How Much Does the Government Know About You?

If you think instances of government surveillance are isolated, you need to think again. It’s not a matter of if your online and offline activities are being tracked, it’s just a matter of when. And while you only have so much control over this fact, educating yourself can help you make wiser and more informed decisions.

American Concerns Over Privacy

If you feel like Big Brother is watching, you aren’t alone. It’s no longer just crazy old guys in tinfoil hats that are convinced the government is tracking and analyzing their every move. Thanks to recent developments and discoveries over the past few years -- including the Edward Snowden whistleblower incident -- millions of Americans have been forced to confront their past naivety and embrace the reality before them.

According to a recent Pew Research survey, a majority of Americans now believe their online and offline activities are being monitored by a variety of companies and organizations -- including some within the government. Interesting takeaways include:

  • 63 percent of Americans say it’s impossible to go through daily life without having the government collect their data.
  • 84 percent of Americans feel they have very little/no control over the data that the government chooses to collect.
  • 66 percent of Americans say the risks of collecting data about them outweigh the benefits.
  • 64 percent of Americans are somewhat/very concerned about how their data is used.
  • 78 percent of Americans have very little/no understanding of what the government does with the data that’s collected on them.

“There is also a collective sentiment that data security is more elusive today than in the past,” Pew Research explains. “When asked whether they think their personal data is less secure, more secure or about the same as it was five years ago, 70% of adults say their personal data is less secure. Only 6% report that they believe their data is more secure today than it was in the past.”

In other words, things are getting worse, not better. As technology advances and more of our lives are conducted online, data collection will continue to balloon. Whether that’s good or bad... we’ll let you be the judge of that.

What the Government Knows About You

Though we’ll never truly know how much the government knows about us as Americans, it’s clear that they know plenty. And that’s coming straight from the horse’s mouth.

According to the NSA, they’re already tracking/plan to track information like internet searches, emails sent and received, websites visited, blogging activity (including posts you read and comment on), social media activity, photos viewed online, videos watched, phone call records, video calls, online purchases, legal documents, financial information, travel documents, educational records, DNA, facial recognition, cable TV shows watched and recorded, health records, and more.

Their reasoning for collecting all of this data?

“There is no way to predict in advance which crucial piece of data will be the key to revealing a potential plot.”

Sounds reasonable, but also quite auspicious. The NSA is basically admitting that they collect a ton of information without much purpose or direction in the hopes that they can connect the dots in situations where a crime is about to occur/has occurred.

The NSA claims it treasures the U.S. Constitution and the rights of all people. It does so by keeping private data secured in a custom database software known as Cloudbase. This system has detailed security and control access all the way down to each individual cell.

While we’re talking about the United States, the truth is that government data collection is not a uniquely American issue. It’s something that crosses borders and languages. And it’s possible for one individual to have his or her information collected by multiple nations around the world.

Any time a global citizen enters into a new country, that nation takes the personal information from the application and puts it in a “data warehouse.” This information can then be used, shared, or accessed by the government and related entities in whatever way they see fit.

Staying Private and Safe

Let’s be clear about one thing up front: It’s nearly impossible for you to prevent the government from learning what they want to know about you. Unless you go off the grid and disappear from modern society, the government has the ability to keep tabs on you. (Whether or not they do anything with the information they collect is another matter.)

Having said that, it’s always wise to be thinking about how you can stay private and safe. Whether from government entities or companies that you do business with, here are some simple tactics you can use to keep your personal information more secure:

  • Always read private policies whenever you visit a website, download a piece of software, create an account, etc. It’s easy to skip over the fine print, but there may be valuable information inside.
  • When on public WiFi, always use a VPN to encrypt the data you’re sending over the network. (This probably won’t stop the government from collecting your information, but it will make it exponentially more difficult for hackers and other organizations to gather your data.)
  • Don’t overshare information on social media. While the government has plenty of powerful tools for collecting your data, social networking sites are among their favorite sources of information. The less you share, the less they know.

It’s not a matter of whether or not the government is collecting your information. It’s a matter of how much data they’re pulling and how it’s being used. Keep this in mind and try to be more intentional about your privacy moving forward.

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