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Customs Under Fire For Sweeping Scans Of Employees’ Personal Data

July 8, 2014 by  

WASHINGTON (MCT) — A troubled division of Customs and Border Protection whose leader was recently ousted by the Barack Obama Administration is now accused of improperly scrutinizing the personal information of the agency’s 60,000 employees for evidence of potential misconduct and corruption.

In one program, the agency’s internal affairs division shared employees’ Social Security numbers with the FBI, looking for possible criminal leads. The program is no longer operating and is under review by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, according to three Federal officials with knowledge of the inquiry.

In another effort, the division automatically scanned the Social Security numbers of all the agency’s employees in a Treasury Department financial records database, said the officials, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. The Treasury Department halted the daily monitoring in April over questions about whether it violated Federal policies.

The programs were inspired by the Obama Administration’s Insider Threat initiative, a governmentwide crackdown on security threats that relies on profiling Federal workers for certain behaviors.

While such data-sharing efforts didn’t appear to be illegal, they might infringe on the privacy rights of Federal employees.

“It is a legitimate question: Is it OK to just troll this kind of information for all federal employees?” said Chip Poncy, a former Treasury Department official who served with the George W. Bush and Obama Administrations.

“But it’s a hard call,” Poncy said of the bank records check. “There are privacy interests at stake. There’s a danger of going overboard. But there is a compelling public interest in attacking corruption, including by exploiting this kind of information in a systematic way.”

Kel McClanahan, a lawyer in Washington who handles lawsuits alleging privacy violations, said Customs and Border Protection’s actions were “pushing the legal envelope.”

“They’re overzealous and unwise.”

Initiatives that scrutinize all Federal employees continuously for certain indicators are comparable to a law enforcement agency conducting ongoing legal searches on a large group of people without concrete leads, he said.

“Law enforcement can look through the trash on your sidewalk. They don’t need reasonable suspicion for that,” McClanahan said. “These programs are the equivalent of collecting everyone’s trash in a two-square-mile radius looking for evidence of a crime that hasn’t occurred yet, just because you can do it.”

The controversies surrounding the data-sharing programs run by the agency’s internal affairs division add to a growing list of allegations against the embattled division.

The former division chief, James Tomsheck, was removed last month amid complaints that his unit had failed to complete investigations of alleged excessive force by border agents.

The division also is being investigated on suspicion of falsifying documents, intentionally misplacing employee complaints and bungling misconduct reports to mask its failure to curb employee wrongdoing, McClatchy reported last month.

Another internal affairs initiative, known as Operation Lie Busters, is also under review by the inspector general.

The operation sought to criminally prosecute instructors who taught Federal employees how to beat the polygraph tests required for security clearances. It was even more unorthodox because Federal investigators gathered the customer records of two men under investigation and distributed the list of 4,904 people — along with many of their Social Security numbers, addresses and professions — to nearly 30 Federal agencies. It turned out that many were not federal employees and had simply bought books on how to beat lie detector tests.

All three of the data-sharing efforts were internal affairs’ version of the Insider Threat program, which was intended to prevent leaks of classified material to the news media by Federal employees. However, catchall definitions of “insider threat” have given Federal agencies broad latitude to craft their programs to detect a broad range of possible threats to the U.S. government.

–Marisa Taylor
McClatchy Washington Bureau


(c)2014 McClatchy Washington Bureau

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