Five Ways the Government Spies on You

Believe it or not, there are many ways that the public sector tracks average people’s activities and whereabouts in the name of security. These methods are often taken for granted, though it’s important to understand exactly how much of your public and private life is being purposely traced by an organization paid for with your tax dollars. After all, wouldn’t you want to know how your money is being spent?

It’s easy to ignore the gradual creeping of policies and procedures that impose themselves on our private lives because they come one by one over a long amount of time. These plans include microphones on public transportation and cameras on the street. Some of these methods are actively being used to prosecute American citizens for breaking misdemeanor laws, while others are being put into action for national security reasons.

Here are five ways the government is spying on you.

Mobile Phones

Did you know that being pulled over in Michigan may result in the entire contents of your mobile phone being downloaded by the officer? These officers are armed with a new type of data extraction device made by a company called Cellebrite. These devices plug directly in to most mobile phones’ data connections and is able to download photos, text messages, email, and even GPS data. Why officers need this information may require more research, and no warrant is required for the use of these mobile device data extractors.

Further to that, mobile phones were used as microphones with transmitters by the FBI through a surveillance method known as a “roving bug.” This allows the FBI, with a warrant, to activate your phone remotely without alerting you. This activation turns the microphone on and allows FBI agents to listen to conversations that take place near a suspect’s phone.

Last year, Apple and Google were under fire for built-in features that track a phone’s GPS coordinates and reports this location back to Apple and Google headquarters. This controversy was quickly addressed by Apple, resulting in updates to the iPhone’s firmware that limits the amount of tracking that takes place on the device itself. In addition, users can now turn off all GPS features at a more system-specific level rather than using an all or nothing method.

Ars Technica recently did a story uncovering the length of time in which various wireless providers store your usage data. According to its report, AT&T customers are subject to data storage lasting anywhere from three to seven years, depending on the type of information involved. Verizon customers’ text message content is stored for three to five days, and IP session information for one year. This information, as it does exist, can be subpoenaed or accessed through a warrant should you be the subject of an investigation by your local, state, or a federal law enforcement agency.

General Public Surveillance

It seems more and more cameras are being installed at street corners in the US every day. These cameras are used for traffic enforcement, security, and general surveillance in the event a crime is committed. Any time you walk around in public, you have to assume that at least one camera is actively recording your movements and actions.

Intellistreets is another new technology that gives standard street lights the ability to make announcements, count people in proximity, take pictures of people walking by, and listen in on nearby conversations. Available at just $3,000 a piece, these light poles are being placed in Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and other cities. Intellistreets has since released a press release explaining exactly why the technology isn’t intended to be used as a “Big Brother” style surveillance system.


The idea of pre-crime has fascinated science fiction audiences through movies like Minority Report (itself based on a short story by Philip K. Dick) and numerous written works in the cyberpunk genre. What was once science fiction has now taken on a more realistic role as computers are beginning to more accurately detect emotions and signs of deception. The US Department of Homeland Security has been testing crime predicting technologies that use video to detect a number of different “tells” that a person is up to something.

These technologies detect changes in movement, speech, breathing, blink rate, body heat alterations, and other tell-tale signs that someone is either telling a lie or actively hiding something. It’s been said that these technologies could find their way into airports and other public places believed to be prone to terrorist attack or other violent crime.

This isn’t the only or first computerized lie detector designed to perceive deception using video alone. A similar emotion detection system is set to be used at airports in the UK as early as this year.

A new, larger system called FAST is intended to allow Homeland Security to set up mobile interrogation vehicles at public events and airports that would dramatically alter the way screening takes place. By actively monitoring your body heat signatures, facial expressions, and other movements, this system is intended to “detect” malicious intent.

Social Media

Recent reports indicate that the Department of Homeland Security are actively skimming social media sites including Twitter and Facebook. Of course, this is done in the interest of national security.

In 2010, it was revealed that federal agents were encouraged through multiple memos to friend people on social networks in order to provide information for the office of Fraud Detection and National Security.

This is no surprise, considering how much information people readily share on social networks. Consider this: When a crime is committed and you are one of the suspects listed, your statements made on social networking sites can be used against you in a court of law. Not only that, but what you search, download, and access is also capable of being used.

Web Activity

How many times have we seen news reports that reveal a suspected murderer searched for terms ranging from chloroform to methods of killing someone? All of this information is stored on your local computer, and may also exist at your ISP. The FBI and other agencies have pushed major ISPs to store information on their users for a period of at least two years. Some providers have complied, while others are holding out for an actual law to be passed.

What is currently active on the law books is Section 203(f) of the Electronic Communication Transactional Records Act, which states that all information must be kept by ISPs for a period of 90 days at the request of the FBI. A new bill, which has passed committee in the US, requires ISPs to save customer information for a period of 12 months. This information would be accessible to government agents through a subpoena rather than a warrant, making it easier for them to gain access to your information.

The Department of Justice has been actively petitioning ISPs to store customer usage data for some time.


Could your vehicle’s OnStar system be spying on you? Is what you say on a bus or in a taxi really private? According to CIO, OnStar is actively collecting information about drivers, even after the device has been turned off. Thanks to a set of incredibly abundant warrantless information gathering powers granted to our government through the Patriot Act, this information may be used to prosecute US citizens as evidence.

Five Ways the Government Spies on YouTraffic cameras are all over the place these days, and they’re being used to catch people committing crimes. These controversial video surveillance systems enable police departments to fine drivers that speed, run red lights, and break other traffic laws. Often, the only way you know you’ve been caught is when you receive a ticket in the mail along with a number of photos taken of your car. Bus lane enforcement is another use for these traffic monitoring systems, essentially doing the job of local law enforcement. This isn’t to say that speeding should be encouraged, but how many times during an average commute do you hover just below or above the speed limit? Imagine receiving a ticket every time this happens — a possibility as the use of these systems continues to expand.

Red light cameras may actually do more harm than good. By catching drivers who miss the light by a fraction of a second, drivers are prone to slam on their brakes as they approach the light, which can result in collisions. In Chicago, an ordinance was introduced that would require countdown signals to be present at intersections where law enforcement cameras are present. The idea is to reduce the number of collisions caused by drivers attempting to avoid a costly ticket.

Public buses and other mass transit vehicles are being fitted with surveillance cameras, microphones, and other tools that allow law enforcement agencies to monitor and prosecute crimes. For a while, Baltimore Transit was considering the use of microphones to surveil all conversations that take place on board a public train or bus. Thankfully, this initiative died prior to release, though it could serve as a sign that more monitoring is on the way.

Bottom line: Everything you do or say in public should be done with the knowledge in mind that someone or something is monitoring you. Virtually everyone on the street has a camcorder and/or camera in their pocket, and a vast majority of people have access to the Internet, giving them the ability to upload these videos and/or images on sites and social networks that are accessible by the entire world.

Is the age of privacy over?

Article Written by

Ryan Matthew Pierson has worked as a broadcaster, writer, and producer for media outlets ranging from local radio stations to internationally syndicated programs. His experience includes every aspect of media production. He has over a decade of experience in terrestrial radio, Internet multimedia, and commercial video production.