Surveillance Programs Must Not Be Kept Secret

Technology moves so fast today that surveillance programs can now become routine before the public even learns of them. That is a problem because new surveillance programs can involve difficult value judgments and tradeoffs. How valuable are those programs in actually stopping criminals? How much privacy are we willing to give up for those benefits? What kinds of checks and balances do we think are necessary? In a democratic society, those are questions that should be answered not by law enforcement acting on their own as they install new technologies in the shadows — they should be decided by the people and their elected representatives after full democratic discussion and debate.

Know what a "hot watch" is? No? You're not alone. Until 2005, no one at any of the major civil liberties organizations did, either. That year, a government lawyer off-handedly mentioned that when the government orders a credit card company to disclose the time and location of a person's credit card purchases, it's called a hot watch. It's a way to track someone's location in real time — and as the lawyer explained, the government puts hot watches on people's credit cards routinely.

Hot watch is one example of a surveillance program that became routine before anyone knew it existed. Cell phone tracking is another. Law enforcement agents tracked the geographical location of suspects' cell phones for years without the public understanding they had this capability, let alone democratically debating how much power to grant law enforcement.

What other surveillance is going to become routine without any transparency or public debate? Today there are x-ray vans that can see through walls and clothing. We know little about which law enforcement agencies are purchasing these vans, or how they are being used. The same can be said about unmanned flying "drones" capable of aerial surveillance. While they have primarily been used by the military, they are so affordable now that even local law enforcement agencies have begun purchasing them with little or no public debate.

The lack of public information about surveillance is a problem because the United States is a democracy, and a core democratic value is that the people get to set the boundaries within which government operates. The rapid pace of technological change has made it difficult for people to understand, let alone make decisions about, the nature and extent of government surveillance.

Legislatures have an important role to play in exercising oversight of surveillance. In 1979 the Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement agents were free to obtain lists of the telephone numbers people dial, without any court involvement. Congress stepped in to protect privacy by passing a law requiring law enforcement agents to apply for a court order and assert the information is relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation.

Some may argue that secrecy is preferable because criminals will have a harder time evading surveillance they do not know exists. Eventually, however, word will get out and law enforcement's advantage over criminals will disappear. That temporary advantage is not enough to cast aside the democratic principle that new powers must only be given to the government with the consent of the governed.

Everyone recognizes that temporary and limited secrecy is sometimes necessary to protect the integrity of ongoing investigations. But when law enforcement adopts new surveillance technologies or techniques that impact personal privacy, the public should know about it, and should have a say in whether the benefits outweigh the costs.

(Originally posted on Open Salon.)

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Anonymous

Democracy suffers when the government lies to the public. No service is done to democracy when the public doesn't know the truth.

@anonyops

Anonymous

This should not be allowed to continue

Anonymous

This should not be allowed to continue

MicheleMoore-Happy1

In addition to cellphone tracking, be warned that the FBI also uses technology to turn on your cellphone when it is not in use to monitor room conversations.

This means they can listen to everything that is going on in the room even when your cellphone is turned off.

Security experts recommend cellphones with removable batteries for obvious reasons.

MicheleMoore-Happy1

In addition to cellphone tracking, be warned that the FBI also uses technology to turn on your cellphone when it is not in use to monitor room conversations.

This means they can listen to everything that is going on in the room even when your cellphone is turned off.

Security experts recommend cellphones with removable batteries for obvious reasons.

panthers87

I was surveyed and they had a reason to and it fell within the guidelines but then I was accused of something I did not do and texts went out to the public's cell phones and basically without a trial or jury I was judged, made guilty and harassed. I can't even get access to the investigation because it is not on file anywhere but all my personal conversations were posted to the public and even conversations inside my home. I was taunted at work, laughed at in public, and the high school kids received the info as well and I prayed for my children with all the bullying that goes on in school. I had to quit my job because I was so stressed out about how my co-workers were receiving my personal information and making judgments. I understand what they had to do but what followed after was a smear campaign to my name and they can pull this information at any given time and send it to the public at will, but I don't have access to it. Go figure!

Anonymous

The creators of these laws and policies, the enforcers, the users, and the public need to remember what the goal is.

The goal is to preserve and protect the union and the citizens; it is to save America from harm. It is to preserve that which made us greate and unique.

Should we manage to change the mindset of all these folks from fear, control and risk preemption to the real goal we could perhaps succeed in an argument that says damaging the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in the name of security damages America.

We will never save America by destroying that which made it great.

disgusted in No...

I have been followed and harassed by paid thugs also. I have no criminal record or any involvement in any illegal activity.
The game is to ruin your credibility and make you as miserable as possible with endless lies, rumors and harassment. These people have no boundaries. I had a bomb exploded in my mail box, gasoline thrown on my garage door, endless vandalism, destruction of mail, phone tapped,house bugged,and have been harassed and tracked like an animal. I believe there will be a few more books being published about how extensive this is in the United States.

Anonymous

You said, "Cell phone tracking is another method of Law enforcement agents tracking the geographical location of "suspects' cell phones for years without the public knowledge, But these same law enforcement agents don't just track "suspects". They do track/stalk women using this method. remember that good looking woman they have a crush on in the neighborhood or work environment? She too can be stalked and tracked everywhere she goes using this so called patriot act system and tax payers money. our tax money is being spent on electronic stalking of women who had a beef with an ex who is a law enforcement agent.You better believe it,

Anonymous

I became a target of harassment and slander after filing a complaint with my company's HR. My entry badge and pager were both turned off and my management ignored my requests for help. A couple of months after HR dismissed my report (because it was my word against management's) my position was eliminated in a "workforce reduction action" after 28 years with my company. The smear campaign against me has increased. I have refused to be pressured by intimidation tactics. I received no assistance by the police when reporting break in and thefts at my home. My name/address was submitted to Acurian without my knowledge or consent and I was mailed an offer to participate in a medical study for research on depression to include compensation. I am not being treated for depression. I am taking medication for ADHD and my last refill of my prescription had no active ingredient in the capsules. I reported this to the pharmacy, the drug manufacturer, and the FDA. The pharmacy asked me to call my doctor, insinuating that I had a mental illness. I had a simple blood test to check my thyroid and lab test was performed at a lab in Austin, TX several hundred miles away. I have gone to this same clinic and doctor for over 10 years and not of my medical tests were sent out of town before this last one, according to the lab address listed on all my previous test results. Citizens need to stand up to protect their civil rights now. If this can happen to me, it can happen to anyone that asks "too many questions".

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