Updated: Nov 2, 2021
Information Collection Knows No Bounds
By Ian Ségal
01 March 2020
The world we live in has changed dramatically over the past two decades. The information age has incubated a growth of exponential discovery, paving the way towards optimizing the quality of life and strengthening our country’s competitive edge in the world. Yet, while the evolution of cutting-edge technology has improved our lives with a better standard of living with the transparency of information, we are discovering that this age is garroting our necks by tearing down walls protecting fundamental freedoms of one’s space. Our employers are not alone in conducting surveillance of our daily activities—from perusing our electronic mail to monitoring our phone calls—with digital recordings of our activities. Federal, state, and local authorities, with the aid of advanced tools, have also embarked on overseeing and collecting data on the activities of its citizens. Without laws in place to protect the confidentiality of Americans, the government and corporate America are sparring with freedom on the vanguard of violating its citizens’ most rudimentary right, their privacy.
"Data collection and dissemination are unchecked predators
padding through the province of privacy." — Ian Ségal
In addition to video surveillance, corporations inconspicuously monitor their employees by tracking their activities on computers, telephones, and similar devices. It has been estimated that employers eavesdrop on over 400 million calls made by workers every year. While no federal regulations exist to protect people’s privacy, businesses and government alike have been free to exercise electronic monitoring of Americans without any accountability to laws. In the years following the news leaks by government contractor Edward Snowden concerning surveillance of Americans’ electronic communications by the National Security Agency, people’s behavior and vigilance have been considerably altered by this revelation. Snowden’s release of classified intelligence has left Americans divided between whether such national security monitoring benefited or harmed its citizens. Subsequently, this has spawned the endless debate regarding the legitimacy of compromising Americans’ privacy for the facilitation of thwarting terrorism at home and abroad.
Many Americans found themselves in deliberations regarding the immediate impact of Edward Snowden’s disclosures to the public. As Abigail Geiger (2018) stated, “About half of Americans (49%) said the release of the classified information served the public interest, while 44% said it harmed the public interest, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted days after the revelations.” With America divided on ensuing arguments, the public mainstream became more denouncing of government surveillance. In turn, this became the catalyst for then-President Barack Obama to outline modifications to the data collection procedures of the National Security Agency. As Mark Landler and Charlie Savage of The New York Times (2014) pointed out, “President Obama, acknowledging that high-tech surveillance poses a threat to civil liberties, announced significant changes on Friday to the way the government collects and uses telephone records, but left in place many other pillars of the nation’s intelligence programs.” Taking this stance, Obama declared he would require court approval each time a government agency requested phone records, except in cases of emergencies—purposely left in uncertain terms—almost like an open-ended conciliation to the intelligence community with room to operate in obscured undefined areas. These political footsteps have been construed as a diplomatic dalliance that the public could not accept.
Over time, the discontent among most Americans has harmonized their noise into a more coherent message—the public found it tolerable for the government to conduct surveillance of questionable people but not U.S. citizens. In her report, Abigail Geiger (2018) added that 82% of Americans believed it was appropriate for the federal government to monitor communications of alleged terrorists, and a similar percentage polled said it was copacetic to monitor communications of leaders of the U.S. and foreign countries. Almost all Americans surveyed agreed that having control over their private information and deciding who could access it was paramount to maintaining privacy. Additionally, most of the same people asked also believed they lost control over how their personal information was being solicited, gathered, disseminated, and in most cases, sold without any authorization. These sentiments have been echoed over the years with a resonance claiming that personal data is now less secure compared to a decade ago—the Snowden revelations hardened these viewpoints.
Since leaking the clandestine activities of the NSA by Edward Snowden, many continue to label him as a martyr. At the same time, he was forced into asylum, avoiding conspiracy charges from the United States government. For over three years, Russia became the sanctuary for Snowden, whom others have deemed a traitor for giving up national secrets and compromising the security and lives of Americans at home and abroad. Mr. Snowden’s efforts have affected little change to the approach employed by the U.S. government while it continues to conduct covert monitoring of people. In a website column produced by The Hill, reporter Julian Hattem (2016) quoted Edward Snowden as saying, “Remember, I didn’t want to change society, I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself.” But one thing was triggered by Snowden—he emboldened the voice of America to rise to the call to fight for privacy protection after being informed with newfound knowledge of unchecked government monitoring. America had determined it was time to change itself—time to hold the government accountable.
