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ACLU: FBI has '20 separate records' for every adult and child in the USA

The ACLU has a new report highlighting surveillance abuses by the FBI, which helps the NSA spy on U.S. citizens.

According to a recent ACLU report, the FBI knows quite a few things about you even if you've not done anything wrong. "Unleashed and Unaccountable [pdf]: The FBI's Unchecked Abuse of Authority" documents this extraordinary expansion of FBI power over the last 12 years:

The FBI also claimed the authority to sweep up voluminous amounts of information secretly from state and local law enforcement and private data aggregators for data mining purposes. In 2007, the FBI said it amassed databases containing 1.5 billion records, which were predicted to grow to 6 billion records by 2012, which is equal to 20 separate "records" for every person in the United States.

This was repeated and refined under the heading "Mining Big Data," which specified that by 2012 the FBI would have "20 separate 'records' for each man, woman and child in the United States." But in March 2012, there were "dramatic changes to the National Counterterrorism Center's (NCTC) guidelines to allow it to collect, use, and retain records on U.S. citizens and permanent residents with no suspected ties to terrorism."

At the time that happened, the ACLU explained that this "could include records from law enforcement investigations, health information, employment history, travel and student records." It could also "add commercial information, anything it - or any other federal agency - could buy from the huge data aggregators that are monitoring our every move."

Yet National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) Director Michael Leiter turned around and used this deluge of information as the reason NCTC failed to identify the underwear bomber. He said, "The NCTC receives over 5,000 pieces of information and places more than 350 people on the terrorist watch list each day."

In Unleashed and Unaccountable, under the heading "Mining Bigger Data: The NCTC Guidelines," the ACLU explained, "Such unfettered collection is essentially a revival of the Bush administration's Total Information Awareness program, which Congress largely defunded in 2003 because of privacy concerns."

The 60-page report covers numerous abuses by the FBI such as targeting journalists and First Amendment activities as well as "using the No Fly List to pressure Americans abroad to become informants," before concluding:

FBI abuse of power must be met with efforts of reform, just as much now as in the days of J. Edgar Hoover. President Obama should require the attorney general to tighten FBI authorities to prevent suspicionless invasions of personal privacy, prohibit profiling based on race, ethnicity, religion or national origin, and protect First Amendment activities. But internal reforms have never been sufficient when it comes to the FBI. Congress also must act to make these changes permanent and must increase its vigilance to ensure abuse is quickly discovered and remedied.

Continuing in this theme of dragnet surveillance abuses and the need for Congress to do something to stop it, the ACLU explained that the NSA can only spy with a little help from the FBI. "One area that is especially ripe for FBI reform is its use of electronic surveillance tools. There's no two ways about it: the FBI is at the heart of the U.S. intelligence community's domestic data collection programs."

The flipside of calling for surveillance reform is cheerleading for NSA surveillance. Thanks to Techdirt, columnist Froma Harrop hit my radar. In a column for the Reno Gazette-Journal titled "Privacy is extinct. Live with it," she proposed seven steps to help you adjust "to a world in which the government has the ability to collect and recall your every keystroke." Harrop suggested, "Stop confusing capabilities with actions. The U.S. government is capable of leveling Mount Rushmore. That does not mean it intends to launch drone attacks on South Dakota."

After claiming that we are "powerless" to stop surveillance tech, the most offensive "step" was when Harrop stated, "Appreciate that we do have safeguards. When the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court berates the NSA for violating the rules, that's an example of checks and balances in action. China and Russia pass on such niceties as surveillance courts, and they want to do exactly what the National Security Agency does (if they don't already)."

Techdirt came back with:

Congratulations to us! Not as bad as Russia and China! We used to be the world leader in freedom and now we're supposed to be pleased with simply not being as awful as two heavily censorious countries. If that's your standard of excellence, Froma, no wonder you're satisfied with the NSA's half-assed explanations and justifications. It doesn't take much to clear a bar set that low.

If you are ready to throw in the towel on privacy and let ubiquitous surveillance continue to grow and go unchecked, shrouded in secrecy until there is a leak, then you might like Harrop's steps. Otherwise, you might agree with the ACLU:

Before the Patriot Act, the government's surveillance tools were designed to collect information on specific individuals suspected of being foreign agents and terrorists, not engage in dragnet surveillance methods that ensnare innocent people. Congress should return the government to that standard.

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