Minding Your Business

Partnerships in snooping.


From the 1940s through the '70s, the major telegraph companies voluntarily gave the government copies of all cables sent to or from the U.S. as part of an illegal project called Operation Shamrock. According to "The Surveillance-Industrial Complex," a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union, something similar is afoot today.

More and more, Washington is using private-sector intermediaries to circumvent the Fourth Amendment's restrictions on the information its agents can directly gather. While public opposition killed the Terrorism Information and Prevention System (TIPS), which would have recruited private citizens to be the government's eyes and ears, a plethora of smaller programs are attempting the same thing with neighborhood watch groups, real estate agents, truck drivers, and others.

Other laws require businesses to maintain records on their customers for the benefit of law enforcement, exploiting a legal loophole that recognizes no Fourth Amendment interest in the information individuals have turned over to third parties. Last year the FBI used "national security letters" to gather information on some 270,000 Americans from Las Vegas hotels and car rental agencies, all without any individualized suspicion of wrongdoing. And even those demands are increasingly unnecessary: Government can just buy reams of information from private databases.