Sunday, January 15, 2012

"FOR your security ... ." These three words are used to justify an array of technology tools that track our identity and movements in exhaustive detail — from surveillance cameras in Medina that run every incoming car's license-plate number through a police database, to the radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips embedded in Washington state driver's licenses.

With so much personally identifiable information exposed in digital form, I question whether the security we supposedly gain is worth the toll on our privacy. What's beyond question is that current laws protecting our constitutional rights have failed to keep pace with technology advances such as global-positioning systems (GPS), facial-recognition software, and portable RFID data readers.

This spring, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule in the case of United States v. Jones, which pivots on the question of whether Washington, D.C., police violated Antoine Jones' Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure. The police attached a GPS tracker to his car without a warrant. After being tracked 24 hours a day for an entire month, Jones was convicted of drug trafficking in 2008. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned his conviction in 2010, ruling that the use of GPS in this instance amounted to a warrantless search.

The Jones case is a critical opportunity for the Supreme Court to formally recognize that technology has enabled a nearly limitless degree of surveillance, which our Founding Fathers never envisioned or intended.

A police officer can follow anyone on a public street without violating reasonable expectations of privacy. But before police are allowed to attach a GPS device to a vehicle and accumulate data over time — revealing every political meeting you attend, every church you visit, and every bookstore you frequent — they should be required to show probable cause before a judge and obtain a search warrant. Otherwise, police are free to watch any of us around the clock on the chance that we might be criminals.