‘1984’ was a warning, not a how-to guide

Via Instapundit, a discussion of the Stingray, a suitcase-sized device that acts as  a fake cell phone tower. It routes calls through it to the cell tower, enabling local police to gather large swaths of information without a warrant or the permission of the wireless providers.

These devices cost approximately $400,000 and are paid for by the federal government – yes, the same federal government that is seventeen trillion dollars in debt.

Police agencies have used the Stingray to monitor political protestors.  They justify the privacy invasion by saying,

“We’re not infringing on their rights,” [Richland County (S.C) Sheriff Leon] Lott said. “When they use that phone, they understand that information is going to go to a tower. We’re not taking that information and using it for any means whatsoever, unless they’re the bad guy or unless they’re the victim.”

Ah, the old “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” nonsense.  Privacy is not a conditional right; we need not prove that we are justified in keeping our business to ourselves.

The fundamental error of Smith v. Maryland is to equate our knowing, voluntary interactions with private companies with the unknowing, involuntary interactions with law enforcement.  If Verizon starts selling information about who I call, how long I’m on the phone with them, etc., I can either find another carrier or sue them for breach of contract (assuming that there is some contractual provision prohibiting selling my information). However, I have no such remedies against law enforcement: I can’t get another police department, demand a contract that respects my privacy, or otherwise protect my private information.

Aside from my limited remedies, the fundamental issue is that the police – an arm of the state that is armed, has the ability to arrest me, indict me, and try me for a crime – is accessing my personal information. In a world wherein the average person commits three felonies a day, this is unconscionable.


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