US loosens limits on how data from spying on citizens can be used, stored, shared

An NSA agent reacts to the new rules governing information acquired through domestic surveillance.

At the New York Times, a story by Charlie Savage on new guidelines signed into law Thursday by US Attorney General Eric H. Holder for the National Counterterrorism Center, created in 2004 to "improve intelligence sharing and serve as a terrorism threat clearinghouse."

The guidelines will lengthen to five years — from 180 days — the amount of time the center can retain private information about Americans when there is no suspicion that they are tied to terrorism, intelligence officials said. The guidelines are also expected to result in the center making more copies of entire databases and “data mining them” using complex algorithms to search for patterns that could indicate a threat.

This can only be good for democracy and freedom!

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, Mr. “underwear bomber,” is the straw man to thank. Intelligence officials said the new rules relaxing data restrictions have been under way for a year and a half, and emerged from reviews launched after the failure to "connect the dots" before the tightie whitie terrorist tried to bomb a plane in 2009.

One specific point of concern for privacy advocates is that the new rules make no mention of how commercial data (credit card records, airline ticket logs) can be used. Again, from Savage's NYT piece:

In 2009, Wired Magazine obtained a list of databases acquired by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, one of the agencies that shares information with the center. It included nearly 200 million records transferred from private data brokers like ChoicePoint, 55,000 entries on customers of Wyndham hotels, and numerous other travel and commercial records.

Here's that Wired News report from 2009.

(photo: Shutterstock/Yuri Arcurs)


  1. Any measure to increase cooperation among government agencies is probably bad for the public, particularly if it has to do with scary national security threats. 

  2. *stares*
     Was he just a little bit sad that no one has built a little headband that lights up every time you think a “bad” thought?

    Because we didn’t see 1 lone wackjob, we need to keep records on everyone and cross reference them… considering the huge errors that exists in many of the private data brokers files this could never lead to anything bad…

    Hey I guess the upside is at least they won’t be installing giant B&W monitors in our homes to watch us…  FaceBook did it for them… (insert any other online service you hate here if your a FB lover).

      1. Why bother?
        Remember that “cavity” you had filled the last time you were at the dentist?
        (Occupying leads to poor oral hygiene, tsk,tsk.)

    1. Its not about finding the next “lone nut” whackjob. Indeed they’ve probably already found him and are currently instructing him regarding his plans.

      Its about squashing dissent, omnipotence, and “Total Information Awareness”, even if they changed the name out of political necessity.

  3. I think the actual length of time agencies should be able to keep the records is perhaps debatable–in this case, the increase was a tenfold one, and that might be too large–but speaking as someone with practical experience, there really needed to be an increase.

    In a lot of cases, you could notify the FBI, for example, of a potentially dangerous person, but since there was no criminal predicate at that moment, they might not even bother to take down the information you supplied, knowing that they would have to dump it soon, anyway.  I’ve experienced that a number of times.   And, of course, they had a point, to a degree.

    This enforced lack of institutional memory also made it difficult for the government to track increased radicalization of a person over time, or to accumulate warning signs over time, because the early ones would quickly have to be dumped. 

    Just as importantly, lack of institutional memory can also hurt civil liberties.  If someone gets reported as being suspicious, and is checked out and found to be fine, that information would also quickly get dumped.  Then someone else making such a report half a year later might cause all that previous work to be done all over again.

    This is an area where it is proper and reasonable for the relevant government agencies to keep records that are not entirely ephemeral.  What is crucial is that there is proper oversight and auditing to insure that abuses do not occur.  We could use more of that already.  Any increase or expansion requires appropriately more oversight to accompany it.

    1.  wtf are you blathering about? Are we all terrorists and just don’t know it yet?  How about some probable freakin’ cause.

      1. As their reasoning goes, since they have to catch all terrorists, the only way to do so is to watch everyone, in case they are terrorists.  In other words, everyone is a terrorist suspect, therefore it’s necessary to watch everyone.

        1.  That’s not how criminal intelligence is supposed to work.  If you watch everybody, you end up watching nobody.  In the late 1960s, Hoover sent down the word to the FBI to track Students for  Democratic Society.  So FBI agents around the country dutifully did so.  But SDS had 68,000 or so members at the time, and all that did was dilute the FBI’s efforts, so that when a tiny core of the SDS formed the Weather Underground, which went on to commit some 50 bombings, the FBI was taken by surprise.  All those man-hours were pretty much wasted.

