'Unclear' how FBI got thousands of hotel, car rental, shopping records
In the months after 9/11, the Pentagon's research arm launched a controversial project known as "Total Information Awareness" -- a massive database collating every available bit of digital information about, well, everything. After a public outcry, Congress defunded the project in 2003.
But now, it looks like it's back, and this time in the hands of the FBI, under the name National Security Branch Analysis Center, or NSAC. A news report at Wired magazine says the NSAC has now collected more than 1.5 billion pieces of information, much of it from the private sector.
And the data is being used "in hacker and domestic criminal investigations, and now contains tens of thousands of records from private corporate databases," Wired reports.
The news report, based on declassified data, adds more weight to the argument that the expansion of government power in the wake of the 9/11 attacks has been used for more than hunting terrorists. RAW STORY reported on Wednesday that the "sneak-and-peek" search warrants the Bush administration said were crucial to counter-terrorism aren't actually being used for terrorist surveillance, and are primarily being used in drug investigations.
In the case of the NSAC, among the data collected is "more than 55,000 entries on customers of the Cendant Hotel chain ... which includes Ramada Inn, Days Inn, Super 8, Howard Johnson and Hawthorn Suites," Wired reports, as well as hundreds of records from Avis car rental agency, and 165 customer records from Sears.
"It’s unclear how the FBI got the records," the magazine states. And the FBI evidently wants to quadruple the NSAC's staff:
Wired.com’s analysis of more than 800 pages of documents obtained under our Freedom of Information Act request show the FBI has been continuously expanding the NSAC system and its goals since 2004. By 2008, NSAC comprised 103 full-time employees and contractors, and the FBI was seeking budget approval for another 71 employees, plus more than $8 million for outside contractors to help analyze its growing pool of private and public data.
A long-term planning document from the same year shows the bureau ultimately wants to expand the center to 439 people.
According to the Center for Media and Democracy, NSAC became operational in 2007 and it is predicted that it will contain six billion records by 2012, which "amounts to 20 separate 'records' for each man, woman and child in the United States."
In an assessment of law enforcement data mining, the digital privacy watchdog Electronic Frontier Foundation noted that a study concluded "that data mining is not an effective tool in the fight against terrorism. The report noted the poor quality of the data, the inevitability of false positives, the preliminary nature of the scientific evidence and individual privacy concerns in concluding that 'automated identification of terrorists through data mining or any other mechanism is neither feasible as an objective nor desirable as a goal of technology development efforts.'"
Concerns about the NSAC have been around for years. In 2007, Republican House Rep. Jim Sensebrenner (R-WI) asked the US Government Accountability Office to investigate "what information will be contained in the 'records' it collects, whether the 'records' of US citizens will be included in its database, how this data will be employed and how the FBI plans to ensure that the data is not misused or abused in any way."
According to Wired, "no report has been made public yet."
-- Daniel Tencer