Attract Government Attention and Get Your Name Run Through a 'Terrorist' Database

Offending the powerful can be dangerous in an increasingly authoritarian world.


In 2021, it's unfortunately not surprising to learn about routine federal surveillance of people who attract official attention. We live, after all, at a moment when freedom looks haggard and unloved even in liberal democracies and a record number of journalists are behind bars. That the practice of running people's names through multiple government databases appears to be routine doesn't bode well for the United States, let alone the world beyond.

"Documents obtained by Yahoo News, including an inspector general report that spans more than 500 pages" expose snooping by Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) Counter Network Division, Jana Winter wrote in a December 11 report. "The division, which still operates today, had few rules and routinely used the country's most sensitive databases to obtain the travel records and financial and personal information of journalists, government officials, congressional members and their staff, NGO workers and others."

CBP agent Jeffrey Rambo was initially implicated for inquiries about Ali Watkins, a reporter at The New York Times. That included "pulling email addresses, phone numbers and photos from passport applications and checking that information through numerous sensitive government databases, including the terrorism watchlist." But it quickly becomes apparent that he's been hung out to dry for doing what he was told by means that are considered normal within the federal government.

"According to records included in the inspector general report, such vetting was standard practice at the division," Winter adds.

Given the range of tools available to the feds, it's not a shock that their use has become rote. What's the point of having vast (if unreliable) databases on people's activities if you're not going to use them? To the databases, add geotagging data and information scraped from social media by contractors. Running background checks as a matter of course may be creepy, but it's difficult to imagine it not becoming standard practice when that information is available at agents' fingertips.

"For two decades, we've seen how the collect-it-all, share-it-all philosophy underlying post-9/11 law enforcement floods agencies with sensitive personal information on millions of Americans," Hugh Handeyside, an ACLU attorney, told Yahoo News's Winter. "When agencies give their employees access to this ocean of information, especially without training or rigorous oversight, the potential for abuse goes through the roof."

Surveillance has become ubiquitous because of the fetishization of national security as an overriding concern, but also because it's so easy to access information on almost everybody. Even professional spies complain that it's almost impossible to remain covert in a world of "digital obstacles that are the hallmarks of modern life: omnipresent surveillance cameras and biometric border controls, not to mention smartphones, watches and automobiles that constantly ping out their location," as The Wall Street Journal recently noted.

Individuals like The New York Times's Watkins become targets in an era when surveillance is easy, and in which official attention is commonly turned against people who the powerful view with hostility. After the surveillance story broke, the Associated Press demanded to know why one of its reporters was targeted for snooping. The related story observed that "the Justice Department under former President Donald Trump had obtained records belonging to journalists, as well as Democratic members of Congress and their aides and a former White House counsel, Don McGahn" and that "During the Obama administration, federal investigators secretly seized phone records for some reporters and editors at the AP. Those seizures involved office and home lines as well as cellphones."

Governments have never liked being scrutinized and criticized, but free countries expect them to suffer the spotlight as the price of controlling the dangerous apparatus of the state. If they don't like it, that's too bad. That a country enjoying the protections of the First Amendment for free speech and a free press puts the screws to people who attract attention emphasizes the fact that the rest of the planet is in even more dire straits.

"They are representatives of all journalists who stand up for this ideal in a world in which democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse conditions," the Norwegian Nobel Committee commented while awarding the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize to Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, who resist the repressive efforts of the governments of the Philippines and of Russia.

"The number of journalists jailed around the world set another record in 2021," the Committee to Protect Journalists announced just days ago. "Invoking new tech and security laws, repressive regimes from Asia to Europe to Africa cracked down harshly on the independent press."

While the worst of such repression is in explicitly authoritarian countries, 56 journalists have been arrested in the U.S. this year, which is as many as in 2017-2019 combined.

Journalists don't exist in a bubble, of course. As I noted in my recent piece about the mistreatment of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange by Britain and the United States, journalism isn't a status, but rather an activity in which anybody can engage. Reporting and commenting on the missteps and abuses of the powerful is an effective means not only of holding them to account, but of getting under their skin. Annoying powerful people has become an increasingly dangerous activity even where it was once safe.

"The world is becoming more authoritarian as autocratic regimes become even more brazen in their repression," Sweden's Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance observed last month (other groups make similar points). "Many democratic governments are backsliding and are adopting authoritarian tactics by restricting free speech and weakening the rule of law, a trend exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic."

We saw such backsliding under former President Donald Trump, who attacked the legitimacy of critical press outlets and threatened government action against media companies. It continues under President Biden, who set his Justice Department against parents who criticize school policies. When presidents lash out at reporters and threaten the use of law enforcement against critics, it follows that government agents see nothing wrong in probing and tracking people who come to their notice.

Curbing surveillance against journalists, activists, and other high-profile individuals won't be accomplished as an isolated goal. Freeing critics of the powerful from routine snooping requires reemphasizing liberty as a priority that outweighs national security, public health, or any other concerns on the minds of politicians. Then, and only then, will we be free to live in a world which sees those in government office as the proper subjects of scrutiny, and not those who hold them to account.