      2. There are a lot of reasons why it is a good idea for law enforcement to know about certain people in the community.  For example, if a hate crime occurred in which witnesses reported that racist skinheads were involved, it is helpful for law enforcement to be aware of the local racist skinhead scene–ideally in advance. 

        I’ll give a personal example.  Some years ago, I was contacted by a person from Alaska who informed me that he was being spied on and persecuted by “Aryans.”  This started in Colorado, so he moved to Alaska, but now they were following him there, too, including driving alongside him and staring into his car.  After talking with him for some time, it was obvious that he was a paranoid schizophrenic.  Based on my conversation with him, I felt it was important to alert law enforcement, because he might be a danger to others (what if he decided to do something about those alleged “Aryans” allegedly following him on the road, for example). 

    2.  As I have said previously, if you want to spot someone who has been radicalized, look for the guy talking to the FBI.  They have yet to stop a terrorist plan they did not set into motion.

        1. There is when they use those operations to expand the invasion into the privacy of citizens who are supposed to be protected by the rule of law. 
          It is true that a majority of the headline grabbing high profile thwarted targets were people put into motion by the FBI. 
          That the idea of a lone wolf terrorist is being used to make people give up more rights to be more secure.
          That the FBI was training agents that if you were a follower of Islam you were a terrorist.
          That NYPD is following students around the country, and racially profiling people for being Muslim.
          By all means if you think this is a great plan, please hand over 5 years of your browser history and emails to all of us.

    3.  If you wish to live in a dictatorship please move to a pre-existing one.

      Many of our ancestors risked their lives and saw kin killed so that we might enjoy Liberty.

      1.  And there are extremists of all sorts who may want to kill your kin–or you–or threaten the democratic foundations that protect that Liberty you so enjoy.  Domestic extremists (left-wing, right-wing, religious, you name it) have killed thousands of people in the U.S. in the past couple of decades.   Police have a valid interest in monitoring extremists–but they must do so responsibly, with a potential criminal or security predicate in mind, and with proper and full oversight.  It is the last part that people should harp on. 

  4. It is also important to remember that our corrupt US government runs a very sloppy game. They have proved time and time again that they can be beat badly.
    I certainly do not like seeing things like this but in a way I know down the line that their most intrusive invasions will backfire on them.They are already stretched very thin.
    If they think they can handle a little more let them,they will lose.

  5. Ridiculous. Yodabites of information on the U.S. populace and we can all rest easy knowing that trustworthy heuristic algorithms are silently collecting, inspecting, rejecting, dejecting every little salacious crumb. I’m sure, sooner or later, we’ll all eventually be guilty of something with the threat of prison looming large. All of this for what? Just to preserve Rome’s power for another measly few decades?

      1. Deliberately spelled it the way I did to tie in nicely with salacious crumb. As in, the whole thing is like a piece of fiction ‘cuz it’s so ludicrous.

  6. @xeni 
    NSA culture would view this as breaking taboos going back to Nixon’s abuse of the system. Look to their political overlords as the ones jumping for joy.

    1. I tried posting about just that, way back when there were still only 12 comments, but the comment system wouldn’t let me. “You are not allowed to perform this operation,”  it said. I was certainly logged in, but couldn’t add my comment whining about Xeni’s “signed into law” phrasing. Still don’t know what went wrong.

  7. When do we rise up and hang these b-tards?

    (yeah…  I know, but – I’m already in plenty of entries in their precious fucking spy system… I don’t care any more so I’ll speak my mind…  if they’re ever going to target me for “extralegal evaporation” I’m already a dead man walking anyway)

  8. What I want to know is, where is the “essential liberties/temporary security” quote?

    For those tempted to post it yet again (the people that need to understand it have a mental block against understanding it), I offer an alternative, simpler quote (whose source is unknown to me.)

    “The Cure Is Worse Than The Disease”

  9. In order to prevent accusations of McCarthyism, the Feds are moving to collect as much information on  everyone as possible. This way, they cannot be accused of labeling someone as a terrorist without evidence.

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