10 Ways The Government Watches You


In the decade since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the size and scope of the U.S. national-security apparatus has greatly expanded.

The trigger of that growth was the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 — more commonly known as the Patriot Act — which Congress overwhelmingly approved in the weeks following 9/11.

Since its inception, the Patriot Act has been controversial, and some argue that it is an attack on the freedoms protected in the Bill of Rights. In May of this year, two Democratic members of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee said “Americans would be appalled if they knew how broadly the Justice Department has interpreted what the law allows government snoops to do.”

Nevertheless, President Barack Obama and Congress extended several key provisions in the Patriot Act until 2015. While some in Congress want to overturn the provisions or require the government to be more honest about how it spies on its citizens, chances are we will remain under the watchful and secretive eye of federal agencies for the foreseeable future.

State and local governments also have surveillance measures in place. Many products that make life a little easier, such using an E-Z Pass card to zip through toll booths, feed information back to the government.

Here are 10 ways government agencies watch us:

 Telephone tapping equipment used by the Czech security services during the 1960s. Credit: Wikipedia user Shaddack


Roving John Doe wiretaps. One of the controversial Patriot Act provisions reauthorized this past spring permits roving John Doe wiretaps, which follow a “person of interest” within a broad search warrant.

For example, instead of getting a warrant  to tap into a single phone line,  the roving John Doe wiretap allows law enforcement to tap any and all communication lines — cellphone, landline, email, text messaging — a person of interest may be using.



FBI monitoring of email and electronic communications. The FBI implemented a system in the late 1990s known as Carnivore, which scanned emails en masse looking for keywords. It’s since been replaced by even more sophisticated software.

“Carnivore uses a list of FBI-supplied keywords to sift through email (maybe everybody’s email) to find suspicious references to call FBI attention to possibly nefarious conversations going on across the Internet,” explained Joe B. Vaughan, Jr., author of “The Suburban Manifesto: How To Get City Hall To Do Exactly What You Want” (CreatePress, 2010).

“The FBI would use this program to track terrorists, drug traffickers, etc.,” Vaughan said. “I had a conversation with an FBI agent about this. He said that this technology is necessary because of the impossible task of monitoring all of the email traffic occurring daily by federal authorities. Carnivore sifts email and when it finds matching keyword references, the FBI can zero in on the sender and receiver and monitor their email conversations more effectively.”

Caption: A red-light camera in Chicago.


License-plate cameras at intersections. In order to crack down on drivers running red lights or committing other traffic transgressions, many municipalities have installed cameras at intersections.

The camera snaps a picture of the offending vehicle,  and based on license-plate information, the photo and an accompanying traffic ticket are sent to the car’s owner.

“The offense, by the way, is usually never entered in the driver’s record, so their insurance rate usually will not increase for the violation — just a way for cities to make more revenue from drivers’ mistakes,” said Vaughan.

Surveillance cameras in public places. In August, Detroit officials announced that the city would be operating 350 security cameras in the central business district, joining dozens of American cities that use surveillance cameras to help prevent crime.

Cameras are installed in areas that have a history of criminal activities or in areas where crowds regularly gather — downtown, public parks or subway stations, for example. The cameras also record the everyday activities of law-abiding citizens, many of whom are unaware they are being watched.

Geolocation tracking on cellphones. GPS on a smartphone is one of life’s greatest inventions — in the palm of your hand, you can get directions from Point A to Point B, or let friends know your current location.

But that same GPS also lets law enforcement officials know where you are. The American Civil Liberties Union has requested information from 31 states for details about how law enforcement uses cellphone location data and how frequently it is gathered. The federal government has also admitted that it has the authority to track citizens using cellphone data.

An E-ZPass transponder used in Indiana.


Electronic toll collectors. For those who frequently drive on toll roads on the East Coast, getting an E-ZPass saves both time and the need to have a cup holder filled with quarters for the commute to work. The same is true of similar systems, such as TxTag in Texas or FasTrak in California.

All of these, as well more than a dozen other systems in North America, work using radio frequency identification (RFID). The passes communicate with readers at tollbooths, and the readers both debit the passes’ prepaid balances and keep a record of when and where the transaction occurred.

However, that recordkeeping raises privacy and security concerns. Police can use electronic toll-collection information to track a person’s whereabouts. Divorce lawyers can also use the records in court.

“It’s an easy way to show you took the off-ramp to adultery,” one divorce lawyer told the Associated Press in 2007.



Business records. Section 215 of the Patriot Act allows the FBI and other federal law-enforcement entities to subpoena a business or person for any “tangible thing” related to an authorized terrorism investigation. The FBI can ask for bank statements, library records, medical records, business papers — any paper trail left by the person or business. Law enforcement does not have to have to show any probable cause to request the information.

Firefighters in New York’s Times Square investigate a smoking SUV, at right, that was soon found to contain an un-exploded bomb, on May 1 2010.

The “Lone Wolf” provision of the Patriot Act. The government recognizes that terrorists, such as the Pakistani man who tried to blow up Times Square in 2010, do not always operate as part of a larger group, and such “Lone Wolves” are currently considered one of the top terror threats. A “Lone Wolf” provision was added to the Patriot Act in 2004 and permits the government to conduct intelligence investigations without the traditional burden of proof.

The “Secure Communities” initiative. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency works with state and city law enforcement  to share resources on noncitizens who have committed crimes. According to the ICE website, Secure Communities “uses an already-existing federal information-sharing partnership between ICE and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) that helps to identify criminal aliens without imposing new or additional requirements on state and local law enforcement.

“For decades, local jurisdictions have shared the fingerprints of individuals who are booked into jails with the FBI to see if they have a criminal record. Under Secure Communities, the FBI automatically sends the fingerprints to ICE to check against its immigration databases.

“If these checks reveal that an individual is unlawfully present in the United States or otherwise removable due to a criminal conviction, ICE takes enforcement action — prioritizing the removal of individuals who present the most significant threats to public safety as determined by the severity of their crime, their criminal history, and other factors — as well as those who have repeatedly violated immigration laws.”

However, a number of states and cities tried to opt out of Secure Communities because of the concern that people would be deported without criminal proceedings and that the program might infringe on civil liberties. The federal government vetoed their efforts.

Biometric identification. Biometric identification uses  a scan of a part of the body — a fingerprint, the iris of the eye, or the voice, for example — as a verification tool. Instead of typing in a password or swiping a card to log into a computer or enter a building, you would use your body.

Many security experts believe this is the most secure type of authentication available, and governments are taking advantage of this technology. The Department of Homeland Security has developed a standard for biometric identification for visitors to the United States, and the Department of Defense is providing the Army with a toolkit to do biometric identification in the field.