Warrantless wiretapping by the National Security Agency began as a Bush-era program in October 2001; in 2008, the government essentially allowed the practice in the FISA Amendments Act. The same year, the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed lawsuits challenging the surveillance.
At a hearing today in San Francisco federal court, the debate over whether NSA can continue its practices heated up again. Under questioning from US District Judge Jeffrey White, EFF and government lawyers sparred about how the case should move forward, or if it can at all. The Department of Justice argues the case can’t move forward—at all—without violating the “state secrets privilege.”
Since the erosion of Americans’ civil liberties depends on high levels of public apathy, some of the most dangerous privacy breaches take place incrementally and under the radar; if it invites comparisons to Blade Runneror Orwell, then someone in the PR department didn’t do their job. Meanwhile, some of the biggest threats to privacy, like insecure online data or iPhone GPS tracking, are physically unobtrusive and therefore easily ignored. And it’ll be at least a year or two until the sky is overrun by spy drones.
So when a method of surveillance literally resembles a prop or plot point in a sci-fi movie, it helps to reveal just how widespread and sophisticated commercial and government monitoring has become. Here are five recent developments that seem almost unreal in their dystopian creepiness.
Since Congress passed legislation in February ordering the Federal Aviation Administration to fast-track the approval of unmanned aerial vehicles—more colloquially known as drones—for use by law enforcement agencies, police and sheriff departments across the country have been scrambling to purchase the smaller, unarmed cousins of the Predator and Reaper drones which carry out daily sorties over Afghanistan, Yemen, and other theaters of operation.
Alameda County in California has become one of the central battlegrounds over the introduction of drones to domestic police work. Earlier this year, Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern raised the hackles of local civil libertarians (and there are quite a few of those in the county, which encompasses Berkeley and Oakland) by declaring his intention to purchase a drone to assist with “emergency response.” According to Ahern, Alameda Sheriff’s personnel first tested a UAV in fall 2011 and gave a public demonstration of the machine’s usefulness for emergency responses during the Urban Shield SWAT competition in late October.
Were Alameda County to purchase a drone, it would set a precedent in California, which has long been an innovator in law enforcement tactics: from SWAT teams (pioneered in Delano and Los Angeles) to anti-gang tactics such as civil injunctions. The first documented incident of a drone being used to make an arrest in the United States occurred in North Dakota in June 2011, when local police received assistance from an unarmed Predator B drone that belonged to US Customs and Border Protection. The Federal Bureau of Investigation and Drug Enforcement Administration have also reportedly used drones for domestic investigations.
The NYPD is but one of a growing number of local and state police agencies throughout the country engaged in the non-stop tracking of car license plates. Most troubling, the data captured through license plate reader (LPR) and automatic license plate recognition (ALPR) programs are being integrated with other personal data to provide the security state with ever more detailed profiles of ordinary Americans.
The US government isn’t allowed to wiretap American citizens without a warrant from a judge. But there are plenty of legal ways for law enforcement, from the local sheriff to the FBI, to snoop on the digital trails you create every day. Authorities can often obtain your e-mails and texts by going to Google or AT&T with a simple subpoena. Usually you won’t even be notified. The Senate last weektook a step toward updating privacy protection for emails, but it’s likely the issue will be kicked to the next Congress.
Because of the Patriot Act, any of us, if we annoy or threaten powerful interests, can have our e-mails read without our knowledge. Any of us can be subject to a search that could lead from one e-mail correspondent to another until the National Security Agency or the FBI, which have both confirmed that they have invested heavily in domestic surveillance of social networks, find something — anything — that could be seen as compromising.
Talk about a bait and switch. CNET is reporting that Senator Patrick Leahy (D, Vt.), who is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has revised legislation he proposed previously that originally claimed to protect e-mail privacy of American citizens. That proposal has been rewritten, and now allows for law enforcement officials to read your e-mails without a warrant.
In a closely watched case, the federal judge ruled that the Constitutional rights of two defendants — Manuel Mendoza and Marco Magana of Green Bay, WI — were not violated when federal agents with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) invaded their private property without warrant to plant wireless surveillance cameras. The judge also ruled that the collected evidence could be used against the defendants.
The judge argued that the 22-acre property’s numerous “no trespassing” signs did not apply to federal agents — with or without warrant.
Both Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney support throwing out due process (warrants) in cases where national security is viewed to be at risk — a policy first put in place by Republican President George W. Bush (with bipartisan support from America’s two ruling parties) in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
As Kade Ellis ofPrivacy SOS and the ACLUreported, a security expert says that everyone who was at Occupy Wall Street had their cell phone surveyed by the NYPD. “[T]he identity of that cell phone has been logged, and everybody who was at that demonstration, whether they were arrested, not arrested, whether their photos were ID’d, whether an informant pointed them out, it’s known they were there anyway. This is routine,” private investigator Steven Rambam says in a video talk.
He continued, “[C]ell phones are now the little snitch in your pocket. Cell phones tell me where you are, what you do, who you talk to, everybody you associate with.”
The Senate concludes that when all the privileged details of the investigations were considered, there was no sign that the pricey data centers were successful at fighting any known terrorist plot.
So what did the data centers accomplish? According to the panel the legacy is mostly negative. They claim the Fusion centers — whose objective is ostensibly to share national intelligence with state/local law enforcement and analyze potential terrorist threats — in the end mostly ended up violating U.S. citizens’ civil liberties.
The blurb for VoiceGrid ID has a particularly dystopic echo, offering a “voice data management solution with unlimited database size” in addition to system architecture that scale all the way up to “national system deployments.”
…the FBI has also hinted that it might add photos of individuals under investigation, or individuals who appeared near high-profile persons of interest to the database. The latter prospect has privacy advocates most alarmed, as it could land you on “Big Brother’s database” without a single criminal act.
In fact, the FBI appears to be doing exactly that already, as some states now pass drivers’ license headshots to the agency for future reference/screening. The ambiguity surrounding photographic databases and facial recognition of law-abiding citizens has advocacies very upset.