If you're an American citizen (or resident) looking for a single sentence to summarize your relationship with the government, here's one possibility: “The government gets to spy on you and know your whereabouts at all times, whereas you aren't even allowed to know where to find the nearest police officer nearest you.”
That's the simplest conclusion to reach after looking at two different and theoretically unrelated news stories from this week.
The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that the Justice Department, primarily the Drug Enforcement Administration, “has been building a national database to track in real time the movement of vehicles around the U.S., a secret domestic intelligence-gathering program that scans and stores hundreds of millions of records about motorists, according to current and former officials and government documents.”
Not that this should surprise anyone who pays attention. Last May, when we reported how “license plate scanner errors vex innocent motorists,” we pointed out that if you live in modern America, there's a good chance that anytime you leave your house, your movements and whereabouts are being recorded in real-time and stored in a permanent record accessible to anybody willing to pay for database access (or skilled enough to hack into it).
Last May, California state senator Jerry Hill did a little experiment demonstrating just how easily a modern American's whereabouts can be tracked: he hired a private detective to track his wife's activities (presumably with her consent). The detective was easily able to get a fairly inclusive record of whatever she did – including a visit to a gym 100 miles away from home – without having to personally “track” her at all; he merely paid to access a database of license plate scans and used them to reconstruct her whereabouts.
DEA's is even bigger
And, as the Wall Street Journal reported this week, the DEA maintains an even larger database throughout the nation, a database frequently accessed by various state and local law-enforcement agencies seeking to monitor peoples' whereabouts:
The primary goal of the license-plate tracking program, run by the Drug Enforcement Administration, is to seize cars, cash and other assets to combat drug trafficking, according to one government document. … Officials have publicly said that they track vehicles near the border with Mexico to help fight drug cartels. What hasn’t been previously disclosed is that the DEA has spent years working to expand the database “throughout the United States,’’ according to one email reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
The DEA collects its information with high-tech cameras placed in strategic locations to monitor public highways. In addition to license plate data, the cameras also photograph vehicles' occupants clearly enough to confirm their identities. The cameras, and the databases of information they collect, let authorized government agents (in addition to the unauthorized hackers who menace any computer data) track people's whereabouts in realtime, in addition to compiling a historical record of people's movements.
Despite all the information presented in the Journal's story, much about the DEA's national surveillance program remains unknown:
The effort began in border states like Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas, but the goal has always been expansion, according to current and former federal officials and documents. Officials wouldn’t say how many other states are now feeding data into the system, citing concerns that disclosing such information could help criminals avoid detection.
The federal program hasn’t always been embraced by states. At a 2012 hearing, Utah lawmakers balked when DEA officials sought to have license-plate readers in the state feed into the database—one of the few times the agency has provided even limited facts about the program ….
To reiterate: the federal government has a large and growing nationwide system of cameras set up to monitor and record the locations of literally everybody in America (or, at least, everybody on an American highway).
The federal government won't let citizens or even state-level elected officials know any specifics about how far-reaching this spy-camera program is, and of course justifies this secrecy by saying that if Americans are allowed to know just how much the DEA and other branches of government spy on us, this could “help criminals.”
Unsurprisingly, that's pretty much the same argument the NSA [National Sheriffs Association] used last week, to explain why Google ought to disable the police-tracking feature of its popular “Waze” traffic app. Waze is a crowdsourced app that lets users post realtime updates about local road or traffic conditions. It also allows users to report police sightings on public roadways – and, as the Associated Press reported yesterday, the police don't like that idea at all.
Although Waze does show police presence, it offers nothing more specific than a police-shaped icon indicating that police are in an area. But it won't say why — are police in a given location manning a speedtrap? Putting up a roadblock or checkpoint? Taking a lunch break? You won't know; you'll only know that police are there.
But for modern cops, even that is more information than American citizens can be trusted with. Last December, for example, Los Angeles' police chief wrote a letter to Google's CEO complaining that Waze could be “misused by those with criminal intent to endanger police officers and the community.”
The AP noted that at the National Sheriffs Association meeting last week, Sheriff Mike Brown of Bedford County, Virginia, suggested that “The police community needs to coordinate an effort to have the owner, Google, act like the responsible corporate citizen they have always been and remove this feature from the application even before any litigation or statutory action.”
(Translation: Google should definitely NOT take this as a threat or anything, nobody's threatening any lawsuit or legal actions, we're just urging Google to be responsible and do what we want so we won't have to bother with lawsuits or legal actions, capisce?)
Google declined comment on the matter, but a Waze spokesperson said that Waze works with, and shares information with, police departments around the world, and that “These relationships keep citizens safe, promote faster emergency response and help alleviate traffic congestion.”
If you're an American citizen (or resident) looking for a single sentence to summarize your relationship with the government, here's one possibility: “The ...