By Jessica Harvey February 25, 2015
The above image is the result of looking up 13 different government ran agencies on Google Maps.
Imagine for a second, a private place: the bedroom, car, backyard, or perhaps the office? How can one be absolutely certain a particular place is one hundred percent secure? Simply put, they cannot. Since the twin towers fell on 9/11, the “War on Terror” has rapidly progressed. Similar to “Big Brother” in George Orwell’s 1984, the U.S. Government has invaded every facet of privacy possible. From Law Enforcement, to the FBI, NSA, CIA, and beyond, countless federal agencies and private companies have invaded privacy with the use of technology. In addition to the infringement of civil rights, the data collected can and will be held against American citizens. After all, the central government determines what’s right and wrong—not the people (Binney). Of all the technology available, there are four major tools used to collect private data: Mobile phones, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), the Internet, and Video Surveillance.
As I previously mentioned, the government gathers information through hand-held devices such as mobile phones. As of 2006, the George W. Bush administration began tracking and storing all phone calls made within the United States (Dilanian). In addition to the “Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act” (FISA), the “Telephone Records and Privacy Protection Act of 2006,” confirms in section two article four that, “Telephone records have been obtained without the knowledge or consent of consumers. . .” Not only has the government gathered information via phone calls, but they also collect data from phone companies and “unauthorized Internet access to account data” (Telephone Records and Privacy Protection Act of 2006). After the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, Katherine Russell, the wife of Tamerlan Tsarnaev—one of the bombers—was held liable for a conversation she had over the phone with her husband before he died. In fact, former FBI counterterrorism agent—Tim Clemente admitted to Erin Burnett on CNN, “We certainly have ways in national security investigations to find out exactly what was said in that conversation” (Payton 187). Another method called “pretexting” is commonly taken advantage of by government agencies and spies. According to TechTarget.com, “Pretexting is a form of social engineering in which an individual lies to obtain privileged data” (Rouse). As a matter of fact, the very definition of pretexting suggest false motivation. In this case, the false motivation is called the “War on Terror.” Over two and a half years ago, a former federal contractor—Edward Snowden—released top secret documents from the FBI. One such document revealed the government’s alliance with Verizon to download and record all mobile communications (Payton 106). Moreover, the NSA uses a program called Dishfire to intercept with over 200 million text messages daily (Ball). The evidence is overwhelming and blatantly obvious: the government is storing phone calls regardless of whether or not they suspect suspicious behavior.
Another primary tool used for collecting data is the Global Positioning System (GPS). Geolocation tracking is an efficient way to keep tabs on the whereabouts of every U.S. citizen under the sun. Even if a smart phone’s GPS is supposedly turned off, preloaded applications such as the weather app, can send out signals that leave GPS fingerprints (Payton 98). Thus, a person’s location can be pinpointed through the pinging of cell towers. In a report conducted by Wired, they discovered that researchers can identify a target within four “data points” (Zetter). An Investigator can also use pen registers—a tool that tracks phone signals—to locate a target without a warrant or probable cause. Furthermore, they can simulate cellphone towers with stingrays, which “locate a phone even if it isn’t making a call” (Valentino-DeVries). With the advancement of GPS technology, one can easily determine an individual’s private affairs. As explained by the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C.:
A person who knows all of another's travels can deduce whether he is a weekly church goer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups — and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts (United States of America, Appellee v. Lawrence Maynard, Appellant 30).
Another means of geolocation tracking is through the GPS devices installed in cars. Though, it is debatable whether or not a warrant should always be required in order to track a car via GPS (Payton 135). According the Fourth Amendment, the protection against unlawful searches and seizures is a fundamental right. However, that hardly prevents Policemen and Investigators from using geolocation tracking without a warrant. While the Geolocational Privacy and Surveillance Act (H.R. 1312) was under consideration, ACLU’s Chris Calabrese stated,
Police routinely get people’s location information with little judicial oversight because Congress has never defined the appropriate checks and balances . . . Under the GPS Act, all that would change. Police would need to convince a judge that a person is likely engaging in criminal activity before accessing and monitoring someone’s location data. Innocent people shouldn’t have to sacrifice their privacy in order to have a cellphone (Zetter).
