Surveillance in Bulk

Surveillance in Bulk
By Chandler Haukap | February 18, 2022

When is the government watching, and do you have a right to know?
In 2014, the ACLU documented [47 civilians injured in no-knock warrants](
). Since then, the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Amir Locke have resulted in mass protests opposed to the issuance of no-knock warrants.

While the country debates the right of citizens to security in their own homes, the federal government is also extending its reach into our virtual spaces. In 2019 the ACLU learned that the NSA was reading and storing text messages and phone calls from United States citizens with no legal justification to do so. While the stakes of these virtual no-knock raids are much lower in terms of human life, the surveillance of our online communities could manifest a new form of oppression if left unchecked.

Privacy rights online

Online privacy is governed by the Stored Communications Act which is part of the larger Electronic Communications Privacy Act. The policy was signed into law in 1986. Three years before the world wide web. 19 years before Facebook. The policy is archaic and does not scale well to a world where 3.6 billion people are on a social media platform.

The Stored Communications Act distinguishes between data stored for 180 days or more and data stored for less than 180 days. For data less than 180 days old, the government must obtain a warrant to view it. Data stored for more than 180 days can be surveilled using a warrant, subpoena, or court order. However, there is one loophole. All data stored “solely for the purpose of providing storage or computer processing services” fall under the same protections as data stored for more than 180 days. This means that once you’ve opened an email it could be considered “in storage”; fair game for the government to read using a court order.

Furthermore, the court can also issue a gag order to the data provider that prevents them from informing you that the government is watching.

Three mechanisms of the current law raise concern:
1) With a search warrant, the government does not have to inform you that they are spying on you.
2) The government can gag private companies from informing you.
3) The government can request multiple accounts per warrant.

These three mechanisms are a recipe for systematic oppression. The Dakota Access Pipeline protest camp contained a few hundred participants at any point. The only thing stopping the government from surveilling all of their online interactions is a warrant issued by a court that we cannot observe or contest.

Bulk Requests

How could we ever know if the government is reading protesters’ texts? With private companies gagged and warrants issued in bulk, we cannot know the extent of the surveillance until years later. Luckily we can see some aggregated statistics from Facebook and Twitter. Both companies issue reports on government requests aggregated every 6 months. The number of requests for user information by the government increases every year at both companies, but the truly disturbing statistic is the number of accounts per request.

The government is requesting more accounts per request from Facebook


By dividing the number of accounts requested by the number of requests made, we get the average number of accounts per request. Facebook’s data shows a steady increase in the number of accounts per request which suggests that the government is emboldened to issue more bulk requests.

The government is requesting more accounts per request from Twitter


Twitter’s data doesn’t trend as strongly upward, but the last half of 2021 is truly disturbing. Over 9 accounts per request! When will the government simply request an entire protest movement, or have they already?

Every warrant is a chip at our Fourth Amendment right to privacy. This new mechanism is an atomic bomb. It’s a recipe for guilt by association and the violation of entire online communities.

Privacy is a human right, and we deserve laws that respect it.

If you’re doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide from the giant surveillance apparatus the government’s been hiding.Steven Colbert