Privacy SOS
I don't have anything to hide. Why should I care?

Not concerned about your privacy? Great! Please email me all of your passwords, especially your banking and email passwords, and drop a copy of your home and car keys in the mail to me. You can find my contact info here.

Seriously, there are literally thousands of reasons to be concerned about your right to privacy, not least among them the fact that independent thought and freedom from fear of the government are critical components of democratic societies.

Maybe you are in the majority in this country: you aren't from a religious, ethnic or sexual minority group, and you don't mind if the government spies on those folks. Maybe you aren't interested in politics and you don't care if the government spies on political dissidents. But have you ever done something you'd rather keep to yourself? Have you ever told a “white lie,” maybe to your parents, to your spouse, to your boss, to your kids? Do you have any odd habits? Have you ever omitted a part of your story when discussing your life with someone important to you? Are there some things you think are your business, personal details you'd rather not share with the world at large?

Do you have any ambition to get ahead in your field? To serve the public as an elected representative? To be promoted at your job? To get another degree?

Do you use a mobile phone? A computer? Do you email personal information about yourself? Do you have a credit card? Do you drive a car?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you have a huge stake in fighting to take back your privacy. As it stands now, over 800,000 people in this country have “top secret” security clearance, granting them access to troves of personal information about you and every other person in this country. Nearly five million have security clearances. Blackmail has always been dirty business, but with the advent of computer technology making it easier to store than delete data, it has the potential to get much worse.

But I trust the government and those people who have access to my data. Surely they are trust-worthy?

You might have supported the Bush administration, and so you didn't flinch when he pushed the USA PATRIOT Act through Congress. After all, you trusted him. Or maybe you were outraged about that, and didn't trust Mr. Bush at all. But now that Barack Obama is President, you breathe a sigh of relief, thinking the worst is over. 

Unfortunately, the power grabs initiated by the Bush administration have not been reversed by the Obama administration, which is fully committed to expanding the surveillance state. The attacks on our privacy and civil liberties have grown ever more damaging and pervasive. But why? Governments seek power, no matter who holds the reins. That means it is up to us, the people, to fight to balance the government's quest for power with our power, the power of ordinary people.

You might think that it's ok for the government to collect massive amounts of information about your  private life, even without warrants. After all, you aren't a terrorist or an enemy of the state, so why should you worry?

As a former East German Stasi official told McClatchy newspaper:

“It is the height of naiveté to think that once collected this information won’t be used,” he said. “This is the nature of secret government organizations. The only way to protect the people’s privacy is not to allow the government to collect their information in the first place.
Putting vast surveillance powers in the hands of any government is dangerous. Even if you trust both Bush and Obama, can you be sure that the next administration will use its nearly limitless surveillance powers in a way you approve of? What has been built, no government will want to dismantle.
Just imagine if a dictator seized power and with it the innumerable databases, surveillance camera networks, surveillance “fusion centers,” and military weapons currently available to our leaders. Today's enemy is terrorism. What if tomorrow's enemy is the poor, or people who have donated to Planned Parenthood? What if ACLU members are made targets of a future regime?

The best defense against tyrannical abuse of power in the future is to regain our liberties now. (And if you aren't experiencing negative impacts from today's surveillance state, count yourself among the privileged. Plenty of people are already feeling it.)

Unfortunately, we live in a dangerous world. Don't we need to trade some liberty in order to get security?

No. To explain, let's listen to renowned computer security expert Bruce Schneier, because his answer hits all the important notes:

Security and privacy are not opposite ends of a seesaw; you don't have to accept less of one to get more of the other. Think of a door lock, a burglar alarm and a tall fence. Think of guns, anti-counterfeiting measures on currency and that dumb liquid ban at airports. Security affects privacy only when it's based on identity, and there are limitations to that sort of approach.

Since 9/11, two — or maybe three — things have potentially improved airline security: reinforcing the cockpit doors, passengers realizing they have to fight back and — possibly — sky marshals. Everything else — all the security measures that affect privacy — is just security theater and a waste of effort.

By the same token, many of the anti-privacy “security” measures we're seeing — national ID cards,warrantless eavesdropping, massive data mining and so on — do little to improve, and in some cases harm, security. And government claims of their success are either wrong, or against fake threats.

