DHS official attempted to block NCTC data mining effort


Justice Department-approved changes to National Counterterrorism Center guidance on data retention rolled out earlier this year were the subject of intense debate within the Obama administration, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Under the guidelines (.pdf on Secrecy News) the NCTC can mirror other government databases, keep the data in them for up to 5 years and mine the mirrored copies for overlooked patterns.

Before the March revisions, NCTC had to promptly discard data regarding Americans with no suspected ties to terrorism, a requirement that effectively prevented the intelligence community agency from ingesting large databases.

The ability to mirror other government databases on a large scale facilitates data mining, a search for patterns of suspicious activity exhibited by otherwise innocent-seeming individuals. The worry, apart from sheer apprehension about a large federal collection of data generated by individuals over the course of normal activities, is that NCTC data mining in fact targets completely innocent individuals.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the NCTC already mirrors databases "containing information about foreign-exchange students and visa applications," and is in the process of obtaining permission to copy the Homeland Security Department Advanced Passenger Information System, another airline traveler system with data based on foreign travelers to the United States, and an asylum-seeker database.

NCTC data sharing is also a concern, since the center may share information with other federal, state and local agencies and foreign governments for purposes beyond combating terrorism.

"Information can be shared for an almost unlimited number of purposes and to a completely unlimited number of individuals," Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union Washington Legislative Office, told a July Senate panel.

The Privacy Act contains prohibitions against using information collected by federal agencies for one purpose for another, but the government has found it can circumvent that prohibition by printing Privacy Act notices in the Federal Register.

Administration opposition against the March NCTC guidelines revision was led by Mary Ellen Callahan, the then-DHS chief privacy officer, the Journal reports.

"This is a sea change in the way that the government interacts with the general public," she reportedly said during a White House meeting called to discuss the guidelines changes shortly before they were approved.

The impetus for the changes came after would-be underwear-bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded a Christmas Day 2009 flight to Detroit from Amsterdam. A 2010 Senate Intelligence Committee report (.pdf) faulted the NCTC for not connecting intelligence community data on Abdulmutallab.

Callahan and another official at the Justice Department "argued that the failure to catch Mr. Abdulmutallab wasn't caused by the lack of a suspect--he had already been flagged--but by a failure to investigate him fully," the Journal says, "so amassing more data about innocent people wasn't necessarily the right solution."

Callahan left DHS this past August.

For more:
- read the WSJ article, "U.S. Terrorism Agency to Tap a Vast Database of Citizens"; if the pay wall is an obstacle, the article is reprinted on Yahoo

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