Analysis: Government’s Vast Lockers of Data Threaten Basic Individual Freedoms

seewhatmitchsee/Shutterstock.com

Freedom is a joke when a life's history resides forever in a vast database.

I’m going to try to tie together strands of information NSA-style and see if a pattern emerges. I will be looking for signs that America’s historic definition and understanding of privacy are being eroded. I will also try to understand if that erosion could fundamentally alter an individual American’s relationship to government power.

Privacy is not the only definition of individual freedom. But freedom cannot exist in a world where search and seizure without suspicion or probable cause does. Freedom is merely a word, and its definition a putrid joke in a world where a life’s history—encoded in DNA alleles or via Internet or telephone communications—resides forever in a vast government database.

Last week visited upon the country the latest, but by no means the first, examples of ever-expanding government powers to collect data on innocents and keep it for extended periods of time and on the government’s terms. One example was surveillance. The other was in obtaining DNA swabs from arrestees. The first example raised considerable alarms. The second did not. Make no mistake, both are a threat to individual freedom, and both will feed the coming Storage Wars. Those wars will be fought over definitional American legal terrain—what that is uniquely yours belongs to you, and what belongs to the government for how long and why.

We learned last week about vast telephone tracking conducted by the National Security Agency. Then came revelations about PRISM, a massive Internet data-trolling system so successful in terms of intelligence aggregation that its handiwork routinely shows up in President Obama’s daily briefing.

The revelations generated global headlines and immediately revived a privacy-versus-government-power debate in hibernation since the first USA Patriot Act reauthorization battles in 2005 and 2006. But they shouldn’t have. More precisely, the revelations should not have surprised us. Consider the following paragraph, published in Wired magazine in March 2012, about a vast NSA data-collection center under construction in Bluffdale, Utah.

“In the process—and for the first time since Watergate and the other scandals of the Nixon administration—the NSA has turned its surveillance apparatus on the U.S. and its citizens. It has established listening posts throughout the nation to collect and sift through billions of e-mail messages and phone calls, whether they originate within the country or overseas. It has created a supercomputer of almost unimaginable speed to look for patterns and unscramble codes.”

The NSA facility will store a mind-boggling amount of information. Some estimates say the facility, due for completion in September, could hold a yoyobyte of data. It is beyond my ken to explain how big a yoyobyte is, but Forbes takes a pretty good crack at it. What all of us can do is wonder, and do so without a whiff of paranoia, about the frightening implications of a government-monitored, government-secured, and highly secret trove of personal data held in perpetuity in the name of public safety.

Those concerns grow when, as Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., alleges, those who sit atop the NSA data-collection system mislead Congress about the sweeping scope of its surveillance. When Wyden asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper if the NSA collected “any data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans,” Clapper said no. We’ve learned that was a lie. Clapper recently defended the answer as the “least untruthful” he could give. Reassurances about congressional oversight—which issue forth from the White House with metronomic monotony—are meaningless when direct questions are met with dishonest answers.

Does the surveillance work in stopping terrorist attacks? Yes, if you believe government explanations of the Najibullah Zazi bust. But even that story has holes.

The larger question is this: Can efficacy justify a gradual dismantling of liberty? Can it, and should it, erode or erase basic human aspiration, central to revolution and the Constitution, to own one’s humanity without government search, seizure, or perpetual data collection and storage? A government that promises near-perfect prevention of terrorism or crime will also demand near-endless compliance from you about access to all you do, say, think, write, spend, save, invest, imagine, live, and hope. It might also demand your genetic blueprint.

Which brings us to the Supreme Court decision in King v. Maryland. The 5-4 majority upheld a Maryland law that allows police to obtain a DNA swab of anyone arrested for a serious crime. The DNA swab is supposedly needed to identify the suspect. Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the dissent, destroyed that rationale. The court's decision may not be the last word on the government's ability to forcibly extract DNA from arrestees, but the decision will doubtless protect laws in 27 states and current federal law that condones the practice.

In fact, the U.S. Solicitor General, Donald Verrilli Jr., submitted a brief defending the Maryland law, and onPage 5 made clear that federal law is even more expansive than the Maryland one under court review. You may not know this, but the federal government has the power now to obtain a DNA swab from anyone it arrests on any charge (Maryland requires it only for serious felonies). The federal government can analyze the DNA evidence before the arrestee is even arraigned (Maryland waits until that first court appearance). And if you are arrested and swabbed by the federal government and exonerated, you must ask the government to erase its DNA file on you (Maryland does it without a formal request).

There are more than 4,500 federal crimes, and being arrested--not convicted or even arraigned, just arrested--for just one puts you on the fast track to swab-city. And if you are released and forget to ask for your DNA sample to be destroyed, it goes into a vast government database. Where nothing bad can happen, right?

Ask George Shirakawa Jr., and he can tell you of a case that reads like a farce but is disturbingly true. It's about how a DNA swab implicated him in a campaign fraud case through a single licked envelope. That linkage occurred only because a DNA database existed and Shirakawa allowed himself to be swabbed for crimes unrelated to the campaign caper--a felony caper. Shirakawa is not a sympathetic figure. But that's not the point. He was implicated in a crime authorities had no evidentiary basis for suspecting him of, and they only zeroed in on him because of warehoused DNA.

Since King v. Maryland, there has been much discussion about the regulatory search powers of government versus investigative searches and how arrests can be arbitrary and disproportionately affect minorities and the poor.

My concern is entering an era of phone tracking, data mining, and DNA collection in the name of public safety that has already and will, if not stopped, destroy any recognizable definition of individual liberty, privacy, and protection from abusive government monitoring. The repository of our freedom is the National Archives. The repository of a nagging, annoying, and possibly abusive security state will soon be finished in Utah. It may also reside in DNA databases of dubious utility. We are creating monuments not to our freedoms or the fights on behalf of freedom but to our ability to store yoyobytes on us all.

The NSA revelations are only part of the story. The Supreme Court is another. It’s all “legal.” But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a threat. It’s a threat as big as a yoyobyte.

This article appears in the June 12, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily as Storage Wars.

(Image via seewhatmitchsee/Shutterstock.com)

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.