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Government Data Collection: Should You Be Concerned?

April 13, 2022 • Shannon Flynn


Government data collection is something that most people know happens, but they don’t often think about it. When you go to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get a license plate for a new car, that transaction requires the agency to collect data. Many governments also collect data associated with free or low-cost health screenings for residents. 

We live in a society where information gets rapidly exchanged as people carry out certain internet-based tasks. They might include shopping for groceries online or signing up for a newly available service. 

However, most advantageous actions have downsides too. Here’s a closer look at whether government data collection is a valid concern for today’s tech users. 

Government Data Collection Can Accelerate Research 

One of the positive sides of government agencies collecting data from a country’s residents is that it can help researchers gain new insights. They can discover things about a population’s habits and health. The more data the respective parties have, the easier it should be to help them identify the genuine trends and separate them from the data “noise.”

However, using data for research does not permit the associated parties to give up their duty to protect the information. Succeeding in that goal isn’t easy. One of the primary challenges comes from the reality that data is typically not stored in only one place. Dozens of locations may collectively keep the content.

In such cases, keeping data safe is not only the responsibility of one organization. Each entity holding the information bears it, regardless of the amount possessed. It then becomes necessary to iron out data-sharing practices. For example, which parties will have permission to see the data? Will they have complete or limited access to it?

At some points in your life, you may have the chance to consent that information about you gets used in a research project. Before committing to letting that happen, consider asking questions. You’ll want to determine whether the agencies involved are likely to use your data safely and responsibly. If you believe they won’t, there’s no shame in backing out or saying you need more time to decide. 

Government Data Collection May Happen Indirectly

Another challenge associated with understanding how and when government data collection happens is that it may occur through outside companies. Law enforcement officials and government agencies often file legal requests compelling tech companies to release certain information about customers. 

That happened recently when the U.S. Department of Justice sought information from people ranging from lawmakers to journalists that would help them gather information about Trump Administration-associated investigations. 

Companies such as Google, Apple and Amazon can’t relinquish the information freely. Instead, they must respond according to the type of information request submitted. Government investigators can usually get details such as a person’s IP address or house address through subpoenas. Those don’t always require authorization from a judge. 

Then, higher-level information, such as someone’s phone records, usually requires filing a court order, which a judge issues. Generally, everyday citizens shouldn’t worry about government agencies requesting their information from tech companies. 

However, that could change if a person gets involved in a potential crime. In some murder investigations, government agencies have requested data from Amazon Alexa smart speakers. Representatives hoped it could fill in the gaps of what happened at crime scenes. 

The Unintended Effects of Apps and Online Services

Many of the things you may want to do will require providing at least small amounts of data. Perhaps you’re planning an extended excursion along Route 66. In that case, you might enter trip details into Google Maps or an itinerary-planner service. During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Google engaged with the United Kingdom government about sharing its data. Officials wanted to see how well people followed lockdown and social distancing rules.

At least the talks discussed sharing anonymized and aggregated data. That meant government officials could not use the information to identify specific people. In another instance, people working for a service called Unroll.me looked at product receipts stored in users’ inboxes. 

Businesses that let people learn more about their ancestry are also not always in the clear with how they handle customer data. While serving as the president of a company called FamilyTreeDNA, Bennett Greenspan allowed FBI investigators to see customers’ private information. 

Greenspan admitted that he immediately granted the permission because of the heinous nature of the crimes investigated. However,  DNA data does not only reveal details about one individual but several. 

There’s no single way to safeguard yourself from unintentional government data collection like what happened here. That’s especially true since Greenspan said he decided without other people’s input. However, a good starting point is to read all the associated documentation about how a service may share information with external parties. Then, it’s easier to conclude whether you want to proceed. 

Some Government Agencies Sell Customer Data

Sometimes, government data collection happens automatically when customers agree to use a service. Such is the case with the Department of Motor Vehicles branches in several states. Some make tens of millions of dollars per year that way. 

Luckily, it’s not always difficult to find out if it’s happening in your state. The New York Department of Motor Vehicles discloses on its website that it sells driver’s license and vehicle registration details to third parties. 

The only trouble is that most people can’t decide not to engage with that government agency. At least, that’s true unless they don’t drive or own cars and never plan to do those things. However, this reality brings up an important point. 

It’s virtually impossible to participate in everyday life without some data exchanges with government bodies or organizations that may pass data to them. That’s why it’s best for customers to do what they can to stay informed about their data usage then decide if the tradeoffs are worthwhile. 

The Potential Conveniences of Data Collection at the Government Level

Some types of government data collection seem to cross boundaries and invade innocent people’s privacy. Although it’s easy to feel frightened about those instances, it’s too short-sighted to forget that data gathering by government agencies can bring advantages to everyone involved. 

Consider if a person receives care at a government-run health care facility. Tracking data throughout the process allows confirming what interventions the patient received and when. That way, they’re most likely to get the appropriate treatments without delays. 

Alternatively, people often engage with government agencies to get permission to live and work in countries other than their nations of birth. It’s now often possible for people to submit their applications entirely electronically rather than taking the risks of submitting documents through the mail. Also, it’s easier for those on the receiving end to read typed text rather than deciphering people’s handwriting. 

Once someone registers with a government agency for the first time, it’s often that organization’s data collection practices making it easier to carry out ongoing services or conduct renewals. 

Government data collection also creates a paper trail, whether it is a physical or digital one. When you pay a parking fine, register your child for school or sign up for trash collection in your city, it’s handy to have records of those transactions. You never know if there might later be a reason to refer to it and prove what happened. 

Government Data Collection: Awareness Without Unnecessary Fear

In today’s highly digitized society, it’s unrealistic to steer clear of all types of government data collection for very long. However, it’s helpful to take it upon yourself to learn about how an agency does or could use data before you submit it. Doing that puts you in a better position to recognize the pros and cons and how they might affect you later.