10 shocking ways the Feds are spying on you

Worried about NSA spying? That's the tip of a U.S. surveillance iceberg.

REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski

Thanks to NSA leaker Edward Snowden we now know more about how the U.S. government spies on it citizens than we ever wanted. But government spying goes far beyond what Snowden revealed -- and with President Obama and Congress having voted to extend the Patriot Act until 2015, it isn't going to stop anytime soon.

What follows is short list of ways Big Brother keeps tabs on us. Let us know in the comments if all this spying makes you feel safer.

This slideshow "10 shocking ways the Feds are spying on you" originally appeared on ITworld.

Mobile X-ray vans

The Transportation Security Administration raised privacy hackles when it introduced full-body X-ray scanning of airline passengers that revealed a bit too much passenger information. Now that same back backscatter X-ray technology is being installed in roving vans on the lookout for contraband or explosives hidden inside cars. A company called American Science and Engineering (AS&E) has sold an undisclosed number of its Z Backscatter Vans to US military and law enforcement agencies.


Most of the mobile X-ray vehicles sold are headed to military hotspots overseas, but  AS&E's CEO said last year "law enforcement officials (have) quickly recognized the effectiveness of the system and rapidly expanded their fleet.”

Safer living through biometrics

That smile of yours may say a lot more about you after the FBI is finished rolling out an ambitious $1 billion Next Generation Identification (NGI) program that aims to add facial recognition to the list of unique body characteristics the FBI stockpiles such as fingerprints, tattoos, and DNA.

According to Electronic Frontier Foundation, a handful of states have begun uploading 12 million searchable frontal photos as part of the program. The FBI says the goal of NGI is to; "reduce terrorist and criminal activities by improving and expanding biometric identification and criminal history information services through research, evaluation, and implementation of advanced technology."

Social snooping for bio surveillance

The PRISM spy program is a small part of a bigger federal snooping trend. In an attempt to thwart a bio-terrorist attack the Department of Homeland Security partnered in 2012 with Virginia-based Accenture Federal Services to create a social media surveillance system.

According to Accenture, the company is monitoring and analyzing social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and blogs "in real time to better inform and protect the public in the event of a national health emergency such as an infectious disease outbreak or a biological attack."

Scan Eagle drone used in Nevada for aerial surveillance exercise

It's a bird. Is it a plane? Nope, it's just a drone.

We know U.S. Customs and Border Protection has used Predator drones to keep tabs on the Mexican border since 2005. But up until this June we didn't know the Federal Bureau of Investigations used a "small fleet" of drones for about a dozen domestic surveillance missions.

FBI Director Robert Mueller  told a Senate panel (transcript) that his agency only uses unmanned aerial vehicles when there’s a specific operational need to conduct surveillance on stationary objects. In the same hearing Mike Baker, a former CIA officer, testified that local law enforcement has been using drones for some time now.

Big Brother tracks your every GPS move

Thanks to GPS-equipped smartphones, getting lost is slowly becoming a thing of the past. But that same GPS technology is making it equally as easy for law enforcement to track people. According to the American  Civil Liberties Union (see interactive map), 250 local law enforcement agencies around the country are tracking citizens without "adequate regard for constitutional protections, judicial oversight, or accountability."

Police use various methods to track cell phones. Most commonly, law enforcement agencies obtain cell phone records about one person from a cell phone carrier. However, some police departments, like in Gilbert, Ariz., have purchased their own cell tracking technology.

Eyes on the road

Stationary and mobile license plate readers snap pictures and document the location of vehicles. Municipalities use "streetlight" cams to snag red-light runners. Mobile scanners affixed to a police car are used to scan license plates to identify motorists with warrants, overdue parking tickets, and delinquent tax bills.

A growing number of law enforcement agencies store the license plate data they collect and forward the information to "intelligence fusion centers." These centers act as data cooperatives for dozens of government agencies, according to a report by the Center for Investigative Reporting. Police can punch in a plate number and the database can cross reference the information with 100 million records. 

Smile you're on surveillance cameras

When surveillance cameras helped bring the Boston Marathon bombers to justice few complained. But striking a balance between too many and too few surveillance cameras in public places is difficult.

According to the most recent figures, Boston alone has 147 surveillance cameras in public places. In New York, NYPD monitors a mix of 4,000 private and public surveillance cameras 24 hours a day, according to a report by CNN. And when something goes awry the first thing law enforcement officials do is head to the video tapes.

Toll trackers

Electronic tolls offer the convenience of zooming through a tollbooth, but privacy advocates point out there is a tradeoff. The radio frequency identification (RFID) transponders used in passes such as E-ZPass and FasTrak not only debit your account but also log where you've been.

Privacy activists say tracking drivers violates their right to privacy. They point to the the data being used in court to help prove adultery: A Pennsylvania divorce lawyer said she used E-ZPass data to help prove a client's husband was cheating, according to New York Daily News report. The husband claimed he was in Pennsylvania on a business trip, but E-ZPass records indicated he traveled to New Jersey instead.

We CAN hear you now!

As part of the PRISM top secret spying program, enabled under President Bush by the Protect America Act of 2007, the NSA collected the numbers of both telephone parties on a call, location data, call duration, unique identifiers, and the time and duration of all calls.

Government officials argued that the phone metadata was only used to identify phone calls that might be tied to US safety concerns. NSA says the surveillance programs have helped thwart 50 potential terror events, 10 of those set to take place on U.S. soil.

Web wiretaps

Google and Facebook have both denied participating in the PRISM surveillance program. Google has since asked the Attorney General for the right to publicly disclose the scope of past national security data request. Facebook, Microsoft, and Yahoo have made similar appeals regarding transparency.


According to the PowerPoint slide shown here PRISM collected email, chat (voice and video), photos, file transfers, and much more. The government says it collects this data to correlate potential threats. Officials play down the significance of the data collection saying only when interrelated electronic data suggests a security threat does it investigate.