You can be pulled into the NSA’s database, put on a terrorist watchlist, and receive discriminatory treatment from local, state, and national law enforcement agents — without warning or notice, and for something as innocent as a Facebook or Twitter post.
So reports journalist Arjun Sethi in a shocking story in The Guardian, August 30, entitled, appropriately enough, “The US government can brand you a terrorist based on a Facebook post.”
“Through ICREACH, a Google-style search engine created for the intelligence community, the NSA provides data on private communications to 23 government agencies. More than 1,000 analysts had access to that information. …
“It was confirmed earlier this month that the FBI shares its master watchlist, the Terrorist Screening Database, with at least 22 foreign governments, countless federal agencies, state and local law enforcement, plus private contractors…
“The Terrorist Screening Database watchlist tracks ‘known’ and ‘suspected’ terrorists and includes both foreigners and Americans. It’s also based on loose standards and secret evidence, which ensnares innocent people. Indeed, the standards are so low that the U.S. government’s guidelines specifically allow for a single, uncorroborated source of information — including a Facebook or Twitter post — to serve as the basis for placing you on its master watchlist.”
Indeed, according to the investigative journalism website The Intercept, the Terrorist Screening Database has about 680,000 people on it — and more than 40 percent are described by the government itself as having “no recognized terrorist group affiliation.” That’s a whopping 280,000 people.
Continues the Guardian: “These eye-popping numbers are largely the result of the US government’s use of a loose standard — so-called ‘reasonable suspicion’ — in determining who, exactly, can be watchlisted.
“Reasonable suspicion is such a low standard because it requires neither ‘concrete evidence’ nor ‘irrefutable evidence.’ Instead, an official is permitted to consider ‘reasonable inferences’ and ‘to draw from the facts in light of his/her experience.'”
Further, the loose rules allow watchlisting without even the minimum standard of reasonable suspicion. Non-citizens can be watchlisted just for being associated with a watchlisted person, even if the relationship is totally innocent. If a source or tipster describes a non-citizen as an “extremist,” a “militant,” or some similar term, and the FBI can make some vague connection, this could be enough to watchlist a person. The watchlist designation is secret, so no one is able to challenge these allegations.
But being on the watchlist can bring terrible consequences, notes the Guardian:
“Life on the master watchlist can trigger enhanced screening at borders and airports; being on the No Fly List, which is a subset of the larger terrorist watchlist, can prevent airline travel altogether. The watchlist can separate family members for months or years, isolate individuals from friends and associates, and ruin employment prospects.
“Being branded a terrorism suspect also has far-reaching privacy implications. The watchlist is widely accessible, and government officials routinely collect the biometric data of watchlisted individuals, including their fingerprints and DNA strands. Law enforcement has likewise been directed to gather any and all available evidence when encountering watchlisted individuals, including receipts, business cards, health information and bank statements. …
“A watchlist based on poor standards and secret processes raises major constitutional concerns, including the right to travel freely and not to be deprived of liberty without due process of law.”
Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, agrees: “We’re getting into Minority Report territory when being friends with the wrong person can mean the government puts you in a database and adds DMV photos, iris scans, and face recognition technology to track you secretly and without your knowledge. The fact that this information can be shared with agencies from the CIA to the NYPD, which are not known for protecting civil liberties, brings us closer to an invasive and rights-violating government surveillance society at home and abroad.”
The Guardian concludes with a question you’re probably already asking yourself:
“Indeed, you can’t help but wonder: are you already on the watchlist?”