In certain cases, Law Enforcement will ignore the law entirely. For instance, in January of 2012, the FBI secretly attached a GPS tracker to a man’s car, then proceeded to track him for 28 days (DesMarais).
Outside of hand-held devices, desktop computers and other digital communications can be used to track people via the Internet. The World Wide Web plays a fundamental role in the invasion of privacy. Supposedly Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, and other online companies, have assisted the government in their PRISM program. At its core, “PRISM is a system the NSA uses to gain access to the private communications of users of nine popular Internet services” (Lee). Indeed, no social media platform is secure. In an article published by Computerworld, writer Jay Alabaster shared that, “The Library of Congress is now storing 500 million tweets per day as part of its efforts to build a Twitter archive, and has added a total of about 170 billion tweets to its collection” (Alabaster).
In addition to the NSA and Library of Congress taking advantage of the Internet, the FBI shares a similar interest in gathering online data. According to a CBS News report from 2001, the FBI uses a system called “Magic Lantern” to decrypt messages outside of encryption programs with keystroke-logging (FBI's Secret Cyber-Monitor). Stored information includes: Photos, videos, emails, social media communications, online purchases, government transactions (i.e. taxes), and traveler data (Payton 42). Every once in a while, federal judges meet for a special court gathering called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA court), in order to review millions of phone and Internet records. Generally, all the information discussed in the FISA court is kept confidential (Quigley). If our lack of privacy wasn’t infuriating enough, the NSA decided to create a program called XKeyscore—a program that files information from all internet sources. When an NSA official wants information about a particular person, they can access an unlimited amount of Internet data right at their fingertips. As a matter of fact, the NSA boast that XKeyscore is the “widest-reaching” system for collecting data from the internet (Greenwald).
The final means of collecting data is done through video surveillance technology. Currently, the most common type of video surveillance is through street cameras and license plate readers. In fact, policemen can take advantage of video cameras to “monitor people walking down a city street—or record the actions of people protesting at a demonstration” (Introduction to Are Privacy Rights Being Violated?: At Issue). Moreover, facial-recognition technology is already being used to identify citizens in real time, for security purposes. As the American Civil Liberties Union stated in their article, “National Security Tools Should Not Infringe on Civil Liberties”:
Government data mining is now being replicated in a variety of other programs at the federal, state, and local levels, to spy on Americans in virtually complete secrecy. So-called "suspicious activity reporting" programs, for example, maintain that innocuous and commonplace behavior like photography and note taking about public buildings could be preparation to conduct terrorist attacks, and that the government should collect and retain information about Americans who engage in these activities (American Civil Liberties Union).
How does the government identify these suspicious people? They record them using security lenses. If having street cameras on every corner wasn’t bad enough, the U.S. government decided that unmanned aerial drones should be patrolling the skies as well. These remote-controlled machines can be equipped with advanced features including (but not limited to): Heat sensors, motion detectors, and license plate readers (Boghosian). Furthermore, these drones possess high-tech cameras for spying on people walking public streets or residing on private property. In fact, a surveillance drone weighing less than an AA battery is already in the making (Healy). As author and attorney John W. Whitehead wrote, “In 2007, insect-like drones were seen hovering over political rallies in New York and Washington, seemingly spying on protesters.” He continues with an eyewitness’s report of the drones: “[They] looked kind of like dragonflies or little helicopters” (Whitehead). With technology that small, recording data in private places would be nearly effortless. According to a 2010 report from the Department of Defense, they plan to have drones patrolling the entire country by 2015 (The Monitoring of Our Phone Calls? Government Spooks May Be Listening). Since then, “Congress has provided the drone industry and law enforcement with $64 billion” (Boghosian). Imagine the implications of having thousands of domestic surveillance drones roaming America’s skies.