Privacy SOS

Pushing back the surveillance state: we must get behind these two bills

Things often seem so bad on the privacy front that it’s hard to imagine anything concrete that can be done to roll back surveillance. 

But one Member of Congress is trying to do exactly that.  And we should pressure our elected representatives to give him their support.

Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA) has just made public two “discussion drafts” of legislation which we should ask our Members to consider co-sponsoring.  One would stop routine cell phone tracking by the government; the other would require the Federal Aviation Administration to institute privacy protections in its rulemaking process for licenses to operate drones.

The Wireless Surveillance Act of 2012

This draft bill is a response to Rep. Markey’s discovery that last year alone nine wireless carriers received more than 1.3 million requests from the government for the release of cell phone records. 

Markey, a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and co-chair of the Congressional Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus, maintains that “the startling number of requests made for personal information of mobile phone uses strongly suggests that clear, consistent rules should be established to protect the privacy of innocent people. With searches and seizures now happening in cyberspace, this legislation will update the 4th amendment for the 21st century.”

The Wireless Surveillance Act of 2012 would do the following:

  • Require regular disclosures from law enforcement on the nature and volume of requests they make so the type of reporting provided to Rep. Markey's investigation becomes routine. 
  • Curb sweeping information requests such as cell tower “dumps” that capture information on a large group of mobile phone users at a particular period of time, and require that any request be more narrowly tailored, whenever possible.  
  • Require, in the case of emergency circumstances, a signed, sworn statement from law enforcement authorities after receipt of information from a carrier that justifies the need for the emergency access. This will establish needed accountability in these situations.
  • Mandate creation of regulations by the Federal Communication’s Commission (FCC) to limit how long carriers can keep consumers’ personal information.  Right now, no such standards exist.
  • Require location tracking authorization only with a judge’s approval when there is probable cause to believe it will uncover evidence of a crime.  This is the traditional standard for police to search individual homes. When police access location information, it is equally sensitive and personal and should be treated according to the traditional standard.

The Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act of 2012

When Congress in March 2012 passed the FAA Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2012, it prepared the way for an estimated 30,000 drones to have freedom of the domestic airspace before the end of the decade.  Many of them will be controlled by law enforcement and will be carrying extremely powerful surveillance equipment. Commercial drones that conduct surveillance could provide massive amounts of data to the government, much as cell phone companies do today.

In Congressman Markey’s words,

When it comes to privacy protections for the American people, drones are flying blind. Drones are already flying in U.S. airspace – with thousands more to come – but with no privacy protections or transparency measures in place. We are entering a brave new world, and just because a company soon will be able to register a drone license shouldn’t mean that company can turn it into a cash register by selling consumer information. Currently, there are no privacy protections or guidelines and no way for the public to know who is flying drones, where, and why. The time to implement privacy protections is now. This discussion draft will help ensure that pilotless aircraft isn’t privacy-less aircraft and the strongest safeguards are put into place for Americans.

The Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act requires that:

  • The Secretary of Transportation must conduct a study of privacy impacts of drone use in consultation with the Department of Commerce, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Department of Homeland Security Privacy Office. A report must be issued to Congress.
  • The FAA must include privacy considerations in its overall rulemaking process for drone licenses, using as the Federal Trade Commission report titled ‘Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change: Recommendations for Businesses and Policymakers’ as the standard.
  • The FAA may not issue licenses unless the application includes a data collection statement that explains exactly what kind of data will be collected, how that data will be used, and how the licensee will protect privacy.
  • Law enforcement agencies and their contractors and subcontractors must include an additional data minimization statement that explains how they will minimize the collection and retention of data unrelated to the investigation of a crime.
  • The FAA must create a publicly available website that lists all approved licenses and includes the data collection and data minimization statements, any data security breaches suffered by a licensee, and the times and locations of drone flights.

What you can do

If you live in Massachusetts, call your Member of Congress and express your concerns about government surveillance and the erosion of privacy.  Say you would like him or her to support Congressman Markey’s initiatives to protect privacy rights: the Wireless Surveillance Act of 2012 and the Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act of 2012.   If Congressman Markey is your Member of Congress, please call and thank him!

Massachusetts in district contact information:

Michael Capuano – 617 621 6208; Barney Frank – 617 332 3920; William Keating – 617 770 3700; Stephen Lynch – 617 428 2000; Edward Markey – 781 396 2900; James McGovern – 508 831 7356; Richard Neal – 413 785 0325; John Olver – 413 442 0946; John Tierney – 978 531 1669; Niki Tsongas – 978 459 0101

If you do not live in Massachusetts, you can find out the telephone number of your elected representative by entering your zip code on this website and then clicking on his or her name. 

Please let your elected representatives hear from you while they are in their home districts. The more calls their offices get, the better – this is a way of letting them know that privacy matters!

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.