US Government Creating Vast Domestic Snooping Machine

The surveillance state is real, Big Brother is watching more than ever and it feels like the J. Edgar Hoover era may be returning.

Our government is spying on local citizens at unprecedented levels and using a vast network of law enforcement agencies, reports the Washington Post this morning in a lengthy and impressive investigative piece on "Top Secret America."

Thanks to terrorism concerns, the federal government's security apparatus has expanded its reach into towns and cities, asking willing local authorities to cooperate in allowing the government to keep close tabs on anyone deemed "suspicious." In turn, it seems that the federal authorities are granting those local police and sheriffs access to invasive technology like high-tech cameras and scanners. In addition, they're encouraging them to increase, even to "inappropriate" levels, their monitoring of local groups and individuals in the name of "safety." 

The article focuses in on the way this infrastructure works in Memphis, where Homeland Security procedures and technologies are often used to fight crime as well as "terrorism." The writers describe the way a routine traffic stop can now result in information being sent to dozens of agencies across the security spectrum, information that ranges from the driver's fingerprints, to the location of the stop, to the details on the car.  The writers report that the network includes 4,058 national, state and municipal or local organizations with "counter-terrorism" responsibilities, over 935 of which were added in the post 9/11 years.

Perhaps most disturbingly for those who remember the 1950s "red panic" era, the WaPo piece also explains the FBI's compiling of a vast new database filled with the personal histories of  Americans who have been accused of no crimes other than appearing dodgy to their neighbors or local cops, even traffic cops. The data on these "suspicious" individuals can sit for years accruing their employment information and more--potentially including biometric data in the future, the report notes--even if nothing sketchy or implicating turns up.

The article's authors, Dana Priest and William H. Arkin, explain the overall thrust of their findings (emphases ours), in a country at a "crossroads" where longstanding privacy concerns are being eroded by the post 9/11 mindset of safety above all:

"The system, by far the largest and most technologically sophisticated in the nation's history, collects, stores and analyzes information about thousands of U.S. citizens and residents, many of whom have not been accused of any wrongdoing.
The government's goal is to have every state and local law enforcement agency in the country feed information to Washington to buttress the work of the FBI, which is in charge of terrorism investigations in the United States."

They even quote Department of Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano, who honed her techniques in Arizona cracking down on immigration and drugs, comparing what she is doing to the government's tactics during the Cold War era--not necessarily the kind of comparison one would tout proudly. According to their own summary of their report's major findings:

  • Surveillance technologies invented for use in our foreign wars are being used at home--such as facial recognition technology, high tech security cameras posted near public housing and street corners, and wireless fingerprint scanners. Oh yeah, and we're flying (surveillance) Predator drones on the Mexican border.
  • The FBI is actually compiling a massive database on individuals deemed "suspicious" by local law enforcement or their neighbors, many who have not in fact done anything wrong or illegal. Over 161,000 suspicious activity files have been created.
  • Law enforcement agencies are hiring "Islam experts" to help them who don't really know what they're talking about, and in fact are deemed "counterproductive" by the FBI.
  • Due to poor guidance from the Department of Homeland Security, local law enforcement is monitoring and reporting on some activity that's totally lawful.

Priest and Arkin summarize what they've published today about as just one aspect of "the alternative geography that is Top Secret America, where millions of people are assigned to help stop terrorism." Since 9/11, they say, and beyond the scope of the Patriot Act, concern for civil liberties has been shrinking on a very practical and local level--as often-bogus concern for security skyrockets.

Read the full report at the Washington Post.

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