Government Surveillance In A Digital Era

In an ever growing technological era, people encounter different types of technology in a myriad of ways. From cell phones, to emails, to social media, people use the internet in many ways leaving a trace of their history wherever they go. Doing this on a daily basis, and accepting the fact that the government or other people are not peeking in on our activities could be valid, but detailed research shows otherwise. In many instances governmental agencies have blindly obstructed their powers and reviewed, without consent, electronic data that should be only withheld to the user. Some say that this is mainly for the security of the people they preside over, but this protection can be overlooked, leading to mass intrusions of people’s private information. Government agencies should not have the right to monitor electronic or transactional details because it obstructs constitutional rights, it exploits the national security of its people by allowing mass intrusions and breached privacy, it gives the government too much power over the people they preside, and it increases civil unrest with its people in fear of obstruction and anything they do.

In the constitution, the Fourth Amendment outlines, “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and the persons or things to be seized” (US Const. Amend. IV sec. 1). When written in 1789, our founding fathers outlined the basis of American freedom on the assurance of ten civil liberties. This amendment, outlining the safeguard from unlawful searches and seizures, declared that no persons personal information could be accessed without lawful consent or warrant. When written in 1789 however, there was no specificity to technology, and safety surrounding the topic. In news today we frequently hear of data breaches, where millions of people’s private information is being leaked, and distributed without the consent or knowledge of the people themselves. Take the recent Facebook data breach for example in which, “a British analytics firm got access to the private information of up to 87 million users” (Isaac). As it is startling knowing that companies are withholding your information at their disposal, it’s even more startling knowing that your information could be anywhere at any time. When entrusting your personal photos and information to a company, you sign the user agreements and trust that they will never put your personal information at risk of being leaked. However, time and time again we hear of mass intrusions that lead to data leaks of our personal information. Anyone’s private information could be at risk. If government agencies and big companies didn’t have the power to retain or look at this information in the first place, personal information would be less at risk. New legislature should diminish the viewing capabilities these agencies have over citizens, only allowing intervention if proven to be necessary with probable cause.

Along with the fourth amendment, the first amendment states that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” (US Const. Amend. I sec. 3). In an ever growing technology era, people have a plethora of different social media platforms to state their opinion on. However some say that in stating their opinion, they run the risk that the government can see and somehow turn these words on them. In one certain circumstance, comedian Kathy Griffin was seen posing with a decapitated Trump head. Upon doing this, Griffin was met immediately with secret agents less than an hour after posting the image. While most can see the severity of doing this, this sets a precedent that you cannot speak whatever you believe, have it be online or on different mediums. Some say that this surveillance is necessary, as it provides a safeguard to the American people, keeping them from harm’s way or any potential threatening act. However, this surveillance can be overlooked, and in Kathy’s case, oppressing the people the government decides to investigate, and stripping them of their civil liberties. In Kathy’s case, she was “placed on the no-fly and Interpol lists, and also detention at airports” (Puente), on top of many more restrictions and withholdings. These civil liberties are rights given to every single American citizen as a sense of individual power to protect themselves. However, when these rights are taken away, what else do you have left? To protect these rights, action needs to be taken with stricter legislature. Laws such as a derivative consent doctrine where it’s, “…designed to prevent the government from accessing the content of conversations, as well as controlling or using devices, without another individual first revealing the information or operating a device” (Brown) could safeguard people from being searched online without consent.

When any rights such as these are obstructed, most people feel personally attacked which then leads to civil unrest for many. Government officials are met with opposing forces, have it be protests or campaigns, slandering their use of power. Take the recent Trump campaign and metadata issue where, “…concerns that domestic social media surveillance had ‘spiked’ under the Trump administration. In early September, the ACLU released documents showing that state and federal law enforcement agencies were collaborating to ramp up ‘Social Networking’ surveillance of domestic activists over concerns about protests against the Keystone XL pipeline” (Ahmed). Whenever rights are being violated, most outbreak isn’t met with peaceful consultation, it’s usually met with violence. This increase in civil unrest is caused mainly from the government surveillance on the people they preside over. Some might say that whatever the issue may be, surveillance, taxes, laws, it is always met with some type of violent act or civil unrest. However, violence isn’t always how people react to things, they usually only act in violence when all other options are gone, and when the most crucial priorities need to be looked at, and is this case it’s civil rights. The solution to the metadata issue isn’t violence however, it’s voicing your opinion, going to the polls, and campaigning for your beliefs, but violence is never the answer. With voting being as easy as ever, and a number of outlets to voice your opinion on, there’s no limit to what you can believe or say.

