Tag Archives: ACLU

Law Enforcement’s Use of Drones Raises Privacy Questions

Law enforcement’s use of GPS tracking technology in drones gives rise to many questions regarding issues such as regulation, privacy and usefulness. A Medina County, Ohio sheriff’s office has two such unmanned aerial systems and is exploring answers to these questions. The state of Ohio itself will probably propose legislation this year to address issues on both sides.


Unmanned Aerial Systems

Drones cost about $25,000, have a camera and are infrared- and GPS-equipped. Weighing about 2 pounds, drones must have permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to be flown (though FAA restrictions have not been finalized). The Medina County Sheriff’s office received theirs at no cost from a manufacturing company hoping to break into the market; it also has two deputies licensed to fly them.


Possible Positive Uses for Drones

The sheriff’s department sees many advantages to using the equipment the public calls drones. For example, drone units are much less expensive to fly than a helicopter and can retrieve the same information with an added safety factor: the drone is unmanned. In fact, very few local law enforcement agencies have ready access to helicopters or planes, which can cost up to $600 per hour. Drones could be used to locate missing persons, to track a renegade suspect, to safely obtain landscape images involving a fire or hazardous materials spill, or in situations involving SWAT or a standoff, to name a few.


Privacy Concerns Give Rise to Drone Regulation

Privacy, of course, is an important issue when it comes to the use of drones. The ACLU raised the argument that drones can unintentionally capture images of people, places and things during the course of law enforcement duties. The ACLU advocates the obtainment of a search warrant each time a drone is used, and that all irrelevant data and images be destroyed within 24 hours. It also wants guidelines to be set into law to protect both law enforcement and citizens. Such laws have been passed in Virginia, Florida and Idaho, and 39 other states are considering legislation requiring the use of search warrants.


Because unmanned aerial systems, thanks to GPS navigation and tracking, have the ability to follow and record paths of suspect flight, they also have the potential to invade the privacy of law-abiding citizens. Such concerns were addressed in April at the first Unmanned Aerial Systems Conference held in Dayton, OH. In general, law enforcement agencies want the liberty to perform their duties more efficiently through the use of GPS technology, but they must reach a balance with the public’s right to privacy.


7 Tips You Should Know About Geolocation Privacy

When it comes to your privacy rights in terms of GPS location information gathered by your smartphone, tablet, or digital camera with built-in GPS, what do you really know? You probably don’t realize that protection of your privacy is virtually nonexistent. Not to worry, as numerous legislators, the FCC, and certain consumer rights groups are working towards guidelines as to how app developers, law enforcement, marketers, and other third parties can use the GPS data gathered by the devices.


Catherine Crump, ACLU attorney, said, “Collecting personal data is increasingly easy for the government to do but hard for citizens to detect, so it’s more important than ever for the American public to know the rules that law enforcement is operating under, especially when it comes to location tracking.” This comment was in regards to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU in attempts to force the FBI to say how and when agents use GPS tracking devices. Do you know anything about GPS and how it relates to your privacy?  Read on for 7 things you might not know.


1. Your Camera Might Be Recording Your Location Information

Some people might not realize that the new digital camera they’ve acquired can store their location data. While this is normally used for legitimate purposes, there was a recent case where geotagged photos of bikini-clad girls holding handwritten FBI taunts, posted by the hacker group CabinCr3w, led the FBI right to one of the girl’s houses. The image they posted included EXIF-encoded GPS coordinates. Wouldn’t you think someone as tech-savvy as a hacker would know this prior to posting the images? Apparently not.


2. Lack of GPS Sharing Notifications

Right now, there are few rules in place regarding the sharing of GPS data by third parties. Kroll Advisory Solutions said in a recent report, “Part of the problem lies in the many different entities involved – wireless carrier, operating system provider, application developer – who may all have access to the consumer’s personal information. A consumer may have some control through device settings and discretion in what types of applications he or she chooses to use on the device, but these measures cannot guarantee that data will not be shared with third parties.”


3. Varies from Country to Country

Some countries are quite strict when it comes to privacy, while others aren’t. For example, the Geolocalization Law of Mexico gives law enforcement the right to request real-time location data from mobile service providers at will, while the European Commission’s Article 29 Working Party said that as geolocation data is personal, this information can only be shared, collected, or stored with the user’s express consent.


4. FTC to Congress: Protect GPS Data

The FTC obviously sees the problem with having loose privacy laws regarding use of location data. In their March report “Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change: Recommendations for Businesses and Policymakers” implores that Congress take steps to protect users’ mobile data, including GPS data. They also ask lawmakers to create a law requiring third-party companies disclose all information they hold on users, including their location data.


5. Geolocation data: Hot Issue in Congress

There have been bills introduced in Congress to regulate GPS data privacy, like last year’s bill introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act. This bill would require “the government to show probably cause and get a warrant before acquiring the geolocation information of a US person, while setting out clear exceptions such as emergency or national security situations or cases of theft or fraud.” This bill was attached to the Cybersecurity Act of 2012 as an amendment, but was sadly defeated.


