Since Edward Snowden’s leaks, much attention has been paid to the domestic surveillance capabilities of the NSA, which have turned out to be more egregious than many predicted. But it’s worth remembering that the government has all kinds of ways to invade the privacy of innocent Americans.
McClatchy has a bombshell story up about a federal investigation into two men who had purportedly been teaching people how to beat the polygraph test, or “lie detector.” It should be noted that the polygraph is seen as “so unreliable that most courts don’t allow the results to be submitted as evidence against criminal suspects.”
Still, people applying for employment in federal agencies are often subjected to the polygraph. And in the governments latest effort to rout out potential “insider threats,” or employees they think may choose to blow the whistle, the polygraph is viewed as an important screening process.
In the course of investigating these two men for the high crime of teaching people how to pass polygraphs, federal agencies – including the CIA, NSA, IRS, FDA, and others – collected and retained the names and personal information of 4,904 people suspected of hearing the polygraph-cheating advice. McClatchy:
Federal officials gathered the information from the customer records of two men who were under criminal investigation for purportedly teaching people how to pass lie detector tests. The officials then distributed a list of 4,904 people – along with many of their Social Security numbers, addresses and professions – to nearly 30 federal agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service, the CIA, the National Security Agency and the Food and Drug Administration. Although the polygraph-beating techniques are unproven, authorities hoped to find government employees or applicants who might have tried to use them to lie during the tests required for security clearances. Officials with multiple agencies confirmed that they’d checked the names in their databases and planned to retain the list in case any of those named take polygraphs for federal jobs or criminal investigations.
It turned out, however, that many people on the list worked outside the federal government and lived across the country. Among the people whose personal details were collected were nurses, firefighters, police officers and private attorneys, McClatchy learned. Also included: a psychologist, a cancer researcher and employees of Rite Aid, Paramount Pictures, the American Red Cross and Georgetown University.
Moreover, many of them had only bought books or DVDs from one of the men being investigated and didn’t receive the one-on-one training that investigators had suspected. In one case, a Washington lawyer was listed even though he’d never contacted the instructors. Dozens of others had wanted to pass a polygraph not for a job, but for a personal reason: The test was demanded by spouses who suspected infidelity.
The unprecedented creation of such a list and decision to disseminate it widely demonstrate the ease with which the federal government can collect and share Americans’ personal information, even when there’s no clear reason for doing so.
So because two schmucks ran some infomercial-worthy scam telling people how to beat polygraphs, the government collected and stored information on almost 5,000 citizens, many of whom had no intention of applying for government jobs. If you bought a book from these two men, the CIA knows about it. If you cheated on your wife and wanted to beat a polygraph, the NSA knows about it. Hell, the Food and Drug Administration has a file on you if you happened to have watched a DVD about polygraphs.
The surveillance state comes in many forms. This scandal McClatchy has uncovered illustrates two things. First, the Obama administrations “Insider Threat Program,” also uncovered by McClatchy last June, has not only put a chill on investigative journalism that relies on leaks from government sources, but it has also expanded the federal government’s ability to spy on Americans in a flagrant invasion of privacy. Secondly, the story illustrates how easy it is for the government to target and track you, your family, your personal habits, your credit card history and a host of other personal attributes. That is less the result of a single anti-whistleblower crackdown program, but rather a result of Big Government and the surveillance state.