The ATF Wants ‘Massive’ Online Database to Find Out Who Your Friends Are
(WIRED) The ATF doesn’t just want a huge database to reveal everything about you with a few keywords. It wants one that can find out who you know. And it won’t even try to friend you on Facebook first.
According to a recent solicitation from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the bureau is looking to buy a “massive online data repository system” for its Office of Strategic Intelligence and Information (OSII). The system is intended to operate for at least five years, and be able to process automated searches of individuals, and “find connection points between two or more individuals” by linking together “structured and unstructured data.”
Primarily, the ATF states it wants the database to speed-up criminal investigations. Instead of requiring an analyst to manually search around for your personal information, the database should “obtain exact matches from partial source data searches” such as social security numbers (or even just a fragment of one), vehicle serial codes, age range, “phonetic name spelling,” or a general area where your address is located. Input that data, and out comes your identity, while the computer automatically establishes connections you have with others.
Many other specific requirements are also to be expected for a federal law enforcement agency: searching names, phone numbers, “nationwide utility data” and reverse phone searches. The data will then be collected to help out during investigations and provide “relevant information and intelligence products.” There’s no hint the database is to be used to track gun sales, which is a big part of the ATF’s job, as the bureau is prohibited by law from establishing a centralized electronic database for gun purchases.
It’s necessary to note, however, that the ATF already does most of these things. Tracking down your identity, financial data, and finding connections between you and your kinfolk — your relatives, friends and business associates — is what criminal investigations are all about. And the bureau’s intelligence analysts already use a number of databases to help piece this information together.
But hunting through them for information that’s relevant and timely is a mind-numbing and time-consuming job. “Many of these tasks are performed manually,” the solicitation states, “resulting in longer turnaround times on important information and intelligence research and analysis requests.”
The bureau wants this new system to do all that gathering and research automatically. Which sounds like a good deal, in theory, allowing federal investigators to more easily bust criminals during a hot case. It could potentially give the investigators a lot more information than your sense of privacy may be comfortable with, or information not strictly relevant to a case. At the same time, the ATF is widely perceived as a weak, stagnant and underfunded agency. Even if it has a database that can track you down and find out who your friends are, it won’t necessarily be able to apply that to tracing gun transactions due to Congressional restrictions. If the agency finds a gun linked to a crime, and then traces the gun to someone who bought it from someone else, all of that work figuring out the who’s-who will still likely have to be done manually.
A follow-up document from the ATF clarifies a few things. The database will not “consolidate multiple databases” the ATF already has access to — like LexisNexis and Thomson Reuters. The bureau is seeking to buy an existing database system and not fund the development of a completely new one. And it has to be reliable and work all the time. That includes 24-hour tech support for agents pulling those coffee-fueled all-nighter investigations. It’s also not an anti-terrorism tool and isn’t intended to “quickly respond to problems, threats, etc.”
But putting the ATF’s problems with tracing guns aside, it could still help agents track you down a lot faster than they could before — along with finding out everything else about you.