One of the key issues we track here at FGI is privacy, particularly as it relates to the ability of citizens to read government reports and information without having their activities tracked and monitored. We are concerned that, if the only “authentic” copy of a government publication is one that is available on a government-controlled web server, the government has the potential for tracking reading habits of individuals and tracking who is reading particular documents.
It is in that context that we call your attention to this story:
To help the government track suspected terrorists and spies who may be visiting or residing in this country, the FBI and the Defense Department for the past three years have been paying a Georgia-based company for access to its vast databases that contain billions of personal records about nearly every person — citizens and noncitizens alike — in the United States. According to federal documents obtained by National Journal and Government Executive, among the services that ChoicePoint provides to the government is access to a previously undisclosed, and vaguely described, “exclusive” data-searching system. This system in effect gives law enforcement and intelligence agents the ability to use the private data broker to do something that they legally can’t — keep tabs on nearly every American citizen and foreigner in the United States….
[A] set of contract documents, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, and which the government sought to withhold for almost two years, reveals details not previously reported about ChoicePoint’s work for the FBI’s Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force, called FTTTF or “F tre F.” This task force was set up soon after the 9/11 attacks to assist law enforcement and intelligence agencies in locating foreign terrorists and their supporters in the United States. Because the task force can’t maintain records on U.S. persons without opening an official investigation, it relies on ChoicePoint to augment the intelligence that the government collects through legal channels….
[T]he documents indicate that ChoicePoint may have gone beyond simply offering its commercially available products to the government. In 2003, ChoicePoint agreed to provide access to an “exclusive” system used to help identify terrorism suspects. Although much of the description of the system has been redacted from the documents — on the grounds that it would reveal law enforcement tactics and operations — the portions that were released indicate that ChoicePoint’s work involves continuously tracking a “subject of interest” and notifying the government when new information has surfaced on that person….
FBI officials have stated publicly that they don’t use ChoicePoint for “fishing expeditions,” that they tap its services only in the course of an official investigation. But the threshold for what constitutes a “subject of interest” is unclear. So are the restrictions, if any, that the government faces when it searches private databases for information on U.S. citizens. And it’s unclear whether these restrictions differ from the rules for investigating foreigners.
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