New Anti-Terrorism Guidelines Take Us Closer to “Big Brother”

May 7, 2012

Cyberspace SpyEfforts to combat terrorism continue to pose difficult challenges for the United States government. 

Technological advances make it possible for law enforcement and national security authorities to collect, store, and analyze an enormous and ever-growing set of information about individuals who may pose a threat to the nation.

Although those enhanced technological capabilities make it theoretically possible for authorities to identify and respond more quickly to threats, they also make it more difficult for those authorities to manage the data collected.

The vast and ever-growing archive of information about individual U.S. citizens accessible to the government is extremely difficult to assess and analyze accurately and in a timely manner. 

Additionally, the government’s ability to collect, examine, and store the information erodes the personal privacy of law-abiding American citizens.

In this environment, Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent decision to extend the period of time during which the government can retain private information about American citizens is both a helpful tool for national security and a significant threat to personal privacy.

The Attorney General recently issued new guidelines for the National Counterterrorism Center (www.nctc.gov).

The new guidelines substantially extend the period of time during which government authorities involved in anti-terrorism efforts are permitted to store private information associated with U.S. citizens.

Under the old guidelines, the permissible retention period was 180 days.  Under the new guidelines, that period is extended to five years.

The extension was largely justified as a method to assist authorities to share and analyze the information more effectively.

The government believes it can more effectively “mine” the data involved in a five year period instead of a six-month period. 

The longer retention period can, for example, make it feasible for federal authorities literally to copy entire databases containing personal information, including databases aggregated by commercial companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, as the five-year period is long enough to enable thorough analysis of even very large data sets.

Although government authorities must have access to personal information for legitimate law enforcement and national security purposes, that access must be effectively constrained. 

Numerous federal organizations, such as the NCTC, actively and vocally make the case for expanded government access to personal information.

No federal agency currently makes the case for enhanced respect for information privacy with the same vigor.

Major countries around the globe currently highlight personal information privacy efforts by operating national government agencies tasked with the mission of protecting the legitimate privacy interests of individual citizens against both private sector and government intrusion.

The European Community and Canada are two examples of active government advocacy on behalf of personal information privacy interests.

It is time for federal authorities in the United States to demonstrate significantly greater concern for the personal privacy of American citizens.

One helpful step in that direction would be the creation of a federal agency with the mission and the authority to advocate effectively on behalf of personal privacy interests.

Without such action, we risk creation of a “Big Brother” environment in the United States in which important civil liberties are sacrificed in the name of national security.