Skip to content
The Government vs Citizens: The Fight For Personal Data

The Government vs Citizens: The Fight for Personal Data

It is widely known that post 9/11, the U.S. government through Patriot Act in 2001, had expanded its rights to conduct mass surveillance on citizens. The public approval rate on whether the government should hold the right to eavesdrop on its citizens has swung periodically. Activists and citizens have had been divided on the matter; but Americans have made a trade-off between security and privacy and giving up personal data to the government to strengthen national security.

Disadvantages of the Government Collecting Personal Data

I think the government collecting personal data of its citizens has repercussions. Information gathered for legitimate purposes maybe misused by the members of the government. It is not difficult to obtain personal data of citizens because of the power, reach, and resources federal security agencies have at their disposal. Information obtained by the government can be used for illegitimate purposes. For example, facial recognition software can single out protestors. Individuals from a certain race or law-abiding immigrants can be singled out for the way they look.

While technology doesn’t discriminate against race, the data which face recognition technology learns from is highly skewed. The data from security cameras deployed by the law enforcement agencies is used for facial recognition of ‘suspects’; so even if a protestor looks remotely similar to an actual criminal, he or she may have to face more scrutiny. This reflects the bias in systems. This can keep individuals from joining protests because of fear of getting caught by cameras. This is a threat to civil liberty.

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 allows the government to track your location based on your device without any warrant. This law was written way back in 1986, before the existence of cellphones. I believe that this is an outdated law and in today’s times, it is an invasion of an individual’s privacy. As per the official website, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection reserves the right to investigate an American citizen’s electronic device upon arrival from a foreign country. Refusal of it can result in a seizure of the device for weeks. If you are a law-abiding non-citizen and refuse an investigation of your electronic device, the officers reserve the right to deport you without any explanation.

Advantages of the Government Collecting Personal Data

 

Personal data collection helps government learn how citizens are responding to a new public policy and based on the feedback, it can make amendments to better serve the community. I think it is important that law enforcement agencies know where violent crime is likely to occur. For example, the Las Vegas city police use historic crime data to predict the streets and blocks where a crime is likely to occur. This is possible only if the government is able to collect personal data of citizens. Besides this, bringing in new technology backed by data can really help keep the law enforcement agencies a step ahead of the criminals.

 

Facial recognition technology, for example, can automate and expedite identification of suspects and save time. Because it is backed by past data and machine learning technology, facial recognition has been proven to be more accurate than humans in identifying True Positives. Earlier I have argued that misuse of data can potentially jeopardize civil liberty, but I also believe that terrorism is a greater threat to civil liberties and if security agencies can identify patterns in data and neutralize a potential terror attack, it is worth a trade-off.

This can keep individuals from joining protests because of fear of getting caught by cameras. This is a threat to civil liberty.

 

Personal Data to Private Corporations

The private sector’s possession of the amount of data is alarming. The federal government agencies are accountable to the American Congress and can potentially come under scrutiny if wrongdoing is caught. The private sector, on the other hand, holds no accountability. What we really need to be worried about is the fact that we have given away more personal data to multi-national private corporations than to the government. It would be naive to assume that private organizations will practice self-regulation and will not abuse the power of personal data that they possess of over a billion users. With the humongous amount of data that a handful of tech giants – Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple – possess, power has never been more concentrated in human history. These companies are becoming the monopoly of the internet.

But it’s not just the tech giants like Google and Facebook that are collecting our data, we knowingly or unknowingly give away private information and information about subconscious habits, whenever and wherever we swipe a credit card. This information is being used by for-profit organizations to categorically target users for advertisements. Worse, the Cambridge Analytica scandal that surfaced last year has revealed that social media data is being used by political campaigns across the world to influence voters in elections, polarize and incite hatred between people of different communities and different political affiliations. It took a huge privacy breach exposed in this scandal to get the attention on social media privacy; I think this was long overdue. The data is also used to design algorithms that show politically appeasing content to users, thereby putting citizens inside a bubble and further pushing them away from reality.

My Two Cents

I believe that the government should definitely have the rights to collect some personal data but the laws should be put in place to ensure that the data is used only for pattern recognition and not for individual profiling. Surely national security is of utmost importance, but given the rights, border control agencies have to seize personal devices without consent or warrant is a little overboard. Moreover, there should be checks and balances in place to ensure that law enforcement agencies have a strict policy that keeps individual members of the government from getting access to any sort of personal data of citizens.

If the data of citizens is being used to find patterns in behaviors, their personal information like the first name, last name, phone number, email address etc. should be masked and personal data of users should be handled in a transparent, fair and lawful way. Companies should have to keep personal data updated in order to ensure that the purpose of possessing the data is not defeated. As soon as the purpose of collecting the data has been satisfied, the data should be immediately discarded or archived.

Every company that deals with high volumes of personal data should be mandated to have a data governing body that ensures that the company’s practices are in compliance with the law, the employees are adequately trained to deal with sensitive data, proper risk management strategy and contingency plan is put in place to deal with a potential loss of personal data.

Possible Advantages of my Solution

Taking away the right to seize travelers’ personal devices without consent from Border Control will restore civil liberty and personal agency. This will also, up to a certain extent, ease the anxiety that legal, law-abiding citizens and immigrants face when they are entering in the US. Adequate restrictions in the way law enforcement agencies use facial recognition technology will protect law-abiding citizens from racial profiling and police brutality.

I think if my proposed solution is implemented, it will make the private tech industry more accountable. These regulations will force large corporations like Facebook, Google tighten their screws with regards to privacy breach and also make internet users more comfortable in using internet services. Companies will use personal data of their users more for pattern recognition and data analytics to improve their services and customer experience and less for building algorithms that may have a potential bias.

Disadvantages of My Solution

Because of the perpetual terror threat to its territory, the U.S. Security expenses have exponentially increased in the last decade. Amid this, stripping away the right to seize personal devices from Border Control might pose serious security threats. The Border Control could potentially miss out on evidence related to a terror attack. Furthermore, too many hurdles in the way members of the government agencies function can lead to red-tapism. Imposing too many regulations on private companies can hurt the free market and the government has no business in asking private companies to act in a certain way.

 

References:

U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice programs. Bureau of justice assistance. Justice Information Sharing. Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA).

How the Government Can Collect Your Personal Information Without a Warrant.

How Engineering’s Blind Spot Creates Runaway Monopolies

Markets, Self-Regulation, and Government Enforcement in the Protection of Personal Information, in Privacy and Self-Regulation in the Information Age by the U.S. Department of Commerce. Department of Commerce.

Facebook’s Data Deals Are Under Criminal Investigation. New York Times. 

United States of Secrets (Part Two)

 

Academic Journals:

The Journal of Human Rights Practice, Pages 104–118,

Journal of Communication, Pages 26–53,

Journal of Human Rights Practice, Pages 104–118,

Sumeet Santani

Sumeet Santani

Sumeet Santani is a Second-year graduate student pursuing his M.S. in Information Management and Certification of Advanced Study in Data Science at the Syracuse University iSchool. He has over two years of professional experience in the IT industry specializing in data analytics, database management and data visualization and also has keen interest in information policy issues. He loves writing and has contributed to several publications and blogs since the beginning of his undergraduate college back in India.

More Posts