How the government can monitor U.S. citizens
Just what tools do American governments—federal, state, and local—have to monitor U.S. citizens? There are other such lists online, but I couldn’t find one that struck me as being quite complete. This list omits strictly criminal tracking, because while criminals are citizens, actual crime obviously needs to be tracked.
- First, there’s what you yourself reveal: the government can use whatever information you yourself put into the public domain. For some of us (like me), that’s a heck of a lot of information.
- Government also tries to force tech companies to reveal our personal information, ostensibly to catch terrorists and criminals. The FBI and NSA have both been in the news about this.
- The NSA famously tracks our email and phone calls. They might be looking for terrorism and crime, but we’re caught in the net too.
- The IRS, obviously, tracks your income, business information, and much else. That certainly qualifies as government monitoring.
- State, local, and school district tax systems do the same.
- The FBI’s NSAC (National Security Branch Analysis Center) has hundreds of millions of records about U.S. citizens, many perfectly law-abiding.
- The State Dept., Homeland Security, and others contribute to systems that include biometric information on some 126 million citizens—that means fingerprints, photos, and other biographical information.
- For a small number of citizens—740,000 to 10 million, depending on the system—there is a lot more information available, not just because the people are actual or terrorists or criminals, but only because they are suspected of such activity. If someone in government with the authority thinks you fall into broad categories that make you possibly dangerous, they can start collecting a heck of a lot more information about you.
- The Census Bureau tracks our basic demographic information every ten years.
- U.S. school students in at least 41 states are tracked by Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems, including demographics, enrollment status, test scores, preparedness for college, etc.
- Many and various public cameras, including license plate readers, are used by many local authorities, mainly for crime prevention.
- Monitoring by police will be easier in the near future: As an expert on the subject, law professor Bill Quigley, puts it, “Soon, police everywhere will be equipped with handheld devices to collect fingerprint, face, iris and even DNA information on the spot and have it instantly sent to national databases for comparison and storage.”
- The internet of things will be another avenue in which government will increasingly be able to view our habits.
So…explain to me again how we have a right to privacy under the Fourth Amendment.
By the way, it is a conceptual mistake to suppose that there is any one person or group of people who have access to (and care about) the information in all of these databases. How the databases are used is carefully circumscribed by law, obviously, and just because the information is in a database, it doesn’t follow that there has been a privacy violation. But it does raise concerns in the aggregate: the extent to which we are monitored might be a problem even if most programs are individually constitutionally justifiable.
In short, is there any point at which we say “enough is enough”? Or do we grudgingly give government technical access into every area of our lives and hope that the law controls how the information is being used?
In the comments, please let me know what I’ve missed and I can do updates.
About the author
I call myself an "Internet Knowledge Organizer." I started Wikipedia.org, Citizendium.org, WatchKnowLearn.org, ReadingBear.org, and Infobitt. I write about education and the Internet from a broadly philosophical point of view.