Privacy SOS

If a company collects information on you, the police can get it — often without a warrant

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You are being tracked. Corporations collect information about what we buy, who we talk to, and where we go. They use this data for many profit-driven purposes, among them to serve us advertisements. But all of these intimate details about our private lives are also available to law enforcement and intelligence agencies, often without any requirement for judicial oversight or evidence that we are involved in criminal activity.

Enter: the subpoena.

The Center for Investigative Reporting has put together this excellent video, along with a report, pointing out that each bit of data Google and other corporations collect about us can be gobbled up by law enforcement, prosecutors, spies, and even divorce lawyers.

“We used to have to rely on private investigators,” said Lee Rosen, a divorce attorney in North Carolina whose office averages dozens of subpoenas each month. “Now everything we need is more or less on the other side of the keyboard.”
Often, a simple form is all that’s required to access prescription histories, credit card purchases, monthly banking statements, ATM withdrawals, wire transfers, tax returns and, perhaps most importantly, the rich digital portraits we keep on our smartphones.
Law enforcement can create a map or timeline of a person’s whereabouts by accessing data from license-plate scanners, toll-bridge crossings and mobile phone carriers and, without much trouble, access records on your power consumption, purchasing habits and even snail mail.
Here in Massachusetts, prosecutors use a tool called an "administrative subpoena" to get access to all manner of records about us, including many of the different kinds of records described above. State and local prosecutors can obtain this information even if they have no proof that we are doing anything wrong, and without any judicial oversight whatsoever. 

We've been warning about these broad administrative subpoena powers for a while now. Thankfully, there's currently a bill before the Massachusetts state legislature that would eliminate this extreme prosecutorial spy power. If the police think we are up to no good, they should be required to show evidence of that to a judge before poking around in our personal lives. Take action now if you agree.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.