USDA Spy Proposal: So Much for Privacy

(Publishers note: Gary Baise is a nationally recognized environmental attorney who was a key part of the initial leadership team when the Environmental Protection Agency came into existence.  He is a Virginia resident and the issues brought up in his columns are clearly of concern to all farmer, including those here in Virginia.)

Washington has been inundated with stories in the Washington Postregarding the General Services Administration spending $823,000 on a Las Vegas motivational meeting for federal workers. Meanwhile, USDA has a proposal to hire a contractor that would cost a lot more than $823,000. Earlier this year USDA had proposed setting up a spy network on animal agriculture!

The good news is that at on April 5, 2012, sanity prevailed as USDA posted an early morning notice, stating "This solicitation cancelled in its entirety."Congress is threatening to cut large parts of USDA's budget. After reading the 40-page Solicitation Contract Order, I have a perfect candidate for a significant cut and that is USDA's APHIS, MRPBS, ASD Contracting Team, Butler Square, 5thfloor, 100 N. Sixth St., Minneapolis, MN.This brilliant section of USDA put out a 40-page solicitation on February 17, 2012, looking for "internet data monitoring."

This is known as web crawling, or spying on you without your knowledge.The proposal "…has a requirement for a contractor to provide internet surveillance/mining for individuals that are conducting Animal Welfare Act or Horse Protection Act regulated activities domestically within the United States."USDA claims it is responsible for finding individuals who operate facilities that provide animals with care, treatment, housing, handling, sanitation, nutrition, water, veterinary care and making sure that all animal owners protect their animals from extreme weather and temperature.

USDA personnel in Minneapolis (who obviously have too much time on their hands) claim that USDA "…needs to monitor, collect and manage information from internet sites for regulated activities throughout the United States." The USDA Minneapolis team also believes, "we require the expertise of an industry that utilizes technological advancements that can search the broad universe of Internet sources for information on individuals that are conducting regulated activities."

The proposal goes on to declare that the contractor "…shall provide identification, categorization and analysis of Web sites to identify persons "suspected" of conducting regulated activities without the required license or registration or illegal activities involving horse shows, sales, exhibitions, or auctions."

The USDA Minneapolis team appears to want to spy on individuals or groups who engage in the sale of pets, animals used for research, teaching, testing, and experimentation. I assume all of the truckers in the country need to be monitored because they engage in "commercial transportation of animals." I am sure all of our small trucking companies will be delighted to know USDA believes they need to be spied upon.

Lest I forget, the proposed USDA contractor would also have to identify all persons that were suspected of illegal activities who were at animal auctions.

To determine all of these activities, USDA wants its contractor to focus on individuals and businesses who are engaged in "sale of animals used as pets." USDA was going to require its contractor to use data mining and search engine techniques to "…scan the entire Internet for businesses or individuals conducting…regulated activities without the required license or registration…"

More good news is that USDA ordered its proposed contractor to have a machine scan the Internet with search engine tools and not use a human being.

USDA wanted its proposed contractor to check all Global Domain Registrations, Social Networking Web Sites, Web Blogs, chat conversations, Message Boards, Public email groups and discussion forums and of course, check all auctions that appear on eBay.com and Yahoo.com. The contractor for USDA would provide search results for all of these U.S. domestic sites where regulated animals or activities are listed and if any individual or business purchases an animal, USDA wants to know.

In fact, USDA is so interested in what you are doing with animals it proposed to require a report on the 15th and 30th of each month. In that report the USDA wanted to know the owner's name, the owner's address, IP addresses, seller's name, seller's address, and "…other information as deemed appropriate…"

USDA APHIS ever mindful of possible legal problems with an enthusiastic contractor does declare "due to entrapment and possible legal issues the scope of this contract does not allow for the contractor to set up false sales…"

You get the picture. USDA obviously has too much money, too many employees and certainly not enough lawyers. This 40 page proposal is a truly astounding document and would appear to violate the Federal Privacy Act 5 USC 552 a.

Because it appears the USDA APHIS staff in Minneapolis has little or no regard for the Federal Privacy Act, I hope they will read the Privacy Act and note it requires that USDA "…maintain no record describing how any individual exercises rights guaranteed by the First Amendment." One final requirement of the Federal Privacy Act which may be of interest to the USDA spies is that the Federal Privacy Act requires USDA to "inform each individual whom it asks to provide information (a) the authority, (b) the principal purpose, (c) the routine uses, and (d) the effects of not providing it."

Maybe on April 5th a USDA adult read this USDA spy proposal and realized the consequences of this proposal ending up on the front page of the Washington Post!

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About Gary Baise:
Gary H. Baise is an Illinois farmer and trial attorney at the law firm Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Bode Matz PC. Specializing in ag and environmental issues, he also serves as outside General Counsel for the U.S. Grains Council, Agricultural Retailers Association, National Association of Wheat Growers, and National Sorghum Producers.

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