[…] Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether we trust the authorities to impose limits upon themselves when it comes to deployment of surveillance technologies that legislators nor courts have specifically circumscribed. The fact is that the law is out of date. The Bill of Rights was written a long time ago, well before cellphones, the internet, spy drones or even video cameras were invented. Our Electronic Communications Privacy law is woefully obsolete, itself predating widespread usage of three of those four technologies.
We need to bring the Bill of Rights into the 21st century for the same reason the ACLU and others want the Obama administration to tell us its legal rationale for its overseas killing operations: the public should know what rules the government is bound by, particularly when it comes to our rights to privacy and due process. Unfortunately, that’s simply not the case. Today, we live in an era of secret law, from top-secret CIA and military killings abroad, all the way down to the DOJ’s view of law enforcement location tracking powers here in the US. Where the law doesn’t explicitly provide guidance, we are largely ignorant of how the government interprets its authorities with respect to new technologies, its powers, and our rights.
Meanwhile, engineers and coders are not slowing down to wait for our state legislators or federal representatives to catch up. Just this week, I read about “research to build drones that can stop moving boats and cars” – what the technologists call “crime-stopping drones”. The week before that, it was a drone the size of a fist that can fly through your window and kill you.
Then, there is the privacy-lover’s worst nightmare: the all-seeing Argus, which can simultaneously watch an entire city and multiple targets within it. We are so far behind on digital privacy that it’s hard to imagine what the next phase of technological development has in store for our privacy interests. But we better shape up quickly before things like brain-computer interface technology and Darpa’s slime robots become more than abstractions.
Drone apologists say that police helicopters can already monitor us from the skies, but it’s clear as day that drone technology is different. The diversion tactic, on the other hand, is not: we hear similar refrains to counter public outcry about other technologies, too, like when police departments say license plate readers just enable police to do what they’ve always done more efficiently, and when they tell us that iris scans are nothing more than a modern fingerprint.
If it were true that “nothing changes” with the advent of these tools, law enforcement would support efforts to limit the privacy harms that the new technologies alone enable. Instead, the state security apparatus more often than not fights civil libertarian efforts to do so at every level. [++]