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Uncle Sam wants you: the identity stripping of American citizens

By Walt Brasch - posted Tuesday, 26 July 2005

The Army National Guard, faced with extended tours of duty in Iraq, didn’t meet its recruitment quota. So in 2004, it began a multimillion dollar direct mail advertising campaign. One of those targeted was Petra Gass, a resident of rural northeast Pennsylvania, who received a full-colour 12-inch by 17-inch tri-fold telling her in bold capitals that she could be “the most important weapon in the war on terrorism”. Gass says she doesn’t know how she got onto the database that generated her name. She does know she has no plans to join the guard.

Petra Gass is a 50-year-old German citizen.

A little-known provision of the No Child Left Behind Act, signed by President Bush in 2001, requires all public high schools to provide to the Department of Defense the names, ages, phone numbers and addresses of all males. The government has the data for about 4.5 million high school students. Few parents are aware the data is routinely provided to the government; even fewer are aware they have the right to “opt-out” by signing a form that prohibits the school district from sending personal information to the Department of Defense.


The Department of Defense also has the names of almost five million college students who are required to sign up for Selective Service in order to receive any kind of state or financial aid.

Petra Gass’s son is a recent college graduate, so it’s possible that human error created her place on the recruiting database. But, it’s also possible that her name came from one of dozens of other sources that make up a massive 30 million name database used by the military recruiters. The purpose of that database, according to the army, is to assist in recruiting at a time when goals are unmet and most Americans are now questioning the war in Iraq.

As part of a $1.3 billion advertising campaign, the Department of Defense had awarded Mullen Advertising, of Massachusetts, a $345 million five-year contract. Mullen then subcontracted BeNOW, also a private Massachusetts company, to collect data and manage the database of names, birth dates, addresses, telephone numbers, email addresses, areas of study, grade point averages, height and weight data, ethnicity, social security numbers and other personal data gleaned from dozens of sources. The army claims the social security numbers are “carefully guarded.” But as innumerable cases over the past decade have shown, it isn’t difficult for databases to be hacked and for identities to be stolen. During 2004 there were 12 separate breaches of security into major databases, affecting almost 11 million individuals, according to Senator Dianne Feinstein.

Hackers aren’t the only ones who violate state laws. The Pentagon’s joint advertising, market research and studies database itself is illegal. Buried within the Federal Register, the army acknowledged in May 2005 it hadn’t met a significant provision of the Federal Privacy Act that requires public hearings before the government may create databases. The army claims its failure was merely “an oversight,” and that the notice, three years after the database was created, was an attempt to meet the Act’s requirements.

There is nothing in the creation and management of the database, which undoubtedly contains errors, to suggest it won’t be shared with other government and law enforcement agencies. There is a long history of local, state and federal governments illegally and often unconstitutionally collecting data on citizens. Among the more recent cases of the abuse of the public trust:

  • the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) from 1956 through the mid-1970s kept extensive data files, many of them with egregious errors, on war protestors, civil rights leaders, politicians and journalists. COINTELPRO agents often planted illegal wiretaps or broke into private homes and businesses to blackmail and disrupt the lives of persons and organisations which did not agree with the FBI director’s belief of what a “loyal” citizen should believe;
  • at the same time as COINTELPRO, the army was spying upon persons involved in any form of political dissent. In violation of the Posse Comitatus Act (18 USC 1385), the army frequently shared its files and provided significant assistance to civilian law enforcement. By the time the army’s secret subversion of the law was concluded in 1971, after being exposed in the media, it had collected the personal data, much of it wrong, of 100,000 persons, almost none of whom posed any threat to the nation. Among the provisions of the Privacy Act of 1974, a reaction to both FBI and army spying, is a prohibition against maintaining records of “how any individual exercises rights guaranteed by the First Amendment”; and
  • for about three years, until it was publicly revealed in 2002, the Denver, Colorado, police kept what became known as the “spy files”: documents that contained personal data of about 3,200 individuals who attended peaceful protests. The files also included information from intercepted emails, apparently none of which hinted at or suggested the use of any violence. Among 208 organisations the police classified as “criminal extremist” were the American Friends Service Committee - a non-violent Quaker organisation, and Amnesty International.

