Your privacy as an American citizen is ending. The United States government at this point is assuming everyone is a terrorist until proven otherwise—and that is if you are even given the chance to prove your innocence once charged.
Attorney General Eric Holder just granted a secret government agreement to the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) that gives them the power to store complete dossiers on U.S. citizens—everyone—even if you are not suspected of committing a crime. And perhaps most disturbing, this new change will allow our information to be given to foreign governments for analysis. So, not only will the U.S. government be sifting through our files, foreign governments will be allowed to do the same thing as they look for clues on current cases and analyze whether innocent people may commit one in the future!
The NCTC can now copy entire government databases (such as flight records, casino employee lists, families who hosted foreign exchange students, financial forms, and VA health records) and store this data for up to five years. They can review it and analyze it for suspicious behavior—even if there is no reason to suspect criminal behavior.
No elected representative debated this. It was not voted on. The access was simply handed over to the NCTC by Holder after counterterrorism officials met in the White House Situation Room last March and insisted that a giant “dragnet” be created that would essentially eliminate your right to privacy. This broad move was mainly in response to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian underwear bomber. The NCTC, in the words of the Wall St. Journal, “spectacularly” dropped the ball on Abdulmutallab and these vast new powers are simply a way for them to save face and try to prevent something like that from happening in the future—at the expense of our Constitutional rights.
And, now, the same agency that couldn’t even analyze the data it had on the underwear bomber—a legitimate terrorist—is going to have access to loads of personal data on you, an innocent American citizen.
The NCTC could previously view this information if they suspected someone of being a terrorist. But now, they can search through your records whenever they want to—without cause. Our Fourth Amendment says that searches of “persons, houses, papers and effects” cannot be conducted without probable cause that a crime has been committed; but it doesn’t cover government records. And in this age of technology, this is becoming a larger issue.
In 2002 the Pentagon proposed its “Total Information Awareness” program that would analyze public and private databases for terror clues. After an enormous uproar by the public, Congress defunded the program.
This latest NCTC change was allowed to go through because it was debated quietly within the White House, out of our earshot. The Federal Privacy Act allows agencies to exempt themselves from requirements simply by placing a notice in the Federal Register and then, says Robert Gellman, privacy consultant, “you can do whatever you want.”
Almost everything we do is traceable, searchable, and digitized. And the more information we put “on the grid,” the more government agencies and law enforcement are demanding that they have unlimited access to it. The Wall St. Journal is doing an investigation of our privacy losses and says that “As surveillance technologies decline in cost and grow in sophistication, tracking of many aspects of our daily activities, even the seemingly mundane, has become the default rather than the exception.”
The government is creeping into your household:
TEXT MESSAGES – Law enforcement groups and the Justice Department want wireless companies to retain your text messages for at least two years…so they can access that information later, if they so choose.
LICENSE PLATE DATA – Law enforcement is fighting to obtain a “trackable” database of your license plate information.
EMAILS – The Justice Department argues that they have the right to read your emails that are more than 180 days old without a warrant.
VEHICLE BLACK BOXES – The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is expected to propose regulations requiring auto manufacturers to include event data recorders in all new cars and light trucks, without limits on how the information can be used, and with no opt-out for the car owner.
The argument is that without access to this information, investigations could be hindered. That is the claim law enforcement made when arguing for text retention; and that is the same argument they gave when they put pressure on Senator Patrick Leahy to waive requiring a warrant before reading your emails. It is also the reason they gave when they successfully convinced the Justice Department that our cell phone data could be tracked because, American citizens have “no privacy interest” in that realm.
It is not the government business to decide whether or not we have a “privacy interest” with regard to our personal data. Clearly, with the rapid development of new technology, privacy is something that needs to be looked at, carefully. And we need to stay on top of government making sweeping rules that change our privacy protections.
Right now Congress is considering an update to the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, written before we had such things as cell phones cloud computing. A coalition of groups is fighting for a rewording of the law to address the freedom and privacy of all citizens, while law enforcement is fighting to keep this information completely accessible to them at any time. The petition to Congress urging them to defend our rights reads:
The government should be required to go to a judge and get a warrant before it can read our email, access private photographs and documents we store online, or track our location using our mobile phones. Please support legislation that would update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA) to require warrants for this sensitive information and to require the government to report publicly on the use of its surveillance powers.
Please help us support this petition and encourage Congress to defend our rights. Speaking out against privacy intrusions works. Last week, the Senate Judiciary passed Sen. Al Franken’s (D-MN) Location Privacy Protection Act, which requires companies to get a customer’s consent before collecting or sharing mobile location data.
We are guaranteed privacy, and we are guaranteed due process. Members of Congress, the President of the United States, Attorney General Eric Holder and employees of all government agencies need to abide by the Constitution.
We, the People can make sure they do by staying on top of the debates our representatives are having about the accessibility and openness of our personal information, especially as these questions relate to our Constitutional rights.