Government Surveillance is on the Rise

BY T.J. GREEN — Your e-mails, text, messages, online photos, and social network postings are not as private as you think.

In wake of the sex scandal involving former CIA Director General David Patraeus, Google released its semi-annual Transparency Report and one thing has become clear: “Government surveillance is on the rise.”

According to the Google report, government demands for user data has increased steadily since it first launched the Transparency Report three years ago.  In the first half of 2012, there were 20,938 inquiries from government entities around the world. That is up from 13,424 requests made over the same period in 2010.
With the internet becoming an “increasingly monitored sphere,” advocates of civil liberties have questioned whether unaccountable surveillance of personal information kept on the web is in fierce breach of protections guaranteed under Fourth Amendment rights.

The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, and requires any warrant to be judicially certified and be supported by probable cause.

The piece of legislation at the heart of the issue is the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (“ECPA”), passed in 1986. As technology has advanced, these laws have become outdated creating loopholes that allow government and law enforcement agencies to request private information and conduct electronic surveillance without warrants. Under the EPCA, federal authorities need only a subpoena approved by a federal official — not a judge — to obtain electronic messages that are six months old or older.

Public interest groups are pressing Congress for the law to be updated because it was written a quarter-century ago when most emails were deleted after a few months due to the lack of storage capacity. Now, “cloud computing” services provide vast amounts of inexpensive storage capacity. In addition, other technological advances, such as cell phones, have dramatically increased the amount of personal data that is kept in electronic warehouses which can be reviewed by law enforcement authorities carrying a subpoena.

“Technology has evolved in a way that makes the content of more communications available to law enforcement without judicial authorization, and at a very low level of suspicion,” said Greg Nojeim, a senior counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology.

The United States Justice department is fiercely against any revisions to the ECPA that would require more warrants for private electronic data.

Private electronic messages are not the only thing Congress has authorized the government to bypass the Fourth Amendment to obtain. With an administrative subpoena, banks, hospitals, bookstores, telecommunication companies and even utilities providers – virtually all businesses – are required to hand over sensitive data on individuals, as long as the government states the information is relevant to an investigation. For example, mobile carriers responded to a shocking 1.3 million law enforcement requests last year for subscriber information, including text messages and phone location data, according to data provided to Congress.

As the nation’s top spy chief found out, if the government has an interest, no one is protected from the hazards of keeping private information on the web.

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