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US counterterrorism agency will store data on innocent Americans to look for future crimes

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white house storm
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With new surveillance technologies and evidence of a nationwide NSA wiretapping program, it's already difficult enough for the average person to stay out of the ever-expanding crosshairs of the United States' counterterrorism operations. Now a Wall Street Journal investigation has unsealed records from the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) which reveal a list of expanded guidelines allowing that agency to collect and retain records on millions of American citizens — even those not suspected of committing any crime.

The documents, which were unsealed by a Freedom of Information Act request by the Wall Street Journal, show revisions to the NCTC's 2008 guidelines made in March of this year, which dramatically expanded the agency's powers. Previously, the guidelines required that the agency must remove any records it may have collected on US citizens that are "not reasonably believed to be terrorism information."

Revisions now allow the NCTC to retain the records of innocent citizens for up to 5 years

But the revisions now allow the agency to retain the records of those innocent citizens for up to 5 years, during which the agency will be able to "continually assess" the data to track the possibility of future crimes — you know, just in case you might become a terrorist in the future.

The new guidelines also allow the NCTC to share US person data with "any appropriate entity," including foreign governments and private companies, under the cover of merely determining whether or not that data is relevant to terrorism. And during the period of retention, the agency is also now able to investigate individuals using "pattern-based queries" based on data sets unrelated to terrorism, something the 2008 guidelines explicitly prohibited.

Granted, the records in question are government records — databases containing things like flight records and employment history. Rummaging through that kind of information is supposed to be protected against by the Federal Privacy Act of 1974, but a loophole in the current law allows agencies to exempt themselves simply by placing a notice in the Federal Register.

"This represents a sea change in the way that the government interacts with the general public."

According to the documents, the new plans drew criticism internally while they were being debated in secret, but eventually went through anyway. Mary Ellen Callahan, chief privacy officer of the Department of Homeland Security worriedly argued that the expanded provisions represent "a sea change in the way that the government interacts with the general public." Speaking with the Wall Street Journal, a former senior administration official familiar with the debate called the changes "breathtaking" in scope.

You can view the complete unclassified documents here.