Risks Increase Once Data is Shared

Risks Increase Once Data is Shared

The ease of data sharing increases the risk that your information will be abused.

No amount of specialized training and threats of criminal prosecution seem capable of slowing the stories that emerge periodically and predictably of another government worker getting into trouble for drawing up private records not just on Hollywood actors, rock stars and political candidates, but everyday people, too.

Center for Investigative Reporting, “Bureaucrats Can’t Resist Celebrity Snooping in Government Databases,” October 13, 2010


In the past, the difficulty of sharing large amounts personal data limited the number of people who had access to your information and minimized the risk of abuse. Today, the ease of data sharing increases the risk that your information will be abused. After 9/11, federal agencies signed major information sharing agreements and launched sprawling multi-jurisdictional databases. Recently, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice have provided grant funding to state agencies and local communities encouraging them to contribute their information to the federal databases. These sharing arrangements give federal investigators, IRS agents, local police, and civilians access to huge troves of data on thousands – even millions – of people. 

And with access comes violations. Sometimes, the violations may seem frivolous and unprofessional. In Massachusetts, for instance, many officers used their access to state data banks to look up details on famous residents like actor Matt Damon and quarterback Tom Brady. Some agents, however, use the information in more threatening ways. One Customs and Border Patrol agent was caught accessing the Treasury Enforcement Communications System (which gives access to data from more than 20 agencies, from the IRS and FBI to the State Department and Interpol) to track his girlfriend.

While one agency may have excellent privacy protections and enforce them vigorously, agencies with which it shares information may not be so diligent in guarding personal information. Additionally, data sharing can increase the risk of mistakes. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation noted in a recent report on biometric data, “Information and data fluidity within and among federal, state, and local agencies often makes it difficult to determine where information came from originally. This increases the probability that data inaccuracies – such as notoriously out-of-date immigration records – will be perpetuated throughout all systems.” Once inaccurate information seeps into these enormous, largely unaccountable data systems, it can be nearly impossible to correct.


Examples of Use

  • Map of Tennessee featuring Nashville
    Nashville. TN
    Officers exposed using databases for personal reasons

    In 2006, the Tennessee Department of Public Safety proudly announced the completion of the Tennessee Criminal Justice Portal. This system linked the databases of over 350 state and local law enforcement agencies – with almost no check on who had access to the system. An investigation by the Nashville Tennessean revealed that over the course of just two years, hundreds of officers had misused the system thousands of times. According to the Tennessean, one highway patrolman ran checks on 182 people – “many of them women,” – with no law enforcement purpose. Officers all over the state looked up spouses, ex-spouses, family members, and neighbors. One Rutherford County Airport Authority officer, who moonlighted as an elected county commissioner, conducted unauthorized checks on several city officials and his two fellow county commissioners.


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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