Privacy for us, but not for you?

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Privacy for us, but not for you?

Sep 22, 2010

Patrick St. John

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Over at Wired's Threat Level blog, David Kravets chronicles the recent (and conflicting) court battles over how much privacy one can expect when out in public.
Specifically, in this case the Obama administration is pushing the court to allow the tracking of suspects' vehicles using a hidden GPS device without first getting a warrant.

The administration, in urging the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to reverse a three-judge panel's August ruling from the same court, said Monday that Americans should expect no privacy while in public.
"The panel's conclusion that Jones had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the public movements of his Jeep rested on the premise that an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the totality of his or her movements in public places, " Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Smith wrote the court in a petition for rehearing.
The case is an important test of privacy rights as GPS devices have become a common tool in crime fighting, and can be affixed to moving vehicles by an officer shooting a dart. Three other circuit courts have already said the authorities do not need a warrant for GPS vehicle tracking, Smith pointed out.

It's worth pointing out that agencies like the FBI can obtain cellphone location (by way of cell towers) information in real-time, without obtaining a warrant, and depending on the jurisdiction, can also pull up all stored records on your cell phone's prior locations.
Part of a larger trend
As monitoring technology has gotten better — and smaller — we've seen more and more conflicts between the surveillance desires of the police and the privacy rights of the populace.
London, George Orwell's setting in 1984, boasts ten thousand police surveillance cameras (and Britain as a whole has 4.2 million - one camera for every 14 people). While the opportunities for abuse are rife, London's police department hasn't seen any improvement in the percentage of crimes solved.
On our side of the pond, not only is surveillance on the rise (both by stationary cameras and handheld police camcorders), but law enforcement is making it very clear that cameras should never be turned on themselves.
Who watches the watchers?
While privacy may not exist for the rest of us in public, the one group of people who are armed 100% of the time and can act with impunity — the very people we need to keep tabs on most — do have privacy in public.

Due to the wave of YouTube videos showing rampant police abuse (and murder) of suspects and passersby, cities and states across the country have decided that the problem isn't the actual abuse, but simply the fact that the public finds out about it! So they're making it a crime to videotape any on-duty police officer. Via Gizmodo:

In response to a flood of Facebook and YouTube videos that depict police abuse, a new trend in law enforcement is gaining popularity. In at least three states, it is now illegal to record any on-duty police officer.
Even if the encounter involves you and may be necessary to your defense, and even if the recording is on a public street where no expectation of privacy exists.
...
When the police act as though cameras were the equivalent of guns pointed at them, there is a sense in which they are correct. Cameras have become the most effective weapon that ordinary people have to protect against and to expose police abuse. And the police want it to stop.

The presence of video cameras and Copwatch programs are (were?) often the only things standing in the way of police abuse, especially in lower income and minority communities. And in the case of Oscar Grant, an unarmed civilian shot in the back while in custody by police in Oakland, cell phone videos taken by people nearby were the only chance to see justice done.
Even in the 21st century, Lord Acton's famous quip is still all-too applicable.