Court rules police can GPS tag your car

Police Car
Photo by Scott Davidson on Flickr

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled by a narrow margin that without a warrant police can sneak into your driveway at night and stick a GPS tag on your car so they can remotely monitor your travels.  The 4th Amendment weeps.

Curiously, the case was all about whether or not police had the right to enter the man’s driveway to attach the device.  A point which is likely to be appealed since there is a longstanding precedent for courts recognizing a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy in their homes and in the “curtilage,” a legal term meaning the area around the home.  Of larger concern is the apparent legality of the police tagging the car if only they’d had the good sense to get it while it was parked outside the Wal-Mart.

Adding complexity is that while the California court ruled in favor of warrentless GPS tracking, the D.C. Federal Circuit Court ruled firmly against the practice.  The court argued, “It is one thing for a passerby to observe or even to follow someone during a single journey as he goes to the market or returns home from work. It is another thing entirely for that stranger to pick up the scent again the next day and the day after that, week in and week out, dogging his prey until he has identified all the places, people, amusements, and chores that make up that person’s hitherto private routine.”

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has argued repeatedly that such tracking is legal.  It has defended not only the tagging of vehicles, but the tracking of personal cell phones without any burden of probable cause.

The reality is that it is now cheap and easy to track anyone’s whereabouts, as well as monitor a number of conversations, and most financial transactions.  These bits of data can be gathered, compiled, and assembled for the most part without the cops ever leaving the precinct.  And collectively, they provide a fair bit of detail about the suspect’s activity.  Certainly more than any reasonable person would expect.  Hence the seemingly inevitable conclusion this violates a person’s “reasonable expectation of privacy” assured by the 4th Amendment.

While it’s certain these issues will continue to be battled out in the courts, the larger issue is that the existing laws governing legal surveillance were all written when this sort of capability was all science fiction.  They are woefully inadequate to address modern technology.  Judges are stretching the antiquated legislation to the breaking point trying to get it to fit around the world we live in. Which suggests the problem isn’t with the judiciary, but with the legislature.

It’s easy to lash out against so-called activist judges who are apparently legislating from the bench.  However, the situations exist, and it is the responsibility of the judges to make the best rulings they can.  The shortcoming is on the legislative side where these issues are not clarified and settled through new laws reflecting the constantly evolving technology available to citizens and law enforcement alike.

Beck advocates for Christian theocracy

Beck as PreacherGlenn Beck hosted his non-political rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial yesterday.  The event came off more like a religious revival meeting.  He even had Gospel singers.  Meanwhile, the rhetoric was full of references to God and biblical tales and allusions.  At one point he likened the plight of Americans to the Jewish slaves in ancient Egypt, and there were repeated uses of the number 40.

Beck made frequent tie ins between God and politics.  So while this wasn’t a political rally per se, he certainly made every effort to encourage people to take back the country for God.  To keep it on God’s path.  To vote for people who will govern with God in their hearts and on their minds.  There were no specifics given of how all that was supposed to work.  It seemed mostly based on the Transitive Law.  God is Good.  America is good.  Therefore, God = America.

From a sufficient altitude, it’s hard to disagree with the basic sentiment.  If Jesus were President, we’d be in way better shape.  Although I expect His philosophies about healing the sick, clothing the poor, paying your taxes, and turning the other cheek would leave the current crop of Conservative Christians in a bit of an ideological bind.  But Jesus isn’t here, and historical attempts to have mortal stand-ins haven’t worked out so well.

The Protestant Reformation was a people’s uprising against the Papal theocracy of Rome.  The 18th century French theocracy ended with the French Revolution.  Perhaps somewhat ironically, the American revolution was a people’s revolt to get out from under the thumb of the British theocracy of that period.  And do we really even need to discuss the shortcomings of current Islamic theocracies?

Perhaps a more curious element of Beck’s speech was the several minutes he devoted to explaining the importance of tithing 10% of your income to the church.  The churches no doubt appreciated the shout out, but it’s difficult to see how that helps the situation Beck lives in fear of.  The right is repeatedly warning how higher taxes right now will cripple the struggling economy.  Businesses won’t invest and people won’t be able to afford to live.  It’s pretty clear the vast majority of Americans are giving well below the 10% guideline.  Therefore, relative to the money available to spend on groceries and new employees, won’t the charitable donations hurt even more than say allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire?  And what would churches do with this money?  Will they build roads, bridges, and schools?  Will they start businesses to hire people and reduce unemployment and boost GDP?  Will they provide health care or senior care?  Will they start inspecting egg farms for salmonella?  In other words, how does that money help the current government deficit, reduce the need for government, or increase freedom and liberty?  That seems a rather important point Beck left out of his talk.

No doubt, many found Beck’s rally inspiring.  Yet as a call to action, it was woefully short on any specifics.  If you’ve just won a beauty pageant, it’s pretty reasonable to dedicate your reign to creating world peace, ending hunger, and building a world where we all just get along.  But if you’re trying to incite an actual movement to make a difference in people’s lives, you need to bring a little more of a plan to the party.  God may be good and all, but it seems Beck finds the Devil is in the details.

Beck’s rally legal, but is it insensitive?

Angry Cat
Photo by Robert Acevedo on Flickr

The 1st Amendment in particular, and the essence of our culture in general, provide ample protection for anyone to express themselves about anything anywhere.  This is one of the few agreements to be had across the political spectrum.  But lately a few significant examples have arisen begging the question not of the right, but rather the propriety of such expression.  Just because it’s legal to do a thing, is it still in our collective best interest for you to do so?

