Everyone’s getting into the surveillance game these days. It started with Big Tech, then spread through the market to retail stores like Walmart and Ikea. But you probably didn’t expect your friendly neighborhood postman to join in.
Leaks to Yahoo! News revealed a wide-ranging domestic surveillance campaign, run by the United States Postal Service’s covert division, to monitor Americans’ social media activities to prevent “dangerous activities” like violent protests.
When the program leaked, the Post Office justified this surveillance by claiming it was necessary to protect postal workers. Call me crazy, but I didn’t think the Post Office delivered to active riots.
The Post Office has stepped way beyond just browsing social media. They’ve contracted, among others, Clearview AI. The company is infamous for its comprehensive database of nearly every American citizen built on data harvested from social media and online search results. With Clearview’s technology, the Post Office can match names and faces to other identifying information, allowing them to follow citizens across platforms.
Importantly, once this information is collected, it doesn’t stay with the Post Office. It gets uploaded to the intelligence-sharing networks at the Department of Homeland Security, where it can be used by agencies like CIA and FBI or local law enforcement.
Worse, once it’s gathered, these organizations could potentially use information from this Post Office operation to bypass limits on surveillance placed on them by federal, state or local law.
The world is growing less and less private, and big firms or small government agencies now have the resources to watch everyone at least some of the time. Just about the only limitation on government surveillance left standing is the secret court that approves over 99 percent of NSA spying requests. The possibilities for authoritarian government seem almost limitless.
In the United States, Constitutional protections for people to be “secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects” were written not because their authors sympathized with criminals, but because they knew the risk of unconstrained dictatorship to their citizens.
Despite our democratic underpinnings, we are not so perfect that police don’t use illegally wiretapped surveillance data in court. And we may not be immune from the risk of a petty tyrant forever.
Part of the reason that these programs are able to exist and operate with near impunity is because the system currently does not have a good way of pumping the brakes on the ability of the government to be an early adopter of technologies.
Libertas Institute has worked extensively on this issue. During this past legislative session, the legislature unanimously passed HB 243, Privacy Protection Amendments, by Representative Francis Gibson. It sets up a more transparent and proactive process when it comes to government entities wanting to acquire and use technologies that may have privacy or civil liberties implications.
If Richard Nixon were president today, he wouldn’t have needed to hire goons to break into the Watergate Hotel and steal DNC documents. Instead, he would have phoned the head of the NSA and demanded his enemies’ private information. He would’ve released it to trusted sources to win re-election, and likely never been caught. That is the risk we run when we give every agency in America the power to spy on its citizens.
And it’s that risk that, sooner or later, will catch up to us.
John Croxton is a Policy Research intern with the Libertas Institute, a free-market think tank in Utah. He is currently working on a Master’s degree in economics at George Mason University.
To learn more about government use of technology, be sure to read our policy brief, Protecting the Right to Privacy in a Digital Era.