Are Police Crossing the Line with Online Surveillance?

We’ve spent a lot of time looking at the way that criminals, big tech, and nefarious marketers extract and use our data, but we’re overlooking one of the most controversial privacy topics to date — online surveillance.

Law enforcement has been making use of the internet since its inception to try and track and prevent crime. However, new technology, the internet of things, and third-party data miners have taken this to a much deeper level.

In 2018, Anthony Aiello, 90, was charged with the violent murder of his 67-year-old stepdaughter. Why is this relevant? Because law enforcement used the data from the woman’s Fitbit to pinpoint the exact moment of the altercation and final heartbeat.

And while justice may have been served in this instance, it begs the question, “how far is too far when it comes to the types of data law enforcement officers can access?”

Fighting crime or infringing on rights?

The term “police surveillance” may inspire images of disguised vans full of short-range video and recording technology, or film noir wiretapping. However, with our ever-expanding online footprint, it can now extend to social media platforms, cell phones, online chats, and even your doorbell cameras.

While many of us want to believe we’re snug and secure under the blanket protections of the 4th amendment, our online info is more accessible to authorities than we realize.

Ever heard of “keyword warrants?”

Neither had most of the civilian population — until police started using them to pull generalized data from Google to ferret out criminal activity.

Keyword warrants are legal documents that law enforcement or government agencies can use to request information directly from companies like Google on who searched certain terms within a specific date, time, and/or location.

Using this data, police can uncover the IP addresses of suspects who may have been involved in criminal activities. However, while we want criminals exposed, this also provides them residual data that gives them unnecessary insight into the search habits of innocent bystanders. Unfortunately, this can also place private citizens on the law-enforcement radar when they haven’t committed any violations.

Just imagine sitting at home after researching the specifics of your favorite murder mystery on Netflix only to have police knocking on your door because a similar crime was committed in your neighborhood.

Scary and a little invasive, right?

These keyword warrants are closely linked to geoforce warrants which allow law enforcement to request the identities of devices shown to be in certain areas at specified times.

Both are considered “reverse warrants” as they request general information to narrow down the suspect pool instead of using them to target just one potential offender.

And both have been challenged by attorneys who believe that authorities are twisting the 4th amendment to circumvent constitutional protections.

As of right now, New York, Illinois, Virginia, and a smattering of other states have begun to challenge the legality of reverse warrants, stating that they rely heavily on speculation derived from otherwise private information.

In 2020, two separate magistrates in Chicago ruled broad geoforce warrants to be unconstitutional, with Judge Weisman making the following powerful statement:

“The government’s undisciplined and overuse of this investigative technique in run-of the-mill cases that present no urgency or imminent danger poses concerns to our collective sense of privacy and trust in law enforcement officials.”

However, the use of reverse warrants has only increased since 2017, so the result of new legislation and legal battles is still in the air for the time being.

Just how secure is the data they gather?

Another potential danger lies in the security of the data being gathered by police departments and legal entities. There has been more than one data breach affecting law enforcement and government agencies.

Information like this can damage the reputation and infringe on the freedoms of private citizens in a big way when placed in the wrong hands.

Only time and lengthy legal battles will determine the future of reverse warrants. We only hope that damage can be minimized while the proper balance of information access and privacy is decided.

Ever experienced government infringement on your private data first hand? We’d love to hear about it! Reach out to us via social media and share your story!

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