Government and Your Data

by on under projects
2 minute read

A couple of weeks ago Google released its Transparency Report, which presents data on the number of times a government has requested data on users or requested that content be taken down. A number of points have been made about this report by Wired, such as the increase in the number of data requests made by the U.S. government, the fact that Google is the only major Internet company that publishes this type of report, or the point that this report covers only a slice of all possible US government data requests. Personally, I think the best point to be made about the report is simply this: the government can access data about you from businesses.

What level of access the government should have to information about you is one of the great democratic questions of our time. There are legitimate societal reasons for allowing the government to access information about you, such as criminal investigations. For this reason, many federal and state laws regarding Internet privacy (eg. the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) and Minnesota's Internet Privacy law) include statements that allow information about users to be shared with certain government agencies under certain situations. Ideally these situations should require a warrant or a subpoena, but thanks to the Patriot Act, the ECPA, and a number of other buzz word laws and cases, various federal and state agencies can access a lot of information about you with little to no accountability.

As a result of these laws, nearly every website that has a terms of service or a privacy policy will include some note about how the site will share information about you, or information you have provided, with law enforcement and/or government agencies. Facebook's Data Use Policy includes this clause. Google's privacy policy also includes this clause, as well as Yahoo!'s. Therefore, via Terms, you as a user have consented to allowing your information to be shared with government agencies in certain situation with pretty much every website you have ever used.

The law allows government agencies to access data about you. Your consent to website terms allows government agencies to access data about you. This is not a comment on the state of citizen rights, nor is it an Orwellian critique of government surveillance. This is simply a reminder that if you put information online, or make use of Internet services, the possibility exists that the government can access that information for some compelling reason.

If there is information you do not want to government to get at, then don't put it on the Internet.

Internet Policy, Transparency, Surveillance
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