In November, the Washington Post reported that President Obamaâ€™s nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration had been censured for misusing government database information for personal reasons. At the time, we learned that when he was an FBI agent in 1988, Erroll Southers â€œasked a co-workerâ€™s husband who worked for the San Diego Police Department to run a background check on his ex-wifeâ€™s boyfriend.â€ Southers admitted “it was a mistake” and said it was an isolated incident that was not repeated.
Now, the Post reports that, in a letter to senators dated Nov. 20 (a day after the Senate Homeland Security committee approved his nomination), Southers wrote “saying his first account was incorrect. After reviewing documents, he wrote, he recalled that he had twice conducted the database searches himself, downloaded confidential law enforcement records about his wife’s boyfriend and passed information on to the police department employee.”
In his letter, Southers said he simply forgot the circumstances of the searches, which occurred in 1987 and 1988 after he grew worried about his wife and their son, who had begun living with the boyfriend. The letter said: “During a period of great personal turmoil, I made a serious error in judgment by using my official position with the FBI to resolve a personal problem.” He did not specify the data system he accessed.
The Post also looked at the debate over traveler privacy and security.
Americans seem willing to trade information for more security, but only if there are clear limits on how the information is being used. Several ambitious security programs, including one for aviation screening called CAPPS II (Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-screening System), were sharply curtailed when passengers and Congress concluded that the databases were too intrusive and not properly overseen. The same thing could happen now, after the attempted bombing on Christmas Day, if travelers lose faith in the TSA’s ability to protect information about them, said Michael German, policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union and a former FBI special agent.
“They’re saying we have to do it harder and more,” German said about the push now for more data surveillance. “The government can only succeed if they have the confidence and support of the American people. Once that confidence is diminished, the government will be in a much tougher position.”
There have been numerous cases where insiders have been accused of or found to be abusing their access to data to violate individual privacy. Other cases include: a former police dispatcher in Illinois misused â€œa police database for personal reasons â€” including checking up on the suitor of his girlfriendâ€™s daughterâ€; five IRS workers in California were charged with illegally viewing the tax records of 13 people; a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer gave confidential police data to a member of a motorcycle gang; and Metro employees in Las Vegas were found “to be improperly accessing and disseminating criminal history information for reasons unrelated to police work.”
For more on law enforcement officials abusing their insider access to government databases to violate individual privacy, see my previous post on Southers.