5 Ways the Government Is Watching You

Smile, Philly, you're being scanned.

On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Departments of Justice and Homeland Security alleging that the agencies are dragging their feet over a formal request for information about what happens to data captured by automatic license plate readers. For those of you who may be hearing this term for the first time, ALPRs are cameras that are used by cops and other law enforcement agencies to capture and identify images of license plates on moving vehicles.

The devices—which can be attached to police cars, telephone poles, road signs and underpasses—have the ability to read and process up to 1,800 license plates per minute, scanning databases for stolen vehicles, wanted persons, expired registrations and arrest warrants, among other things. They also happen to be notoriously unregulated—only two states, Maine and New Hampshire, have passed legislation restricting their use—which makes them highly susceptible to abuse.

According to the ACLU:

“When this information is retained—sometimes indefinitely—and pooled, ALPRs raise the prospect of pervasive and prolonged surveillance of Americans’ movements, a problem that is exacerbated when law enforcement agencies retain data about people not suspected of wrongdoing.”

Unfortunately, ALPRs are not an isolated case of government intrusion; instead they are just one prong of a multifaceted campaign of public spying known as “Total Information Awareness,” or TIA for short. TIA, which was inaugurated after  9/11 by George W. Bush, was ostensibly defunded under pressure in 2003; but you wouldn’t know that from the reams of data that continue to flood into government databases from an alphabet soup of obscure and shadowy programs. In March, the Obama administration made it even easier for agencies to track, collect and store information on civilians when Attorney General Eric Holder issued new guidelines for the National Counterterrorism Center.

The government is now accumulating so much information on U.S. citizens that it is building a massive data center in Utah just to handle it all. (It’s been reported that the center will be capable of managing 20 terabytes of data every minute and will cost $40 million a year just to power).

All of this begs the obvious question: Just who are they planning to watch? According to U.S. intelligence sources quoted by the journalist James Bamford in an extensive article on TIA that ran in the March 2012 issue of Wired, a better question would be: Who aren’t they planning to watch?

Here are four other ways your government is potentially prying into your life:

Backscatter Vans
You know that machine you’re forced to walk through every time you board a flight these days? The one that blasts you with ionizing radiation and peeps under your clothes to see if you’re carrying a weapon or something else from the endless list of items you can no longer carry on an aircraft? Well guess who else is using them. The company that makes the machines, American Science & Engineering, also manufactures a mobile unit housed in a van and has reportedly sold hundreds of their Z Backscatter Vans, or ZBVs, to foreign and domestic law enforcement agencies. Police right here in the U.S. have been using them to peek into cars and trucks for contraband goods, illegal aliens, car bombs and whatever else they happen to see. 

Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV)
Walk down a busy street in most major cities these days and chances are there is a low-paid public employee sitting in a windowless room somewhere drinking cold coffee and scanning your mug on a panel of flashing closed-circuit television monitors. These things are literally everywhere. In the United Kingdom, which began pioneering the use of CCTV to much controversy in the 1990s, there are at least two million cameras glaring down on the public at any given time (although some people say the number is much higher than that). According to one tally, 40 percent of publicly accessible spaces in London are now monitored by surveillance cameras. Some of them even allow dispatchers to interact with pedestrians, scolding litterers and telling loitering teens to “keep it moving.” To date, thousands of CCTV cameras have been deployed in high-crime (and not so high-crime) areas across the U.S.  In Philadelphia, there are more than 200 cameras operational on street corners across the city.

“Advanced biometrics” refers to technologies that are designed to identify humans based on physical characteristics or specific traits—ranging from the shape of your face to the way you walk down the street. An Alabama company called Idair has even developed a device that can remotely read a fingerprint from up to six meters away, presumably without a target’s knowledge. Law enforcement agencies are champing at the bit to begin putting these technologies to use, and some already have. The Federal Bureau of Investigation recently rolled out a new $1 billion biometric Next Generation Identification (NGI) system—a massive database that will house iris scans, palm prints, measures of gait and voice recordings alongside records of fingerprints, scars and tattoos. The database already holds 13 million facial photos in its Universal Face Workstation, according to John W. Whitehead, an attorney with The Rutherford Institute.

Your Cellphone
Perhaps the most commonly used government surveillance tool is the one we voluntarily carry around in our pockets.  According to the New York Times, there has been “an explosion in cellphone surveillance in the last five years.” In 2011, mobile carriers processed 1.3 million requests from law enforcement for information on customer phone use—including so-called “cell tower dumps” that disclose every call made or received during a specified time frame through a particular cell site. This amounts to thousands of records a day, some of which—like those that simply record incoming and outgoing phone numbers—do not even require probable cause to capture. Those of us who use smartphones have the added bonus of being susceptible to warrantless GPS tracking as well—a practice that was recently upheld by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

If all this scares you (and it definitely should), the Electronic Frontier Foundation offers a tutorial on “surveillance self-defense” that can help you prevent—or at least disrupt—police and government efforts to invade your privacy. Take a look. You may be glad you did.