Last March, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) was granted unprecedented power to collect data on ordinary U.S. citizens, data like flight records or lists of casino employees. Critics have likened the NCTC to the "Pre-Crime Squad" in the movie "Minority Report." Wall Street Journal reporter Julia Angwin talks with Bob about this dramatic shift in the intelligence community's power over US citizens.
BOB GARFIELD: Recently, the Wall Street Journal uncovered a privacy story reminiscent of the days immediately after September 11th. Here’s FOX News:
FOX NEWS CORRESPONDENT: - a disturbing new report claiming that the Obama administration has launched a counterterrorism plan to gather information on millions of innocent Americans, including people not suspected of any crime.
BOB GARFIELD: Since March, a little-known government agency called the National Counterterrorism Center, has been allowed to gather information about you from any government database that it deems, quote, “reasonably believed” to have, quote, “terrorism information.” Data like flight records, casino employee lists or the names of Americans hosting foreign exchange students. While programs like this have been suggested before, they've never been implemented because privacy advocates have persuasively argued against surveillance of citizens who are not under suspicion. Now that that data can be collected and retained for up to five years, that argument no longer prevails.
Also, now such data can be shared with foreign governments. Wall Street Journal reporter Julia Angwin explained why this represents a dramatic shift in how the US intelligence community looks at its own citizens.
JULIA ANGWIN: The general guiding principle in the intelligence community has been that surveillance abroad is fine, that's part of their job. But inside the US, you generally would want some reasonable suspicion before you started polling somebody's file.
But the National Counterterrorism made a successful argument that they should have that authority to pull entire databases from other federal government agencies, copy them in their entirety, and keep them at the National Counterterrorism Center to look for clues. They used to be prohibited from doing just general searches and now they got an allowance to do pattern-based queries, meaning that if they feel that a pattern is that your name is Bob and you wear pink shirts, then, you know, they’ll pull all those people and that might be enough to put you on a terrorist lineup.
BOB GARFIELD: I should observe at this point, for our listeners, that I am – I’m wearing a pink shirt, so that didn’t come entirely out of nowhere.
JULIA ANGWIN: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: It’s a data point.
JULIA ANGWIN: [LAUGHING]
BOB GARFIELD: If this program had been revealed in the Wall Street Journal five years ago, when George W. Bush was the president, there would have been marching in the streets. It would have been, aha, once again his administration has overreached, there have to be hearings. This must stop. And yet, we have a different administration now and there’s scarcely a whimper! What's goin’ on?
JULIA ANGWIN: One thing is that by the time that the public learned about this program, it was already signed into law and was in effect. And so, there was a feeling of like what can we do. Also, politically that hasn't been a huge will to push back against the war on terror.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you’ve made what I think is a very trenchant comparison, the digital revolution versus the industrial revolution.
JULIA ANGWIN: Yes. My hero of all time is Ida Tarbell, who was the leading muckraker in the post-industrial era. And she at the turn of the century was writing these stories about Standard Oil and how they had their incredible monopoly over oil and the extreme price gouging they were engaging in. And her series of muckraking articles led to the creation of antitrust laws. And, at the same time, Upton Sinclair was writing about the factories and the abuses that were happening in the slaughterhouses.
They were really the watchdogs for this era, because at that time there was no OSHA and there were no antitrust laws, and there was great change going on in the economy but there wasn't a regulatory structure to police it. We’re at this great moment where the information revolution has come, we've never been more connected, but we are just awakening to the dark side of it, which is this idea that we’re gonna live under total surveillance all the time and that our speech will be chilled by the fact we’re always worried about who's watching us.
Right now, the role we’re playing, or at least I see myself and my colleagues at the Journal playing, is we’re trying to police that, right? We’re not saying that the Internet is bad or that any of this information economy is bad. But like, here are the edge cases that we should consider where we want the boundaries to be.
BOB GARFIELD: Have we had the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire yet?
JULIA ANGWIN: I think we probably have not. The Cuyahoga River caught fire 12 times before the Clean Air Act was passed. [LAUGHS]
So I think it takes a lot of repeated abuses before things change.
BOB GARFIELD: Julia, thank you very much.
JULIA ANGWIN: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Julia Angwin covers privacy for the Wall Street Journal.