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Destroying the Right to Be Left Alone

Posted on Sep 22, 2013
bark (CC BY 2.0)

By Christopher Calabrese and Matthew Harwood, TomDispatch

(Page 3)

And, Grassley followed up, had the FBI developed drone guidelines to ensure that American privacy was protected? The Bureau, Mueller replied, was in the beginning phase of developing them. Senator Dianne Feinstein, hardly a privacy hawk, seemed startled by the answer: “I think the greatest threat to the privacy of Americans is the drone, and the use of the drone, and the very few regulations that are on it today,” she said.

The senator shouldn’t have been shocked. The government’s adoption of new intrusive technologies without bothering to publicly explore their privacy implications—or any safeguards that it might be advisable to put in place first—isn’t an aberration. It’s standard practice. As a result, Americans are put in the position of secretly subsidizing their own surveillance with their tax dollars.

In July, for example, the ACLU published a report on the proliferating use of automatic license-plate readers by police departments and state agencies across the country. Mounted on patrol cars, bridges, and overpasses, the cameras for these readers capture the images of every license plate in view and run them against databases for license plates associated with stolen cars or cars used in a crime. Theoretically, when there’s a hit, police are alerted and someone bad goes to jail. The problems arise, however, when there’s no hit. Most police departments decide to hang onto those license-plate images anyway, creating yet another set of vast databases of innocent people’s location history that’s easy to abuse.

Since technology almost always outpaces the law, regulations on license plate readers are often lax or nonexistent. Rarely do police departments implement data-retention time limits so that the license plates of perfectly innocent people are purged from their systems. Nor do they set up rules to ensure that only authorized officers can query the database when there’s evidence that a particular license plate might be attached to a crime. Often there aren’t even rules to prevent the images from being widely shared with other government agencies or even private companies. These are, in other words, systems which give law enforcement another secret way to track people without judicial oversight and are ripe for privacy abuse.


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As is often the case with security technology—for instance, full-body scanners at airports—there’s little evidence that license plate readers are worthwhile enough as crime fighting tools to compensate for their cost in privacy terms. Take Maryland. In the first five months of 2012, for every million license plates read in that state, there were just 2,000 “hits.” Of those 2,000, only 47 were potentially associated with serious crimes. The vast majority were for minor regulatory violations, such as a suspended or revoked vehicle registration.

And then there’s the Stingray, a device first used in our distant wars and so intrusive that the FBI has tried to keep it secret—even from the courts. A Stingray mimics a cell-phone tower, tricking all wireless devices in an area to connect to it instead of the real thing. Police can use it to track suspects in real time, even indoors, as well as nab the content of their communications. The Stingray is also indiscriminate. By fooling all wireless devices in an area into connecting to it, the government engages in what is obviously an unreasonable search and seizure of the wireless information of every person whose device gets caught up in the “sting.”

And when the federal government isn’t secretly using dragnet surveillance technologies, it’s pushing them down to state and local governments through Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grants. The ACLU of Northern California has, for example, reported that DHS grant funds have been used by state and local police to subsidize or purchase automated license plate readers, whose images then flow into federal databases.  Similarly, the city of San Diego has used such funds to buy a facial recognition system and DHS grants have been used to install local video surveillance systems statewide.

In July, Oakland accepted $2 million in federal funds to establish an around-the-clock “Domain Awareness Center,” which will someday integrate existing surveillance cameras and thermal imaging devices at the Port of Oakland with the Oakland Police Department’s surveillance cameras and license plate readers, as well as cameras owned by city public schools, the California Highway Patrol, and other outfits and institutions.  Once completed, the system will leverage more than 1,000 camera feeds across the city.

Sometimes I Feel Like Somebody’s Watching Me

What makes high-tech surveillance so pernicious is its silent, magical quality. Historically, when government agents invaded people’s privacy they had to resort to the blunt instruments of force and violence, either torturing the body in the belief it could unlock the mind’s secrets or kicking down doors to rifle through a target’s personal effects and communications. The revolution in communications technology has made such intrusions look increasingly sloppy and obsolete. Why break a skull or kick down a door when you can read someone’s search terms or web-surfing history?

In the eighteenth century, philosopher Jeremy Bentham conceived of a unique idea for a prison. He called it a “panopticon.”  It was to be a place where inmates would be constantly exposed to view without ever being able to see their wardens: a total surveillance prison.  Today, creating an electronic version of Bentham’s panopticon is an increasingly trivial technological task. Given the seductive possibilities now embedded in our world, only strong legal protections would prevent the government from feeling increasingly free to intrude on our lives.

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