Sometimes the government gets all bent out of shape over a few secret documents finding their way into mass circulation via the internet. In these instances, it seems that access-driving technology is the enemy of state security. However the government also uses advancements in the technologies we use every day, like cell phones and credit cards, to track suspects.
Most of this activity falls under the vague provisions of the Patriot Act, which, it turns out, essentially allows the government to spy on its own citizens without disclosing their methods and without warrants. On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union claimed a victory in its ongoing work to fight warrantless cell phone tracking.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit Judge Merrick Garland wrote “The disclosure sought by the plaintiffs would inform this ongoing public policy discussion by shedding light on the scope and effectiveness of cell phone tracking as a law enforcement tool. It would, for example, provide information about the kinds of crimes the government uses cell phone tracking data to investigate.”
Interestingly, the Court ruled not to stop the US government’s tracking activities, but to make some details about how the activities are carried out public. The ACLU filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act for the information on current and past cases in which cell phone tracking data was used.
The Department of Justice argued that those requests violated the convicted people’s right to privacy, as the it could bring undo attention to past criminal deeds. Judge Garland countered by noting that, in other instances in which cell phone tracking was not used in a criminal case, the kind of information requested by the ACLU is available to anyone online.
On its blog, the ACLU wrote:
“Today’s decision is a significant victory in the fight against warrantless tracking of Americans by their government. There is no good reason for DOJ to keep this case information secret, except to keep the American people in the dark about what its own government is doing and stifle debate about the new tracking powers the government is claiming.”
Transparency seems like a worthy goal in this instance. If the government wants to know where everyone is all the time, the methods of procuring that information needs to be held to public scrutiny lest it be a clear violation of our right to privacy. A common defense for such government action is “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”
The same could be said about the government’s reluctance to disclose their methods for obtaining such information.