CAGW’s Project: Privacy | Citizens Against Government Waste

CAGW’s Project: Privacy

The WasteWatcher

Project: Privacy was created in 2008 and is affiliated with Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW).

CAGW’s Project: Privacy will examine government’s role in ensuring that every person’s information is protected and help citizens manage their privacy.  Through education and coalition building, Project: Privacy will build a bi-partisan network of groups and individuals to recommend effective privacy policy at all levels of government.

The world is in the information age.  From consumers using the Internet to purchase goods and services and participate in social networking sites, to the collection of information by all levels of government, data is being gathered and analyzed at an alarming rate.

In particular, as the Internet and technology are becoming more integrated into everyone’s life, the gathering and protection of personal information is critical.  The use of search engines and social networking sites has become commonplace and these tools help people connect and explore new concepts in ways that were unimaginable a few years ago.  While these new tools may help individuals find a new pair of jeans or stay in touch with their friends, they are testing how people think and feel about sharing so much information about themselves and the boundaries of individual privacy.

Most people do not know when they search for “blue jeans” using their favorite search engine; they are actually sharing a little bit of information about themselves.  Some knowingly accept giving up a bit of anonymity for better search results.  Others either don’t know they are doing so or have to weigh that choice.  In some cases, search terms are tracked to better deliver relevant advertising for that individual.

Once that perfect pair of blue jeans is found, the purchase of the product requires sending financial information to the seller.  Credit cards, which contain sensitive information, are increasingly under attack by identity thieves.

Social networking sites also use similar ways to understand user preferences.  It is no coincidence that a 42 year-old single male on Facebook receives dating service ads for the 40+ crowd.

The government is also gathering detailed information about people.  From tracking regional outbreaks of the influenza virus, to homeland security, governments are relying more and more on databases of information.

There are cases where giving up personal information is voluntary, such as the Clear travel program, administered by the Transportation Security Administration.  Clear, according to its website, is “a high-tech card that gives you access to express security lines at airports across the country. Instead of inching along through airport security, you fly through in mere minutes, arriving at your gate stress free.”  This service costs money and requires relinquishing background information to the private entity that administers the program.

However, most federal government data collection is not voluntary and does not provide anyone with an “opt out” option.  New security measures at the border are testing the boundaries of privacy.  For example, the federal government has authorized itself to detain and search suspicious laptops.

The government’s role and responsibility in protecting one’s privacy is becoming more important as the governments at all levels collect and retain information on many aspects of Americans’ lives.  Everyone has a Social Security number and everyone who has income fills out a tax return.  Such information has to be protected.  Just one example of the vulnerability of individual privacy is an incident in May 2006 at the Department of Veterans Affairs.  According to a November 17, 2008 CNN article, a “laptop was stolen… from the home of a Veterans Affairs employee who, in violation of agency regulations, took it to a private residence.  It contained Social Security numbers, names and addresses for more than 26 million veterans as well as possibly millions of current service members and reservists.”

As technological advances continue at breakneck speed, governments at all levels need to protect our tax dollars and privacy.  Outdated thinking and failure to react to a changing technological landscape could put tax dollars and privacy at risk.

  -- Sam Leverenz

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