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Imagine the government is constantly monitoring you — keeping track of every person ...
Imagine the government is constantly monitoring you — keeping track of every person
you call or email, every place you go, everything you buy, and more — all without getting
a warrant. And when you challenge them, they claim you have no right to expect this kind
of information to be private. Besides, they’re not actually listening to what you say or
reading what you write, so what’s the big deal anyhow?
Unfortunately, this scenario is more real than imaginary. Government agencies ranging from the NSA to
local police departments have taken advantage of weak or uncertain legal protections for “metadata” —
descriptive information about our phone calls, emails, location, purchases, and more — to sweep up vast
amounts of information about innocent Americans without a warrant.
Limited privacy protections for metadata may have made sense decades ago when technology to collect
and analyze data was virtually nonexistent. But in today’s “big data” world, non-content does not mean
non-sensitive. In fact, new technology is demonstrating just how sensitive metadata can be: how friend
lists can reveal a person’s sexual orientation, purchase histories can identify a pregnancy before any
visible signs appear, and location information can expose individuals to harassment for unpopular
political views or even theft and physical harm.
Two separate committees assembled by the executive branch — the President’s Review Group on
Intelligence and Communications Technology and the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board —have
joined lawmakers, academics, and judges in calling for a reevaluation of the distinction between content
and metadata. This paper examines how new technologies and outdated laws have combined to make
metadata more important and more vulnerable than ever, and proposes a way forward to ensure that all
of our sensitive information gets the privacy protection it deserves.
A REPORT BY THE
ACLU OF CALIFORNIA
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