U.S. Supreme Court may allow the government to track phones without a warrant
The upcoming Supreme Court decision on Antoine Jones’ GPS case could have a drastic and disturbing impact on the privacy of every American citizen.
If the Supreme Court finds that law enforcement were within the law when placing a GPS tracking device on the car of suspected drug smuggler and nightclub owner Antoine Jones, it would open the door for even more egregious violations of our privacy.
This decision would essentially allow the government to monitor anyone and everyone’s movements without a warrant for any reason or no reason at all.
While the PATRIOT Act is already an affront to the Constitution and everything that America was built upon, this would dangerously expand the power of the government to act without even having to seek out a warrant.
The most unsettling aspect of this prospect is that so many people seem ready to accept the fact that the government will be able to openly track them around the clock wherever they go.The BBC quotes a staff writer for Gizmodo named Sam Biddle who said, “That line of creepiness is there, but it’s eroding quickly because, frankly we are just getting used to it.”
Even the most basic of cellular telephones connect to the nearest cell tower which sends location information to the phone company which can easily hand over the data to police.
However, modern smartphones collect much more accurate data on a frequent basis and most, including iPhones and Android-based devices, store the data for extended periods of time, as was revealed earlier this year.
In the case of iPhones, the relatively recent iOS 5 update introduced a pull-down menu which, if activated at any time, calls upon the phone’s location service in order to provide the local weather information.
Unfortunately, there is absolutely no way to disable the calling of location services when one opens this menu because there is no way to disable the weather widget contained therein.
Therefore, whenever someone opens the pull-down menu, it records the user’s location in the phone which can later be retrieved by hackers or law enforcement with ease.
Biddle revealed the main way in which people come to accept the gradual removal of all privacy in saying, “The excitement and the novelty of it blinds us to the fact that is a little weird and maybe, in terms of privacy rights, a little ominous.”
He is referring to the so-called “excitement and the novelty” of services like FourSquare which allow users to “check-in” anywhere they go, broadcasting their movements for the world to see.
He claims that for the smartphone user “it’s a trade-off, in terms of privacy versus service,” and for the company providing the cell phone service, “following you around is just part of the service.”
I reject this justification outright. There is no need to prevent smartphone users who do not use apps like FourSquare or otherwise give out their location information from opting-out of having their location information tracked and stored.
Unfortunately, the system has been created so that movements can be tracked even if one chose to opt-out of having their location tracked due to the nature of cell phone towers.
As the BBC surprisingly points out, “There are signs that governments and law enforcement agencies around the world are taking advantage of this increasingly relaxed attitude towards privacy to step up surveillance of citizens.”
Indeed the American government is turning the United States, which was formerly a bastion of freedom, into a total surveillance state in which you cannot escape the monitoring system even if you do not choose to use a cell phone of any kind.
This includes the implementation of citizen spying programs, collection of biometric information in federal databases, and a comprehensive surveillance grid that leaves essentially no way to escape the government’s prying eyes.Biddle also argues that the erosion of privacy will likely continue without any true opposition without “very radical, strong legislation,” a large-scale public outcry or a “scandal” of some sort.
He told the BBC that, “it wouldn’t surprise me if in 10 years, I know where everyone I know is at all times, in real time, constantly. I think it won’t even be an issue then. It will just be the status quo.”
I sincerely hope that Biddle is wrong and that we will not be fooled into accepting an all-encompassing surveillance society and pervasive Big Brother technology as a fact of life.
Although, it seems that many people are happy giving up all of their privacy on services like Twitter, Facebook, FourSquare and other so-called “location-based services.”
In the case of Antoine Jones, the Obama administration took the position that Jones did not have a “legitimate expectation of privacy” because his vehicle was in a public place.
This same justification could easily be used to say that by using a cell phone you have no “legitimate expectation of privacy” giving the government free license to track all of your movements without even providing a reason.
This is why the Supreme Court’s decision is critically important for the future of privacy for every citizen in the United States for the entire foreseeable future, as deciding that parking in a public place removes any “legitimate expectation of privacy” we can easily expect the act of owning and using a mobile phone to be treated similarly.
If police and the federal government no longer have to plant a GPS device on your car, it would make constant surveillance even easier and thus the only minor impediment to surveillance would be a non-issue.
Catherine Crump, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) made this exact point to the BBC in saying, “Police officers can sit in the comfort of their own stations and use this technology to watch not just one person, but many people, over long periods of time.”
“GPS tracking can actually be quite revealing about who a person is and what they value. It can show where a person goes to church, whether they are in therapy, whether they are an outpatient at a medical clinic, whether they go to a gun range,” she added.
The ACLU is accurately arguing that without police even having to obtain a “probable cause” warrant from a court, the technology is even more open to abuse.
The ACLU is hoping that the Supreme Court will, in delivering their verdict on the Jones case, ban all warrantless surveillance.
Even if this occurs, there are still far too many ways in which the government can easily monitor American citizens, including the warrantless wiretapping embraced by both former President George W. Bush and current President Barack Obama.
What’s even more disturbing than this is that most of the GOP’s presidential hopefuls actually support expanding and extending the reach of the radically unconstitutional PATRIOT Act.
“I don’t think you have to be a card-carrying member of the ACLU to be concerned about a world in which every citizen of the United States can be tracked on the whim of a curious police officer, for any reason, or no reason at all,” Crump told the BBC.
Indeed every American should be concerned as the the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States is intended to protect us from such egregious invasions of privacy.
However, some individuals would prefer that the Bill of Rights didn’t exist at all, like the district attorney for Dauphin County in Pennsylvania, Ed Marsico.
Marsico told the BBC, “If it is a legitimate law enforcement need and there is no time to get a warrant there should be occasions when you can use a tracking device.”
Who will determine if there is a “legitimate law enforcement need” if the courts are not consulted? Would it not be left up to the law enforcement officials themselves?
Of course this is exactly what Marsico is implying, although the notion of law enforcement being able to properly assess if a need is legitimate or not is nothing short of laughable.
He claims that there is little difference between being tracked by a cell phone service provider and a police department tracking you, except for the obvious fact that one is a private company and the other is a government agency that can use location information to harass and/or charge you.
Marsico’s logic is hilariously nonsensical to the point of absurdity, highlighted by him saying, “Most of us have cell phones now. Most of them have some kind of GPS tracking within them, so Verizon or AT&T already know where you are.”
And how exactly does this justify the government breaching the Fourth Amendment with total impunity? Obviously, it doesn’t.
Marsico claims that if the Supreme Court rules in favor of the Constitution which, according to him, is “against the government” it would make it more difficult for the police to conduct undercover surveillance of suspected criminals.
“Police are not out to put tracking devices on every single car. They are using it sparingly to further legitimate investigations,” he said.
Of course he is ignoring the fact that if the police are given free license to track cell phone users without a warrant, the government wouldn’t even have to put tracking devices on every single car.
As Crump puts it, “People should not have to choose between using new technology, which is becoming increasingly commonplace and hard to live without, and giving up their privacy.”
However, we could have very well already crossed the Rubicon of privacy into the land in which nothing is considered private.
As evidence of this, a U.S. Federal Court in Virginia decided earlier this month that in signing up for Twitter, one had a “lessened expectation” of privacy and thus ordered the company to hand over data from three alleged supporters of WikiLeaks to the Department of Justice.
I sincerely hope that the people of America, and the world, will not accept having their right to privacy completely erased in the name of safety, as in reality it will not make us safer but instead put us at greater risk of government harassment and intrusion into our lives.