In age of technology, is there still privacy?
April 12, 2018
Where were you at midnight last Thursday?
You might not remember, but somebody does. Mobile wireless providers track your phone's location from their antenna towers. Thanks to a little-noticed court ruling, the police can now demand that data any time they want. They don't need a search warrant, either.
The government doesn't need a warrant to search cellphone tower location records, a federal appeals court in Atlanta recently ruled. The court said that because cellphone owners technically "volunteer" their location to providers when they make phone calls, law enforcement agencies do not need a warrant to track an individual's location.
By merely carrying a mobile phone, this decision says you "volunteer" your location to the phone company. Since you obviously don't mind if the phone company knows where you are, the police can also see it without a warrant.
If that's true, then what other information do you "volunteer" to the many companies that serve you? Just about everything you do could be fair game by such a standard. A dissenting judge saw where this could lead. Judge Beverly Martin wrote, "Nearly every website collects information about what we do when we visit, So now, under the majority's rule, the Fourth Amendment allows the government to know from YouTube.com what we watch, or Facebook.com what we post or whom we 'friend,' or Amazon.com what we buy, or Wikipedia.com what we research, or Match.com whom we date — all without a warrant." Unfortunately, she was outvoted.
Are there times when law enforcement legitimately needs this kind of information? Certainly. The Constitution already gives police a way to do this. All they have to do is show probable cause to a judge and get a search warrant. It's a very simple process and doesn't take long. Getting a warrant is not too much to ask. But if the above ruling stands, then local police and federal agencies can go on massive fishing expeditions through everyone's data. The potential for abuse is huge.
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But it doesn't stop there. If you don't live in a vacuum you will know that Facebook is facing huge criticism for allowing Cambridge Analytica, a company that compiled data for the Trump campaign, to use Facebook user data without the user's knowledge. Oddly, it was acceptable when Facebook allowed Obama to do the same thing in 2012.
Combine that with the data that Amazon, Google, and Yahoo compile on you and the information others have is staggering. The difference with private companies is that you have a choice. You don't have to Google, for example. There are more secure alternatives. That choice is taken away when it comes to the government.
Remember, the NSA built a huge facility in central Utah to store the large amounts of data they compile from your phone and online usage. You don't have any choice. They just keep it under the guise of national security. There are other cases of government gone mad in my view.
Consider traffic cams, found in nearly every large city and some smaller ones. Or how about the Border Patrol being able to conduct warrantless searches of your electronics within 100 miles of any border. Or that EPA is using drones to monitor farmers in the Midwest. Or that the FBI believes they have the ability and authority to read your emails. And we know now how the FISA Court, where there are supposed safeguards, can be misused or misled. That happens without any public scrutiny or even an opposing side.
We now know that senior bureaucrats in the Obama administration conducted some of the most corrupt and illegal activities ever, ranging from the FBI to the IRS to the Justice Department. This is why I have a Facebook account with nothing on it that I haven't accessed in over a year. I find the constant emails from Facebook trying to entice me into logging in again amusing. I also have all location data turned off on my phones and computers.
Is that enough? Probably not, but why make it easy? I use a computer and online data by necessity, so I have a huge electronic trail. So what do I have to hide? Nothing, but what I do is no one else's business, especially any government's.
Benjamin Franklin said, "Those who desire to give up freedom in order to gain security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one." Giving up your privacy for supposed security or convenience is a huge step down that road.
Tom Riggins' column appears every other Friday. He may be reached at email@example.com.