Privacy in public places doesn’t exists, says government
The debate over privacy increases with growing concerns for individual rights
22nd July 2013
By Ash Blankenship
According to the U.S. Government, privacy in public spaces does not exists. In a recent ruling (pdf) regarding the legality of affixing GPS devices to a suspect’s car without a warrant, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that there is “reasonable expectation of privacy in…public…” The Justice Department is attempting to reverse this ruling, stating that Americans should expect no privacy in public places. The GPS ruling is only one example.
"This is kind of scary in a sense"
In an age of always-on surveillance, license plate tracking, and overhead drones, many citizens are expressing concern over this new age of surveillance.
In many public places, including parks, closed-circuit television (CCTV) is becoming popular among cities and police departments, but not among residents.
"This is kind of scary in a sense," one man who wished to be nameless told NPR. “Knowing that people are watching, no matter what.”
And watching they are.
In Elk Grove, California, the parks and recreation department has installed 30 cameras in parks across town, at a cost of nearly $10,000, according to NPR.
Behind the scenes, the video feeds are watchable and searchable by the local police department.
The IT manager for Elk Grove told NPR that “[y]ou can get camera feeds, you can make any screens you want, you can search any video.”
The city of Elk Grove looks to increase their use of CCTV, while other cities are tapping into the use of similar technologies.
In addition to the use of video cameras in public places, the use of license plate readers is also on the rise.
Data gathered (pdf) by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) show that close to three-quarters of police departments are using license plate readers in order to capture plate numbers and track vehicles.
While police agencies claim that capturing license plate numbers leads to increase arrests of drivers guilty of illegal activity, the ACLU states that fewer than one percent of the captured data lead to arrests.
"Mounted to patrol cars, highway overpasses, and more, cameras are photographing the license plates of each and every passing car, including your own," notes the ACLU.
Some municipalities are keeping the captured data indefinitely, according to the ACLU, which estimates the number of plate reads being kept is now in the hundreds of millions.
Drone use a major ‘threat to privacy’
In June, FBI Director Robert Mueller admitted that the agency has used drones for surveillance in the skies over the U.S. According to The Verge, Mueller stated during testimony that the use of drones for domestic surveillance has been “seldom used and generally used in a particular incident where you need the capability.”
"I think the greatest threat to the privacy of Americans is the drone"
Infrequent use or not, drone operation for surveillance has its critics.
"I think the greatest threat to the privacy of Americans is the drone, and the use of the drone and the very few regulations that are on it today…," said Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA).
While there have been calls for drone oversight, the growing domestic use of drones has been authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for a number of police departments, including for use along the U.S.-Mexico border.
In addition, some police agencies have considered attaching devices that would allow for the use of rubber bullets and tear gas on drones. Such potential use has prompted the ACLU to speak out against possible attacks by unmanned aerial vehicles.
"It’s simply not appropriate to use any of force, lethal or non-lethal, on a drone," Catherine Crump, an attorney for the ACLU told CBSDC.
Calls for oversight of drone use will likely continue as more police agencies adopt policies to incorporate the use unmanned aerial vehicles.
The privacy debate continues
As the use of surveillance technologies increase, privacy issues will continue to result in debates among citizens. Police and surveillance agencies, as well, have already developed their case for the use of increased surveillance.
Al Shipp, CEO of 3VR, the maker of the surveillance software used to control Elk Grove’s closed-circuit cameras, believes many who argue against the use of surveillance technology are taking privacy concerns too far.
"Most people don’t understand that putting more cameras [up] doesn’t necessarily yield more information," Shipp told NPR. “Instead of watching hours, and maybe days, of video, you can ask questions like, ‘Show me all red cars going east.’"
The intended use is to aid in an emergency or criminal case.
In defending the FBI’s use of domestic drone surveillance, Robert Mueller stated that the bureau is in the initial stages of creating guidelines, adding that “our [surveillance] footprint is very small,” and “[with] limited use.”
As the use of surveillance equipment continues to rise in America’s public spaces, and with the federal government believing that privacy in public places does not exists, the debates among citizens will continue, and often under the watchful eye of a peeping agency.
Laura Donohue, a law professor at Georgetown University believes negative reactions to surveillance is common. “The idea that all of this information will be fed into one place, I think is a game-changer in terms of how we look at the world,” she tells NPR.
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