The government is rapidly increasing its ability to monitor average Americans by tapping into the growing amount of consumer data being collected by the private sector, according to a major report released today by the American Civil Liberties Union.
“The U.S. security establishment is reaching deeper and deeper into our private lives by forcing the corporate sector to inform on the activities of individuals,” said Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director of the ACLU. “The government has always recruited informers to help convict criminals, but today that recruitment is being computerized, automated, and used against innocent individuals on a massive scale that is unprecedented in the history of our nation.”
The release of the 38-page report, entitled “The Surveillance-Industrial Complex: How the American Government is Conscripting Businesses and Individuals in the Construction of a Surveillance Society,” marks the launch of the ACLU’s Surveillance Campaign, which is designed to regain consumers’ personal privacy rights by mobilizing people to contact prominent companies – such as drugstore chains, insurance companies and retailers – to ask them to take a “no-spy pledge” to defend their customers’ privacy against government intrusion. A list of suggested companies for consumers to contact is available online at www.aclu.org/privatize.
“An important step in regaining control of our personal privacy is to demand that businesses not acquiesce in being drafted into adjuncts of a surveillance state,” said Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Program, which produced the report. “If a big company won’t defend its customers’ privacy, then consumers should take their business to a company that will.”
The report makes the case that, across a broad variety of areas, the same dynamic of the “privatization of surveillance” is underway. Different dimensions of this trend are examined in-depth in four separate sections of the report:
* Recruiting Individuals. Documents how individuals are being recruited to serve as “eyes and ears” for the authorities even after Congress rejected the infamous TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System) program that would have recruited workers like cable repairmen to spy on their customers.
* Recruiting Companies. Examines how companies are pressured to voluntarily provide consumer information to the government; the many ways security agencies can force companies to turn over sensitive information under federal laws such as the Patriot Act; how the government is forcing companies to participate in watchlist programs and in systems for the automatic scrutiny of individuals’ financial transactions.
* Mass Data Use, Public and Private. Focuses on the government’s use of private data on a mass scale, either through data mining programs like the MATRIX state information-sharing program, or the purchase of information from private-sector data aggregators.
* Pro-Surveillance Lobbying. Looks at the flip side of the issue: how some companies are pushing the government to adopt surveillance technologies and programs based on private-sector data.
“Government security agencies all too often act on the false premise that they can stop terrorism by tracking information about everyone, while at the same time, private companies are increasingly collecting more information on their customers,” said Jay Stanley, Communications Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Program and the author of the report. “Sometimes willingly, sometimes not, the private sector is playing a key role in the push toward a frightening new surveillance society.”
As part of the public awareness component of its Surveillance Campaign, the ACLU recently released an online video to dramatize how new technologies and weak privacy laws may over time be used to strip us of our privacy. In the video, a pizza parlor uses its access to a wide variety of sensitive information to guide its treatment of a customer calling to order dinner. To view the video, go to http://www.aclu.org/pizza/index.html?orgid=EA071904&MX=1414&H=1.
“The amount of direct surveillance that government security agencies can conduct, and the number of people they can hire, will always be limited,” said Stanley. “But leveraging the private sector vastly expands the government’s capacity to invade our lives.”
The report ends with six conclusions, including the need for individuals to take action, the need for the legal system to catch up to a fast-changing reality, and the fact that mass surveillance is not only intrusive but also a poor way to fight terrorism.
“With this report we want to help people see beyond particular stories to grasp the big picture,” said Steinhardt. “If we want to preserve the privacy Americans have always enjoyed, we need to act now.”
The report is available online at www.aclu.org/surveillance
To learn more about the ACLU’s Surveillance Campaign, go to www.aclu.org/privatize