The Eyes Have It


With each new terror update, the tension between security and privacy grows tauter. It seems nuts, in this period of potential helicopter and limo hijackings, to say that government should not engage in every conceivable means of surveillance that might yield any information whatsoever about possible terrorist activity.

But the sticky aspect of life in this free country is, the government really isn’t supposed to do that. The feds face limits on how far they can snoop, because otherwise democracy starts to look like totalitarianism.

In a report released August 9, the American Civil Liberties Union makes the case for personal privacy to a public that is probably less panicked about data mining than about dirty bombs. (Indeed, the tone of the report is very “ACLU” and thus likely to put off or possibly confuse people who are not ardent card carriers. For example, one passage blown up in big print reads, “Law enforcement is increasingly forward-looking — trying not just to solve crimes but to anticipate and prevent them.” Somehow that doesn’t sound so horrible at the moment.)

But skeptics should check out the 131 footnotes, which mostly avoid editorializing and lay out some primary documents that are difficult to argue with.

The overall point of “The Surveillance-Industrial Complex”: Through increasing collaboration with the private sector, the federal government has vastly expanded its ability to pry into the lives of ordinary Americans. And an important subsidiary point: Probably more because of carelessness than malice, there is no knowing precisely where all this collected intelligence will end up, or how it might get used far down the line.

The report is mainly a compilation of existing news items and discoveries by other rights groups (like the Electronic Privacy Information Center). But by coalescing this material, the authors accentuate the scope of the increase in personal data probing — an expansion that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Some of the many interesting details:

  • InfraGard is “a partnership between the FBI and private corporations” aimed at encouraging information sharing between government and more than 10,000 profit-driven entities. “The list of participating companies is kept secret,” according to the report.
  • In the month following the 2001 terrorist attacks, nearly 200 colleges and universities turned over private information on their students to the FBI, most without being compelled by any legal requirement.
  • One particular Internet service provider received 16,000 subpoenas — orders to produce information — from law enforcement in 2002. ISPs, of course, maintain information on people’s surfing and chats.
  • The National Security Agency operates a program called “Novel Intelligence From Massive Data,” about which “little is known.”
  • Many aspects of the USA Patriot Act raise privacy concerns — as the ACLU has doggedly stressed — and the Bush administration has just as doggedly denied.

The sophistication of potential privacy invasion can seem overwhelming. But just learning about and forming an opinion on the issues is a major step in self-defense. For, as with all of the 9-11-related rights and liberties debates, the key question surrounding privacy is political, not technical.

After all, any law can be abused. And most people, lacking the time or paranoia, probably won’t go to the trouble of installing all the cookie busters, encryption tools, and firewalls necessary to keep out prying government eyes.