Privacy SOS

Targets of the surveillance system: People with unpaid student debt?

An alarming story out of Houston, where US Marshals have arrested a man over unpaid student loans dating back to the 1980s:

Paul Aker says he was arrested at his home last week for a $1500 federal student loan he received in 1987.

He says seven deputy US Marshals showed up at his home with guns and took him to federal court where he had to sign a payment plan for the 29-year-old school loan.

The local Fox affiliate reports the Marshals have been ordered to arrest between 1,200 and 1,500 people after private debt collectors secured arrest warrants from judges over unpaid student loans. 

Since at least 2007, the US Marshals’ service has been flying planes equipped with powerful cell phone surveillance tools, called dirtboxes, above US cities. The technology makes it possible for the Marshals to precisely locate someone using signals from the target’s cell phone.

Now we know the Marshals have been enlisted to find and arrest about 1,500 people who allegedly owe student loan money. Are the Marshals going to use these cell site simulators to find them? That would be surveillance mission creep in the extreme. After all, we’ve been told law enforcement needs these powerful and privacy-invasive surveillance tools in order to arrest the most dangerous criminals, like terrorists. While the banks might not like student loan defaults, the people who refuse to pay are hardly terrorists. 

© 2018 ACLU of Massachusetts.