The Government Really Is Spying On You — And It’s Legal

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The freakout moment that set journalist Byron Tau on a five-year quest to expose the sprawling U.S. data surveillance state occurred over a “wine-soaked dinner” back in 2018 with a source he cannot name.

The tipster told Tau the government was buying up reams of consumer data — information scraped from cellphones, social media profiles, internet ad exchanges and other open sources — and deploying it for often-clandestine purposes like law enforcement and national security in the U.S. and abroad. The places you go, the websites you visit, the opinions you post — all collected and legally sold to federal agencies.

In his new book, Means of Control , Tau details everything he’s learned since that dinner: An opaque network of government contractors is peddling troves of data, a legal but shadowy use of American citizens’ information that troubles even some of the officials involved. And attempts by Congress to pass privacy protections fit for the digital era have largely stalled, though reforms to a major surveillance program are now being debated.

On today’s episode of POLITICO Tech, Tau and I discussed the state of our personal privacy and the checks on all this government surveillance. I asked what differentiates the U.S. from authoritarian states like China when it comes to data collection, how our digital footprints will impact policy areas like abortion and what broader implications we can expect for civil liberties. He didn’t sugarcoat his responses.