Privacy SOS

DOJ: We have “no privacy interest” in information showing where we are 24 hours a day

The Department of Justice yesterday defended a legal brief asserting that the government doesn’t need to get a warrant to track our physical locations via our cell phones because we have “no privacy interest” in that information.

Let that sink in. The highest prosecutorial office in the land, charged with defending the constitution and the rule of law against all of their enemies, has affirmatively told the public that we have “no privacy interest” in our location information. That is a shocking statement.

Perhaps the best way to understand what the government is really saying when it tells us we have “no privacy interest” in information revealing our physical location is to hold the government to account by its own standards. Let’s try to envision what the world would look like if the federal government lived by the rules imposed on the rest of us — those rules shaped as they are presently by the terrifying (and false) assumption that we have no privacy left in the world and that we shouldn’t expect it.

Imagine the following scenario:

The justices of the Supreme Court, every member of Congress, the President and his cabinet, all federal law enforcement officials and the top four layers of bureaucrats at every federal agency have cell phones containing GPS tracking devices – as most of us do in 2012. The information these phones send to and from the cell phone companies contributes towards individual dossiers on each official, documenting who they call and when, as well as their minute-by-minute physical location. This information is in real-time updated to a public website, searchable by name, position, agency or geographic location. Want to know whether any secret service or FBI agents are in your neighborhood right now? Simply click a button and search to find out; little dots on a map will appear. Click on those dots to find not simply the agents’ names, but also their home addresses, billing information, and possibly other extremely private information. With another click you can see a list  of every phone number these agents have called or texted within the past three months.

Curious about where your Senators are right this very minute? Just log on to find out. Want to know where Barack Obama’s cabinet has been traveling during the campaign season? Use the online mapping tool to trace their movements over the past year. You can create color coded, layered maps and export these files in five different formats, share your findings on social networks, or print them out for safe keeping at home.

Justifiable transparency, right?

According to the Justice Department, everybody, not just top government officials, should have no problem whatsoever with their movements being tracked live on the internet—after all, we have “no privacy interest” in that information, right?

Wrong. Even public officials have a right to personal privacy—and so do the rest of us.

Where I am tells you a lot about who I am. And it’s my business, not the government’s.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.