You are the target of an investigation. Federal agencies are stepping up their surveillance of average Americans everywhere. But it’s not just them. Americans are surveilling themselves and, by extension, letting others surveil them, too.
Last week, my neighbor’s Alexa “called” her. A stranger could see and describe everything she was doing in her house. Terrified, she pulled her husband in off the porch with her finger pressed against her lips: “Shhh.” They went to the car in their garage, and she told her husband what happened. Then, the stranger called again. My neighbors called Amazon, and a representative told them that they’d been hacked. Needless to say, they yanked everything “smart” out of their home. (READ MORE: Censorship Is More Dangerous Than Disinformation)
How many times have people been freaked out about their phones delivering ads about the esoteric thing they were just talking about? It’s unnerving to see obscure artifacts from random conversations or website searches show up in a Twitter feed or on Instagram. Yet everyone carries their own personal surveillance device around with them like a security blanket — which it actually is. The phone blankets each user with complete watchfulness.
With the lawsuits revealing how the federal bureaucracies worked with social media companies to filter and block and also reveal private messaging, Americans might be worried about the feds’ power. They don’t worry enough. (READ MORE: Biden v. Free Speech: Judge Doughty Delivers Americans a Win)
Wired magazine published a blockbuster report back in June that went mostly unremarked upon but is worth reading in its entirety:
In the shadow of years of inaction by the US Congress on comprehensive privacy reform, a surveillance state has been quietly growing in the legal system’s cracks. Little deference is paid by prosecutors to the purpose or intent behind limits traditionally imposed on domestic surveillance activities. More craven interpretations of aging laws are widely used to ignore them. As the framework guarding what privacy Americans do have grows increasingly frail, opportunities abound to split hairs in court over whether such rights are even enjoyed by our digital counterparts.
“I’ve been warning for years that if using a credit card to buy an American’s personal information voids their Fourth Amendment rights, then traditional checks and balances for government surveillance will crumble,” Ron Wyden, a US senator from Oregon, says.
The report continues:
“This report makes it clear that the government continues to think it can buy its way out of constitutional protections using taxpayers’ own money,” says Chris Baumohl, a law fellow at EPIC. “Congress must tackle the government’s data broker pipeline this year, before it considers any reauthorization of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act,” he said (referring to the ongoing political fight over the so-called “crown jewel” of US surveillance).
The ODNI’s own panel of advisers makes clear that the government’s static interpretations of what constitutes “publicly available information” poses a significant threat to the public. The advisers decry existing policies that automatically conflate being able to buy information with it being considered “public.” The information being commercially sold about Americans today is “more revealing, available on more people (in bulk), less possible to avoid, and less well understood” than that which is traditionally thought of as being “publicly available.”
Perhaps most controversially, the report states that the government believes it can “persistently” track the phones of “millions of Americans” without a warrant, so long as it pays for the information. Were the government to simply demand access to a device’s location instead, it would be considered a Fourth Amendment “search” and would require a judge’s sign-off. But because companies are willing to sell the information—not only to the US government but to other companies as well—the government considers it “publicly available” and therefore asserts that it “can purchase it.”
Couple this data with the facial recognition software that’s being used by even the Department of Agriculture, and the government in all its forms and functions is creating holistic profiles, body and ideology, of each American. In essence, all Americans are targets of the U.S. government — guilty until proven innocent. The Washington Post reports:
Most of the agencies use face-scanning technology so employees can unlock their phones and laptops or access buildings, though a growing number said they are using the software to track people and investigate crime. The Department of Agriculture, for instance, said it wants to use it to monitor live surveillance feeds at its facilities and send an alert if it spots any faces also found on a watch list.
Many Jan. 6 defendants found themselves scooped up into investigations not because they were served with warrants but because the feds asked phone companies for the identities of everyone whose phones were in the area. While the Jan. 6 Committee was scooping up phone data, the only company that didn’t automatically give the panel the information and who informed the defendants was Verizon. The rest of the companies willingly gave the information to an illegitimate House committee, who has since destroyed the results of their investigation of political enemies, without a warrant.
There won’t be relief from prying eyes and ears any time soon. Better to assume you’re the target of an investigation — because you are.