First up is the controversy over the Islamic Community Center in Manhattan (aka the Ground-Zero Mosque), and it’s counterpoint, Pastor Terry Jones’ “Burn a Quran Day” festival.  Both situations involve religions and whether or not there is some sort of obligation for mutual respect.

Next up, we have today’s “Restoring Honor” rally being held by Glenn Beck and Fox News on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  While claiming it wasn’t intentional, the rally is being held on the anniversary of, and in the location of, the famous Martin Luther King Jr. “I Have a Dream” speech.  Beck has rationalized that his rally will re-energize the civil rights movement in America.  Yet many African-Americans are having trouble seeing that the plight of white conservatives in 2010 has a lot in common with the issues the black community faced in the 1960s.  Especially since it was largely white conservatives who were the issue facing blacks 50 years ago.  It’s not hard to see that Beck’s rally might be perceived as disrespectful of Dr. King’s legacy.

Finally, Dr. Laura Schlessinger was compelled to announce her retirement after a radio tirade where she said the “N-word” eleven times.  She is claiming to be the victim here, although it’s worth noting that despite her assertions, this is not a 1st Amendment issue because the government did not censor her.  Her employer did based on sponsor reaction to her show.  This is actually the way it’s supposed to work.  You get to say what you want, but people get to vote with their ears, feet, and wallets as to whether or not you deserve further attention.   The right to expression does not extend to a guarantee to have an audience.

Make no mistake, America’s history is rife with examples of boisterous expressions trampling an individual’s or a group’s feelings.  After all, there is no assurance in this country you won’t get your nose bent out of shape by someone else expressing their freedoms.  But what’s also clear is that you can’t have it both ways.  You can’t make “in your face” expressions on the one hand, and then turn around and act like a wounded puppy the next time you get a verbal bloody nose.  This is something Mosque opponent and Beck rally guest speaker Sarah Palin might keep in mind as she was quick to support Dr. Laura and rail against her being pushed out of her job.  Yet Palin was equally quick to call for Rahm Emanuel’s head back in February when he referred to a group of liberal activists as “retarded”.

Freedom is a messy business.  You can’t have yours and expect to be insulated from everyone else’s.

A warrior’s phone

Klingon App
There's an app for that...

Kahless says that Palm’s WebOS is the phone of choice for true Klingon Warriors.  This is evidenced by the recent homebrew app that provides your Palm Pre or Pixi with a true Klingon font as well as a translator to help you write Hab SoSlI’ Quch! in response to your friend calling you a petaQ over SMS.

I’d install this myself, but alas I have no friends both geeky enough and cool enough to have this app and a WebOS phone. I guess that will save Kim some eye rolling though.

Besides, it would cut into my time playing Angry Birds which is surprisingly life consuming—if only because I’m hoping if I ever get to the end of the game, maybe it will tell me what those poor little green pigs ever did to piss off those birds!  They are after all, very very angry, to the point of being suicidal.  Although I guess maybe it’s homicide as you have to launch the birds.  But they volunteer for the duty so there’s still a high level of dysfunctional bird behavior to explain here.

Can the government x-ray your car?

Car ScanA new product called the Backscatter Van (video) seems ripe to violate your 4th amendment rights.  The van, produced by the American Science & Engineering company, is essentially a mobile backscatter x-ray scanner.  This is the same technology used in those new airport scanners. The difference here being that the unmarked van can surreptitiously scan your car, house, storage locker, or any other unshielded structure it can drive near.

The company has sold over 500 vans to various domestic and foreign governments.  And Joe Reiss, a vice president of marketing, has revealed that at least some of the units have been purchased by domestic law enforcement.

While the units are ostensibly to be used to locate explosives, dirty bombs, and other terror related paraphernalia, it’s almost inconceivable the vans won’t eventually be deployed to search for contraband, drugs, and back seat passengers without seat belts.  Meanwhile Reiss opines, “From a privacy standpoint, I’m hard-pressed to see what the concern or objection could be.”

Really?  The Supreme Court has already ruled that thermal imaging a home constitutes a 4th Amendment search, and therefore requires a warrant.  And thermal imaging generates much lower resolution images than backscatter x-ray.  It’s virtually inconceivable the ruling on this new technology would be more lenient.  Further, it’s well established that the insides of cars, trucks, and other vehicles are not searchable without a warrant or probable cause.  Therefore, randomly x-raying vehicles can’t possibly be legal.

Could there still be a role for this tech when used in conjunction with proper judicial process?  Sure, but like wire tapping, thermal imaging, and other remote monitoring techniques there will be ample opportunities for misuse and abuse as well.

The 4th Amendment assures us a right to a reasonable expectation of privacy.  Yet, in a world where almost everyone has a camera in their pocket, where it’s commonplace for stores or street corners to have surveillance equipment, where almost all transactions are recorded electronically, and almost all communication is electronically vulnerable there is increasingly little privacy to be expected.  Now we can be seen moving about inside our homes and hauling groceries home in our cars.

In part, I wish my life was interesting enough to warrant all that monitoring.  But just because it’s not doesn’t mean it’s okay to surveille me anyway.  That’s not how fundamental rights work in this country.  At least it didn’t used to be.