If you've ever trained to be a better liar—or more specifically inquired about how to lie well enough to beat a polygraph test—numerous federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, the CIA, the IRS, or the FBI, may just have their eye on you.
"Though nowhere near as massive as the NSA programs, the polygraph inquiry is another example of the federal government’s vast appetite for Americans’ personal information and the sweeping legal authority it wields in the name of national security." –McClatchy
According to an investigative report published by McClatchy on Thursday, that's because a list generated by the Customs and Border Protection agency containing the names and detailed personal information of more than 5,000 individuals who may have done nothing more than purchase a book has been widely circulated among dozens of other government agencies in an effort to flush out federal employees who may have been interested (for any number of reasons, it turns out) in trumping a polygraph machine.
According to 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.
Though the list of people on the list is relatively small compared the many millions of people in the U.S. who have had their personal information monitored, tracked, collected, and otherwise nabbed by the various domestic surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency, the revelations raise serious legal and privacy questions, according to experts made aware of the case.
“This is increasingly happening – data is being collected by the federal government for one use and then being entirely repurposed for other uses and shared,” said Fred Cate, an Indiana University-Bloomington law professor who specializes in information privacy and national security.
And Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group, said, "It doesn’t seem right to tar people and give them what is a scarlet letter of being likely liars just because they’ve been reading or thinking about beating lie detector tests."
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The troubling fact, Tien added, is that "government agencies have an enormous free zone when collecting and sharing data.”
As McClatchy reports:
The case comes to light amid revelations that the NSA, in an effort to track foreign terrorists, has for years been stockpiling the data of the daily telephone and Internet communications of tens of millions of ordinary Americans. Though nowhere near as massive as the NSA programs, the polygraph inquiry is another example of the federal government’s vast appetite for Americans’ personal information and the sweeping legal authority it wields in the name of national security.
But why? According to their reporting, McClatchy discovered that the government's approach was fueled by a deepening paranoia—in the wake of the devastating revelations made possible by Edward Snowden at the NSA—about federal employees who might turn whistleblowers.
According to McClatchy:
The Snowden case is only the latest in a series of what the government condemns as betrayals by “trusted insiders” who’ve harmed national security. As a result, the Obama administration has been pressing a government-wide crackdown on security threats that requires federal employees at agencies from the NSA to the CIA and the Peace Corps to the Department of Education to keep closer tabs on their co-workers and exhorts managers to punish those who fail to report suspicious behavior.
Officials say that one of the reasons for retaining the list of nearly 5,000 names is to help federal agencies detect future security violators, such as the next Snowden. It’s unclear how helpful such a list would be in that regard, though. Snowden underwent two polygraphs for his NSA job but he wasn’t found to have used polygraph-beating techniques to pass them, officials familiar with his tests told McClatchy. The NSA refused to comment.
So what were all these people scheming to lie about anyway, if they weren't involved in the government in the first place or not interesting in infiltrating the bureaucratic echelons of the Department of Education or National Parks Service?
It's hard to know, of course—not to mention none of our business—but according to some of the dozens contacted by McClatchy the answer centered around a more sacred and personal institution that was on the possible verge of collapse from an insider threat: "The test was demanded by spouses who suspected infidelity."