In 1967, Stephen Stills sang the words “Paranoia strikes deep, Into your life it will creep,” in the hit song “For What It’s Worth,” which he penned for the band Buffalo Springfield.
More than 50 years later, it’s no stretch to feel the same sentiment when considering how much information is readily available about practically everyone on the planet. Somewhere there is documentation of things even (especially!) your mother doesn’t know — from where you drove when you were supposed to be at work or school, to the image depicted in that cheeky little tattoo that seemed like such a great idea at the time.
The government, from the community to the federal level, gathers a lot of data, and not just by way of intelligence agencies. When you pay taxes, register to vote, get a driver’s license, have mail delivered or send your kids to school, you’re providing info about yourself and likely your family to a government entity. Laws regulate who can access much of that data, including whether it can be shared with law enforcement or between federal agencies. Recently, there has been an increase in inter-agency collaboration, permitting different government entities to combine data and build more detailed personal profiles than each division could have accomplished on its own.
The more agencies have a person’s information, the more likely it is for it to be mishandled in some way. With the widespread use of the internet, identity theft has become much more common. Even though victims can be targeted from across the globe, reports of this kind of crime are not evenly dispersed across the country — these are the states with most and least identity theft.
While some people tend to worry about the Big Brother effect of governmental data gathering, we give up a lot of information voluntarily, through sharing on social media, accepting privacy policies and terms of service, and applying for credit or college. Whether we share with vendors, credit bureaus, ISPs, or the world at large, there’s someone collecting the info and aggregating it. Individual companies have privacy policies, but these guidelines do not have the power of law. Unlike the government, anyone who has access to these commercial databases can pretty much use them as they please — including providing the content to law enforcement and intelligence agencies, often without a warrant or court order.
This sharing may be a plus in IDing and tracking bad actors, but it’s not necessarily so great for the rest of us. Innocent communications and purchases, research projects, ironic or sarcastic comments and even kludgy auto-corrects could seem to add up to something they’re not.
Here, we detail some of the types of personal data the government has access to, and how the various agencies go about acquiring it. Some of it can make Stills’ half-century-old concerns feel rather quaint.