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While the collection of private information by the National Security Agency is under scrutiny worldwide, a remarkable amount of your digital trail is also available to local law enforcement officers, IRS investigators, the FBI and private attorneys. And in some cases, it can be used against you.
This week, NPR and the Center for Investigative Reporting are documenting just how vivid the typical person's digital picture has become — and how easy it can be for others to see it.
Read the full report at cironline.org/yourdata and tune in to the four-part series on All Things Considered starting tonight. The stories examine a day in the life of your data, how marketers track you, the power of the subpoena, and the larger consequences of living in a world of big data.
NPR and CIR found that there's a wide range of ostensibly private data that's obtainable even without court approval:
And while most of us know we're leaving behind a digital trail, consider how intricate that trail is and how easy it is for law enforcement, private investigators and marketers to paint a data portrait based on your actions throughout the day.
Examples from the series include online dating sites, like OKCupid.com. The report shows how profile questions on the site about things like drug use, religious beliefs and more were transmitted to a data tracking company, along with the user's IP address:
The series also looks at your commute to and from work:
Many people don't know their medical records are available to investigators and private attorneys:
There are three ways the government and civil attorneys can try to access personal information: a search warrant, which requires the government to convince a judge there's probable cause of a crime; a court order; and the easiest, a subpoena.
Exactly what kind of data can be obtained with a search warrant is still relatively uncertain. Schulz and Zwerdling cite, for example, a case in which police obtained seven months' worth of location data from the cellphones of two robbery suspects — without a warrant.
Even unopened emails are up for grabs:
The takeaway? While there are some measures you can take to prevent the government and others from monitoring your data and movements, much of what we do online and in public spaces can be used, sold and shared to create a remarkably detailed portrait of our lives.
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