6. Malware Relying on GPS Location

There is an email circulating which appears to be from a local law enforcement agency relying on the users location data, appearing to be harmless but quickly disabling your computer. After the computer is locked, an amount of money is requested to unlock the computer. This happened last month in London, and police said “This is a fraud and users are advised not to pay out any monies or hand out any bank details. This scam is now affecting many countries in Europe and further afield, with each email tailored to include the branding of that country’s law enforcement agency.” Even the FBI is alerting American’s of this scam. “This malware is doing the rounds across a lot of different countries,” said Dublin’s Brian Honan, independent security consultant. “It is coded to use geolocation to detect which country the infected computer is in and to use the logos…of the relevant law enforcement organization for that jurisdiction.”


7. You Have No Control Over Activation of Your Phone’s GPS Location Tracking

Yes, it’s true, says a recent court ruling. Police can not only access the GPS data on your phone, they can also activate the GPS location tracking, even if you’ve disabled it. In the case of Melvin Skinner being heard in the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to 20 years, this is quite clear. Skinner had a problem with the fact that DEA agents used his GPS location data to track the motor home containing 1,100 pounds of marijuana he was driving, violating his Fourth Amendement right against unreasonable search and seizure. If you read carefully in the document describing the ruling, it appears police not only tracked Skinner, but activated the GPS tracking by merely calling his prepaid cellular provider. The court’s verdict: the DEA was within their rights.


Use the information you just read wisely. Think through each and every move you are making on your device, and don’t forget to contact your congressman to ask them to support any bills tightening regulations on your precious location data and privacy rights.

GPS Supreme Court

ACLU Sues FBI For GPS Tracking Memos

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been on the front lines of the warrantless GPS tracking debate from day one. Now, almost a year after the Supreme Court ruled that tracking suspects with a GPS device is considered a search under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the ACLU is suing the FBI over documents regarding the ruling. At that time, the FBI had an estimated 3,000 GPS tracking devices on the field, with and without warrants. When the Supreme Court’s ruling was announced, the FBI sent out two memos to agents, instructing them to turn off all GPS devices, and also offering guidance on how the ruling will affect surveillance policies.


The FBI has been repeatedly asked to make the memos public, but refuses to release the information. Last month, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the FBI, requesting the immediate release of the memos. According to the ACLU, the public is entitled to know how the FBI is responding the the Supreme Court ruling. “How the FBI implements the Supreme Court’s decision in Jones will shape not only the conduct of its own agents but also the policies, practices and procedures of other law enforcement agencies — and, consequently, the privacy rights of Americans,” writes the ACLU.


The FBI claims that they are not required to release the information under attorney-client privilege. They are also reportedly concerned that the memos would reveal too much information about the FBI’s methods and procedures. “Contrary to the FBI’s claims, it’s not entitled to keep these memos secret,” explains ACLU attorney Catherine Crump. “The FBI’s own general counsel explained that these memos set out guidance regarding one of the most important Supreme Court decisions in a decade. For the FBI now to say it’s entitled to hid this guidance behind claims of attorney-client privilege is wrong, and it’s a claim we are prepared to challenge in court.”


ACLU Investigates Mobile Phone Tracking

Do you own a smartphone? If so, you’ve joined the majority of all mobile phone users in the US. Approximately 74% of these smartphone owners rely on location-based information, such as local restaurants, directions, and more, according to a Pew Internet & American Life Project poll. Some feel this is something to be concerned about, as it poses a bit of a privacy risk. However, it isn’t the average person using your GPS location you should be concerned about. Rather, you should be more worried your local police department can access this data.


The ACLU questioned 383 police departments last month, asking them if they track people via the GPS location data on their cellphones. 200 of the departments responded, and only 10 of them said they had never tracked using location data from a cellphone.


Should this issue be addressed? Well, of course. While I agree that some cases warrant the use of a person’s GPS location data, the majority don’t. Policies need to be written as to proper procedure for using this powerful tool, otherwise we could have a Big Brother scenario on our hands.


The ACLU says it best: “The government’s location tracking policies should be clear, uniform, and protective of privacy, but instead are in a state of chaos, with agencies in different towns following different rules – or in some cases, having no rules at all.”


It’s true that the some police departments obtain a warrant stating probable cause prior to accessing cellphone GPS location data. However, there are those who do not, and sometimes, departments in neighboring towns have conflicting protocol when it comes to collecting GPS data. For example, the local police of Lexington, KY requires a warrant each and every time location data is requested, while the Kentucky State Police don’t require one at all.


What, exactly, do police ask for? It can vary. Standard cell phone records are no big thing, although a warrant is required for this practice. With smartphones, tracking becomes a breeze. For example, in Lincoln, NE the police department asks the cellphone provider for “subscriber information, GPS, precision location, and/or latitude/longitude coordinates” for the phone they are tracking.


