The enigmatic dictator of the totalitarian regime featured in the George Orwell novel and movie, “1984,” may only seem like an imagined conspiracy; but, as our government and other entities begin using more technology to track citizens and their movements, you have to wonder if we are trading in our right to privacy for the latest and greatest in new technology.
For instance, last week the Obama administration petitioned the Supreme Court to review a case that would allow the government, without a court warrant, to affix GPS devices on a suspect’s vehicle in order to track their every move until they commit a crime. Yes, that’s right. The government wants to play Tom Cruise in “Minority Report” and nail you for crimes that you haven’t even committed yet.
The request stems from a 2001 case in which Antoine Jones, a D.C. nightclub owner and suspected cocaine dealer, was tracked for an entire month without a warrant. Authorities used the information collected from the GPS surveillance to create probable cause and obtain warrants to search and find drugs in location where Jones had been. Jones was sentenced to life in prison because of this information.
However, a D.C. Court of Appeals overturned Jones’ conviction, saying that the use of a secret GPS tracking device on his vehicle for one month violated the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. But now the Justice Department is demanding that the Supreme Court reverse the Appeals decision, suggesting that “a person has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his movement from one place to another” in a public setting.
As technology becomes more pervasive in society, so will issues of privacy and police surveillance. Although the Fourth Amendment protects the right to privacy and the right to freedom from arbitrary invasion, there isn’t a clear definition as to whether or not this constitutional right extends to new technologies. As such, government agencies, as well as local authorities, have used technology to build criminal drug and terrorism cases. After September 11th, Congress and former President Bush enacted legislation, including the U.S. Patriot Act, to allow law enforcement to search e-mail and telephone communications, in addition to medical, financial and library records.
But these acts have not come without its complications—in March, a suit was brought against the FBI by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), who claimed that the FBI illegally used a GPS tracking device to track the movements of a California Muslim student. Recently, controversy erupted over the Michigan State Police’s use of handheld gadgets, known as an “extraction device,” which can lift every lick of data from a mobile phone.
But it’s not just law enforcement that’s been using GPS for surveillance. The private sector has also been using GPS to track employees, such as truck drivers and postal workers. This new form of shadowing has become easier thanks in part to devices like smartphones, which are being equipped with a chip that could be tracking a user’s location and data without them even knowing it. With the omnipresence of license plate readers by parking authorities, and video cameras with face-recognition technology affixed to light poles in heavily crime ridden areas, we’ve been turned into a society of around the clock surveillance.
With the Justice Department’s use of dragnet surveillance of millions of Americans, corporations using similar tactics on their own employees and the persistent use of cell phones by ordinary citizens, it is clear that our collective freedom to privacy is being usurped by our need to build and use technology, which knows no limits. As we enter this new age of transparency, it’s important that we also maintain our respect for our individual civil liberties. If not, than we might as well local the doors, pull the curtains in and wait for Skynet to fully be enacted.
Charing Ball is the author of the blog People, Places & Things.