Report: U.S. government keeps data of innocent Americans for up to 75 years

Josh Peterson Tech Editor
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A report released Tuesday shows that U.S. intelligence agencies and law enforcement can keep data on innocent Americans longer than previously expected.

Following former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s disclosures about National Security Agency surveillance of Americans, senior intelligence officials scrambled to assure the public that such collection was inadvertent, minimal and strictly supervised.

But according to a new report by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, the phone and Internet data collected on millions of innocent Americans as part of the U.S. government’s counter-terrorism program can be retained “for up to 75 years or more.”

The report by the Brennan Center, which is funded by billionaire liberal donor George Soros, demonstrates how information is shared between agencies within the U.S. government, allowing investigators and analysts the ability to find connections between newly collected pieces of information, and those that have already been stored in government databases.

“Intelligence agencies are treating the chaff much the same as the wheat,” said Rachel Levinson-Waldman, counsel at the Brennan Center and author of the report, in a statement.

A flowchart for how the data on U.S. persons collected by the NSA is treated — depicted by an infographic created by the Brennan Center — shows that while the agency maintains that the information is deleted after 6 years, the NSA may retain the identity of the U.S. person.

Email addresses and phone numbers are used to query the agency’s database for a match.

“Under certain circumstances,” Levinson-Waldman states, that information is shared with the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and even foreign governments.

With regard to the FBI’s retention of records on Americans, the Brennan Center wrote in a statement to the press, “Suspicious Activity Reports (“See something, say something”) ostensibly related to terrorism are kept in a widely accessible FBI database for 30 years, even if the FBI concludes they have NO nexus to terrorism.”

“Information captured at border searches — including notations regarding those searches — may also be stored in and shared through other databases,” writes Levinson-Waldman in the report.

“For instance, records of searches of electronic devices and detentions — though not copies of the information itself — are entered into the government’s TECS database and stored for up to 75 years,” says Levinson-Waldman.

The TECS is the Treasury Enforcement and Communication System – one of the U.S. government’s terrorism databases.

According to a report by ABC News, the name of Tamarlan Tsarnaev, one of the Boston Bombing suspects, had been entered into the TECS prior to the attack, but expired before he returned from his trip to Russia in June 2012.

“Entries into this database remain active for only a year,” reported ABC News.

Levinson-Waldman’s report, however, also mentions the Department of Homeland Security’s Automated Biometric Identification System, or IDENT, which retains biometric data for up to 75 years, according to a December 2012 privacy assessment impact of the program.

“The records schedules requires US-VISIT to maintain IDENT records in its custody for 75 years or when no longer needed for legal or business purposes, whichever is later (NI-563-08-34),” states the assessment.

The United States Visitor and Immigration Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT), which was part of the Department of Homeland Security, was replaced by the Office of Biometric Identity Management in March 2013.

“We expect the government to collect and share information that is critical to national security, but creating an electronic dossier on every American citizen is inefficient and ineffective,” said Levinson-Waldman.

“We need modern policies that limit how — and with whom — innocent Americans’ data can be shared and stored,” she said.

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