The Jones case, which we’ve reported on extensively, is the first step to dealing with any tracking issues. If you can’t place a GPS tracking device on a vehicle without a warrant, how can you then begin following a suspect’s movements using the GPS location data collected by the phone they carry in their pocket? There is an expected level of privacy as we go about our daily routine, and this violates that. This isn’t to say that the data should be inaccessible. Rather, the authorities should be expected to obtain a warrant after proving probable cause. You can be sure as more people turn to smartphones, this issue will be addressed in the courts. It’s only a matter of time.

GPS Supreme Court

U.S. Senator Inquiring Into Department of Justice’s GPS Tracking Procedures

Senator Al Franken, a Democrat representing Minnesota, recently inquired into the GPS tracking policies of the U.S. Department of Justice. The letter was made public, and expresses concerns about how January’s Supreme Court decision making warrantless GPS tracking illegal, had affected their policies when requesting GPS data from wireless carriers.


“I am writing to ask you about the Department of Justice’s own practices in requesting location information from wireless carriers,” wrote Franken. “I am eager to learn about how frequently the Department requests location information and what legal standard the Department believes it must meet to obtain it. I would also like to know how the department may have changed these practices since the Jones decision.”


Franken isn’t the only government representative with these concerns. Just last week, Congressman Edward J. Markey, (D-Mass.), sent a similar letter to all of the major wireless carriers. “Information gleaned from mobile phone use should be accessible for appropriate law-enforcement purposes,” said Markey. “Still, disclosure of this personal information raises important legal and privacy concerns, particularly in the absence of consumer knowledge or consent or judicial oversight. We need more information about current wireless carrier practices in this area, including how firms may be profiting from consumers’ personal data, and I look forward to the responses from the wireless carriers,”


“It is startling how even such basic information isn’t available,” wrote blogger Chris Calabrese, from the ACLU’s [American Civil Liberties Union] Washington Legislative office. “Remember that our FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] revealed that this is an extraordinarily common law-enforcement practice, with only 10 of 190 police departments we surveyed saying they did not track cell phones. DOJ [Department of Justice] has been employing cell tracking for more than a decade. Letters like these are the first step in oversight.”

Vermont ACLU Fights Warrantless GPS Tracking

After the Vermont ACLU unsuccessfully attempted to obtain information pertaining to whether or not law enforcement was tracking citizens using the GPS on their cell phones, Rep. Peter Welch announced he would fight to pass a bill laying out ground rules for this practice.

aclu vermont

The Geolocation, Privacy and Security Act will cover not only law enforcement, but private companies as well.  The act will keep companies from taking information from citizens without their knowledge, making consent mandatory.  It will also force authorities to obtain a warrant before they can begin tracking anyone using a GPS device.  This bill is very similar to the bill discussed in a previous article, introduced by Sen. Patryk Leahy (also from VT).

The VT ACLU filed a complaint against the office of the Attorney General when it was discovered that the Attorney General granted police permission to track private citizens via cell phone. Police use GPS coordinates taken from a suspect’s cell phone to determine the whereabouts of a person at all times.

VT ACLU Executive Director, Allen Gilbert, recently told press that he believes the whole process of law enforcement obtaining secret information is no just. Gilbert went on to state that a warrant should be obtained prior to tracking a person. Gilbert commented that “it’s difficult to know what standards, if any, have to be met in order for law enforcement to get information through this process.” For Gilbert and the VT ACLU, tracking a person without obtaining a warrant is a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Gilbert says it best: “The right to be left alone by government and for government to follow the law when it wants information about us and get a warrant, it’s just fundamental to our American DNA.”

Article Written by Khristen Foss

Tracking Schoolchildren with RFID Technology

In a day and age when parents fear for their children’s safety, one school district has decided to use modern technology to put those fears to rest. Officials state that efficiency is the main reason for the program, but it is hard to imagine that parental concern did not factor into the equation.

Earlier this month, the Middletown school district in Providence, Rhode Island enacted a pilot program that included putting RFID (radio frequency identification) chips in tags that will be attached to children’s schoolbags. This initial trial run will include about 80 children (and their backpacks).

The primary reason for the use of this tracking technology is to track students who take the bus to and from school. The chips will record when students get on and off of the school bus, as well as showing the bus’s position as it travels.

The ACLU has already cried foul.

The pilot program was by no means mandatory and parents were informed ahead of time and told who to contact with any questions. Middletown hopes that the program will foster better communication with parents. Parents involved in the pilot will be able go to a website to see when their child got on the bus and to see if the bus will arrive on time.

One official compared the program to programs that let parents check their child’s attendance record or to see their child purchased for lunch. (Notice I said to see what the child purchased—there really is no way to know what a child actually ate for lunch.)

And isn’t that the point—for all of our sophistication, life is still full of variables. A parent could be checking the website and see that according to the RFID, their child is still in school. At that same moment, the child could be walking through the door, having left the backpack in their classroom.

However, it is also possible that a child could be on a bus that had to take an alternate route because of a traffic accident. The parent who checks the website to see that the bus is going in a different direction can make calls to find out what is going on and be assure that their child is fine.