With the public demanding a closer look at the methods used to enforce national security, America was awoken by its angst regarding the widespread solicitation of personal information. What was most disquieting to Americans was that the government could do much more to safeguard people’s data by regulating corporations with laws and regulations but to date has not (Madden, 2014). The collection and dissemination of personal information have been irresponsibly collected and, in some cases, unintentionally skewed or altered, creating harmful results for U.S. citizens—with credit scores negatively impacted and identities compromised. When considering several different methods of communication, most Americans agree that there does not exist one mode through which they feel very secure when sharing private information with another trusted party or organization (Madden, 2014). As a result, and in the absence of government guidelines to protect the privacy of U.S. citizens, the people’s attention has been focused on a new area of concern—the government compelling U.S. corporations to share confidential information they collected from their customers.
A few years ago, a federal court ordered Apple Inc. to assist the FBI in unlocking an iPhone mobile device used by a suspect in a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, in December 2015. Not to be coerced by the government, Apple challenged the court order to ensure that the confidentiality of iPhones belonging to other customers would remain protected. These deliberations incited a contentious debate across the country regarding how much latitude Americans are willing to allow their technology vendors to protect privacy versus cooperating with the government (Madden, 2016). With the attention of the public moving oscillating between the federal government and corporate America, it had become further evident that corporations had demonstrated deficiencies in safeguarding consumer data. However, the government has not been the only entity interested in acquiring personal data—financial and otherwise—on its citizens.
Companies have continued to increase their momentum in mining more and more data on consumers without considering a tactical plan for keeping information secure from cyberattacks. They have collected basic information such as contact names, addresses, employment status, web-surfing behaviors, and purchasing activity—all desirable to the shadowy world of identification theft. Other organizations have gone further to harvest more sensitive data such as credit card account numbers, social security numbers, and patient information from healthcare organizations such as hospitals and insurance companies—becoming the honeypot for cybercrime. With a continued gathering of this type of data, cybersecurity breaches across the Internet have increasingly compromised the security and data integrity of such companies as Equifax, J.P. Morgan, Uber, Home Depot, Target, eBay, and Anthem (Armerding, 2018).
Such breaches occur daily, with over a billion user accounts compromised over the past ten years. This influx of nefarious intent by global hackers has produced heightened awareness and increased apprehension within the public mainstream. Most Americans no longer feel confident that their data is safe in the hands of the organizations that collect it, regardless of the legitimate justifications provided. Additionally, U.S. citizens question why the government has not overseen the viral nature of collecting, distributing, and protecting personal data from business enterprises and pirating malfeasance. And these concerns have bolstered many battlefronts on the war in preserving people’s right to privacy while safeguarding their confidentiality. The Internet is not so dissimilar to the frontier lands of the wild west period of the 1800s, absent of any law enforcement to police while guarding the greater user community.
With the ongoing collection of private data on Americans by the government, businesses, and miscreants across the World Wide Web, a new developing approach to surveillance and data collection evolved out of computer laboratories and permeated the public ecosystem. Across social media platforms such as Facebook and Google, we have seen a steady urgency in enhancing the private data collection of people by appending their records with an array of digital facial imprints. This technology, dating back to the early years of science fiction theater, has become all too real—we have officially entered the world of facial recognition. Although there are many benefits of facial recognition technology for people and businesses, we have not seen any governance regulating any adherence to consumer privacy.
The FBI and state governments are currently using facial recognition technology for both security and public safety efforts. Additionally, it has also become a tool favored by U.S. Customs agents and police law enforcement throughout the nation. In the private sector, we have seen the widespread use of facial recognition deployed for marketing, customer service, photograph tagging, video gaming, and security access to a myriad of electronic devices focusing on mobile technology. With the arrival of this new cutting-edge innovation, another area of privacy questioning has arisen with acute concerns.
In the advent of any new technology, such innovation typically presents a plethora of expanded privacy risks that call for governance and risk mitigation. Facial recognition data has landed at the forefront of privacy challenges for both the government and companies to address. Sometimes misidentification facilitated by facial recognition systems has increased the risk exposure for people being mistakenly identified in criminal investigations. But more importantly, what remains high on the list of public worries stems from access and control. Like all personal data with a history of breaches and misuse, this has become the focal point of general distress. To date, there is no federal law that explicitly addresses facial recognition data collection and usage. Areas that require lawmakers to draft legislation include but are not limited to preventing the use of facial recognition to discriminate against consumers, repurposing the data for other applications than those disclosed, and sharing of such data to third parties without the affirmative consent of the consumer (“Privacy Principles,” 2015).
