Are we being watched? Let us count the ways

06/14/2013 4:20 PM

06/15/2013 4:41 PM

Someone is watching you.

What you spend. Where you eat. Whom you call. Where you travel. What you Google. What you give to charity.

Recent reports of government access to records from phone companies, Internet providers and credit card companies raise anew questions of just how much other people can know about you.

They watch from the air, from cameras, from computers. And you help them, volunteering vast amounts of information about yourself in the magnetic stripe on the back of your credit card, the SIM card in your phone, the sites you visit on the Internet. The government has access to some of it — and might have access to more from the corporations that compile it.

U.S. officials insist they tap into only information that points at suspected terrorists and that there are plenty of safeguards to make sure they don't snoop on good guys. ( See interactive graphic )

"I want the American people to know that we're trying to be transparent here, protect civil liberties and privacy, but also the security of this country," Gen. Keith Alexander, head of the National Security Agency, told Congress on Wednesday.

He also acknowledged that the government could look at such things as phone records and what site someone Googled. All of it alarms civil libertarians.

"We don't want to live in a world where anytime you do anything, you have to stop and ask yourself, 'Could this come back to hurt me if somebody found out about it?' " said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union. "Because absolutely nothing we do is private."

Here are just some of the ways Americans can be watched.

INTERNET — If those Internet giants can record so much about you, who can look at this electronic diary? The government can access any emails, chats, searches, events, locations, videos, photos, log-ins and any information people post online with a warrant, which the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court can grant secretly.

EMAIL — The government also might be able to look at your email. A warrant can grant access to email sent within 180 days. Older emails are available with an easier-to-get subpoena and prior notice.

Government officials could read all the incoming and outgoing emails on an account in real time with a specific type of wiretap warrant, which is granted with probable cause for specific crimes such as terrorism.

Google received 16,407 user data requests involving 31,072 users from the U.S. government in 2012. It granted about 90 percent of those requests.

Microsoft, with its Outlook/Hotmail email service, received 11,073 requests involving 24,565 users, at least partially granting 65 percent of those requests.

PHONES — The NSA collects subscriber information from major cell phone carriers. This information is primarily based on metadata, such as location and duration of calls, along with numbers dialed, all in search of links to suspected terrorists.

In 2011, the last year with available information, law enforcement agencies made 1.3 million requests for subscriber information.

These government requests, from 2011 and more recently from the NSA, are limited to metadata. That doesn't mean the content of conversations is off-limits. To listen in, the government just needs a warrant, one that's granted through the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

The court approves almost every request, fully denying just nine out of 33,900 government applications for surveillance over its 33-year existence, according to Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act reports submitted to Congress.

CREDIT CARDS — It all starts with that stripe on the back of your card, which gets swiped through thousands of readers every year. That solid black bar is made up of millions of iron-based magnetic particles, each one 20-millionths of an inch wide. Each credit card owner has a personalized strip full of intimate data sitting right inside his or her pocket. Any purchase can be traced directly back to your wallet.

And the NSA is doing just that, according to The Wall Street Journal. Although the scope of credit card tracking efforts are unknown, the Journal reported that the NSA has established relationships with credit card companies akin to those they had established with phone carriers, which provide them with data under warrant, subpoena or court order.

CAMERAS — Whether they're walking to work, withdrawing money from an ATM or walking into their favorite local grocer, Americans could be within sight of one of the United States' estimated 30 million surveillance cameras.

Police use them to monitor streets, subways and public spaces. Homeowners put them on their houses. Businesses mount them in stores and on buildings.

DRONES — As many as 30,000 domestic drones will travel the sky above U.S. soil within 20 years, according to a report for Congress by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Gearing up, Congress has called on the FAA to integrate unmanned aircraft into the national air system even sooner, by 2015.

The FAA has approved domestic drone use by 81 agencies, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group of privacy advocates. Among the applicants approved: California State University, Fresno, and the University of California at Davis.

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