Two University of Maryland professors recently announced they developed a software program called “Geneva” that can protect people from the pervasive surveillance of their online activities by repressive governments like the People’s Republic of China. This will help Chinese citizens, but it is no solution for them. China has created unprecedented surveillance networks in which cameras, facial recognition and artificial intelligence overseeing every communication and commercial transaction work together to create a startlingly clear portrait of more than 1 billion individuals in real time.
More than one writer refers to China as a “panopticon” – a technological update on the blueprint of a prison in which the guards always have line of sight on the prisoners, but the prisoners can never be sure when they are being watched. How far are we from a panopticon of our own in the United States?
Our federal government has a limitless appetite for ever more access to our information. A proposal bandied about on Capitol Hill earlier this year would report transactions in Americans’ bank accounts that cumulatively exceed $10,000. This plan would give the government warrantless and ready access regarding whomever we do business, befriend, which causes we support and aspects of our personal lives we’d rather keep to ourselves. If Congress should approve this financial snooping proposal, however, it would merely be one more step in taking away whatever privacy Americans still enjoy.
Consider: When you walk down the street, cell-site simulators, known as “stingrays,” permit the police to “spoof” your cellphone to scoop up your most personal data. At the federal level, at least 16 agencies are reported to be involved in such collections. The government at all levels also wields facial recognition technology that allows it to upload your visage to identify you and instantly amass your social media accounts and posts. At a glance, the government can know a great deal about your politics, religion and personal life.
When you sit down at a computer, the government can extract your emails, browsing history and social media activities enabled by no law, but by an executive order known as 12333. These activities are justified to combat terrorism, but the broad sweep of personal information from keyword searches goes well beyond the warrants and the need to search for particular facts required by the Fourth Amendment.
When you return from abroad, a customs agent can, without a warrant, insert a thumb drive into your laptop or smartphone to vacuum up your data. Because laws regulating how government collects your data were written before such devices were in wide use, agencies find new loopholes for every new technology.
And when the government wants to do so, it can purchase your most sensitive and personal information from data brokers. Even members of Congress are vulnerable to such intrusions. Two members had their private information and that of their families secretly accessed when the Trump administration required Apple to produce their data. Our organization, the Project for Privacy and Surveillance Accountability, filed a Freedom of Information Act request with an alphabet soup of federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies to see if government might be buying the private information of members of Congress from data brokers. We received only a series of non-response responses.
So for all the lurid – and accurate – stories about how the People’s Republic of China has become an Orwellian surveillance state, we would do well to also focus on threats closer to home. Americans are beginning to wake up to the extent to which technology and U.S. government policies are placing us in fishbowls. The good news is that there are ways champions of freedom in Congress can fight ubiquitous surveillance. In addition to voting down the IRS surveillance plan, Congress should embrace three initiatives:
First, Congress should pass The Fourth Amendment Is Not for Sale Act, which would close the loophole that allows federal agencies to buy our private location data from apps or digital data brokers.
Second, a measure sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy and Mike Lee would subject the FBI’s warrant applications before the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court to the scrutiny of court-appointed experts in civil liberties.
Finally, Congress should hold hearings to discover the scale of 12333 surveillance.
We should not deceive ourselves, however, about how tough it will be to restore privacy to the American people. Much is happening because of our government’s limitless appetite for our information. The degradation of our privacy is also being driven by the relentlessly growing power of technology. But we should at least urge Congress to enact these three measures – or else we might soon need the Geneva software to protect us from our own government.