Through a study done by Dr. Ramesh Masthi from Kempegowda Institute of Medical Sciences, he found that on average, “about 3.77 billion people are using the Internet through modern gadgets such as smartphones and computers with coverage of 81% of the population in the developed world and 41% of the population in the developing world” (Masthi). Astonishing as it is knowing that 81% of the world is using the internet, it should make sense that people are protected on the internet from outside sources. Unfortunately, we know that people search and hack people’s personal data. Some believe that to protect users from this, it’s the government job to overlook, and bring down any opposing forces. Some also believe that it’s the government job to protect this information have it be on a secured database, or server. Passed in 2001, the Patriot Act was enacted after the 9/11 attacks to improve the ways in which the United States government detect and deter terrorism attacks. Twelve years after the law was enacted, “Americans learned for the first time that Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act has for years been secretly interpreted to authorize the collection of Americans’ phone records on an unprecedented scale. And Americans also learned that the government engaged in repeated, substantial legal violations” (Leahy). Knowing that your information is being accessed without your consent, or even knowing about it can be pretty scary. Acts such as this tremendously affect American rights, and own personal privacy. Knowing you’re being looked out for by the government is good, but when the government overreaches their power to spy on your conversation is alarming. To protect yourself, and your own private information, make your voice heard in your local government. Talk with your local politician, and inform them on the issue at hand, and how the law could affect the American people negatively.

With laws such as this, it puts in question the authority politicians have over the people they preside over. Most everyone believes that they want people they can trust in an elected position, but when entrusted with this, this trust can be broken. In many instances we see obstruction of power leading to breaches in private information. In a recent study done by Nick Cercone through Southern Methodist University, he realizes this stating, “… private data could still be misused intentionally or unintentionally by individuals who have legitimate accesses to them. In general, activities of a database operator form a stochastic process, and at different time, privacy intrusion behavior may show different features” (Cercone). Recognizing this problem at hand is the first step in securing your private information from getting in the wrong hands. Blindly believing that others will not see private information would be ignorant as facts have proven time and time again that people do and will see it whether you like it. One simple solution to this is watching what you disclose online. The only person that can regulate the information you want to disclose is yourself, so it would be wise to watch your digital blueprint, and any information you leave behind.

When signing up for any website, or any online media you mostly always have to accept the user agreement before entering the website. These agreements, that most can agree they skip and click “accept” without even looking at it, can withhold some interesting information. Ironically, Blackboard, a student-teacher platform where assignments and other communications within school related topics take place, has one of these user agreements. In a study through professor Musonda Kapatamoyo he found that, “when students use Blackboard, they are exposed to data collection by several parties such as the school IT administrators and the professors; and through WiFi hotspots, shared computers in libraries, telecommunications companies and of course the government” (Kapatamoyo). The length the government goes to its data collection can be quite astonishing, even looking at personal works in a learning environment. This can go to show that literally anything posted to the internet can be accessed from any platform. And when you “accept” this user agreement, they essentially promise you no metadata collection will occur, but as we see the government does not follow through with this. Again some people say this is for security purposes, but what harm could personal works in a learning environment do to others? To stop the exposure of personal data, these agreements must be followed through with stricter requirements on government agencies, and more protection for the user data.

Some of the data accessed might not only being electronic social media data, but also transactional data. Under the Patriot Act, governmental agencies have the power to review large credit card companies transactional information whenever they want. According to NSA analyst and Forbes writer Tim Worstall, “further NSA documents from 2010 show that the NSA also targets the transactions of customers of large credit card companies like VISA for surveillance. NSA analysts at an internal conference that year described in detail how they had apparently successfully searched through the US company’s complex transaction network for tapping possibilities” (Worstall). Knowing that the government can access not only your personal information, but as well as your transactional information is frightening. While some might argue that the only purpose of this is to catch criminals, or to track specific buyings, it still impedes on individual rights. Later on in the article, Worstall asks an anonymous official about the surveillance and they realize that, “the collection, storage and sharing of politically sensitive data is a deep invasion of privacy, and involved ‘bulk data’ full of ‘rich personal information,’ much of which ‘is not about our targets,’” (Worstall). With the realization from the official that they believed that the surveillance is “deep invasion of privacy”, it can be a warning flag. You should be able to trust officials, but when they show signs of weakness or discomfort, it’s not easy to digest. With proper search and seizure techniques, consent, and warrants will this only be constitutionally correct. But until that is correctly done, stronger legislature can be done to lighten the power these acts withhold, and the damage these officials can do.

From massive metadata collection, to snooping to what you do online on a daily basis, the government has overstepped its job and negatively affected the people they preside over. With these acts they have obstructed constitutional rights, exploited national security, breached privacy, and it increased civil unrest with its people. Knowing as the digital era is not ending anytime soon, it’s important to start looking at what we can do to protect ourselves and others into the future. To solve the issue at hand solutions can be made in many ways including a new derivative consent doctrine, stronger legislature, and an increase in awareness of what’s posted to online media. To protect what’s most dear to our American rights and freedom, we must stand above what’s wrong and bring justice to the government we have control over. The time is now.