The Bush administration has spawned a number of database programs, most of which have met with significant opposition:

  • During the summer of 2002, the federal government revealed Operation TIPS, the Terrorist Information and Prevention System. Dreamed up within the Department of Justice, the nationwide program would have been a massive database created from “tips” by “concerned” citizens. The program was cancelled when both liberal and conservative Congressional leaders opposed the “big brother” program.
  • The Pentagon’s Total Information Awareness Program (TIAP) was designed to create an “ultra-large-scale” database of databases about individuals. Proposed funding was initially about $500 million. When the public, the media and members of Congress questioned what appeared to be a potential for a massive invasion of their privacy, complete with undocumented information, the agency kept the acronym but renamed the program the Terrorist Information Awareness Program. In February 2003, Congress finally suspended all funding for TIAP.
  • In his 2003 state of the union address, upset that both TIP and TIAP had been attacked, President Bush announced the creation of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC) “to merge and analyse all threat information in a single location”. The CIA-based program, with the input from several other federal agencies, was designed to “merge and analyse terrorist-related information collected domestically and abroad in order to form the most comprehensive possible threat picture”.
  • Two months after the president’s state-of-the-union declaration, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) revealed plans to implement the Computer-Assisted Passenger Profiling System (CAPPS II), yet another cutesy acronym to “cap” terrorism. All persons flying on commercial airlines would be identity-stripped by a database that would include their names, phone numbers, addresses, dates of birth, their travelling companions and itineraries, how tickets were paid, rental car information and destinations, names and addresses of businesses the passenger has used, all information about their current and past car ownership and even newspaper subscriptions. About 100 million names would be entered into the database. Congress forbade further development until all criteria to assure privacy rights were met. Subsequent testimony before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, combined with an investigation by Wired News, revealed that the TSA apparently continued to collect and mine data without meeting the necessary safeguards. In July 2004, the Department of Homeland Security, under relentless attacks from members of Congress, the public and civil rights organisations, finally suspended CAPPS II after about $102 million had already been spent.
  • Within two weeks of President Bush’s re-election in November 2004, the government morphed CAPPS II into “Secure Flight”, and required the nation’s airlines to turn over personal data on all of its passengers, not just possible terrorism risks. After bullying 25 European Union nations, the federal government would get personal data in 34 categories on every passenger who flies into or out of the United States. However, in June 2005, one month after the Pentagon acknowledged it had violated provisions of the federal Privacy Act in creation of database for what it claimed was recruiting purposes, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that Secure Flight had also violated the same law.
    The TSA had issued privacy notices in the Federal Register in September and November 2004, but failed to fully inform the public of the extent of the data collection. According to the GAO, the TSA, with data provided by a contractor, “collected more than 100 million commercial data records containing personal information” about more than 250,000 persons. The test of the database system was to have included only 43,000 persons who had flown in June 2004. The TSA the following month acknowledged its violations, and claimed the data for the additional 200,000 individuals was for persons who had name variations on those who had flown. It told Congress it would destroy all data following the conclusion of its tests.
  • The “no-fly” lists include individuals who may pose security threats. However, many of those on the list are not terrorists but persons opposed to the Bush administration or the war in Iraq. The TSA, which receives names from several federal agencies, denied that political activity had anything to do with who was placed on the list. But, even after the existence of the lists was made public, the TSA refused to state how persons were put onto those lists and what they could do to clear their names. Among those denied boarding passes were a 36-year-old Air Force master sergeant, a 74-year-old retired minister and Senator Edward M. Kennedy.
  • In mid-December 2003 the FBI ordered all Las Vegas casinos, hotels, rental car agencies, travel agencies and airlines flying into and out of McCarran Airport to electronically turn over lists of all of their guests and customers, and then not to reveal any of this. The casino operators alone may have turned over more than 350,000 names and accompanying personal data.
  • The Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange (MATRIX) was created to give local and state governments a common database that merged personal information (including ethnicity, what meals airline passengers ordered and even credit card records). The program was finally terminated when the federal government reluctantly stopped further funding after several states, citing significant violations of privacy rights, pulled out of the program.

Fifty-two federal departments and agencies are either using or plan to use data mining programs, according to the Government Accounting Office. On several of those databases is Petra Gass, the 50-year-old German citizen, and “the most important weapon in the war on terrorism” who will probably receive greater scrutiny - and some recruiting fliers.

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About the Author

Walter Brasch is professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University. He is an award-winning syndicated columnist, and author of 16 books. Dr. Brasch's current books are Unacceptable: The Federal Government’s Response to Hurricane Katrina; Sex and the Single Beer Can: Probing the Media and American Culture; and Sinking the Ship of State: The Presidency of George W. Bush (Nov. 2007) You may contact him at

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