Modern Surveillance Practices Raise Concerns

Most Americans believe they have a right to privacy. Few are aware of the limits of that right when it comes to law enforcement. Modern technology provides law enforcement personnel with a range of options when it comes to gathering data about individual citizens. The proliferation of cameras, cell phones, and social media has put us all on display in a way that was unimaginable even a few short years ago.

In November, an investigator with the Oregon Department of Justice was put on administrative leave for searching Twitter accounts for the "BlackLivesMatter" hashtag. The incident inspired a federal probe and drew protests from the ACLU. Surveillance of Twitter is not unique to this incident and is an example of the way technology can be abused to condemn people for their opinions.

The technology used by some police departments carries the potential to give a mistaken impression, potentially leading to great harm. One program in use in Fresno, California, and other jurisdictions assign a "threat level" to individuals based on a proprietary algorithm. Even the police using the software don't know what causes a person to receive a particular score. The information that forms the basis for the threat level could be outdated, misattributed or false. If the information affects police response, the result could be tragic. If the information does not affect police response, the question remains why law enforcement would bother gathering it.

As a society, we need to decide what information police and other law enforcement bodies should be allowed to gather. Technological surveillance has gone from rare to nearly ubiquitous over the past 20 years. This has happened with little input from the general public. If we value the right to privacy, it is past time we took a close look at how much privacy we really have.


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