by Jack Lohmann, Summer Intern
Confronted with losses of privacy rights and other civil liberties, we are often willing to buy the rhetoric of trading freedom for security. I follow the law, we say. I’m not doing anything wrong—I have nothing to worry about. Folks are only now beginning to cry foul at many of the broad surveillance programs implemented throughout the Commonwealth and the country—programs only half-heartedly (if at all) curtailed by judicial and legislative authority.
As I wrote last week, the storyline is all too familiar to students—it sounds a lot like school, where, in the name of safety, the law permits schools (the government) to take some rights from students. Yet, in society, liberty and security are not mutually exclusive states, and the government should not be able to take away our rights without due process. In society, freedom is not only essential to safety but also to our ability to enjoy our fundamental rights.
Rapid global technologization has created shocking opportunities for government surveillance of nearly every aspect of Americans’ lives. New consumer goods—such as wearable technology and smart homes—will only serve to enhance these powers. For instance, the NSA has over the past decade collected massive amounts of Americans’ email and web-browsing records, as well as information on phone calls and other communications. And we don’t know what else the government has collected, since we’ve only found out about many of these programs through leaks.
The crossroads of modern technology and intrusive surveillance is a dangerous place. Through its PRISM program, the NSA has what amounts to a back door into the servers of companies like Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple, allowing the government to collect your emails, texts, chats, and photographs at whim. (If you’re online reading this, chances are the government is tracking you. Virtually no one is left unaffected.) There is virtually no oversight of this or other programs: The government’s secretive FISA Court gives the NSA what is effectively a blank check to do as it pleases.
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But excessive surveillance isn’t limited to the federal government. This phenomenon is on display in Virginia localities with the rapid spread of Automatic License Plate Readers. ALPRs are often used to collect and store information on the whereabouts of all vehicles that pass by—not just on those individuals who are known (or suspected) criminals. In addition to localities’ use of ALPRs, Virginia is also confronted with questions regarding drone use, police body cameras, and GPS tracking, both of which present the potential for undue privacy loss if not used in the right ways.
ALPRs when properly regulated, can be used in fully constitutional, legitimate law enforcement contexts. (Indeed, such a statement would apply to much of the technology discussed above.) Unless governments are pressured to regulate ALPR use, society’s core principle that governments not collect information on innocent citizens’ activities “just in case” they break the law will continue to be violated. ALPR usage could be seen as a microcosm of the surveillance debate as a whole, as citizens are lulled by vague reassurances of “security” and “safety” into a system of mass routine location tracking and surveillance.
What’s happening is not about safety. It’s about a massive and unnecessary infringement of our rights. Resources are being misdirected and wasted, compromising rather than enhancing our safety. When privacy and security are seen as mutually exclusive and mass surveillance is considered essential to security, realities are confused and liberties endangered.
Within the Constitution are clear prohibitions against government surveillance programs of such overwhelming and indefinite scope—but, astoundingly, such protections have been trampled upon and ignored. Such disregard for our liberties is unacceptable: It’s time to fight back.
Why is Pardon Data Secret?