npr.org While the collection of private information by the National Security Agency is under scrutiny worldwide, a remarkable amount of your digital trail is also available to local law enforcement officers, IRS investigators, the FBI and private attorneys. And in some cases, it can be used against you. This week, NPR and the Center for Investigative Reporting are documenting just how vivid the typical person's digital picture has become — and how easy it can be for others to see it.
Your Online Data
- Names/addresses of people with whom you've exchanged snail mail
- Talk shows or radio programs you've listened to on a smartphone app
- Information for your online dating profile
- Drug prescriptions you've filled
- Credit card purchases you've made
- Your monthly banking statements
- ATM withdrawals you've made
- Wire transfers you've sent
- Your 2012 tax return
- Law enforcement can create a map or timeline of a person's whereabouts by accessing data from license-plate scanners, toll-bridge crossings and mobile phone carriers and, without much trouble, access records on your power consumption, purchasing habits and even snail mail.
- When you log in with a username and password to sites like Gmail, Amazon or OKCupid, your behavior can be linked to your real name or email address. [Software privacy specialist] Ashkan Soltani said personally identifying information also can unintentionally "leak" to third parties, even if companies say they have no need for such data; it's not clear what happens to the information once it falls into their hands.
- Surveillance cameras in subway stations and on city buses watch you board and depart.
- To automatically identify celebrities and regular customers when they enter a store, some retailers reportedly are using another facial recognition technology originally developed in the U.K. for spotting terrorists and criminals.
- Meanwhile, smart cards log when and where you travel using public transportation.
- Police departments in the San Francisco Bay Area and elsewhere around the country have used license-plate scanners to identify stolen cars and outstanding warrants. But the devices are designed to photograph vehicles and record the location, date and time of everyone who passes by without discriminating between criminals and innocent people.
- While many Americans are under the impression that their medical records are protected by privacy laws, investigators and private attorneys enjoy special access there, too.
- The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 was designed to protect Americans who at the time were using the Internet increasingly to communicate. But the government has interpreted the law to mean that once your emails are opened or older than 180 days, no warrant is required.
- Even if an investigator faces some hurdles with your inbox, such as Google insisting on a warrant, email is not entirely protected. With a court order that doesn't reach probable cause, Google will give up your name, IP address, the dates and times you're signing in and out, and with whom you're exchanging emails.
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