WASHINGTON — Someone is watching you.
What you spend. Where you eat. Whom you call. Where you travel. What you Google. What you give to charity.
Recent reports of government access to records from phone companies, Internet providers and credit card companies raise anew questions of just how much other people can know about you, especially in the age of the Internet and high technology.
They watch from the air, from cameras, from computers. And you help them, volunteering vast amounts of information about yourself in the magnetic stripe on the back of your credit card, the SIM card in your phone, the sites you visit on the Internet.
The government has access to some of it. And might have access to more from the vast corporations that compile it.
U.S. officials insist they only tap into information that points at suspected terrorists and that there are plenty of safeguards to make sure they don’t snoop on good guys.
“I want the American people to know that we’re trying to be transparent here, protect civil liberties and privacy but also the security of this country,” Gen. Keith Alexander, head of the National Security Agency, told Congress on Wednesday.
He also acknowledged that the government could look at such things as phone records and what site someone Googled. All of it alarms civil libertarians.
“We don’t want to live in a world where anytime you do anything you have to stop and ask yourself, ‘Could this come back to hurt me if somebody found out about it?’ ” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Because absolutely nothing we do is private."
Indeed. Here are just some of the ways Americans can be watched.
A quick Google search for a lunch spot? There’s a record of that.
Arranging a vacation? Someone knows where you’re planning to go. Check in with Facebook? It tracks all the sites you visit that have “like” buttons or allow you to sign in with Facebook – pretty much all of them.
If those Internet giants can record so much about you, who can look at this electronic diary?
The government can access any emails, chats, searches, events, locations, videos, photos, log-ins and any information people post online with a warrant, which the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court can grant secretly.
And the revelation of Prism, a secret government program for mining major Internet companies, suggests the government could have direct access to Internet companies’ data without a warrant.
Every company reportedly impacted – Google, YouTube, Yahoo, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Skype, PalTalk and AOL – denied knowing about the program or giving any direct access to their servers.
The government also might be able to look at your email.
A warrant can grant access to email sent within 180 days. Older emails are available with an easier-to-get subpoena and prior notice.
Government officials also could read all the ingoing and outgoing emails on an account in real time with a specific type of wiretap warrant, which is granted with probable cause for specific crimes such as terrorism.
Google received 16,407 user data requests involving 31,072 users from the U.S. government in 2012. It granted about 90 percent of those requests.
Microsoft, with its Outlook/Hotmail email service, received 11,073 requests involving 24,565 users, at least partially granting 65 percent of those requests.
With the advent of smartphones and SIM cards, cellphones are no longer strictly for storage of digits and 180-character short messages.
We use cellphones to navigate road trips, buy vintage boots on eBay and watch the game when we’re stuck on the subway. We deposit checks with a bank app and a camera, find the closest happy hour and board a train with the flash of a QR-code. Phones hold our coupons, our favorite cat videos and functions as a credit card when we forget ours at home.
The NSA collects subscriber information from major cellphone carriers. This information is primarily based on metadata, such as location and duration of calls, along with numbers dialed, all in search of links to suspected terrorists.
In 2011, the last year with available information, law enforcement agencies made 1.3 million requests for subscriber information.
These government requests, both from 2011 and more recently from the NSA, are limited to metadata. That doesn’t mean that the content of conversations is off-limits. To listen in, the government just needs a warrant, one that’s granted through the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
The court approves almost every request, fully denying just nine out of 33,900 government applications for surveillance over its 33-year existence, according to Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act reports submitted to Congress.
The overwhelming rate stems in part because most requests go through an intense vetting process by department lawyers before ever going to the court, said Timothy Edgar, fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies.
By the time it gets in front of the court, he said, it’s nearly foolproof.
Think Uncle Sam knows where you buy your coffee? He might be able to tell you the exact cafe.
It all starts with that stripe on the back of your credit card, which gets swiped through thousands of readers every year.
That solid black bar is made up of millions of iron-based magnetic particles, each one 20-millionths of an inch wide. Each credit-card owner has a personalized strip full of intimate data sitting right inside his or her pocket. Any purchase can be traced directly back to your wallet.
And the NSA is doing just that, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Although the scope of credit-card tracking efforts are unknown, the Journal reported that the NSA has established relationships with credit card companies akin to those that they had established with phone carriers, which provide them with data under warrant, subpoena or court order. These former officials didn’t know if the efforts were ongoing.
What could they find? Based on the technology of the mag stripe, quite a bit.
Even with just the metadata – digitally contained bits of information – on a credit card, they could most likely see when and where a purchase was made, and how much it cost.
Whether they’re walking to work, withdrawing money from an ATM or walking into their favorite local grocer, Americans could be within sight of one of the United States’ estimated 30 million surveillance cameras.
Police use them to monitor streets, subways and public spaces. Homeowners put them on their houses. Businesses mount them in stores and on buildings.
In Boston, for example, the FBI used still photos and video pulled from cameras to identify suspects after the Boston Marathon bombing. The images showed the suspects making calls from their cellphones, carrying what the police say were bombs, and leaving the scene.
New high-tech, high-definition security camera manufacturers give police departments the options of thermal imaging, 360-degree fields of view and powerful zoom capabilities for identifying people. Advances in camera technology enable new ways to monitor American citizens.
Some states such as Colorado are using cameras as an alternative method of charging motorists toll fares. As a motorist drives through the toll lanes, motion-activated cameras capture an image of the license plate and the driver is billed.
Cameras are watching if you speed or run a red light, too.
Also, police departments in several metro areas began employing cameras to deter traffic infractions and raise revenue.
Libertarians and electronic privacy advocates oppose these methods, citing a lack of transparency in the use of the cameras and the retention of the data they collect.
If Americans are not within sight of a camera, they could soon be spotted from the air.
As many as 30,000 domestic drones will travel the skies above U.S. soil within 20 years, according to a report for Congress by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Gearing up, Congress has called on the FAA to integrate unmanned aircraft into the national air system even sooner, by 2015.
Already, the FAA has approved domestic drone use by 81 agencies, including schools, police departments and the Department of Homeland Security, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group of privacy advocates.
Among the applicants approved: the Arlington Police Department in Texas; California State University in Fresno; Canyon County Sheriff’s Office in Idaho; the city of Herington, Kan.; the Georgia Tech Research Institute; Kansas State University; the Miami-Dade Police Department in Florida; the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources; the Seattle Police Department; and the Universities of Alaska at Fairbanks, California-Davis and Florida.
In March, the American Civil Liberties Union addressed the dangers of domestic drones and warned of the surveillance capabilities of this technology. Although these drones range in size, most are able to hover tens of thousands of feet in the sky, collecting images of people on the ground below.
“Based on current trends – technology development, law enforcement interest, political and industry pressure, and the lack of legal safeguards – it is clear that drones pose a looming threat to Americans’ privacy,” the ACLU report argued.
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