Special Report

Surprising Things the US Government Knows About You

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1. Social media posts

Many of us bemoan our preoccupation with social media, reviling it as a time waster or justifying it as a way to keep in touch, a source of inspiration and a font of valuable information. The Department of Homeland Security agrees with us about that last part, at least. In 2012, in responding to a lawsuit filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the agency copped to searching for keywords while monitoring sites such as Facebook and Twitter for at least 18 months. Last year, DHS put First Amendment activists on alert by proposing a program to track, monitor, catalog and mine content posted by social media influencers.

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2. Email history and transcripts

Thanks to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, government entities such as the National Security Agency don’t need a warrant to monitor communications of people in the U.S. and beyond. Emails of Americans who are not targeted for surveillance can be gathered as byproducts of other investigations, a privacy violation at best. While the stated goal is keeping an eye on communications relevant to U.S. foreign affairs to protect national security, a loophole permits monitoring of virtually anyone outside the country, including journalists, political and human rights activists, lawyers, scientists, students and businesspeople.

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3. Browsing history

Going back to the last century, government agencies, including the FBI and the National Security Agency, have been interested in what we’re viewing on our computers. The Federal Communications Commission’s internet privacy rules were intended to limit what companies could do with information like customer browsing habits, app usage history, location data and social security numbers. With the 2017 repeal of the internet privacy law, telecom companies are now permitted to collect and sell their customers’ private online usage information. While the repeal is said to be a boon for targeted advertising, there’s nothing to block broadband companies from selling data to the highest bidder.

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4. Exact location

In 2012 the Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement can’t put a GPS tracker on someone’s vehicle without a warrant. But because of our cars and our phones, some of us have a GPS on us at all times. We’re constantly trackable by government agencies, since the U.S. government owns the Air Force-operated navigation system. Even turned off GPS-bearing devices can still ping wi-fi networks and cell towers within range, revealing our whereabouts. You may also want to think twice when an app asks you to OK your location data. Third-party data — that is, info shared with someone else — is deemed no longer private and can be obtained without a warrant.

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5. Charitable donations

The IRS learns about our charitable contributions through our itemized tax returns; plus charities themselves are required to file a Schedule of Contributors, aka Form 990 Schedule B, listing contributions received, with donors’ names and addresses. The IRS can share that info with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, if they have a court order. The Treasury Department recently exempted certain nonprofits from revealing donor names and addresses, explaining in a press release that “the IRS makes no systematic use of Schedule B with respect to these organizations in administering the tax code.”