If you've sought treatment at a VA hospital, applied for a government-backed mortgage, or gotten on a plane recently, be warned: The little-known National Counterterrorism Center may be analyzing you. The Wall Street Journal used documents accessed through Freedom of Information Act requests to report on counterterrorism rules that were approved in March that upend the way the government is permitted to dig into the lives of ordinary citizens. Previously, the NCTC could only store info on citizens suspected of terror or somehow tied to a terror case; now, it can copy almost any government database and both store the data for up to five years and scrutinize it in an attempt to pinpoint suspicious patterns—even if the Americans it's tracking are innocent ones.
The NCTC is tasked with data-crunching, not spying or surveilling, and creates the files used to assemble the FBI's terror watchlist. The Journal tracks how the failure of that list—in the case of the 2009 "underwear bomber"—ultimately led to these new permissions. The previous requirement that the NCTC remove all data on innocent Americans "upon discovery" from the databases it was analyzing was burdensome; it couldn't hunt for patterns amid giant government databases, and it argued that someone who seems innocent now may not be later. Thanks to exemptions provided by the Federal Privacy Act, the NCTC isn't breaking the law, but its move didn't go unchallenged. "This is a sea change in the way that the government interacts with the general public," argued the Department of Homeland Security's chief privacy officer as the changes were being debated. Click to read the Journal's full investigation. (Read more National Counterterrorism Center stories.)