Privacy SOS

When the surveillance state strikes: Who you gonna call?

We need a privacy revolution. Now. Before it's too late.

That assessment might sound apocalyptic and disproportional. If it does, it means you aren't a regular reader here (welcome) or haven't yet read this story, penned by an anonymous author for Gizmodo earlier this week: "Hidden Government Scanners Will Instantly Know Everything About You From 164 Feet Away". The details are about as terrifying and awful as the headline, possibly more so.

Within the next year or two, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will instantly know everything about your body, clothes, and luggage with a new laser-based molecular scanner fired from 164 feet (50 meters) away. From traces of drugs or gun powder on your clothes to what you had for breakfast to the adrenaline level in your body—agents will be able to get any information they want without even touching you.
 
And without you knowing it.
 
The technology is so incredibly effective that, in November 2011, its inventors were subcontracted by In-Q-Tel to work with the US Department of Homeland Security. In-Q-Tel is a company founded "in February 1999 by a group of private citizens at the request of the Director of the CIA and with the support of the U.S. Congress." According to In-Q-Tel, they are the bridge between the Agency and new technology companies.
 
Their plan is to install this molecular-level scanning in airports and border crossings all across the United States. The official, stated goal of this arrangement is to be able to quickly identify explosives, dangerous chemicals, or bioweapons at a distance.
If you haven't read the whole piece, do so and then come back.
 
This particular cutting-edge, privacy-destroying technology raises a number of issues. Here are two salient problems that we need to tackle now, before it's too late. If you regularly read this blog, you'll notice a theme developing.
 
Firstly, we know hardly anything about what the government is doing with potentially hundreds of billions of dollars that it is funneling into research and development for incredibly invasive technologies such as that described in the Gizmodo piece. We don't know how much money the various alphabet soup intelligence and military agencies are investing in these projects, partially because some of their budges are "black" — in other words, we, the lowly citizenry who foot the bill, don't get to see how much money is allocated for the secret spending and secret research.
 
Whose money is this? It's our money. Whose rights are impacted by the technologies that the government develops with our money, without asking us? Our rights are impacted. This is a tragic, anti-democratic nightmare and it must be stopped; literally nothing less than the possibility for a marginally free society amidst rapid technological advancement hangs in the balance.
 
The government's transparently manipulative "national security!" claim for everything it does under cover of secrecy must not and cannot be abided. We must forcefully reject the notion that the government can and will act in our best interest absent meaningful oversight and public knowledge of what right now constitutes a vast, secret, shadow state.
 
Secondly, Congress needs to assert authority over the executive branch and intervene in the unfolding crisis that has positioned technological advances well before regulatory and statutory intervention. How many times must we say this before people begin to take notice? We can't sit by and watch the military, intelligence and security apparatus continue to amass power at the expense of our democratic system. Congress must pass law that firmly ensconces the Fourth Amendment in the digital era. 
 
It's past time for such a statutory intervention. Stories like this privacy-killing sensor remind us that a patchwork of laws, regulating mobile tracking here and license plate readers there, is not enough. We need a privacy revolution. The movement must be built as an alliance uniting people concerned about liberty from the right, the left and the center. In an era of economic austerity and depression, the only thing that will force these vital issues to the forefront is a whole lot of (organized) noise.
 
The government isn't waiting for our approval, either tacit or overt. The ACLU has maybe hundreds of lawyers on deck to challenge these abuses. The FBI, just to take one example from a sprawling surveillance state matrix, has 40,000 agents. The cards aren't stacked evenly. In order to make a real impact, people need to raise their voices. We civil liberties organizations cannot do it alone.
 
Michelle Alexander is often asked how we can push back against the drug war and its mass incarceration disaster. She says nothing less than a mass movement will get us what we need. Her lesson applies equally to the growing surveillance state. Yes, we need to pass the GPS Act. Yes, we need to update electronic communications privacy law.
 
But to get there and to change the fundamental relations of power between the government and the governed we need a mass social movement for privacy. 
 

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.