Like never before, the compilation of information has increased exponentially with every passing year. In recent years, more personal information has been cataloged than perhaps all of the prior centuries combined. Despite the privacy importance of this data, many policymakers have done very little to protect this data from the eye of Big Brother.
Fundamentally, most consumer electronic data reside under the electronic access of companies (such as in a cloud). While some of the data is under the sole control of individuals, most of the data is stored by companies that utilize the data in various ways. In cases of government surveillance, these companies may be all but forced to turn over their user data, without a warrant in some cases.
This brings up the fundamental question of data innovations and protection from the eye of big government. It is important to consider why data privacy is important for consumers. Rather than just simply being “users” within a broad tech ecosystem, these are individuals with their own personal lives. In light of this increased use of consumer data, there is a need for protection from government itself. There are several reasons for this.
Fundamentally, it is important to note that without the proper safeguards, every technological advancement in data collection and usage is a potential tool in the hands of government. We see this in the surveillance state of communist China. As innovation increases, the different levels of available information increase as well. While technological data collection was more limited in former days, even fingerprints and retinal scan data have become commonly harvested in the wake of new biometric technologies.
In order to grasp how new technology can be improperly used by government without proper safeguards, an example from history demonstrates how the government can “innovate” to get electronic data about citizens. Rather than it being a trend that has started in the last generation or so, using private sector technology holdings as a doorway to surveillance goes back to prior centuries. In the 1800s, government agents developed the ability to tap into privately owned telegraph wires and listen in on conversations. By the Civil War, telegraph tapping was being used for military intelligence.
Such “new” technology for government surveillance that enabled listening in on real-time communication across long distances was a massive breakthrough. The difference is especially demonstrated when compared with the “surveillance” of the Founders’ day that involved British agents manually sifting through the mail bags attached to a saddle.
Despite the massive growth in government surveillance capabilities with the advent of the telegraph, it is important to note that Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, was not a government agent. Government surveillance innovators simply harnessed his technology. In fact, the vast majority of telegraph companies were owned and operated by private companies. While the technologies being used are different, this concept of using technology and data housed within the private sector as a means of government surveillance has not gone away.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and the telegraph has long fallen out of use. We live in a day when the free market has developed smartphones, facial recognition, fingerprint scanners, drones, location tracking, doorbell cameras, artificial intelligence, and a host of other technologies. Yet, the danger of the government indiscriminately using these new technologies to expand surveillance on its citizens has only increased.
Despite the danger of government being too indiscriminate, many companies that harvest or store user data have a history of providing government with user data, sometimes without even having a search warrant. One report that reviewed the number of law enforcement requests for data from several large technology companies found that 85 percent of the requests were granted.
In order to remedy this, some states are looking to implement proactive safeguards. Utah has passed legislation prohibiting the government from accessing data stored by a technology company unless a search warrant is issued. This provides a key balance, ensuring that new technology provides a platform for technological advancement, not an entry point for government intrusion.
Personal information might be kept on parchment paper written on with quill and ink, or it could be stored in complex data silos hosted in a digital cloud. Regardless of the technology being used, public policy should protect the freedom of Americans by protecting their data. The protection of personal information from undue government intrusion is a timeless part of the American ideal. In order to ensure that no technology becomes a “Trojan horse” to threaten this ideal, policies should be instituted that pro-actively ensure that the government cannot strong-arm technology companies into turning over user data without accountability.