President Donald Trump has fought to ensure his own freedom from intrusion, acutely aware of what information could prove politically damaging, such as the release of his income tax returns.
But under the rubric of rolling back regulations or enforcing immigration laws, Trump has taken actions that critics say will erode privacy for U.S. citizens, along the country’s borders and in the privacy of their homes.
Among those actions, the administration has:
▪ Increased search and seizure of electronic devices carried by travelers entering the country, both U.S. citizens and foreigners.
▪ Moved to allow broadband providers to profit from the sale of data about the browsing habits of internet users.
▪ Tinkered with language in the 1974 Privacy Act to explicitly deny foreigners visiting the United States protection from surveillance.
The 2016 presidential campaign – during which, U.S. intelligence agencies concur, Russia hacked emails and steered perceptions with fake stories intended to favor Trump and harm opponent Hillary Clinton – only added to the public sense that privacy guarantees have ebbed.
Since the January inauguration, White House leaks and wiretapping allegations have caused more concern, even at the top of the government, where some Trump aides turned to Confide, a communications app with “military grade end-to-end encryption” that quickly deletes old chats.
Erosions of U.S. privacy have caused concern overseas as well.
The European Parliament passed a resolution in early April questioning the U.S. commitment to protecting the privacy rights of European citizens and businesses relying on trans-Atlantic data transfers. European concern flared amid demands by U.S. immigration agents that European and other travelers submit their electronic devices for search and even provide the passwords to their social media accounts.
For the six months before March 31, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection said, it searched the electronic devices of 14,993 arriving travelers, a nearly fourfold increase from the equivalent period two years earlier.
Outside experts say such demands, while only a fraction of the more than 1 million travelers arriving in the United States each day, are quickening.
“We think there’s an increase from that since the Trump administration took over,” said Chris Calabrese, vice president for policy at the Center for Democracy & Technology, a nonprofit group that advocates for an open and free internet.
While a majority of the searches are of foreigners, Calabrese said U.S. citizens had “very limited ability to say no.” He said Americans could not be kept out of the country for refusing such a search but they could be held for up to four hours: “For most Americans, that’s going to end up being that they turn over the contents of their phone.”
The government’s powers are at a maximum and an individual’s privacy rights are at a minimum at the borders.
Chris Calabrese of the Center for Democracy & Technology
“The government’s powers are at a maximum and an individual’s privacy rights are at a minimum at the borders,” he said.
Fulfilling a pledge to enforce immigration laws, Trump issued an executive order Jan. 25 that altered language in the 1974 Privacy Act to exclude foreigners visiting the U.S. – but not permanent residents – from privacy protections.
On April 3, in the action of the greatest concern to privacy activists, Trump signed a bill that repealed privacy rules barring broadband providers from gathering their clients’ web browsing histories and financial and health information, and selling it to marketers or others.
The Obama administration had approved the privacy measures last October.
Trump supporters portrayed the regulatory rollback as a way to put broadband providers on equal footing with internet companies like Google and Facebook, which already micro-target users with tailored advertising.
Some Silicon Valley high-tech honchos reacted with alarm, suggesting that internet users should begin using virtual private networks, which allow for encrypted communications.
“Time to start using a VPN at home,” Twitter’s general counsel, Vijaya Gadde, tweeted at the time.
Experts now say the measure’s impact goes far beyond advertising and could lead special interest groups and politicians to manipulate voters and allow the financial industry to prey on needier customers.
Even customer call centers might use data to discriminate among customers. “If they are considered a problematic or troubling customer, they may receive much worse service or have a really hard time getting a person on the phone,” Calabrese said.
At least two broadband giants, Verizon and Comcast, said they did not intend to sell customers’ personal browsing histories. Others had lobbied hard for the repeal and are likely to join with huge data brokers, which traffic in personal data scrubbed from court filings, tax and property records, birth certificates, telephone directories and myriad other sources to sell to marketers.
Data harvesting could help special interest lobbies and politicians target voters with accurate – and maybe creepy – precision, tailoring messages based on concrete indicators.
You take all this and put it together and it becomes very dangerous very fast.
James Scott, nonpartisan Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology
“You cut to the core of their psychology, what moves them, what makes them mad, what they are doing on their computer, how they are satisfying their intellectual curiosity. You take all this and put it together, and it becomes very dangerous very fast,” said James Scott, senior fellow at the nonpartisan Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology.
Analytics companies crunching data about large groups of people will provide digital fodder for those who want “surgically precise psychographic information,” Scott said.
Propaganda, or outright falsehoods, can be aimed at individuals.
“This is the new face of cyberwar,” Scott said. Special interest groups can target an audience “in a way that cuts to the core of the target’s psychological center. This is a very dangerous place to be. With the weaponization of social media and information, infused with the potent capabilities of psychographics, and the pure greed of industry, the lobby and politically motivated initiatives, our elections are up for grabs.”
Even as such techniques become more prevalent, key institutions lie dormant, such as the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent agency within the executive branch that attempts to ensure that anti-terrorism actions are in balance with the protection of liberties. The board only has one of its five seats filled, and essentially has ceased to function.
Discussion about privacy issues is likely to ramp up this year.
The legal authority for the use of what advocates call the “crown jewels” of U.S. surveillance methods expires at the end of the year, and Congress will debate renewing the authority.
The methods come under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows U.S. agencies to conduct electronic sweeps of foreigners, assumed to be outside the United States, for foreign intelligence purposes and without warrants. The phone calls and emails of U.S. citizens or residents can be intercepted only if they are “incidental” to the spying on foreigners.
Some Democrats and libertarian Republicans have pressed U.S. intelligence agencies to provide details of how widespread such “incidental” collection of U.S. citizens is, but the agencies have stalled.
Trump himself has added to the debate about the surveillance of Americans with a series of dawn tweets on March 4 in which he accused former President Barack Obama of “wiretapping” his offices in Trump Tower in New York “in October, just prior to Election!”
Some Republican lawmakers want debate on the reauthorization delayed until close to the end of the year then pushed through rapidly with little public discussion.
Calabrese called such a tactic “a dangerous game” for a key national security program.
“It lapses at the end of the year. They need to get it reauthorized. And playing a game of chicken with the program is probably not something that national security officials really want to do,” he said.