By Eric Boehm | Watchdog.org

HARRISBURG – One of the major concerns that libertarians and other small government types have about the growing surveillance state is not only that the government might have access to information that you wouldn’t want it to have (or that it did not obtain legally), but that once government has its hands on all kinds of personal information, there is no way of knowing who else might get it too.

I DID IT: It was him, right or wrong.  Edward Snowden told The Guardian last week that he was behind the NSA leaks.

The horse is already out of the barn on this one, to put it mildly.  In today’s digital world, there are thousands of government databases waiting to be hacked by would-be identity thieves – and, in many cases, they already have been hacked.

But Edward Snowden, the source of the recent leaks about the NSAs phone records tracking, shows that it doesn’t take a Hollywood-esque caper or a room full of super-hackers to steal supposedly-super-secure government data and post it all over the Internet.

By now it has been well reported that Snowden, a 29 year-old with a GED who worked for defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, had “top-secret” security clearance that allowed him to access the secure data right from the source.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is one of several elected officials to express surprise at how easily Snowden accessed the top secret information and to call for a review of the process by which such clearances are granted.

What has been less well-reported is just how many other people out there could do the exact same thing that Snowden did: swipe into a “secure” government facility, steal personal information on millions of Americans and walk right out the front door.

According to a 2012 report, more than 4 million people have security clearances at some level, while 1.4 million – including 483,000 government contractors like Snowden – have “top secret” security clearance.

To put it in perspective, 4 million is larger than the entire population of Puerto Rico, and the 483,000 contractors with “top secret” clearance would exceed the population of Atlanta.

HOW MANY GOVERNMENT CONTRACTORS HAVE “TOP SECRET” CLEARANCE? Enough to fill the entire city of Atlanta.

Do you trust that many people with your private, personal data?

But wait, there’s more.

As Mark Steyn at National Review points out, the federal government admits that it does not even know how many security clearances it granted during 2009.

So the same government that presumes the right to know my phone calls, my emails and my MasterCard purchases doesn’t know how many security clearances it issued in a given year.

The rationale given by defenders of this system over the last few days — oh, relax; there are over 300 million of us; the government doesn’t have time to comb through all the stuff it’s got on you — would seem to apply here: When 4 million people have security clearances, and another 1,800 people are getting new security clearances every day, the government doesn’t even have time to comb through them before it lets them comb through you.

Whether you think Snowden committed an act of valor or treason, we can all agree that he should not have been able to do the things he did while working under contract with the most secretive and (supposedly) secure government agency on the planet.

But he did.  Which means the same government that is tracking all our phone calls in the name of keeping us safe from terrorists cannot even keep its own top secret records safe from its own certified and credentialed contractors.

And as long as the government is collecting reams of personal information that can be so readily accessed, I’m more concerned that the next Edward Snowden will have more diabolical plans than exposing and embarrassing the NSA.

Boehm is a civil liberties reporter for Watchdog.org and bureau chief for PA Independent.  He can be reached at Eric@PAIndependent.com

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