Privacy SOS

Over 4.8 million people have security clearance in the US

Back in July 2010 The Washington Post warned us about the stealth creation of a sprawling, underground, billions of dollars rich shadow government: Top Secret America.

That report told us that 1,200 government agencies and 1,900 private companies were secretly overseeing mountains of our private data, largely out of public view and immune to serious scrutiny. We now know that the rules governing this shadow surveillance state are extremely unclear and in almost every case tip the scale in favor of more government access, increasing levels of government secrecy and ever less personal privacy.

Every once in a while we get to peek behind the curtain, if only for a moment. 

Today's revelation: According to the government's own figures, an astonishing 4.8 million people now have security clearance, granting them access to all kinds of private information about ordinary people in this country and around the world, largely in total secrecy.

More than 1.4 million people have Top Secret security clearance. For a point of reference, that's more than twice the population of the entire City of Boston. That doesn't seem so secret, does it?

These numbers are particularly shocking given the government's recent crackdowns on people who leak classified information. How does the government seriously think that it can effectively maintain secrecy amidst such a huge apparatus, populated by literally millions of people?

The state might not have reached Peak Secrecy yet, but it sure spends a lot of money trying to get there: $11 billion in 2011 alone.

It would be one thing if we could be certain that the huge numbers of security-cleared people in the US who have access to our most private data could be trusted. That's not the case.

Government employees and private contractors are human beings, after all — albeit human beings granted lots of power and privileges not afforded to the rest of us. There are people among them who break the law, abuse their authority and commit fraud. 

We usually don't hear about such cases of abuse, but occasionally there is a glitch in the matrix. CNN reports on FBI disciplinary files containing information about all sorts of unsavory agent conduct:

An FBI employee shared confidential information with his girlfriend, who was a news reporter, then later threatened to release a sex tape the two had made.
A supervisor watched pornographic videos in his office during work hours while "satisfying himself."
And an employee in a "leadership position" misused a government database to check on two friends who were exotic dancers and allowed them into an FBI office after hours.
These are among confidential summaries of FBI disciplinary reports obtained by CNN, which describe misconduct by agency supervisors, agents and other employees over the last three years.

We have no idea how pervasive is this kind of abuse. But we do know that secrecy is totally out of control and very expensive to maintain. Even the government admits that too much information is classified.

It's past time to pull back the curtain and begin to roll back the costly, privacy invasive, and secretive security state. What's the government got to hide?

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.