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Law Enforcement and Privacy in 2012

2012: The Year in Review


Law Enforcement and Privacy in 2012

Privacy hasn't merely been a matter of digital information. The Transportation Safety Authority has had its share of press time over the past year.

Getty/Antje Schley Photography

Law enforcement has played a much heavier role in the privacy world this past year than it has in the past, and not all the press has been favorable. This doesn't necessarily mean that anything was done when the police have crossed lines, though, and once a precedent has been set it becomes much harder to contend with the problems that are brought to the surface. Unfortunately for the average consumer, the changes we are dealing with in our everyday lives are reflections of a federal attitude that has gone relatively unnoticed, and arguably unchecked.

In their efforts to stem terrorism, sweeping changes have been made in American jurisprudence that strips away a great deal of the consumer's expectation of privacy – the Transportation Safety Authority has been in the news countless times in 2012, never in a favorable light. Agents have been caught groping, fondling, harassing and generally making life miserable for travelers, while failing to stop any threat to national security. Some of their publicized fails chalked up this year include:

  • A four-year-old who was suspected of gun-smuggling because she hugged her grandmother at the "safety checkpoint";
  • A three-year-old boy in a wheelchair who was suspected of smuggling a bomb on the plain when his family went to visit Mickey Mouse;
  • A Dallas, TX mother who was repeatedly sent through a full-body scanner while a TSA agent commented on her "cute figure";
  • A mother traveling with her infant daughter was not allowed to board until she pumped breastmilk in the bathroom;
  • A 17-year-old girl had her dress pulled down publicly exposing her to other passengers

(The last gal actually drew more attention than normal, because she was the grand-niece of US Congressman Ralph Hall.)

Some of the problem stems from the fact that legislators and judges lack a degree of technical understanding that would help make more relevant decisions and craft more appropriate laws. When Rep. Ed Markey learned that law enforcement agencies were in the regular habit of obtaining GPS information from cell-phone providers (as well as text histories and other usage information) he sent requests for information from the major companies. He asked for information about how often this sort of thing actually happened, what sort of information was handed out, how the company's protected the privacy of their customers. When he heard back from them, he was shocked at the scope of usage. His comments on his website maligned the "sweeping nature" of the searches without warrants. Soon afterwards, Markey sponsored a bill called the Mobile Device Privacy Act, which failed to address the problem, focusing instead on third-party applications requirements for consent and notification.

In May, Chicago police arrested several people who were associated with the Occupy movement – immediately preceding the NATO talks. Videos posted on YouTube allege that at least some of these protest organizers had been specifically targeted by the Chicago police. Coming in from out-of-state, it's not hard to see that the Chicago police obtained information through the Federal government, which keeps tabs on potential threats that cross state lines. (Despite the public support the Occupy movement has gotten from the President and other politicians, the position of the FBI is that the Occupy movement represents a terrorist threat against the security of the United States.) Originally arrested on charges of terrorism because they had beer-making equipment, the accused seem to have vanished from the media's attention – doing a Google search for the "NATO 3" (Brent Betterly, Jared Chase and Brian Church) turns up little mention beyond the initial reports of charges being filed. The early reluctance to produce a warrant could indicate the use of GPS information being used for surveillance – they were staying with friends when they were arrested.

The attitude coming to light was caught on tape in an unrelated event, when the police arrested reporters with cameras, telling them "your first amendment rights can be terminated." Whatever else may be made of the video, it is obvious that views and attitudes are changing when it comes to personal privacy.

All this news concerning privacy issues makes for great copy because it focuses attention on the topic of how we see ourselves in the digital world – covered in Identity Shift reviewed early this year. In the past decade, our identity has been more closely related to the information collected about us.

Perhaps, more importantly, technology has seeped into our lives and become part of who we are, while regulations on how that technology is used in legal circles remains distressingly lax.

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