Does the government know too much about you?

National Freedom of Information Day is a recognized national holiday observed only in the United States. However, there’s a very similar day recognized by UNESCO called International Right to Know Day. Both of these days have much in common, and both of these days fight for the same goal, but they’re celebrated on different dates and by different organizations and countries.

National Freedom of Information Day was observed on 16 March, and for this reason, we want to give you a short introduction to this important occasion, and write an article in a slightly different style as we tell you more about rights related to personal data.

History of the #FreedomOfInformationDay

We celebrate this Day on the birthday of the fourth President of the United States, James Madison, Father of the Constitution. President Madison is a very important figure in the history of the United States. During his presidency and active political life, he held the idea of a transparent and open government very dear. It took about 12 years for the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to be formally passed by Congress in 1966. Madison, who was president from 1809 to 1817, was an active advocate for transparency of government, free speech, and openness.

However, he wasn’t the one who established the National Freedom of Information Day. He was rather the inspiration for it. The holiday was created by radio host Jim Bohannon and is recognized by several U.S. government organizations, even though it’s not considered a federal holiday.

FOI Act and its counterparts in the rest of the world

The Freedom of Information Act is a United States federal law. This law ensures that U.S. citizens have the right to access information stored by federal agencies. The FOI Act gives the right to access information stored by certain agencies of the U.S. Government to everyone, regardless of their nation, citizenship status, or criminal record.

At the present day, there are over 100 countries with laws similar to the FOI Act. This freedom of information legislations provide similar rights to access government data to the laws currently applied in the US. The common ground of all of these laws is that the burden of proof falls on the body asked for information, not the person asking for it.

What type of data do governments collect about you?

We live in a society where personal data is used not only to provide but to deny services. Knowing this, aren’t you curious to find out what your government knows about you? The answer is simple; they know everything.

Information about citizens is collected by several agencies such as law enforcement agencies, Revenue Service, Department of Housing, or Social  Offices.

Here’s a very short list of some information your government can have about you:

  • Name
  • Social and Tax Number
  • Age, birth date, and place of birth
  • Ethnicity
  • Current, past, and temporary addresses.
  • Marital status
  • Family and household ties
  • Your income and its source

And the list goes on. However, this information isn’t accessible to just anyone working for the government. It’s safely stored and protected with very limited access. Even law enforcement agencies usually do not have a legal right to access citizens’ information without court approval in countries with existing Freedom of Information laws.

Risk of storing masses of sensitive data

Everything that your government has ever captured about you has to be stored somewhere. Servers and databases, or simply just a pile of paper. Various government agencies are well-known as fairly regular victims of data leaks and breaches. With the amount of information the government surveillance systems capture, attackers can receive information about your whole life, and much more.

On top of the risk of the third party breach, we have a risk of governments willingly sharing, or even re-selling information to third parties. All of this without the approval of its citizens, or even knowledge about such practices. There are several publicly disclosed scandals that include citizens’ data leaving public agencies. One of the most controversial ones being the UK’s government sharing information about UK schoolchildren to third-party researchers. More “popular” scandals involve even private companies, namely Google, which paid Royal Free Hospital in London for a copy of medical records to use with their DeepMind AI project.

Are these laws followed by everyone?

Human rights and the laws affecting them are rapidly improving, while at the same time being breached without visible slowdown.
Freedom of information — to seek, receive, and impart information about you held by the government — is already recognized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but exceptions are still being made. Public authorities can reject your request for several reasons created by the respective bodies. This allows public authorities to avoid providing information under a few sometimes flimsy circumstances. Some of them, as listed by the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office, allow the refusal of a request for these reasons:

  • It would cost too much or take too much staff time to deal with the request.
  • The request is vexatious.
  • The request repeats a previous request from the same person.

Each country and public body has its own set of refusal rules, with some quite unspecific. By having these rules they’re able to reject your request very often for genuine reasons, but they can also be abused to prevent you from accessing the information that you requested. Abuse of power is not an unheard of practice in government agencies.

Abuse of power and shady practices of federal agencies were revealed several times by whistleblowers. However, there might not currently be one on such a scale as Edward Snowden’s revelations. He revealed that there were certain federal agencies that did not require any court approval at all. This information was more closely described by the ex-NSA contractor in his Q&A with The Guardian. Snowden willingly leaked details about NSA led surveillance, and disclosure of the surveillance records to the FBI, CIA, DIA, and others. These agencies were not only able to acquire information without court approval they also had direct access to the SIGINT databases that process all the requests. If you want to learn more about Edward Snowden’s case, all of the files are accessible on The Courage Foundation’s website dedicated to him.

Should the government be collecting your data?

Edward Snowden is either loved or hated. Some might see him as a hero, a white knight, or as a villain and traitor. Regardless of your opinion, we all have to admit that he revealed to us something that we knew but were scared to discuss. After his and many other revelations, the discussion about surveillance of private citizens is getting heated more than ever before. Governments collect a huge amount of information about every single one of us, and as humans, we have the right to privacy. No one should feel like his privacy is being violated and his every step is watched. Of course, there are cases where surveillance is appropriate, but mass surveillance of citizens should be stopped. Our personal privacy is being intruded on in the name of counter-terrorism and security.

Do you think that the ends justify the means?

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Does the government know too much about you? was originally published in Trezor Blog on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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