Across the Bay Area -- from Pittsburg to San Francisco, from Tiburon to Gilroy -- you're being watched, the San Jose Mercury News writers Josh Richman and Angela Woodall reported Sunday adding:
"It's not just the National Security Agency secretly vacuuming up your personal data but local police agencies are increasingly adopting Big Data technologies such as automatic license-plate readers that gather information about everyone, whether they've broken the law or not.
"A lot of the information ends up on the 14th floor of a federal office building in San Francisco, where a "fusion center" run by state and local law enforcement agencies combines the data with a plethora of personal information about you, from credit reports to car rentals to unlisted phone numbers to gun licenses."
According to the paper, along with many of the nation's 77 other fusion centers, the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as an antiterrorism intelligence hub. "And like many of the other centers, it has morphed into a huge data center whose purpose is to solve and prevent all kinds of crimes -- from terrorist bombings to car thefts."
Authorities insist there's nothing for law-abiding people to worry about. They say they're just using the latest technology to gather and consolidate information they've used for years -- extra eyes and ears in an age of skimpy budgets and understaffed beats.
However, Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, argues that the more data that's accrued and the longer it's kept, the more potential for abuse exists. "It has very limited efficacy and real potential for harm," Ozer said.
How to live off the grid
The San Jose Mercury News said if you don't want to be watched just don't do anything, go anywhere or talk to anybody but if you still want to live your life, there are several things you can do to reduce your exposure to government and law-enforcement snooping:
Ditch the smartphone. Even with the "location services" function switched off, your phone still might use local cell towers and Wi-Fi hot spots to determine its location so long as there's a battery in it. And, of course, your carrier is logging who you call and for how long -- data we now know the government collects. If you can't stand being out of touch, buy a "burner" prepaid phone with no contract and use a prepaid calling card to pay for calls.
Get rid of your credit and debit cards. Using a credit or debit card that's in your name is like turning on a big neon "I'M OVER HERE, AND THIS IS WHAT I'M BUYING" light above your head. Instead, use cash to buy gift cards from companies like Visa or American Express.
Ride a bike or take public transit. Driving without a license plate can lead to a ticket for driving without registration; driving with someone else's license plate can get you arrested. So if you want to avoid all those automatic license-plate readers out there, start pedaling or hop a bus or train.
Encrypt your online communications and hide your IP address. From email to video chats, you can choose services and applications that will make it very hard -- though perhaps not impossible -- for anyone but the intended recipient to see, or to trace where your computer activity originates.
Protect your data. Online or on your own computer, use long, random passwords; use different passwords for every website; change your passwords often; and store those passwords in an encrypted "password safe" app. Also consider using file or disk encryption software. And to avoid malware spies, use the latest version of your operating system and firewall software while keeping your most sensitive information on devices not connected to the Internet at all.