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Good Question: How Much Does The Gov’t Really Know About Us?

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(credit: CBS) Liz Collin
At 15 years old, Liz Collin made her broadcast debut covering...
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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – From a Hong Kong hotel room, a former CIA worker made public two sweeping U.S surveillance programs. Now, Edward Snowden could be looking at years in jail for the leak.

“Even if you’re not doing anything wrong you’re being watched and recorded,” Snowden said.

One program tracks millions of US phone records to search for links to terrorism. Another taps into nine internet companies to detect suspicious behavior by web users that begins overseas.

So, how much does the government really know about us?

William McGeveran writes and teaches about privacy law as a professor at the University of Minnesota.

“The government, if you take it all together, knows a ton,” McGeveran said.

From the Census Bureau to the tax man, McGeveran says there are plenty of government agencies with tidbits about us.

“In most cases there are pretty strict rules about what one agency can share with another about what information they’ve collected,” he said.

When it comes to how much money is on our bank accounts. McGeveran said there are hoops to jump through.

“There’s a rule that says banks have to tell the government certain really big transactions that might suggest that, like, you’re a drug dealer or in a money laundering operation,” he said.

Otherwise, if the government wants to know anything more about your money they’ll have to ask your bank.

When it comes to what we’re looking at online, we now know the National Security Agency is doing some kind of monitoring. But it’s been said these last few days that they’re only looking at foreign nationals.

“Your internet service provider knows what sites you go to and the government can ask,” McGeveran said.

In this post-911 world, the terrorism hunt taught Washington to look for a needle in a haystack. Now, some security experts are wondering just how big that haystack needs to be.

“The question is whether that’s sweeping up all kinds of other information of ordinary people more than it should,” he said.

When it comes to phone calls, McGeveran says the government can find out whom you’re calling with a court order. But if they want to hear what you’re saying, that’s wiretapping – which involves a lot more rules.

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