It’s no secret that the U.S. surveillance dragnet — grounded in claims of counterterrorism — has grown exponentially in recent years. According to a U.S. official familiar with the U.S.’s main counterterror database, the number of names on the list has jumped from 540,000 to 875,000 in only five years. The expanded list reflects what NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake told Salon was the government’s “hoarding” approach to counterterror. The CIA’s chief technical officer, Gus Hunt, seemed to admit as much earlier this year when he told a New York conference, “The value of any piece of information is only known when you can connect it with something else that arrives at a future point in time … Since you can’t connect dots you don’t have, it drives us into a mode of, we fundamentally try to collect everything and hang on to it forever.”
In line with this effort, databases of names and no-fly lists have expanded. As Reuters reports, the main counterterror database, TIDE, maintained by the National Counterterrorism Center, “is not a ‘watchlist’ but instead is a repository of information on people whom U.S. authorities see as known, suspected or potential terrorists from around the world.” Whether a more expanded list leads to greater security has been questioned by experts. Reuters noted:
The “Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment” is a master database which agencies use to build other catalogs of possible terrorists, like the “no-fly” list which prevents people who feature on it from boarding airplanes.
The official familiar with the latest statistics said that even though the number of TIDE entries has grown substantially, this does not mean that the data is less manageable as intelligence agencies have gotten better at figuring how to extract information from the oceans of data.
However, Karen Greenberg, an expert in counter-terrorism policy at Fordham University, questioned whether the growth in the database’s size made it easier for officials to spot threats before they materialize.
“What you want is more focus, not less focus. It can’t be just about quantity. It has to be about specificity,” she said.
The vast size of TIDE came into the spotlight in the wake of the bombing late last month of the Boston Marathon.
U.S. officials now acknowledge that Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s name was entered into TIDE by the CIA in the autumn of 2011 after the U.S. spy agency received a request from Russian authorities to investigate him for suspected radical Islamist activities.