Much is made about the dangers to your privacy from hackers, identity thieves, and businesses. But the greatest danger to your privacy comes not from any of them, but instead from the federal government and its massive bureaucracies and intelligence and law enforcement bureaus. From the moment you are born until the moment you die, the federal government gathers information about you.
Much of this information is required for you to get servicesyou must pay taxes, you may get benefits such as Social Security or student loans, and so on.
In addition to this kind of information, law enforcement and intelligence agencies have long gathered information about people. They do this to fight crime and protect the country, but on many occasions, critics claim, they have gone well beyond what they should be allowed to do. In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, both the FBI and CIA were cited for massive invasions of people's privacy and for investigating and prosecuting people who were doing nothing more than exercising the rights granted to them in the Constitution.
A variety of laws were passed to curb such abuses. But in recent yearsespecially after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001the government has dramatically expanded its surveillance of people inside and outside the United States, and many people say that intelligence agencies once again are violating people's privacy and civil rights.
Many critics say the Patriot Act, passed in the wake of the terrorist attacks, has gone a long way toward violating the privacy rights of U.S. citizens. It gives the government enormous leeway in getting people's personal records without telling them, and without having to cite any evidence of a crime. Under it, the government can seize library records, financial and business records, medical records, information about Internet usage and more, with little or no oversight.
Also controversial has been President George W. Bush's decision to let the super-secret National Security Agency (NSA) tap phone calls and the Internet use of American citizens without first getting a warrant to do so. There is a well-defined legal procedure for such taps, with secret courts that allow them, and presidents have used them for years. But President Bush's decision to bypass the courts has been extremely controversial and, as this book goes to press, Congress had planned to hold hearings on the matter.
Two of the more controversial programs for gathering personal communications are the Carnivore program run by the FBI and the Echelon program run by the NSA. The Carnivore program was used to wiretap people's Internet connections. It has since been discontinued, but the FBI still uses similar technology.
The existence of Carnivore was acknowledged by the FBI, but the NSA doesn't acknowledge the existence of its Echelon data-gathering operation, which is the largest data-gathering operation in the world. It literally listens in on the world's communications and stores information it believes is relevant. We don't know exactly how the program operates because that is classified, but based on public records, we can show an illustration of its basic outlines.