Good Question: How Much Is The Gov’t Watching Us?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — On the new CBS show “Person of Interest,” a clever citizen comes up with a computer that analyzes all of the data the government is monitoring from its citizens. He uses that data to stop crimes before they happen.

That’s the Hollywood version of government spying, but what’s the truth? How much is the government watching us?

“It’s staggering, and it’s driven by technology,” said Chuck Samuelson, head of the Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “The Patriot Act gives government and by extension local police departments huge new powers.”

The Patriot Act allows the National Security Agency to spy on American citizens, but the NSA is supposed to get a warrant.

“It certainly authorized a lot more surveillance,” said Richard Painter, a University of Minnesota Law School professor, and former chief ethics lawyer at the Bush White House.

Could the government read our email?

“The government can do that, but they are supposed to go through a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court,” said Painter.

They can analyze emails too. According to Painter, in 2010, there were about 1,500 requests for warrants, “and almost all of them were granted.”

The Washington Post investigated this topic, and reported that “every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications.”

Some are concerned that more of the surveillance is for domestic criminal matters rather than terrorism.

“If we start using surveillance for things like taxes, then Big Brother is watching way too much,” said Painter.

The increase in surveillance cameras also has privacy experts concerned, because under the law, there’s no expectation of privacy when you walk down a public street.

“They have better things to do than watch you or I, as we’re not suspects,” said Jay Cline, president of Minnesota Privacy Consultants. “If you turn on the spigot and capture everything, there aren’t enough people to analyze the filtered information.”

But if they’re trying to track you, they can.

“The NSA has back doors to everything, all your cell phones,” said Samuelson. “There’s no security program they can’t beat.”

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