WASHINGTON, June 6, 2013 – This week the Supreme Court ruled that those being arrested, not convicted of any crime, can have their DNA taken and entered into a database to compare against DNA taken from cold cases.
Last week a federal judge ruled that Google must turn over records to the government, even though the FBI had no warrant, relying instead on “National Security Letters.”
Increasingly, everything about us—our genetic information, our activities, our beliefs—are being distilled to entries into gigantic databases.
In a few states, lawmakers jump at the carrot of an extensive online library, and let a private venture gather personal data on students and store it in the cloud. Indeed, young people have so much data collected from them at every point of their lives, it is a wonder they have any concept of privacy at all.
And yesterday we learned that the NSA is currently collecting millions of phone records of citizens from Verizon. This massive collection of information is the meta-data that tells who called whom and for how long, as well as other identifiers like location. The collection began in April and will continue through July 19.
There is no indication that Verizon is the only phone company supplying the government this data. It seems a reasonable assumption that all phone companies in the U.S. received similar demands, and they probably complied with them
Technological advancements have made it possible for companies, governments, or really anyone with enough computer savvy to track every detail of our virtual lives. We are more and more a culture that lives on our computers, and all the details of that digital existence—where we go, what we buy, what we look for—are tracked, analyzed, and traded.
With that tracking, the line between public information and private is blurred, with the public side pushing further and further into our private lives.
While this is troubling to many, others argue that it’s “just data.” The government isn’t listening to the content of our phone calls, merely collecting the “meta-data.” Data that might pique their interest and give them probable cause to get a warrant and listen to actual phone calls.
It is a government tail on every citizen, on the off chance that something juicy might turn up. Our DNA is “just data” like our fingerprints. But this data contains intimate details about who we are. No fingerprint gives clues about our longevity or our health.
As more and more of our lives can be quantified as data points, it seems that there is no boundary to what the government (or companies) can collect without our knowledge and consent. And once collected, even the limits that established are often disregarded. Either accidentally or intentionally, these private details of citizen’s lives can be loosed into the world, and they are left to suffer the consequences and clean up the mess.
It is a brave new world, and there is no way of turning back the clock to the time when our private thoughts and wanderings remained private. But we seem to be blundering into the new age giving little thought to just what is ours and what can be collected like discarded trash. The collectors ensure us it’s necessary “to keep us safe,” “to catch the bad guy,” and “for our own good.”
Are there any limits to what information the government can collect? We have been so accustomed to filling out forms and surveys, that blithely giving away our data barely rates a second thought for many. But now that our cooperation is no longer as necessary for information gathering, how far will it go?
It is particularly concerning that the government has not only the right but also the power to record all these data points, store them, analyze them, and use the information at a later date at its own prerogative. We must not only ask what right, but what use the government has for our data. And more importantly: can free and self-determining citizens be reduced to an entry in a government database?
(Data Mining algorhythm map provided by Philippe Fournier Viger)
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