Along with the invention of facial recognition technology, we are beginning to see this area expand into other commercial spaces such as travel and logistics with the deployment of such platforms in national airports. According to an executive order by President Donald Trump, facial recognition systems will be installed at 20 of the busiest U.S. airports by the year 2021 for all international passengers and Americans (O’Flaherty, 2019). With this initiative, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has been rapidly managing the project effort to meet deadlines without adequately validating the quality assurance of these systems or adhering to any data collection safeguards. With over 16,000 flights scheduled every week in the United States, over 100 million passengers will be affected by this new form of surveillance every week—foreigners and Americans alike (O’Flaherty, 2019).
And yet, with the rapid release of this technology still in its infancy, the exposure to error and inaccuracies of analyzing collected data has been dramatically increased. But more importantly, there are also elevated privacy implications when gathering massive amounts of data at this level. In February 2019, an unnamed company operating facial recognition systems jeopardized the private information of over two million people after leaving a database unprotected (O’Flaherty, 2019). Cybersecurity is becoming more and more crucial in engineering layers of fortification to proactively secure personal data and respond to disasters when systems are breached—and not without substantial investment from both government and business. However, in the absence of laws for the stringent governance of all who collect, create, use, and distribute personal data of people, the hope of compelling government and business into privacy compliance remains futile.
The common theme we have witnessed over the past two decades has demonstrated not only that we as Americans have valid concerns when it comes to our personal information but an intrinsic right, as U.S. citizens, in having our data protected through enacted measures enforced by the law. In the nonexistence of such legislation, federal, state, and local governments and corporations across the country have taken advantage of collecting and distributing private data of Americans with little to no supervision and accountability for their actions and reckless management of this data. Without a federally mandated privacy agency, no overseeing body exists to regulate and govern the use of personal data along with the surveillance of Americans.
We continue to face a widening hole in American law without the cohesiveness of legislation that can obligate government and corporate America into compliance with enforceable sanctions against all who would violate such law. Congress needs to swiftly implement legislation to ratify privacy protection and establish a government agency to protect our citizens’ personal data. But with the scarcity of laws to protect people’s privacy, along with the lack of accountability for those who would violate such mandates, we all remain defenseless with the pining for absolute privacy, one that can only be envisioned inside a world of nocturnal dreams.
Adler-Bell, S., & Gellman, B. (2019, June 3). The Disparate Impact of Surveillance. Retrieved
March 15, 2019, from https://tcf.org/content/report/disparate-impact-surveillance/.
Armerding, T. (2018, December 20). The 18 Biggest Data Breaches of the 21st Century. Retrieved March 15, 2019, from https://www.csoonline.com/article/2130877/the-biggest-data-breaches-of-the-21st-century.html.
FPF. (2015, December 9). fpf.org. Privacy Principles for Facial Recognition Technology. Retrieved March 15, 2019, from https://fpf.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Dec9Working -Paper-FacialRecognitionPrivacyPrinciples-For-Web.pdf.
Geiger, A. (2018, June 4). How Americans Have Viewed Surveillance and Privacy Since Snowden Leaks. Retrieved March 15, 2019, from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/06/04/how-americans-have-viewed-government-surveillance-and-privacy-since-snowden-leaks/.
Hattem, J. (2016, December 25). Spying After Snowden: What's Changed and What Hasn't. Retrieved March 15, 2019, from https://thehill.com/policy/technology/310457-spying-after-snowden-whats-changed-and-what-hasnt.
Landler, M., & Savage, C. (2014, January 17). Obama Outlines Calibrated Curbs on Phone Spying. Retrieved March 15, 2019, from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/18/us/ politics/obama-nsa.html.
Madden, M. (2016, March 24). Public Perceptions of Privacy and Security in the Post-Snowden Era. Retrieved March 15, 2019, from https://www.pewinternet.org/2014/11/12/public-privacy-perceptions/
O'Flaherty, K. (2019, March 13). Facial Recognition at U.S. Airports—Should You Be Concerned? Retrieved March 15, 2019, from http://forbes.com/sites/kateoflahertyuk/ 2019/03/11/facial-recognition-to-be-deployed-at-top-20-us-airports-should-you-be-concerned/#4efa5f907d48.
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