TSA Gone Wild: 8 Unexpected Ways the Government is Spying on You


Near-constant surveillance is the new normal. We’ve come to expect it. On the bus to work, I used to take note of the number of speed and surveillance cameras, private and public, along the two-mile route. My tally passed eleven, then twelve, then thirteen, then I lost count. 

Most of us regard the trend as inevitable, save a few reactionaries like one Maryland resident who’s taken to destroying them (that won’t work because municipal governments can just respond as Prince George’s county is, by buying cameras to watch the cameras). Perhaps it is. But the voting public might be a bit more outraged if they were aware of the extent of government surveillance that goes on without their knowledge. Here are eight examples: 

1) Cell Phone Tracking

The Supreme Court ruled in January that law enforcement couldn’t attach GPS tracking devices to cars without a warrant. But if perp in question has a GPS-equipped smart phone, that might not even be necessary. Last year, cell phone companies responded to 1.2 million information requests from law enforcement, according to the New York Times. Not all of them required warrants, and GPS data was frequently a subject of the requests. A federal appeals court reaffirmed last month that warrantless tracking was permissible under the Constitution.

2) Accidental Military Drone Surveillance 

The Air Force occasionally operates domestically for training purposes, missions pertaining to disaster relief, and to do a handful of other things. As drones have become a permanent part of the military infrastructure, it’s reasonable to expect they will have a role in the future for some of those same types of domestic missions. Drones belonging to intelligence agencies and the military aren’t supposed to photograph citizens in this country, but should they do so by accident, they have three months to get rid of them. As Wired’s Spencer Ackerman put it, “if an Air Force drone accidentally spies on an American citizen, the Air Force will have three months to figure out if it was legally allowed to put that person under surveillance in the first place.” In the meantime, whatever the drone collects could be turned over to domestic law enforcement with a court order. Privacy rules for domestic drones will likely be different.

3) Reading Your Social Media

Use words like “riot,” “pipe bomb,” “plume,” “toxic” or “chemical burn” in a tweet or status update and there’s a decent chance it will get picked up by DHS contractors who are paid to monitor social media. Technically, this data is usually supposed to be stripped of information that can identify individuals, but there are exceptions. In January, the FBI put out a call for an “Open Source and social media alert, mapping, and analysis application solution,” which is to say, software that processes tweets and status updates.

4) X-Ray Vans

You know those TSA X-Ray machines? Imagine one of those, but twice as powerful and on a truck. While the main customer for Z-Backscatter Vans has been the military, domestic law enforcement agencies including the NYPD have been getting in on the action too.

5) Recording Your Calls

Project ECHELON was originally a cold-war era intelligence collaboration between the United States and several allies to monitor Soviet diplomatic and military goings-on. Today, it’s the same system by which, if you live in New Jersey or anywhere else on the East Coast and your French expatriate uncle calls, a copy of your call is taken at a West Virginia communications installation. Congress may have struck it down and Total Information Awareness written off as a Bush-era extravagance, but the same ideas are embodied in today’s incarnation of ECHELON and the Utah Data Center, for which the NSA wisely chose a less creepy name.

6) Warrantless Wiretapping

This Wednesday, the House voted to reauthorize the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendments Act, which allows for warrantless wiretapping of American citizens. Julian Sanchez explores some of the dimensions of the law and why politicians can’t seem to get their heads around the issue.

7) License Plate Readers

Search the term on Google News and you’ll get a slew of clippings from small town papers and not-so-small town papers that have jumped on the license plate-reading bandwagon recently. A Freedom of Information Act request by EPIC revealed the extent of monitoring by Customs and DHS officials, and that they shared the information with a nonprofit representing a consortium of insurance companies. In Tiburon, California, readers were installed a few years ago at the only two roads leading into the town, thereby allowing the local police department to keep tabs on all traffic going in or out.

8) Facial Recognition

The FBI is powering ahead with its Next Generation Identification program that will include facial recognition software and a database of millions of individuals. The New Scientist adds, “images of a person of interest from security cameras or public photos uploaded onto the internet could be compared against a national repository of images held by the FBI.”

It ain’t a panopticon, but it’s close. But what can you do, really? The troubling thing is, given how little our lawmakers seem to know or care about privacy issues, a petition asking them to reconsider their positions on government surveillance is as dead a letter as the Fourth Amendment.