislative action should be taken to require federal agents to have reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing before seizing and searching travelers' property.