ACLU: ‘Surveillance-industrial Complex’ Expands Gov’t Spying Power

From The NewStandard

In a report released this week [ed. – August 13], the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) describes what it calls a growing 'surveillance-industrial complex' in which the US government is increasingly relying on the private sector to collect personal information about US citizens and residents.

In response to its findings, the ACLU is embarking on a nationwide grassroots campaign to put pressure on private companies that readily collude with government agencies in violation of people’s privacy.

'The amount of direct surveillance that government security agencies can conduct, and the number of people they can hire, will always be limited,' said report author Jay Stanley in a press statement. Stanley is the Communications Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Program. 'But leveraging the private sector,' he continued, 'vastly expands the government’s capacity to invade our lives.'

The report, entitled 'The Surveillance-Industrial Complex: How the American Government is Conscripting Businesses and Individuals in the Construction of a Surveillance Society,' details the variety of ways government agencies go about enlisting the help of private individuals and businesses in efforts to monitor Americans’ behavior.

According to the report, federal and state governments have instituted a variety of programs to encourage individuals to monitor their neighbors and coworkers. Although the most publicized such program, Operation TIPS, was discarded by Congress due to privacy concerns raised at the grassroots level, the ACLU says many similar programs, including elements of the TIPS program, are employed nationwide.

For instance, a program called Coastal Beacon recruits fisherman and members of the public to watch for 'suspicious activity' in Maine; in a direct imitation of its now-defunct national counterpart, Florida’s TIPS plans to train first responders, cable technicians and other public and private sector employees to report evidence of criminal activity seen in people’s homes; and Community Anti-Terrorism Training Institute, or 'CAT Eyes,' ostensibly 'educate[s] citizens in the civilian community to be effective eyes and ears for potential terrorist activities.'

Potentially fueling abuse of these government watch programs, reports the ACLU, there is a more generalized campaign urging Americans to be suspicious of each other and to report 'out of the ordinary' behavior to authorities. The report cites numerous examples of these efforts including a Maryland State Police flyer asking citizens to watch for 'anyone who does not appear to belong' and Department of Homeland Security materials distributed in Ohio telling people to be alert for 'persons not fitting into the surrounding environment,' including any 'beggar, demonstrator, shoe shiner, fruit or food vendor, street sweeper, or a newspaper or flower vendor not previously recognized in the area.'

The ACLU says it is predictable that such efforts would lead to people 'turning in' those they dislike and tips based on racial profiling.

While the government says this level of 'vigilance' and surveillance is necessary to prevent terrorist attacks and increase national security, the ACLU argues that these programs often serve to 'create an atmosphere of conformism and mistrust that encourages abuses, divides Americans from one another and casts a chill over the traditionally freewheeling nature of American life.'

Contributing to the problem, says the civil rights group, is that it is unclear in most cases what the programs do with the information they gather. It is 'far from clear,' writes the report’s author, how personal data are 'recorded, shared and stored in domestic intelligence or law enforcement databases, or what is done to ensure that innocent individuals who are the subjects of raw suspicions and rumors will not have a permanent black mark associated with their names in some government database.'

According to the report, 'Experience has shown that such safeguards are rarely created by security agencies on their own without intense outside pressure.'

In addition to increased reliance on individuals to conduct surveillance for the government, the ACLU says that since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the government’s efforts to involve private businesses in the collection and supply of personal data have accelerated.

'The U.S. security establishment is reaching deeper and deeper into our private lives by forcing the corporate sector to inform on the activities of individuals,' said Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director of the ACLU, in a press statement. 'The government has always recruited informers to help convict criminals, but today that recruitment is being computerized, automated, and used against innocent individuals on a massive scale that is unprecedented in the history of our nation.' Using businesses to gather personal information is 'often a path of least resistance to working around privacy laws,' argues the report’s author. 'It allows the government to carry out privacy-invading practices at ‘arm’s length’ by piggy-backing on or actually cultivating data collection in the private sector that it could not carry out itself without serious legal or political repercussions.'

There are many means employed by the government to gain access to personal data held by businesses. In many cases, companies will provide data to the government at mere request. The ACLU cites recent instances in which numerous airlines, including JetBlue, United, American and Northwest, voluntarily provided the government with information about their passengers.

In other cases, the government can simply purchase personal information on the open market. Data aggregating companies, such as Acxiom, Choicepoint, and Seisint profit by collecting detailed personal information and selling it to the government. The ACLU reports that one of the largest of these companies, Choicepoint, boasts contracts with at least 35 government agencies, including an $8 million deal with the Department of Justice.

For those companies that do not make their data readily available to the government, federal law enforcement agencies have new authorities under the USA Patriot Act to gain unprecedented access to such information without meaningful judicial review. Through the use of National Security Letters (NSLs), which do not require judicial approval, the FBI has powerful tools with which to demand records from businesses.

Civil libertarians have bestowed particular ire upon National Security Letters because they allow law enforcement to demand that third party record-holders turn over information not targeted at particular individuals. For instance, the FBI can ask a bookseller to turn over a list of everyone who purchased a certain book, or, ostensibly, everyone who has ever purchased anything at the store.

In its report, the ACLU gives the example of a December 2003 NSL request to hotels in Las Vegas, in which the FBI obtained information about all their costumers. Additionally, says the ACLU, the FBI gathered information about people who flew into the city, rented vehicles or used a storage facility. 'The FBI thus indiscriminately scrutinized the lawful activities of an estimated 270,000 Americans based on no individualized suspicion of wrongdoing,' writes the reports author.

The FBI and local Las Vegas law enforcement agencies told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that there was no specific or credible terrorist threat to the city during the days they collected data.

Federal surveillance agencies are also taking steps to seek passage of laws and regulations requiring companies to build their infrastructure in ways conducive to monitoring and to store certain kinds of information for long periods of time.

In what the ACLU called the 'the constitutional equivalent of the government requiring that all new homes be built with a peephole for law enforcement to look through,' the Communication Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), passed under the Clinton administration, already requires that the telecommunications industry conform to the FBI’s specifications for equipment design to enable easier phone wire-tapping.

Now, reports the ACLU, federal law enforcement agencies are pushing for a wider interpretation of CALEA, which would force telecom service providers to build broadband technology so as to allow eavesdropping on internet phone calls by law enforcement. They also seek authority for the FBI to scrutinize some internet content without a warrant and track the physical locations of cell phone users.

Additionally, the ACLU says the Bush administration has been calling for a 'mandatory customer data regime,' by which companies would be legally required to store personal information for longer periods of time.

The ACLU argues that all of this government snooping into people’s personal data 'creates constant uncertainty whenever people are in a situation where an informant might be present, enormously amplifying the effect of government surveillance on individual behavior and psychology.'

Along with the release of the report, the ACLU is launching a campaign it says is designed to 'regain consumers’ personal privacy rights.' The ACLU’s Surveillance Campaign will attempt to mobilize people to pressure a targeted list of companies to take a 'no spy pledge,' by which they promise not to turn customer data over to the government; to use legal means to fight government demands for such information; and to notify customers in the event the company is served with a legally binding request to turn over information.

The list of companies targeted by the campaign includes banks, pharmacies, retailers, airlines, and car rental agencies.

'An important step in regaining control of our personal privacy is to demand that businesses not acquiesce in being drafted into adjuncts of a surveillance state,' said Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Program. 'If a big company won’t defend its customers’ privacy, then consumers should take their business to a company that will.'

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