FBI Bestowing More Snooping Power to Agents, Testing Privacy Boundaries

Charlie Savage has an excellent but disturbing story in this morning's New York Times about the encroaching powers of the FBI, in the form of a new set of guidelines for agents performing investigations, with loosened restrictions that have alarmed privacy advocates for very good reasons. Emphases are ours:

WASHINGTON — The Federal Bureau of Investigation is giving significant new powers to its roughly 14,000 agents, allowing them more leeway to search databases, go through household trash or use surveillance teams to scrutinize the lives of people who have attracted their attention. The F.B.I. soon plans to issue a new edition of its manual, called the Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide, according to an official who has worked on the draft document and several others who have been briefed on its contents. The new rules add to several measures taken over the past decade to give agents more latitude as they search for signs of criminal or terrorist activity.

One of the biggest issues with these new rules isn't just the kind of snooping allowed, but the fact that the intrusive surveillance comes with even less requirements for evidence or approval in advance.

From the story:

The F.B.I. recently briefed several privacy advocates about the coming changes. Among them, Michael German, a former F.B.I. agent who is now a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, argued that it was unwise to further ease restrictions on agents’ power to use potentially intrusive techniques, especially if they lacked a firm reason to suspect someone of wrongdoing.

“Claiming additional authorities to investigate people only further raises the potential for abuse,” Mr. German said, pointing to complaints about the bureau’s surveillance of domestic political advocacy groups and mosques and to an inspector general’s findings in 2007 that the F.B.I. had frequently misused “national security letters,” which allow agents to obtain information like phone records without a court order.

One blogger at Techeye.net was particularly enraged by the new changes because of their presumed ability to allow biases and personal preferences to seep into investigations without oversight. He described them, sarcastically but with a ring of truth, thus:

Basically this means that an agent has to suspect a person. Obviously, the only reason they would harbour any  suspicions is if they have a gut reaction, perhaps based on the fact that the person has a beard, a turban and a tendency to worship a different God....


Under the new rules, agents will be allowed to search such databases without having to tell anyone. This is brilliant if you are an agent and happen to notice a nice looking person you might like to ask out.

Read more at the New York Times.


AlterNet / By Sarah Seltzer

Posted at June 13, 2011, 5:04am