Special Report

Surprising Things the US Government Knows About You

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11. Tattoos

Law enforcement has kept track of distinctive physical characteristics such as tattoos for a long time; they’re even documented among descriptions on vintage “Wanted” posters from past centuries. The skin art of anyone who has been in prison is likely tracked on the FBI’s Tattoo Recognition Database. Just because you have a clean arrest record doesn’t mean your personal embellishments are not part of the public record: Advanced tattoo recognition technology is being developed by the FBI in collaboration with government researchers. That funky design or graceful character that caught your eye may cause law enforcement to connect you with “gangs, sub-cultures, religious or ritualistic beliefs, or political ideology.”

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12. Student loan payment status and payment history

It’s bad enough to be burdened with the millstone of student debt into the foreseeable future, but that information will also make its way onto your credit report, including details about your balance, payment schedule and whether you’ve fallen behind. Government agencies have access to your credit report. The Department of Education’s National Student Loan Data System tracks loan status, enrollment, contact information and more. In recent years, government agencies have become more efficient at sharing info with other departments, creating detailed “mosaic” portraits with aggregated data, which could include details culled from student loan forms.

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13. Education history, including class enrollment

Attending a public school? There’s a good chance the government knows what classes you’re taking. If you’re ordering textbooks or tutorials online, that info can be shared, too, which would be a good tip off as to your curriculum. The Department of Education’s National Student Loan Data System likely has your course info, too. Not to worry, they only share it with “individuals that need the information to calculate your future aid eligibility, or to resolve questions about your loans or grants on a need-to-know basis.”

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14. Medical history, medications

The Social Security Administration keeps records of those enrolled in medicare, medicaid and those who have applied for disability benefits. OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, is likely to be on the case if you have reported a workplace accident. We have all signed the HIPAA form at the doctor’s office, but that may not keep our medical info as confidential as you’d imagine. Law enforcement and child protection agencies, for example, may have access, though a subpoena may be required. Ordering medications online or even just searching for certain conditions and illnesses are likely to leave a traceable trail in browser histories, which ISPs and others have been known to share with law enforcement and government agencies such as the FBI and NSA. The government is also getting more efficient at inter-agency data sharing.

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15. Books read, passages highlighted in e-readers

While e-book sellers such asAmazon may say in their privacy policies that they’ll only give up your private info if presented with a court order, technically there’s no law prohibiting them from sharing that data. If you’re reading on a Kindle or a companion app, Amazon knows what you’re reading, right down to what page you’re on, what you’ve highlighted, your favorite time of day for reading, and any notes you’ve made. It may be time to make friends with your local library. In all 50 states, a court order is usually required to access your library records. So far only a few states have similar protection for ebooks, so you may decide to make a policy of going straight to the hard copies and studying the old-school way.