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.