Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Distributed Surveillance 

The Privacy Act of 1974 forbids the government to keep dossiers on American citizens unless they are the subject of a specific investigation. The Freedom of Information Act allows private citizens to monitor intrusive government activity. And of course civil-liberties groups are always there to pitch a bitch when some well-meaning patriot mentions our obvious, glaring need for a domestic spy agency. So how the heck are our guardian angels in the Bush administration supposed to collect the surveillance they need to weed out the subversives, rabble-rousers, homosexuals, and Democrats among us?

Since none of the above restictions applies to personal information gathered by corporations, the answer should be obvious. In fact, it's the obvious answer to almost any question our government ever thinks to ask: privatization!
The government is increasingly using corporations to do its surveillance work, allowing it to get around restrictions that protect the privacy and civil liberties of Americans, according to a report released Monday by the American Civil Liberties Union, an organization that works to protect civil liberties.

Data aggregators -- companies that aggregate information from numerous private and public databases -- and private companies that collect information about their customers are increasingly giving or selling data to the government to augment its surveillance capabilities and help it track the activities of people . . . .

The ACLU released the Surveillance-Industrial Complex report in conjunction with a new website designed to educate the public about how information collected from them is being used.

The report listed three ways in which government agencies obtain data from the private sector: by purchasing the data, by obtaining a court order or simply by asking for it. Corporations freely share information with government agencies because they don't want to appear to be unpatriotic, they hope to obtain future lucrative Homeland Security contracts with the government or they fear increased government scrutiny of their business practices if they don't share.

But corporations aren't the only ones giving private data to the government. In 2002, the Professional Association of Diving Instructors voluntarily gave the FBI the names and addresses of about 2 million people who had studied scuba diving in previous years. And a 2002 survey found that nearly 200 colleges and universities gave the FBI information about students. Most of these institutions provided the information voluntarily without having received a subpoena . . . .

A government proposal for a national ID card, for example, was shot down by civil liberties groups and Congress for being too intrusive and prone to abuse. And Congress voted to cancel funding for John Poindexter's Total Information Awareness, a national database that would have tracked citizens' private transactions such as Web surfing, bank deposits and withdrawals, doctor visits, travel itineraries and visa and passport applications.

But this hasn't stopped the government from achieving the same ends by buying similar data from private aggregators like Acxiom, ChoicePoint, Abacus and LexisNexis. According to the ACLU, ChoicePoint's million-dollar contracts with the Justice Department, Drug Enforcement Administration and other federal agencies let authorities tap into its billions of records to track the interests, lifestyles and activities of Americans . . . .

Every time people withdraw money from an ATM, buy books or CDs, fill prescriptions or rent cars, someone else, somewhere, is collecting information about them and their transactions. On its own, each bit of information says little about the person being tracked. But combined with health and insurance records, bank loans, divorce records, election contributions and political activities, corporations can create a detailed dossier.
If the name "ChoicePoint" rings a bell, this may be the bell it rings.

| | Technorati Links | to Del.icio.us