These days, the increasing amount of electronic data that is collected and stored, along with developments in software technology, make it easy for the government to sort through mounds of data quickly to profile individuals through their connections and activities.
Although the Privacy Act of 1974 prohibits the government from keeping dossiers on Americans unless they are the specific target of an investigation, the government circumvents the legislation by piggybacking on private-sector data collection.
Corporations are not subject to congressional oversight or Freedom of Information Act requests -- two methods for monitoring government activities and exposing abuses. And no laws prevent companies from voluntarily sharing most data with the government.
"The government is increasingly ... turning to private companies, which are not subject to the law, and buying or compelling the transfer of private data that it could not collect itself," the report states.
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.
By using corporations, the report said, the government can set up a system of "distributed surveillance" to create a bigger picture than it could create with its own limited resources and at the same time "insulate surveillance and information-handling practices from privacy laws or public scrutiny."
Most of the transactions people make are with the private sector, not the government. So the amount of data available through the private sector is much greater.
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.
And studies show that Americans trust corporations more than they trust their government, so they're more likely to give companies their information freely. A 2002 phone survey about a proposed national ID plan, conducted by Gartner, found respondents preferred private industry -- such as bank or credit card companies -- to administer a national ID system rather than the government.
Stanley said most people are unaware how information about them is passed on to government agencies and processed.
"People have a right to know just how information about them is being used and combined into a high-resolution picture of (their) life," Stanley said.
Although the Privacy Act attempted to put stops on government surveillance, Stanley said that its authors did not anticipate the explosion in private-sector data collection.
"It didn't anticipate the growth of data aggregators and the tremendous amount of information that they're able to put together on virtually everyone or the fact that the government could become customers of these companies," Stanley said.
Although the report focused primarily on the flow of data from corporations to the government, data flow actually goes both ways. The government has shared its watch lists with the private sector, opening the way for potential discrimination against customers who appear on the lists. Under section 314 of the Patriot Act, the government can submit a suspect list to financial institutions to see whether the institution has conducted transactions with any individuals or organizations on the list. But once the government shares the list, nothing prevents the institution from discriminating against individuals or organizations on the list.
After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the FBI circulated a watch list to corporations that contained hundreds of names of people the FBI was interested in talking to, although the people were not under investigation or wanted by the FBI. Companies were more than happy to check the list against the names of their customers. And if they used the list for other purposes, it's difficult to know. The report notes that there is no way to determine how many job applicants might have been denied work because their names appeared on the list.
"It turns companies into sheriff's deputies, responsible not just for feeding information to the government, but for actually enforcing the government's wishes, for example by effectively blacklisting anyone who has been labeled as a suspect under the government's less-than-rigorous procedures for identifying risks," the report states.
Last March, the Technology and Privacy Advisory Committee, created by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to examine government data mining, issued a report (PDF) stating that "rapid action is necessary" to establish clear guidelines for responsible government data mining.
The ACLU's Stanley said companies are in the initial stages of the Homeland Security gold rush to get government contracts, and that the public and Congress need to do something before policies and practices of private-sector surveillance solidify.
"Government security agencies always have a hunger for more and more information," said Stanley. "It's only natural. It makes it easier for law enforcement if they have access to as much info as they want. But it's crucial that policy makers and political leaders balance the needs of law enforcement and the value of privacy that Americans have always expected and enjoyed."
© Copyright 2004, Lycos, Inc
CAPPS II Data-Mining System
Will Invade Privacy and Create Government Blacklist of Americans, ACLU Warns
WASHINGTON -- A secretive new system for conducting background checks on all airline passengers threatens to create a bureaucratic machine for destroying Americans' privacy and a government blacklist that will harm innocent Americans, the ACLU said today.
The ACLU's warning came in response to statements by officials of the Transportation Security Agency that the Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-screening System II (CAPPS II) will be tested at several airports around the U.S. starting sometime in March.
"CAPPS II is based on the same concept as the Pentagon's 'Total Information Awareness' program, which proposed massive fishing expeditions through some of our most personally sensitive data," said Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Program.
"We are all concerned about airline security, but we must not let the unique needs in our airports give the government an opening to create the kind of Big Brother program that Americans rejected so resoundingly in the Pentagon."
At a news conference yesterday, the government said that under the program Americans will be labeled as a "green," "yellow" or "red" security risk.
The red code would be reserved for those on terrorist watch lists.
Far less clear is who would get a yellow code in their file; those passengers would be subject to extra-intensive security screening.
"This system threatens to create a permanent blacklisted underclass of Americans who cannot travel freely," said Katie Corrigan, an ACLU Legislative Counsel.
"Unfortunately, history suggests that the government will be capricious, unfair and politically biased in deciding who to stamp as suspect. Anyone could get caught up in this system, with no way to get out."
According to a January Federal Register notice containing some details of the program, a yellow code in a person's file could be shared with other government agencies at the federal, state and local level, with intelligence agencies such as the CIA and with foreign governments and international agencies - all of which could use those designations for many purposes, including employment decisions and the granting of government benefits.
"Despite the potentially serious consequences of being accused by your own government of being a security risk, CAPPS II would not allow innocent Americans to see the information that such a designation was based on, would not permit them a meaningful way to appeal, and would not reveal the criteria on which such judgments were based so they could avoid suspicion in the future," Corrigan said.
"In fact, individuals would not even have the right to confirm how they have been labeled."
The CAPPS program would collect information about individuals including "financial and transactional data," which could include credit card and other consumer-purchase data, housing information, communications records, health records and many other sources of information about us.
It would also make use of public source information such as law enforcement and legal records.
"Once the infrastructure for a system of government files and security ratings on American citizens is built, it won't be limited to air transportation for very long," said Steinhardt.
"Nothing like it has ever been done in this country."
Steinhardt cited as an example of the kind of thing that can happen the FBI's "Project Lookout," in which the agency gave corporations a list of hundreds of names of people it sought in connection with September 11. The list, which was riddled with inaccuracies and contained the names of many people the Bureau simply wanted to talk to, was widely circulated and took on a life of its own.
No one knows how many innocent people have been denied jobs or suffered other harm because of the list.
"CAPPS II threatens our liberty, but its security benefits are far from clear," said Steinhardt.
"It will leave security screeners at sea in an ocean of private data; some of that data will be fraudulent, and much of it just plain wrong.
Like TIA, CAPPS II is apparently based on the belief that you can find a needle in a haystack by adding more hay to the stack."
Mediocre times produce the very worst that the world has to offer:
Laden, Bush, Hussein, Sharon, and Blair. None but the feeble minded
inspiration from such a ghastly lineup of "leaders".
Turn Off TV and Turn On Quantum
Humanity's most valuable possessions are Clean Water, Clean air, and Trees