The debate isn't security versus privacy. It's liberty versus control.

As Schneier observes, people who work for the government or in the terrorism-security-industrial complex are quick to set up a false dichotomy pitting security against liberty. But as he and others have clearly demonstrated, the opposite is true: the more liberties we enjoy, the safer we will be

Don't be fooled: you don't need to give up your fundamental liberties to protect yourself.

Ok, ok, but computers are really smart now. Don't they know how to tell the difference between dangerous people and ordinary people like me?

“Technology will save us”? Manufacturers of fancy homeland security computer software and technologies would have us believe that if we just had another application, piece of expensive hardware, or data-mining algorithm, we could once and for all separate the truly dangerous among us from those of us who are just trying to go about our business. But that simply isn't true. In fact, many of these technologies are the problem: they invade our privacy while simultaneously distracting police from real investigative work that might actually stop terrorists and other criminals from doing harm.

Think about it like this: ordinary people who aren't committing crimes don't work to cover up or make untraceable their digital footprint in the world. The people who work really hard to stay under the radar of our surveillance schema are those people at whom the systems are allegedly directed. See the paradox? Therefore the most likely result of all the databases, information gathering, spying and electronic surveillance is that wide-ranging dossiers on ordinary people can easily be constructed. The dangerous people? Well, they aren't necessarily in those systems because they spend all day every day figuring out how to avoid getting caught in the surveillance net! 

The computer technology “solutions” are more about social control than security.

And that's to say nothing of the mistakes. Part of the danger involved in data-mining without oversight is that errors in the system don't get corrected; instead they get passed around to every conceivable government organization. The following clip from Terry Gilliam's fabulous 1986 film “Brazil” shows what kind of horrible things can happen when people are misidentified in computer systems. This example might seem extreme to you, but remember: the National Counter Terrorism Center, the same organization that collects and sorts through troves of information about all of us, also helps to select targets for the President's Kill List.

Please note that by playing this clip You Tube and Google will place a long-term cookie on your computer.

Why do you keep saying that “traditional police work” will solve the problem? Terrorists aren't traditional opponents, so we need these extreme powers to fight them.

There are many problems with this argument. First, the 9/11 terrorists could and should have been stopped by traditional police and intelligence work. The problem wasn't that agencies didn't have the right information; the problem was that they didn't do the right detective work. Second, law enforcement mostly uses their broad new powers and technologies to spy on and disrupt drug activity, not terrorism. Check out this graph, showing that the overwhelming percentage of government wiretaps are used in narcotics investigations:

In 2012, a full 87% of wiretaps authorized nationwide were for drug cases. The drug war is the main driver of the surveillance state in the US, and the powers the government gave itself after 9/11 are being used to go after drug dealers, too.

In 2009, former Senator from Wisconsin Russ Feingold pointed out that powers granted law enforcement under the so-called USA PATRIOT Act, called “sneak and peeks”, were used 65 percent of the time in drug cases. Out of 763 total sneak and peeks, only three were terrorism related. Yet we were told we had to sacrifice our rights to privacy under the Fourth Amendment because of a terrorist threat!

Please note that by playing this clip You Tube and Google will place a long-term cookie on your computer. 

As we explore in depth in other parts of this website, traditional police work is the key to investigating and stopping criminals, terrorism related or not. As former FBI agent Mike German has said, making it easier for the FBI to spy on people actually harms agents' ability to find the truly dangerous among us. While the “reasonable suspicion” requirement was added to FBI procedure to remedy extreme intelligence abuses during the COINTELPRO era, it has the dual effect of making agents them better investigators.

Having a reasonable suspicion that a surveillance target is up to no good before a police officer or FBI agent starts spying on them will make us safer, because it focuses resources where they should be. When agents are only allowed to spy on those against whom there is evidence of wrongdoing, they eliminate so much time wasting investigation into people who probably aren't involved in criminal activity.

Investigating terrorist crimes is no different. We must reestablish the reasonable suspicion requirement as the law of the land. Unfortunately, the dangerous precedent set by the Bush administration is being solidified as the other party, the Democrats, assent to and expand the surveillance state. It's up to us, ordinary people, to fight back.

© 2024 ACLU of Massachusetts.