Because of a typo, the government needs to keep your private data 10 times longer?

Yesterday the Obama administration approved new rules to greatly extend the time – from 180 days to 1,826 days (5 years) – that domestic intelligence services can retain American citizens’ private information. Citizens are eligible to be part of this federal data warehouse even when “there is no suspicion that they are tied to terrorism.”

As Charlie Savage in the New York Times reports:

Intelligence officials on Thursday said the new rules have been under development for about 18 months, and grew out of reviews launched after the failure to connect the dots about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “underwear bomber,” before his Dec. 25, 2009, attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound airliner.

After the failed attack, government agencies discovered they had intercepted communications by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and received a report from a United States Consulate in Nigeria that could have identified the attacker, if the information had been compiled ahead of time.

The case of the “underwear bomber” is a strange justification for this expansion of data storage. Because the 2009 Christmas terror attempt nearly succeeded thanks to a series of what seems like common human errors, not from an information drought.

Shortly after the underwear bomber incident, the White House released a report examining how our vast intelligence network failed to prevent Abdulmutallab, the bomber, from boarding a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

One of the critical failures? Someone at the State Department, when sending information about Abdulmutallab to the National Counterterrorism Center, misspelled his name. Even though his father alerted American intelligence officials a full month before the attempted attack, our sophisticated surveillance system was partially stymied by a single misplaced letter.

As Foreign Policy reported in 2010:

State called an impromptu press briefing late Thursday evening to address the issue. The tone of the briefing was combative, as reporters pressed the “senior administration official” for details about the misspelling that he seemed not to want to give up. But here’s what we learned.

Someone (they won’t say who) at the State Department (presumably at the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria) did check to see if Abdulmutallab had a visa (they won’t say exactly when). That person was working off the Visas Viper cable originally sent from the embassy to the NCTC, which had the name wrong.

“There was a dropped letter in that — there was a misspelling,” the official said. “They checked the system. It didn’t come back positive. And so for a while, no one knew that this person had a visa.” (They won’t say for how long)

The chain of failures is more complicated than that, but the fact that a typo was a big enough of a wrench to warrant special mention in the White House review is an indication that the government’s surveillance systems, despite the work of its data architects, engineers and scientists, were compromised by some pretty banal problems, like not having spell-check capability.

In fact, the White House report goes out of its way to assert that the information-sharing problems that failed to prevent the 9/11 attacks “have now, 8 years later, largely been overcome.” Information about Abdulmutallab (again, his own father met with U.S. officials to warn them of his son a month ahead of the attack), his association with Al Qaeda, and Al Qaeda’s attack planning, “was available to all-source analysts at the CIA and the NCTC prior to the attempted attack.”

In other words, the 9/11 attack was possible because government agencies wouldn’t share information with each other. Now, they are happily sharing information with each other, they just aren’t diligently looking at it.

So the best solution is to enact a ten-fold increase the legal time limit for storing American citizens’ data?

It sounds like the government’s ability to detect terrorists would be greatly improved with better user-friendly software and adherence to data-handling standards. The ability to catch slight misspellings and do fuzzy data matches is something that Facebook and Google users have enjoyed for years; hell, the basic concept and consumer-friendly implementation has been around in Microsoft Word since about 20 years ago. Have software overhauls been enacted before deciding that the government needs more of its citizens’ private information? Or does the review of such technical details and policies seem too unsexy and pedantic for our intelligence bureaucracy?

The Times article also mentions that the guidelines call for more duplication of entire databases…which is a bit confusing. I’m assuming that this doesn’t refer to making backup copies (in case of a hard drive failure), but to a method of data-sharing between analysts. This is how the Times describes it:

The guidelines are also expected to result in the center making more copies of entire databases and “data mining them” using complex algorithms to search for patterns that could indicate a threat.

Hopefully, this doesn’t mean that database files are being copied and passed around so that each department can have their own copy of another department’s data. This would seem to introduce a few major logistical issues: namely, how do you know the copy you have contains the latest data? Remember that the typo in Abdulmutallab’s name was one mistake that helped spawn a series of snafus. Are we going to have an incident in which a terrorist slips through because an analyst forgot to update his/her copy of a database before mining it? Also, there’s the possibility that some of these data copies might end up lying around long after their 5-year limit.

There have been several reports of how intelligence agencies now suffer from too much data, to the point where analysts are “drowning in the data.” If this is a reason cited for how an attack went unprevented in the future, I hope the proposed reform is not “more data.”

I'm a programmer, data journalist, and photographer in New York City. I'm the author of three in-progress books: The Bastards Books of Ruby, Photography, and Regular Expressions.