We already know that the government and private entities collect vast amounts of personal data about our everyday activities. In a previous article in Independent Living (a monthly newsletter available only to paid subscribers), we wrote about dangers and intrusion of private entities maintaining transactional databases and having access to this wealth of personal information.
It is also dangerous and intrusive for government entities to have access to this information without meeting the requirements for a search warrant. Critical to understanding why is knowing how it is collected and what they are doing with it.
How Governments Conduct Surveillance on Citizens
The Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) was enacted some years ago to provide law enforcement the ability to conduct surveillance on all types of activity, including electronic communications. This law requires providers of communications services to keep track of a wide range of data on phone calls, internet usage, and other financial and personal activity.
There are thousands of private entities which maintain detailed records of the transactions you make with them. Search engines keep track of the terms you search for, your credit card keeps track of all purchases and returns, your grocery store can keep track of the food you buy, and so on. In many cases the data that is collected is simply aggregated and does not immediately identify the individuals in the transactions. The volume of data collected permits the identity of individuals involved in isolated transactions to be identified, even if the data has been aggregated anonymously.
Government authorities will often request the aggregated data from these private companies. There are thousands of private entities that voluntarily produce this information. Others will wait for a court order like a warrant or a subpoena to produce any records. Fortunately Google, one of the largest collectors of personal information, generally does not voluntarily produce this data.
What Do Governments Do
with the Surveillance Information They Collect?
The collected information is often analyzed by law enforcement software to create profiles of individuals. Your Facebook page, purchasing habits, hobbies, and taste in movies along with other records can be carefully scrutinized and analyzed.
A combination of this information, surveillance cameras, facial recognition technology, emotional recognition technology, and other real-time access to information allows for incredibly detailed profiling of the public. Government entities can and do use the personal information they collect to map out social networks, identify behavioral tendencies, and identify potentially undesirable individuals. We can see the great potential for abuse of this information by those in power who might have a bias against someone’s political preference or business activity.
Technology Outpaces the Law
The Supreme Court decision in Smith v. Maryland permitted law enforcement to gather some kinds of data, in this case phone numbers dialed, without a warrant. The Court probably did not foresee how this kind of data could be used, when gathered in large quantities, to profile and identify individuals on a massive scale. Applying the principle of Smith to the modern era, the ability to use these technologies stretches the boundaries of what many people are comfortable with disclosing to others.
Historically there have been far fewer opportunities and a much higher cost to gather information about private personal activities. Only if you were suspected of a serious crime would there be sufficient resources allocated to your surveillance.
Now it is extremely cheap and requires little effort to gather information on you, so there is no less practical need to suspect you of a crime to perform detailed surveillance. The detailed analysis of your personal life, your private associations, your habits, hobbies, and traits are made possible by the powerful analysis of aggregated data collected from public and private agencies. Given the power to identify, profile and track individuals this data analysis capability has created, gathering this information is like conducting a warrantless search, which is contrary to the Constitutional protection against unreasonable searches of persons, papers, and effects by the government.
To avoid having such detailed profiling of yourself and others, make your financial transactions more anonymous, use anonymous web surfing tools, use anonymous telephone techniques, and share these tools with your friends and family. It is not even necessary to use these tools all the time to achieve a moderate level of privacy in some areas of your life.