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Suspicion of Government Surveillance Increasing

by Anthony W. Accurso

The concern among Republicans and right-leaning independent voters that federal law enforcement agencies—particularly the FBI—are becoming politicized is driving an increase in the distrust these Americans have that these agencies will abuse access to personal data.

Traditional conservative voters in America have, for decades, reliably supported increases in federal law enforcement budgets and capabilities. These increases have historically been framed as a means of ensuring community and national safety, as these voters trusted agencies like the FBI to protect them from “dangerous people.”

However, the GOP has moved towards a populist approach to politics while expressing strong support for former president Donald Trump. Following the FBI raid on Trump’s Mar-A-Lago residence in connection with the mishandling of classified documents, a separate prosecution of Trump for attempting to interfere with the transfer of power in 2020, and a multitude of right-leaning political figures being prosecuted in connection with the events of January 6 at the U.S. Capitol building, Republicans as well as privacy-minded individuals across the political spectrum have awakened to the possibility of law enforcement abusing access to the personal data collected by big tech companies.

“Americans—particularly Republicans—have grown more concerned about how the government uses their data,” noted a poll released in late 2023 by Pew Research. “The share who say they are worried about government use of people’s data has increased from 64% in 2019 to 71% today.” The pollsters observed that about “two-thirds of Democrats and Democrat-leaners share those concerns, though the number has remained steady since” 2019.

Whatever the reasons for the shift, it is definitely warranted. An October 13, 2023, article published in The Wall Street Journal warned that “[I]nformation from mobile phone apps and advertising networks paints a richly detailed portrait of the online activities of billions of devices.” This data, though it is unavailable to law enforcement absent a warrant when acquired directly from telecom companies, is available for sale through data brokers after being anonymized. Several agencies have claimed that because this information is available for sale, a warrant is not required to obtain it. This can include “credit histories, insurance claims, criminal records, employment histories, incomes, ethnicities, purchase histories, and interests.” Finally, when “combined with classified data in government hands, it can yield an even more detailed picture of an individual’s behaviors both online and in the real world,” effectively deanonymizing it and allowing for an unprecedented intrusion into the private lives of Americans, all without a warrant or even individualized suspicion.

Several bills that would end this practice, such as The Fourth Amendment is Not For Sale Act, have languished in Congress for several years running. But maybe, if enough Americans express their disapproval for abuses by agencies like the FBI, we can limit or end this gaping loophole in the Fourth Amendment.  



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