DHS says Terror Watchlist is exempt from Privacy Act

(Ali Winston)   Last Friday, the federal government’s new anti-terror database, the Terror Screening Watchlist Service, went live. The database is loaded with an unknown amount of personal information, including names, photographs and biometric data. In a new turn that has civil liberties advocates crying foul, the Department of Homeland Security is claiming all information contained in the watchlist is confidential.

Earlier today, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and several other groups filed a formal complaint with DHS about the blanket exemptions to the Privacy Act.

Under DHS’ rules guidelines for the Terror Watch Lists, individuals “do not have an opportunity to decline to provide information” for the database, and cannot obtain the relevant information through the Federal Privacy Act. The Privacy Act is one of the milestone reforms passed in the wake of the Watergate spying scandal. It permits individuals to obtain law enforcement files about them by the government, with the intent of correcting incorrect information.

In 2007, the Department of Justice’s Inspector General criticized a previous incarnation of the database as flawed. An audit found 38 percent of the records contained in the database were inconsistent or incorrect. Furthermore, the investigation found that citizen complaints about the incorrect information were not being handled in a timely manner.

Conveniently, DHS’ new rules for the Terror Screening Watchlist Service state that the agency “does not control the accuracy” of information retained in the database.

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