Privacy considerations are left behind as invasive digital technology advances
Guest columnist Robert Perez writes about the challenges that arise for people's privacy when police and others are able to use technology to probe their private lives. He advocates citizen awareness and new federal legislation to protect privacy.
Special to The Times
"FOR your security ... ." These three words are used to justify an array of technology tools that track our identity and movements in exhaustive detail — from surveillance cameras in Medina that run every incoming car's license-plate number through a police database, to the radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips embedded in Washington state driver's licenses.
With so much personally identifiable information exposed in digital form, I question whether the security we supposedly gain is worth the toll on our privacy. What's beyond question is that current laws protecting our constitutional rights have failed to keep pace with technology advances such as global-positioning systems (GPS), facial-recognition software, and portable RFID data readers.
This spring, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule in the case of United States v. Jones, which pivots on the question of whether Washington, D.C., police violated Antoine Jones' Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure. The police attached a GPS tracker to his car without a warrant. After being tracked 24 hours a day for an entire month, Jones was convicted of drug trafficking in 2008. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned his conviction in 2010, ruling that the use of GPS in this instance amounted to a warrantless search.
The Jones case is a critical opportunity for the Supreme Court to formally recognize that technology has enabled a nearly limitless degree of surveillance, which our Founding Fathers never envisioned or intended.
A police officer can follow anyone on a public street without violating reasonable expectations of privacy. But before police are allowed to attach a GPS device to a vehicle and accumulate data over time — revealing every political meeting you attend, every church you visit, and every bookstore you frequent — they should be required to show probable cause before a judge and obtain a search warrant. Otherwise, police are free to watch any of us around the clock on the chance that we might be criminals.
If that sounds like a chilling prospect, don't wait for the Supreme Court to act; take steps to protect yourself. First, be aware of how much of your personally identifiable and traceable information is shared in digital form, and learn how to maintain or regain control over that data. Read the privacy policies of websites and applications that you use, and exercise your right to opt out of information-sharing practices that expose personal data in ways that make you uncomfortable.
Second, urge lawmakers to support new digital-privacy legislation and updates to existing laws that attach Fourth Amendment safeguards to the collection of digital data through online and wireless technologies. The Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act, introduced by Democratic U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Republican U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, would set clear rules for the access and use of geolocational information such as GPS tracking. Provisions of the act include requiring government agencies to get a warrant before tracking or acquiring information about a person's movements, with specific exceptions such as in an emergency or as a matter of national security.
We cannot — and should not — roll back the progress of technology and all that the Internet, mobile phones and software make possible. But we do have a responsibility to enact laws that reasonably prevent current and future technologies from eroding our basic liberties and changing the very nature of our relationship to government.Robert Perez is a Seattle-based criminal-defense attorney who focuses on technology and digital forensics as part of defending clients charged with crimes of violence, sex crimes and other serious offenses.