Dec 4, 2013
Destroying the Right to Be Left Alone
Posted on Sep 22, 2013
By Christopher Calabrese and Matthew Harwood, TomDispatch
And that shouldn’t be acceptable now that email has become an intimate repository of information detailing who we are, what we believe, who we associate with, who we make love to, where we work, and where we pray. That’s why commonsense legislative reforms to the ECPA, such as treating email like a piece of mail, are so necessary. Then the police would be held to the same standard electronically as in the paper-based world: prove to a judge that a suspect’s email probably contains evidence of a crime or hands off.
Law enforcement, of course, remains opposed to any such changes for a reason as understandable as it is undemocratic: it makes investigators’ jobs easier. There’s no good reason why a letter sitting in a desk and an email stored on Google’s servers don’t deserve the same privacy protections, and law enforcement knows it, which is why fear-mongering is regularly called upon to stall such an easy fix to antiquated privacy laws.
As Department of Justice Associate Deputy Attorney General James Baker put it in April 2011, “Congress should also recognize that raising the standard for obtaining information under ECPA may substantially slow criminal and national security investigations.” In other words, ECPA reform would do exactly what the Fourth Amendment intended: prevent police from unnecessarily intruding into our lives.
Nowhere to Hide
You have to hand it to Hunt; his talk wasn’t your typical stale government presentation. At times, he sounded like Big Brother with a grin.
And it’s true: the smartphone in your pocket is a tracking device that also happens to allow you to make calls, read email, and tweet. Several times every minute, your mobile phone lets your cell-phone provider know where you are, producing a detail-rich history of where you have been for months, if not years, on end. GPS-enabled applications do the same. Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell for sure how long the companies hang onto such location data because they won’t disclose that information.
We do know, however, that law enforcement regularly feasts on these meaty databases, easily obtaining a person’s location history and other subscriber information. All that’s needed to allow the police to know someone’s whereabouts over an extended period is an officer’s word to a judge that the records sought would aid an ongoing investigation. Judges overwhelmingly comply with such police requests, forcing companies to turn over their customers’ location data. The reason behind this is a familiar one: law enforcement argues that the public has no reasonable expectation of privacy because location data is freely shared with service or app providers. Customers, the argument goes, have already waived their privacy rights by voluntarily choosing to use their mobile phone or app.
Police also use cell-phone signals and GPS-enabled devices to track people in real time. Not surprisingly, there is relatively little clarity about when police do this, thanks in part to purposeful obfuscation by the government. Since 2007, the Department of Justice has recommended that its U.S. attorneys get a warrant for real-time location tracking using GPS and cell signals transmitted by suspects’ phones. But such “recommendations” aren’t considered binding, so many U.S. Attorneys simply ignore them.
The Supreme Court has begun to weigh in but the issue is far from settled. In United States v. Jones, the justices ruled that, when officers attach a GPS tracking device to a car to monitor a suspect’s movements, the police are indeed conducting a “search” under the Fourth Amendment. The court, however, stopped there, deciding not to rule on whether the use of tracking devices was unreasonable without a judge’s say so.
In response to that incomplete ruling, the Justice Department drew up two post-Jones memos establishing guidelines for its agents and prosecutors regarding location-tracking technology. When the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a Freedom of Information Act request for those guidelines, the Justice Department handed over all 111 pages, every one of them redacted—an informational blackout.
The message couldn’t be any clearer: the FBI doesn’t believe Americans deserve to know when they can and cannot legally be tracked. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor drove home what’s at stake in her concurring decision in the Jones case. “Awareness that the Government may be watching chills associational and expressive freedoms,” she wrote. “And the Government’s unrestrained power to assemble data that reveal private aspects of identity is susceptible to abuse… [and] may ‘alter the relationship between citizen and government in a way that is inimical to democratic society.’”
The ability of police to secretly track people with little or no oversight is a power once only associated with odious police states overseas. Law enforcement agencies in the United States, however, do this regularly and enthusiastically, and they do their best as well to ensure that no barriers will be thrown in their way in the near future.
During one of his last appearances before Congress as FBI director, Robert Mueller confirmed what many insiders already assumed. Asked by Senator Chuck Grassley whether the FBI operates drones domestically and for what purpose, Mueller responded, “Yes, and for surveillance.” This was a stunning revelation, particularly since most Americans associate drone use with robotic killing in distant lands.
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