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Two security scandals that are much worse than the NSA's surveillance

August 6, 2014, at 9:58 AM
 
A Rikers Island juvenile detention facility officer on July 31.

A Rikers Island juvenile detention facility officer on July 31. Photo: (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

What could possibly be more invasive, more offensive, than the secret indiscriminate bulk collection of data by the National Security Agency?

Quite a number of things, actually.

Let's put aside, for now, the CIA's complicity in torture, which, to my mind, is the worst scandal of the Bush years. Then, as you read about the following two stories, compare them to the NSA's surveillance, and weigh the potential and actual harm to real people that the practices exposed herein would cause.

1. The Intercept's Jeremy Scahill, relying on classified documents, has exposed for all to see the ungainly expansion of terrorist watch lists after September 11, 2001, and particularly, the intrusive, invasive, and privacy-threatening means the government knowingly uses to secretly enrich its files on what must be thousands of innocents Americans, assuming that the actual bad people among them are very few. As of August 2013, Scahill reports, there were 5,000 Americans on watch lists.

According to the documents, the government does much more than simply stop watchlisted people at airports. It also covertly collects and analyzes a wide range of personal information about those individuals — including facial images, fingerprints, and iris scans.

In the aftermath of last year's Boston Marathon bombing, the Directorate of Terrorist Identities began an aggressive program to collect biometric data and other information on all Americans on the TIDE list. "This project includes record by record research of each person in relevant Department of State and [intelligence community] databases, as well as bulk data requests for information," the documents note.

The DTI also worked on the subsequent Chicago Marathon, performing "deep dives" for biometric and other data on people in the Midwest whose names were on the TIDE list. In the process, the directorate pulled the TIDE records of every person with an Illinois, Indiana, or Wisconsin driver license.

DTI's efforts in Boston and Chicago are part of a broader push to obtain biometric information on the more than one million people targeted in its secret database. This includes hundreds of thousands of people who are not watchlisted. In 2013, the directorate's Biometric Analysis Branch (BAB) launched an initiative to obtain biometric data from driver's license records across the country. At least 15 states and the District of Columbia are working with the directorate to facilitate access to facial images from driver's licenses. In fiscal year 2013, 2,400 such images were provided for inclusion in the secret TIDE database. [The Intercept]

Watchlisting is fine; the uncertainty about the identities of terrorists implies that the list of suspected al Qaeda members will be much larger than the actual list. But providing to the National Counterterrorism Center bulk biometric data from all Americans in a certain number of states? The disproportionate targeting of Muslims in Dearborn, Michigan? The ease with which the government can open a file on you? Not only does the noise drown out the signal, but the actual harm done to people — inconvenience at airports, harassment at border crossings — is tangible.

2. The second scandal is much worse. Basically, corrections officers at Rikers Island in New York City physically abused mentally disturbed and yet-to-be-found-guilty teen inmates on a horrifyingly frequent basis. Read this and try not to weep.

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said: "As our investigation has shown, for adolescents, Rikers Island is a broken institution. It is a place where brute force is the first impulse rather than the last resort; where verbal insults are repaid with physical injuries; where beatings are routine while accountability is rare; and where a culture of violence endures even while a code of silence prevails. The adolescents in Rikers are walled off from the public, but they are not walled off from the Constitution. Indeed most of these young men are pre-trial detainees who are innocent until proven guilty, but whether they are pre-trial or convicted, they are entitled to be detained safely and in accordance with their Constitutional rights — not consigned to a corrections crucible that seems more inspired by Lord of the Flies than any legitimate philosophy of humane detention. These young men, automatically charged as adults despite their age under New York law, may be on an island and out of sight, but they can no longer remain out of mind. Attention must be paid immediately to their rights, their safety and their mental well-being, and in the wake of this report we will make sure that happens one way or another." [Department of Justice]

Heightened awareness of what the government does — because it monopolizes the use of force — is a good thing. So is the ability to discriminate among scandals. These two stories offend me as an American much more than anything the NSA has done in recent years.

 

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