Sunday, November 13, 2011

Big Brother is Watching. And So Is Big Sister.

Did you ever have the feeling you're being watched? Perhaps it's because you are.

In the olden days, surveillance was low-tech. Somebody (the government, or a suspicious spouse, or whomever) hired a guy in a trench coat and slouch hat to follow you around and take pictures and make notes about what you did. But that's sooooo 20th century. Nowadays, anybody with the right equipment and a wee bit of know-how can follow you anywhere. Your cell phone broadcasts your location (and even if it's turned off, it can be turned back on without your knowledge). The GPS unit in your car stores a record of everyplace you've been. Checking into places via Facebook lets the entire world (or, at least, that portion of it you've allowed) know where you are and what you're doing. We spill our deepest (or shallowest) secrets in the pages of our blogs. Cameras take your picture when you get money from an ATM, check out at the grocery store, transact business at your bank, ride the Metro, enter a building, or run a red light.

And then we complain that our "right to privacy" is being compromised.

Actually, regardless of what you might think, the Constitution does not grant you a "right to privacy." The closest it comes is in the Fourth Amendment, which states

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

Of course, this applies only to the federal government, and only so far as the Supreme Court says it applies. The Founders, when they drafted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, probably didn't think about things like traffic and surveillance cameras, GPS, and cell phones. The Fourth Amendment doesn't do a thing for you if you are beset by vindictive ex-wives/husbands, stalkers, or other nefarious individuals. You're on your own.

Two interesting articles in today's Washington Post take up this theme. The first, by Jonathan Turley (Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University), asks how much privacy we can expect in the age of ubiquitous surveillance. The other, by David Cole (an instructor in constitutional law and criminal procedure at the Georgetown University Law Center) discusses the same issue with a bit more of a look into the history of the privacy debate, and suggests that a case now before the Supreme Court offers an opportunity to rein in the power of the government (at least) by deciding what the Fourth Amendment really means.

For better or worse, we live in a world in which ubiquitous surveillance is a fact of life. We have decided (or, better said, it has been decided on our behalf) that trading privacy for convenience and safety is a good deal. If you don't have anything to hide, why should you worry about who's watching?

Good question.

I like to think of myself as a decent, law-abiding citizen. Well, except for the occasional California stop at intersections ... and the overdue library books ... and the extra salt packs and napkins filched from the fast-food places ... and ... well, you get the idea. Each of us, no matter how virtuous, performs some minor pecadillo every day that might be innocent, but might also look pretty suspicious when taken out of context. Do we want all of that recorded, particularly when the technology exists to carefully edit and reshape the record to make things look like what they aren't? I don't think so. Does everyone and his brother need to know where I am and what I'm doing at every minute of the day? Nope.

Professor Turley points out that we've allowed all this to happen by the decisions we've made in favor of security and convenience. The case now before the Supreme Court, Jones v United States, asks the court to decide the limits of government use of modern technology (specifically, GPS tracking) for unwarned surveillance. Should you care if you're not a drug dealer, arms trafficker, or other vile miscreant? Probably yes. Because the same technology that allows you to be kept safe from these low-lifes can be used against you as well ... and not just by your government.

There's no squeezing the surveillance toothpaste back into the constitutional tube. Regardless of what the Supremes decide, the technology of surveillance is out there, for good or for ill. The best thing we can do is be aware of it, and remember that in the age of ubiquitous surveillance and cheap memory, nothing ever goes away ...

Have a good day. Behave yourself ... you never know who's watching.

More thoughts tomorrow.



Mike said...

' carefully edit and reshape the record..'

This is the real problem.

eViL pOp TaRt said...

Yes, there's a lot of opportunities for government and businesses to watch us in our everyday lives, probably with technology that we can't even fully imagine. However, in many cases, what's their motivation? By not doing anything particularly interesting to them, most of us can pass under the radar.

I hardly think that NSA is going to find my having a café grande this P.M. is of much interest. To them, I am so boring. Or they have too much spare time on their hands.

Some forms of surveillance we may willingly opt in to, such as when we use loyalty cards.

allenwoodhaven said...

People could protect a lot of their privacy if they'd just start writing letters again. The world might seem to slow down a little and everyone would have to learn patience, but there would be less email to read and fewer phone calls to be intercepted. I've often wondered what the hurry is all about since most of the rush is about very unimportant things.

It might also save the post office!

The Mistress of the Dark said...

of course people could be watching but they might not do anything about it it...kinda like at PSU

KathyA said...

" The Founders, when they drafted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, probably didn't think about things like traffic and surveillance cameras, GPS, and cell phones."

How short-sighted of them!! :)

Can you imagine the resulting apoplexy if we brought back the FF and they could witness the current technology?