Thursday, October 29, 2009

The FBI and the Right of Privacy

In response to a Freedom of Information lawsuit, the FBI has recently made public its Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide. This document details the FBI’s interpretation of domestic intelligence-gathering rules which were relaxed under the Bush Administration.

In order to begin an investigation into a suspected terrorist, the initial requirements set forth under the FBI’s interpretation are rather low. This guide also allows for the use of ethnicity and/or religion to be used as a factor for determining persons of interest, as long as ethnicity and/or religion are not the only factors used. While information gathering may not be based on “arbitrary or groundless speculation,” the factual evidence required to start such an investigation is not clearly defined. The FBI claims that the flexibility provided by their interpretation is required in order to properly perform a proactive sweep for would-be terrorists residing within the United States.

If an investigation is commenced, the FBI can then send out “confidential informants to infiltrate organizations and following and photographing targets in public.” Even if nothing is found, the information gathered is then stored in the FBI databases. The FBI had the ability to perform such investigation previously regarding criminal activities, but greater justification was required to do so (at least prior to the FBI’s new interpretations).

Some are concerned that this broad interpretation interferes with citizens’ civil liberties, as the FBI’s interpretation allows them the “right to collect broad personal information about people they don’t even suspect of wrongdoing.” However, the FBI’s general counsel claims that this interpretation is not as threatening as some fear, and that civil liberties still will be protected; she claims that the FBI’s job is not to wait to investigate somebody until they perform some type of terrorist activity, but to ensure they don’t get a chance to do so at all.

The ability of the FBI, or any government agency, to collect data on its citizens for no more of a reason than basically a hunch is rather disturbing. While the FBI may deny it (or even prevent it in writing), this opens the door for profiling of citizens based on religion or ethnicity. The FBI has already used this new-found power to investigate whole Somali communities rather than just those people for whom they had prior information.

While the threat of future terrorist activity on United States soil is frightening, the government ‘s exploitation of this fear to expand their powers and reduce citizens’ rights is even more frightening. With this proactive approach and lack of properly defined guidelines, the FBI has the ability to gather information on almost anybody, and any data gathered, whether the person is found of wrongdoing or not, will be stored in the FBI’s database; with such procedures in place, many innocent citizens will have their right to privacy violated for no sufficient reason.

For the full article from the New York Times, click here.

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