AUDIE CORNISH, host:
Employment history, financial and residential records, phone numbers - just some of the personal information belonging to tens of thousands of Americans and legal residents that's been collected in an FBI database. It's part of an effort to fight terrorism here at home, a joint effort by the FBI and state and local law enforcement. The twist is nobody in the database has been accused of any crime. Rather, they've been reported to the FBI for acting suspiciously. That's according to an investigation by The Washington Post.
I asked reporter Dana Priest to describe one of the suspicious activity reports.
Ms. DANA PRIEST (Reporter, The Washington Post): There were two people on a Sunday afternoon at a harbor in Newport Beach. One of them was taking a picture of the fireboat in the harbor with a cell phone and then went back to his car and then came back out and took some more pictures, went back to his car, came back out and then was met by another adult with two children - don't know if that person was male or female - and they all then got on this ferry that was at the harbor and sailed away.
Well, he's now in the database, which is called The Guardian, as is his vehicle license number. And from there they got an identification. And from there what would happen is local law enforcement, but then also the FBI, could start collecting information. Some of it is publicly available. Some of it is commercially available.
In other words, databases that are now for sale that have your Social Security number, your telephone numbers, your addresses where you've lived most of your life, they could put that into the file. And then if they really were interested, they could ask for the places that you traveled where there were surveillance cameras and they could put that information in there. So this...
CORNISH: And is the goal, though, to essentially connect the dots, that term that we heard forever after 9/11, so that something that might be seemingly innocent could be flagged in some way for people who are investigating terrorism?
Ms. PRIEST: In this case, the idea is actually to see whether there is a dot. It's to see whether you're a dot that's worth connecting to something bigger. In most cases, they aren't able to determine right off the bat whether this is definitely something they should be investigating or definitely something they should exclude. So most of the files are in this database waiting for the moment where there's more information that comes in that might actually connect to your case and say, well, no, this was an innocent outing and an innocent photograph.
Or someone in another state sees that you've been taking photos of something more nefarious, or you've done something that looks more clearly suspicious. And they can put two and two together then, and then they have a dot that's worth doing something about.
CORNISH: Dana, right now, has anybody who's been reported to this database actually been arrested for anything?
Ms. PRIEST: The FBI says that there have been five arrests since the database began. They don't have any convictions yet, but those things take a while. So five arrests, no convictions, about 100 cases that are clear enough for the FBI to actually conduct an investigation and another 300 where they say that information in the database has helped some other ongoing case.
People inside the FBI and in the intelligence community are debating the efficacy of this because, really, as one side would say, you're piling on more hay onto the haystack where there's a needle. How efficient is this and how effective is it?
The normal way that terrorists have been discovered up until now is through FBI work, is through information coming to them and then them using their sources, their confidential sources and surveillance technology, not through a sort of everywhere in the country let's look, gather up tips that could or could not mean anything and give them to you.
There are people in the government that say this is exactly what we need to do. And there are others that say this is going to amount to a lot of work that won't amount to much. So, that's the debate within the government.
CORNISH: That's Dana Priest, investigative reporter for The Washington Post. Dana, thank you for talking with us.
Ms. PRIEST: Glad to be here.
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