On some level, if you ask a person if their smartphone data is being collected, they’ll say “yes.” Most people know their data is highly sought after by companies and governments. Nobody likes this, yet an increasing number of people use smartphone apps every day despite these known privacy risks.
However, people probably underestimate just how much data their government possesses and how this data is used. News reports about the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency shed light on just how far the government can reach.
Vice News reports that US CBP agents seize tens of thousands of devices every year from travellers, even when they aren’t near a border or haven’t been charged with a crime. Data from these devices is then uploaded into a searchable database and remains there for up to 75 years.
It’s known that governments collect data on citizens in the name of national security. However, recent changes have decentralized the process, creating potential scenarios where border agents can extract large quantities of sensitive information that has no bearing on their specific investigation.
While this agency claims that they limit access to trained forensic analysts, privacy advocates warn the scope of the data obtained remains large and that this agency has a history of overstepping. So long as the CPB can demonstrate the lowest burden of proof, “reasonable suspicion of a crime, the type of data they can access includes:
- GPS history
- Text messages
- Social media posts
- Financial accounts
- Transaction records
People uncomfortable with the idea of governments tracking their metadata should object to this even more. What could be a more flagrant privacy breach than government agents having full access to your private pictures and personal communications?
Activists worry that the CPB is stockpiling a centralized collection of data, which the government may then repurpose for unrelated matters down the road. The nightmare scenario where an initial government privacy invasion unfairly provides the basis for a second government overreach may seem far-fetched, but that it’s even plausible is a major red flag.
People need resources to help keep their information secure.
Buying Commercial Data
It’s possible that US border agents already have a cache of data on you, even if you have never interacted with one in person. The agency has location data on Americans from across the country, including those who don’t live near the border.
The US government doesn’t need to seize your device to obtain massive troves of your data. They also claim they don’t need a warrant, either.
CPB buys app location information from middlemen providers, who specialize in harvesting this data and selling it to law enforcement agencies so they can track individuals or groups. Venntel, one of these companies, sources their data from innocuous online apps countless people use every day:
Most people use these types of apps without giving them much thought. At worst, they may wonder what the app does with their data.
It’s bad enough that private companies obtain your data under one pretext and sell it to third-party advertisers without you knowing, but quietly selling it to law enforcement agencies is a problem of a higher magnitude.
While it’s likely that most people would object to this type of privacy invasion, it’s not clear the government is doing anything illegal. A group of Democratic senators are calling on the Department of Homeland Security to investigate.
But in an important sense, legality here is moot. It shouldn’t be comforting if these practices are ultimately illegal because the government has already participated in them for years. On the other hand, it’s even worse if the CPB hasn’t broken the law, and the government permits this type of invasive data gathering.
Whatever the investigation finds, people need a way to ensure their communication remains confidential.
Real-World Examples of Breaches
If you don’t even know who has your sensitive data, how can you trust how it’s being used or misused? Most people have never had the government breach their privacy, so fears about potential overreach may seem overblown to them.
Many activists and journalists know that the danger is all too real because they have experienced it first-hand.
In 2019, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) claimed the US government surveilled three not-for-profit organizers, who were on a list of more than 50 activists and journalists. The ACLU’s complaint alleges the activists’ relief efforts were hampered on both sides of the border, derailing their lives and work.
The CBP had defended the list, claiming the people on it were linked to the 2018 migrant caravan. However, there were activists on the list who had no prior experience working with anyone related to the caravan.
It’s unclear precisely what these activists did to draw the US government’s attention, but their privacy would have remained intact had they been using only encrypted communication solutions rather than third-party apps and web browsers.
Breaching Privacy is Non-Partisan
With a new Democratic administration set to take office in January 2021, it’s worth recalling that both political parties in the US have presided over enormous privacy breaches. The National Security Agency (NSA) has grown enormously since its founding in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, including under President Barack Obama.
In fact, one of Obama’s final acts as president was to allow the NSA to share its vast information-gathering network with 16 other agencies in the US intelligence community. It doesn’t matter who is in office: the government can access your data unless you take steps to prevent them from doing so.
Usually, the people interested in accessing your private communications are one step ahead of you. By the time you find out how far their reach is, it’s too late, and they’ve already violated your sensitive data. Check out these Myntex encryption success stories to learn more about how the market’s best encryption, vital security measures that patch up any remaining susceptibilities, and safe and reliable data storage have made an impact. Keeping data private is something you will like.