National Public Radio’s All Things Considered ran a series on “The End of Privacy” all last week that’s worth a listen. They’re primarily concerned with the ways private companies have access to vast quantities of information about individuals in the digital age—something that civil libertarians have traditionally been less concerned about than government access, for many perfectly valid reasons. But it’s worth noting how porous that distinction can be. A 2006 survey by the Government Accountability Office found that just four government agencies—the Justice Department, Department of Homeland Security, State Department, and Social Security Administration—spent at least $30 million annually on contracts with information resellers like Choicepoint. The vast majority of that data (91%) was used for law enforcement or counterterror purposes. And GAO found that the resellers weren’t always in full compliance with the privacy practices that the agencies themselves are supposed to follow.
Choicepoint, coincidentally, is one of the largest clients of the consulting firm run by former Attorney General John Ashcroft. Little wonder given the amount of cash at stake: As reporter Tim Shorrock has documented, some 70 percent of our vast intelligence budget is channeled through private-sector contractors, which means that we need to understand government surveillance policy in the context of a “surveillance-industrial complex” that parallels the more familiar military-industrial complex known for bringing us $600 toilet seats and other forms of pork in camo gear. It’s worth bearing in mind that it’s not just investigatory zeal and public fear driving the expansion of the surveillance state—a lot of people are making a lot of money off it as well.