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Sep 11, 2012
Obama's Justice Department seeks expansion of surveillance
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"Oh, hi -- it's the President. I'm just calling to make sure you're not getting into any trouble."The Obama administration was elected on a promise of "hope and change," with rhetoric drawing a sharp contrast with the Bush years. One area, however, where the Obama administration has not differed much from its predecessor is on the subject of surveillance. Lawyers for the administration argued Tuesday that the American public has no expectation of privacy when it comes to mobile-phone location data. 

A previous 1976 Supreme Court ruling found that so-called "third-party records" like bank records have no expectations of privacy. This alone would likely shock most consumers. But the Obama Justice Department is trying to take it one step further. They claim that a GPS log of your locations is much like a bank record and, as such, carries no expectation of privacy. 

The case in question is hardly one that will be winning many allies to the cause of personal digital privacy. A drug dealer had his conviction overturned because the government used evidence obtained from 28 days of GPS vehicle tracking. 

It's not uncommon to use unsympathetic people as test cases. Indeed, it's often the government's best bet at getting a ruling expanding its ability to conduct surveillance. However, this attempted expansion of government power is particularly troubling. Americans use more and more electronic devices and apps that track locations and communication. All of them involve transferring data to a "third party." What this means is that, if this case is successful, very little prevents the government from using information from a variety of apps and gadgets you use every day without a second thought. 

Note that the current case is not that expansive. In fact, the government's argument relies upon the supposed vagueness of the information. But anyone who follows civil liberties issues related to tech will tell you that this is an issue that moves forward or backward, but never stands still. Every nibble taken out of digital privacy rights is only a prelude to the next. 

The common counter-argument is that those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear. However in an age of massive government data mining, nothing could be further from the truth. The FBI is currently seeking an app that would streamline its social media data mining processes. Only recently, hacktivist group AntiSec found 12 million users' information on an FBI laptop, raising the obvious question of what the heck it was doing there. In fact, the government has resorted to trying to get GPS records from third-party carriers after the Supreme Court said that they could not simply plant tracking devices on vehicles. Free candy: privacy in tech is an issue that moves forward or backward, but never stands still.

Indeed, the specific cannot be divorced from the general. The attempt to compel phone companies to release information where any reasonable person would expect some degree of privacy is part of a more general culture of surveillance in the United States and abroad. The previous ruling notwithstanding, the overall tendency is toward more surveillance and fewer privacy protections for consumers. For their part, American consumers haven't shown a lot of concern about the broader privacy issues involved. 

The argument comes on the heels of the Democratic National Convention which, unlike the Republican National Convention a week earlier, did not produce a platform with language about privacy in the digital age. 

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