At first I wasn’t going to write about the Wall Street Journal story titled U.S. Spies on Millions of Drivers. (It “raises new questions about privacy and the scope of government surveillance”!! Call the Pulitzer committee!!!!) But then I saw another story that provided an ironic little twist that makes this a fun topic.
The Justice Department has been building a national database to track in real time the movement of vehicles around the U.S., a secret domestic intelligence-gathering program that scans and stores hundreds of millions of records about motorists, according to current and former officials and government documents.
I realize it’s more satisfying to be an extremist, always taking a position on the same side, whether it be civil liberties or security. But this really is one of those “on the one hand, on the other hand” type of situations. (Which is why I was lukewarm on writing the post at first. But just wait!)
On the one hand, the central government (I’m going to try to stop using the word “federal” because it’s not really federal) is growing in all sorts of ways that the Founding Fathers never envisioned. It’s hard not to see the truth in the statement of the ACLU spokesguy in the WSJ story when he says: “Any database that collects detailed location information about Americans not suspected of crimes raises very serious privacy questions.” I don’t trust Barack Obama or many of the political hacks working for him not to misuse such information.
On the other hand, the information is collected through plate readers. I know from personal experience that plate readers perform valuable functions. I have used them in a murder trial, to challenge the defendant’s claim that he had sold the car used in the murder before the murder occurred. (Oh yeah? Then why was it seen parked outside your home more than once in the weeks and months after the murder? Oh.) And just this past weekend I spoke to a man whose car was stolen, and was located within 3 days by a plate reader.
I’m not going to go as authoritarian as Jazz Shaw at Hot Air, whose argument is that you abandon all privacy the second you walk out the door. For one thing, Shaw’s premises are not all sound. (Shaw says: “Your movements out of doors are already tracked by numerous security cameras, ATMs and stop light monitors. That information is useful in numerous situations where police are trying to apprehend criminals, though it is somewhat different when the cameras belong to private businesses and citizens. In those cases the government must (and should) obtain a warrant to get hold of the footage.” No. Police almost always get that information through the consent of the camera owner.) Moreover, the “going out in public utterly eliminates your expectation of privacy” argument failed to carry the day in the Supreme Court decision about devices tracking cars (although, to be fair, the argument wasn’t really addressed because the Court said there was an invasion of private property in placing the device on the car).
Shaw also says that this is “precisely what we need given the current climate in the nation.” Well, on the one hand, the “current climate” is always what the government uses to justify further privacy intrusions. But, on the other hand (here goes Patterico again) police need to collect information to protect the public and solve crimes. We already trust the government with a lot of sensitive information (the government knows your license plate number, and look at everything you give to the IRS!) so this hardly seems like a super-scary step.
But here’s another story that puts it all in perspective, at the L.A. Times: Google to police: Waze app can’t ‘track’ officers’ movements:
Real-time traffic app Waze’s police spotting feature is a deterrent for dangerous driving, not a tool that can “track” police officers, Google officials said in response to concerns from the Los Angeles police chief.
In a Dec. 30 letter to Google, which acquired Waze in 2013, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck wrote that by pointing out police locations, the app compromises officer safety, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Times.
. . . .
The police-spotting feature allows users to drop an icon on a map indicating the rough location an officer was spotted, but it cannot “track” them or give an exact location, she said.
I realize that LAPD is not the central government, and I also think that Beck’s concerns are not entirely misplaced given the recent attacks on officers.
And yet, there is a certain irony here, is there not? In one story, the authorities are saying that law enforcement can use technology to compile information on citizens based on public observations — and in another story, the authorities are trying to prevent citizens from using technology to compile information on law enforcement based on public observations.
I could have made this post a lot punchier by simply noting that irony and foregoing all the nuance, I guess. (Apparently I suck at blogging.)
But I think the juxtaposition shows the true way out for civil libertarians. You’re probably not going to prevent the government from using technology to spy on you. But they’re probably going to have a hard time keeping you from doing the same thing to them.
That is, unless you give them control of the Internet through something like “Net Neutrality.” (We need Net Neutrality “given the current climate in the nation” of out-of-control ISPs! Trust us!!) Then government will able to do anything it wants.
The FCC’s Net Neutrality vote happens next month.