Every day I feel guilty numerous times, not because of something I’ve done wrong. It happens because of something I haven’t done. Although I’m an activist worried about what is happening in the world in which we now live, I don’t sign online petitions, answer surveys, or vote on Facebook posts or in emails, no matter how urgent the issue. Nor do I answer phone calls if I don’t recognize the number.
These sins of omission are easily explained. I don’t respond to requests or calls to “make a difference” because it’s very likely I am being surveilled. It’s likely you are, too. The fact is our privacy is rapidly eroding and becoming a thing of the past.
Chilling evidence is emerging about how readily everything from our whereabouts to our political views and personal preferences are known and shared. The New York Times and other publications have reported on this issue and explained how spying on our privacy is done and how information is being used.
A recent report in The New York Times revealed that data used by the government is provided by location data companies that “collect precise movements of all smartphone-owning Americans through their phone apps.” The data these companies collect and store is then sold to third party buyers, including the government. And because the data is for sale, the government is convinced that no legal oversight is needed.
The Wall Street Journal points out that the Trump administration “has bought access to a commercial database that maps movements of millions of cellphones in America and is using it for immigration and border enforcement.” Customs and Border Protection thinks that practice is fine. As a spokesperson told The Times, “While the C.B.P. is being provided access to location information, it’s important to note that such information does not include cellular phone tower data, is not ingested in bulk, and does not include the individual user’s identity.” Really? Shouldn’t that be challenged in court? And what exactly does “ingested in bulk” mean anyway? Who sees the data, where is it kept, and for how long?
The truth is that when we accept those long, difficult to read “terms and conditions” that keep being revised and stuffed into our inboxes, we really have no idea what data is being collected about us and how it is being used. More worrisome is that we are consenting to possible future uses that are unpredictable.
That’s why Supreme Court chief justice John Roberts wrote in a 2018 decision, “When the government tracks the location of a cellphone it achieves near perfect surveillance, as if it had attached an ankle monitor to the phone’s user.”
This whole mess started with an Australian guy who invented an app that allows facial recognition (which is why Hong Kong protesters, even pre-COVID, wear face masks). His company, Clearview AI, means that an uploaded picture of someone can be linked to public photos of that person and to other links where the photos have appeared. According to The Times, the database of more than 3 billion images that Clearview has were taken from millions of websites, including Facebook and YouTube. Federal and state law enforcement, including the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, have used the Clearview app along with over 600 law enforcement agencies that used it just in the past year.
“The weaponization possibilities of this are endless,” a co-director of the Santa Clara University High Tech Institute in California told The Times. “Imagine a foreign government using this to dig up secrets about people to blackmail them or throw them in jail.”
Given our present political climate, thoughts of George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984” come to mind. Considered one of the most terrifying novels ever written, it showed what actions individuals can take when given too much power. In the story the political “Party” takes control over most of the world’s population resulting in individualism and independent thinking being banned. Everyone is manipulated — and under constant surveillance. “Big Brother” is watching them. The members of the Party use force and mind control to ensure that individuals are kept in line. Anyone who tries to live by their own rules (or tells the truth) is labeled a traitor and terribly punished.
“Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship,” Orwell wrote.
Tactics like facial recognition surveillance used today against immigrants could easily be used tomorrow for enforcement of other nefarious laws. That’s why Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., head of the Oversight and Reform Committee in the House, is calling for lawmakers to hold hearings and to protect people legally from abuses that can occur when law enforcement and others use Clearview and other private entities to track people.
“I am deeply concerned by reports that the Trump administration has been secretly collecting cellphone data, without warrants, to track the location of millions of people across the United States to target individuals for deportation,” Maloney told The Times. “Such Orwellian government surveillance threatens the privacy of every American.”