Database Nation: What’s On Your Laptop?

According to CNN earlier this month, the FBI wants to cook up a gigantic biometric database of peoples’ prints, eye scans, tattoos, face shapes, walk patterns, etc. Of course, they don’t plan to have only criminals in the database, but job seekers and the like — maybe eventually everyone.
biometric database
According to the FBI, more than half of the queries to the current fingerprint database are not for criminal investigations at all, but run on normal people applying to work in an old folk’s home or with kids or in another sensitive job. Even if the applicant doesn’t match up to any criminal prints, their information might be added to the database and store. The FBI is planning a service for employers to request the FBI to keep applicant biometrics on file and to inform them if the employee ever commits a crime. The FBI says it would require applicants signing a waiver to allow this, but if it’s a condition of employment — especially if it becomes a standard condition of employment — then there isn’t a lot of real choice for the applicants.

But, of course, the government is not just compiling data from job applicants. This month the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a lawsuit against the government to force disclosure of border search policies. Apparently lots of normal people at airports and borders have been forced to disclose their login passwords, to allow their laptop data (including web searches, emails and address books) to be copied, to let agents go through their cell phone numbers and text messages (taking out SIM cards).

No suspicion of criminal activity needed. The government claims that it has the authority to look at all your electronic information (even that which is password protected) when you travel abroad. Doesn’t matter if you have sensitive personal information, or business information you are legally required not to share.

Shirin Sinnar, a staff attorney with the Asian Law Caucus, said that by scrutinizing the Web sites people search and the phone numbers they’ve stored on their cellphones, “the government is going well beyond its traditional role of looking for contraband and really is looking into the content of people’s thoughts and ideas and their lawful political activities.”

No one knows how long the data they have copied is stored. Is it all going into a big database? It’s plausible, given programs like CAPPS II. That is why the Electronic Frontier Foundation is filing lawsuit — the government so far has ignored Freedom of Information Act requests to provide information about what they are doing with all this data.

So for now a lot of businesses are storing all their information on company servers and having employees log in remotely over securely encrypted channels, rather than storing any information on the company laptop.

These days a lot of our memories, plans, ideas and other thoughts are externalized and distributed across technology (a post-it note with a to-do list is just a memory extension, and sometimes more reliable than the memory system built into our neurons). Given that, maybe in the near future, the only way to keep your thoughts private from government scrutiny will be strong encryption. Are we nearing the days of crypto-anarchism?

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