7 Privacy Threats the Constitution Can't Protect You Against
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The week before last, the Roberts Supreme Court uncharacteristically handed down a decision that doesn't radically infringe on civil liberties. The justices unanimously ruled that police overshot their authority by planting a GPS device on suspected drug dealer Antoine Jones' car without a warrant, tracking his movements for over a month. For now, Americans can rest assured that police can't secretly tag them -- at least without a warrant.
At the same time, privacy advocates pointed out -- and some of the justices admitted -- that the court's majority opinion in US vs. Jones completely skirted more pressing privacy issues. The problem, the majority argued, was that police had trespassed on Jones' private property by planting a GPS device on his car. The majority opinion did not address whether or not it's okay for law enforcement to use a sophisticated surveillance technology to log someone's movements for a whole month without a warrant.
In separate, concurring opinions Justices Alito and Sotomayor both warned of the multitude of surveillance technologies that do not require intrusion onto private property to trample privacy rights. Here's a (non-comprehensive) breakdown of existing or impending technologies that make our privacy protections wildly outdated.
1. Everything you use, all the time.
The Jones case itself presents an outdated problem, because police don't really have to bother with the clumsy task of sneaking a device onto a car; at this point, private companies have shoehorned location trackers in most "smart" gadgets. Justice Alito pointed out that the more than 332 million phones and wireless devices in use in the US contain technology that transmits the user's location. Many cars feature GPS as well, thanks to OnStar navigation.
"Even if police can't track you using a GPS device," Lee Tien, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, tells AlterNet, "if they can go to your phone company and get information on your whereabouts, what does that matter?"
As Sotomayor pointed out in the concurring opinion, "GPS monitoring generates a precise, comprehensive record of a person’s public movements that reflects a wealth of detail about her familial, political, professional, religious, and sexual associations… (Disclosed in [GPS] data will be trips the indisputably private nature of which takes little imagination to conjure: trips to the psychiatrist, the plastic surgeon, the abortion clinic, the AIDS treatment center, the strip club, the criminal defense attorney, the by-the-hour motel, the union meeting, the mosque, synagogue or church, the gay bar and on and on). The Government can store such records and efficiently mine them for information years into the future."
Location is just the start. There has probably not been a single week since 2005 without a story about Facebook, or Google, or Verizon, or AT&T terrifying consumers and privacy advocates with some new way to collect too much information and then share it with other companies or authorities.
The problem is that the law does not adequately address private information that has been shared with third parties, like credit card companies or Google, Facebook and the telecoms, Tien says.
As Sotomayor put it, " I for one doubt that people would accept without complaint the warrantless disclosure to the Government of a list of every Web site they had visited in the last week, or month, or year. "
2. Cameras everywhere: License plate readers, movement tracking on cameras.
Thanks in part to a decade of Homeland Security grants, America's cities are teeming with cameras -- they're on subways, on buses, on store fronts, in restaurants, in apartment complexes, and in schools.
In New York, the NYCLU found a five-fold increase in the number of security cameras in one area of New York between 1998 and 2005, and that was before the Bloomberg administration -- inspired by London, most heavily surveilled city in the world -- pledged to install 3,000 cameras in lower Manhattan as part of the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative (this plan was expanded to midtown Manhattan as well). The cameras, which stream footage to a centralized location, are equipped with video analytics that can alert police to "suspicious" activity like loitering. The NYPD, and municipalities all over the country and world also make generous use of license plate readers (LPR) that can track car movement.