Privacy Files: Promiscuous Voyeurism

Iraq is back in the news. Citizen Romney is worried Americans may lose all we gained there after eight years of invasion, occupation and graft. Very disturbing.

One of our “gains” from Iraq, not under attack by jihadists, is domestic mass surveillance. General Keith (“Haystack”) Alexander first tried out his “collect it all” spy strategy in Iraq. It was so effective there, as we now can see, Alexander and the Gang brought it home. The Feds tried it out and sure enough, it worked here too.

Since 9/11, the phone dragnet was found to be a “catalyst” in exactly one case: a Somali taxi driver who donated funds to Al-Shabab, a jihadist group based in Somalia. And in that case, the dragnet’s contribution was not deemed “essential.”

Surveillance techniques and various methods of population control tested and developed during times of war find a way of coming back home. It happened this time, too. The federal government has provided training and assistance on mass surveillance to local law enforcement. Call it blowback.

Or call it Stingray—the name of a device widely used by local law enforcement, including the SFPD, to sweep up basic cellphone data from entire neighborhoods, with, or without a warrant.

One well-known type of this surveillance equipment is known as a Stingray, an innovative way for law enforcement to track cellphones used by suspects and gather evidence. The equipment tricks cellphones into identifying their owners’ account information and transmitting data to police as if it were a phone company’s tower. That allows police to obtain cellphone information without having to ask for help from service providers, such as Verizon or AT&T, and can locate a phone without the user even making a call or sending a text message.

Stingrays, also deployed by the DEA, FBI, ATF, Secret Service and Migra among others, can scoop up loads of background information, even when conducting a specifically targeted investigation. One police officer testified he

“quite literally stood in front of every door and window” with his stingray to track the phones inside a large apartment complex.

The SFPD won’t talk about it. Neither will Oakland, San Jose or any of the other cities the ACLU reports using Stingrays. Seems the most transparent administration in history doesn’t really want you to know what your local cops are up to.


Once information about local Stingray and warrantless surveillance programs comes to light, more practical policy debates and more meaningful privacy provisions become possible.

And courts can address the constitutional issues in the context of local law enforcement without getting tied up in national security. Last week, a significant new ruling came down.

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals said no this week to tracking your movements using data from your cell phone without a warrant when it declared that this information is constitutionally protected.

As Stanford’s Jennifer Granick points out, the same arguments used to justify cell tracking on the local level are the core arguments used by the NSA to protect its Panopticon.

Not that laws and constitutions matter so much when you’re on a mission to “collect it all.”

Filed under: Mobile, Today's Mission


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