by John W. Whitehead, Rutherford Institute:
“We live in a surveillance state founded on a partnership between government and the technology industry.”— Law Professor Avidan Y. Cover
In this age of ubiquitous surveillance, there are no private lives: everything is public.
Surveillance cameras mounted on utility poles, traffic lights, businesses, and homes. License plate readers. Ring doorbells. GPS devices. Dash cameras. Drones. Store security cameras. Geofencing and geotracking. FitBits. Alexa. Internet-connected devices.
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There are roughly one billion surveillance cameras worldwide and that number continues to grow, thanks to their wholehearted adoption by governments (especially law enforcement and military agencies), businesses, and individual consumers.
With every new surveillance device we welcome into our lives, the government gains yet another toehold into our private worlds.
Indeed, empowered by advances in surveillance technology and emboldened by rapidly expanding public-private partnerships between law enforcement, the Intelligence Community, and the private sector, police have become particularly adept at sidestepping the Fourth Amendment.
As law professor Avidan Y. Cover explains:
A key feature of the surveillance state is the cooperative relationship between the private sector and the government. The private sector’s role is vital to the surveillance both practically and legally. The private sector, of course, provides the infrastructure and tools for the surveillance… The private sector is also critical to the surveillance state’s legality. Under the third-party doctrine, the Fourth Amendment is not implicated when the government acquires information that people provide to corporations, because they voluntarily provide their information to another entity and assume the risk that the entity will disclose the information to the government. Therefore, people do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their calling data, or potentially even their emails. As a result, the government does not normally need a warrant to obtain information transmitted electronically. But the Fourth Amendment is not only a source of protection for individual privacy; it also limits government excess and abuse through challenges by the people. The third-party doctrine removes this vital and populist check on government overreach.
Critical to this end run around the Fourth Amendment’s prohibitions against unreasonable searches and seizures by government agents is a pass play that allows police to avoid public transparency requirements (open bids, public meetings, installation protocols) by having private companies and individuals do the upfront heavy lifting, leaving police to harvest the intel on the back end.
Stingray devices, facial recognition technology, body cameras, automated license plate readers, gunshot detection, predictive policing software, AI-enhanced video analytics, real-time crime centers, fusion centers: all of these technologies and surveillance programs rely on public-private partnerships that together create a sticky spiderweb from which there is no escape.
As the cost of these technologies becomes more affordable for the average consumer, an effort underwritten by the tech industry and encouraged by law enforcement agencies and local governing boards, which in turn benefit from access to surveillance they don’t need to include in their budgets, big cities, small towns, urban, suburban and rural communities alike are adding themselves to the surveillance state’s interconnected grid.
What this adds up to for government agencies (that is, FBI, NSA, DHS agents, etc., as well as local police) is a surveillance map that allows them to track someone’s movements over time and space, hopscotching from doorbell camera feeds and business security cameras to public cameras on utility poles, license plate readers, traffic cameras, drones, etc.
It has all but eliminated the notion of privacy and radically re-drawn the line of demarcation between our public and private selves.
Over the past 50 years, surveillance has brought about a series of revolutions in how governments govern and populations are policed to the detriment of us all. Cybersecurity expert Adam Scott Wandt has identified three such revolutions.
The first surveillance revolution came about as a result of government video cameras being installed in public areas. There were a reported 51 million surveillance cameras blanketing the United States in 2022. It’s estimated that Americans are caught on camera an average of 238 times every week (160 times per week while driving; 40 times per week at work; 24 times per week while out running errands and shopping; and 14 times per week through various other channels and activities). That doesn’t even touch on the coverage by surveillance drones, which remain a relatively covert part of police spying operations.
The second revolution occurred when law enforcement agencies started forging public-private partnerships with commercial establishments like banks and drug stores and parking lots in order to gain access to their live surveillance feeds. The use of automatic license plate readers (manufactured and distributed by the likes of Flock Safety), once deployed exclusively by police and now spreading to home owners associations and gated communities, extends the reach of the surveillance state that much further afield. It’s a win-win for police budgets and local legislatures when they can persuade businesses and residential communities to shoulder the costs of the equipment and share the footage, and they can conscript the citizenry to spy on each other through crowdsourced surveillance.
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