Data Used in New, Unexpected Ways

Data Used in New, Unexpected Ways

When we voluntarily turn our private information over to others, we expect them to treat it with care – and to use it only for the purpose that was initially intended. Increasingly, however, the government and private companies share and use our data in ways we never anticipated. These unapproved uses threaten our ability to control our personal data and can harm us in unexpected ways.

The faces of more than 120 million people are in searchable photo databases that state officials assembled to prevent driver’s license fraud but that increasingly are used by police to identify suspects, accomplices, and even innocent bystanders in criminal investigations. 

Washington Post, “State photo-ID databases become troves for police,” June 16, 2013

DESCRIPTION

When we voluntarily turn our private information over to others, we expect them to treat it with care – and to use it only for the purpose that was initially intended. Increasingly, however, the government and private companies share and use our data in ways we never anticipated. These unapproved uses threaten our ability to control our personal data and can harm us in unexpected ways.

Typically, when we provide a third party with personal information, we do so for a specific purpose. We understand the context and from that we can figure out how our data will be used. That understanding is a critical part of the decision-making process. But when those third parties then take our data and share it with others or use it in a totally different context, it can feel as if we have been tricked or betrayed. We may have never wanted our information used in this new way and perhaps would not have given it up if we had known all the ways it would be used. The unexpected data use takes away our control and can subject us to unwanted scrutiny.

For example, web services companies (like Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and Amazon) and internet service providers (like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T) collect large amounts of personal data from their customers. Data collection is an important part of their business model. The websites we visit and the content of the emails we send say a lot about our interests and preferences, allowing the companies to market personalized products and services to us. 

However, most people don’t expect that this information will be turned over to the government for surveillance purposes. Under the Patriot Act the government is authorized to send National Security Letters to private companies, compelling them to turn over the information they’ve collected about us. Using this information, investigators build a detailed picture of our interests, routine, future plans, and relationships. They can even use it to identify a person who posted anonymous speech on a news or politics website.

Examples of Use

  • Map of Ohio
    Location:: 
    Ohio
    From Drivers License to Suspect Database

    Facial recognition software has become very powerful, user-friendly, and less and less expensive. Moreover, handheld facial recognition tools give officers easy access to this intrusive technology. In 2011, Ohio announced that it would become the 27th state to use its driver’s license photo bank as a “law enforcement fishing pond.” In addition, this year, the FBI announced plans to build a database of 52 million facial images by 2015. Each image will match a “name, home address, ID number, immigration status, age, race, etc.” Troublingly, many of the FBI’s records are non-criminal. If your job requires a background check at hiring, your image may be searchable in this database. Over half of all U.S. states plan to take part in this massive data-sharing project.

Recommendations

When government agencies consider acquiring and using surveillance systems, communities and their elected officials must both weigh the benefits against the costs to civil liberties and carefully craft policies and procedures that help to limit the negative effects that surveillance will have on fundamental rights.  For a useful list of considerations, please visit the recommendations page.

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