Privacy SOS

The FBI’s plan to destroy privacy

You’ve probably heard privacy advocates talk about how it isn’t just one set of data, or one surveillance technology, that we need to worry about, but rather the combination of them. When corporations and the government figure out how to seamlessly integrate our license plate records, cell phone location histories, education and health data, and biometric identifiers into one easily mapped dossier, the surveillance state will have reached its apotheosis—and privacy will be a relic of the pre-digital age.

The real-world application of a fully integrated surveillance state isn’t hard to conjure. If you think of the data we leave behind and that is created about us as thousands of puzzle pieces of different shapes and materials, the integration of all of that data would be a 3D recreation of our lives. The result is a digital hologram of our person, mapping out everything we do, everywhere we go, and everything we are from the moment we are born until the moment we die.

That sounds awfully futuristic and maybe even paranoid, but the basic puzzle pieces are already here, and many of them are already being assembled.
The FBI isn't afraid to publicly admit that “data aggregation” is a central goal at the bureau’s IT department. They have so much data, and they are daily acquiring more and more kinds, but they don’t yet know exactly how to process it. Enter "identity resolution" and "record linkage."

According to an internal power point presentation, the FBI’s Data Aggregation Working Group (DAWG) is working to build a Data Aggregation Reference Architecture (DARA) that will “[d]efine a reference architecture that enables entity resolution and data correlation, and disambiguation across multiple data aggregation investments.” The goal is to “[d]evelop a reference architecture to support a consistent approach to data discovery and entity resolution and data correlation across disparate datasets.”

The FBI calls this process “resolving identities.” At a basic level, it will enable “[t]he process of determining whether two or more references to real-world objects such as people (individuals), places, or things are referring to the same object or to different objects. This concept is sometimes referred to as Entity Correlation, Entity Disambiguation, or Record Linkage, and includes related concepts such as Identity Resolution.” It will also enable the creation of “identity maps”: “Complete enriched entity data that includes the linkage of
relationships between people, places, things, and characteristics of data resulting from an entity resolution process.”

Take a look at the image above to see the kinds of information the FBI hopes to integrate, to make “entity correlation” and “record linkage” possible in real time, across a range of platforms, using both commercial and government datasets.

Now imagine a world in which an FBI official sitting in a bunker in Virginia can type your name into a computer and receive in response a real time indication of your physical location, accompanied by live surveillance imagery of you walking to work beamed from a drone. The drone is equipped with a variety of biometric sensing technologies to enable rapid identification of a target even in a crowd of millions, making it so that every person stands out like a sore thumb, if someone is looking for them. The live video of you walking down the street is supplemented on the FBI agent's screen by every piece of digital information ever compiled on you by government or corporate entities, all crunched by algorithms and displayed in simple, interactive maps, charts, and graphs.

There’s next to nothing about you this FBI official will not know. And there are things he could rapidly discover that you yourself wouldn't know about your own circumstances. He might, for example, ask a simple query of the machine: “Does subject have any associates within a mile radius at present?” After combing through your phone records and the real-time location information of people in your network, married to the data coming from the surveillance drone, the computer would then highlight a number of people on the real-time image of the city street. The FBI official could zoom in on one of those people, walking two blocks behind you in the same direction. It’s your boss, also headed to work.

The future beckons. And it seems like only the FBI is prepared. Congress has yet to pass an update to an electronic privacy law signed in 1986, which to this day grants law enforcement the ability to read some of our emails without warrants. The federal legislative body apparently has no problem funding dystopian projects like "identity resolution" in every dark corner of the so-called "intelligence community." But our elected officials in Washington appear to be expending exactly zero effort to seriously advance 21st century digital privacy law.

The FBI is thinking big. If we don't, too, we'll live to regret it.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.