Project Vigilant – how the US government skirts privacy laws

Glenn Greenwald published an article on that lays out in some detail how – by supporting nominally private volunteer initiatives like Project Vigilant, the US government can collect great amounts of personal data on law-abiding citizens without being subject to privacy protection laws or to the openness provisions and scrutiny government agencies would be subject to, if they collected the data themselves.

The story is here: Project Vigilant and the government/corporate destruction of privacy

Project Vigilant is a highly secretive “volunteer” initiative based in the US that monitors data flowing through as much as a dozen internet providers and “hands much of that information to federal agencies”.

The US government was intending to run its own programs to collect data, like John Poindexter’s Total Information Awareness project but with too much protesting from the public, it was decided to quietly support “volunteer” initiatives to do much of the collection and sifting of data.

The full story is in the above Salon article, but for a shorter read, some excerpts have been posted on the P2P Foundation Wiki here:

Project Vigilant – volunteer group who monitors data about private internet activities to the U.S. government

A short excerpt here:

As the ACLU’s long-time privacy expert Chris Calabrese told me this morning, “virtually every step you take online is now tracked by numerous mechanisms and instantly processed.”

But it’s the re-packaging and transfer of this data to the U.S. Government — combined with the ability to link it not only to your online identity (IP address), but also your offline identity (name) — that has made this industry particularly pernicious. There are serious obstacles that impede the Government’s ability to create these electronic dossiers themselves. It requires both huge resources and expertise. Various statutes enacted in the mid-1970s — such as the Privacy Act of 1974 — impose transparency requirements and other forms of accountability on programs whereby the Government collects data on citizens. And the fact that much of the data about you ends up in the hands of private corporations can create further obstacles, because the tools which the Government has to compel private companies to turn over this information is limited (the fact that the FBI is sometimes unable to obtain your “transactional” Internet data without a court order — i.e., whom you email, who emails you, what Google searches you enter, and what websites you visit –is what has caused the Obama administration to demand that Congress amend the Patriot Act to vest them with the power to obtain all of that with no judicial supervision).

But the emergence of a private market that sells this data to the Government (or, in the case of Project Vigilance, is funded in order to hand it over voluntarily) has eliminated those obstacles. As a result, the Government is able to circumvent the legal and logistical restrictions on maintaining vast dossiers on citizens, and is doing exactly that. While advertisers really only care about your online profile (IP address) in order to assess what you do and who you are, the Government wants your online activities linked to your actual name and other identifying information.

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