Sunday, February 26, 2012

The newest toys in the box: Police deploy cell-phone trackers, drones

A pair of stories show how technology is rapidly reshaping old debates about the Fourth Amendment and privacy, raising questions about whether sketchy protections outlined in the 18th Century still serve to prevent government abuses using technologies the Founding Fathers couldn't imagine.

First, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram has a story about "a new cellphone tracking system authorized for purchase by the Fort Worth City Council this week."
The KingFish system, which gives police the ability to track cellphones without having to go through a provider or service, will cost more than $184,000 during its first year of operation, according to a memo prepared for City Council prior to its vote.

The memo said that Fort Worth police officers have already utilized the technology and have received training from agents with the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Marshal's task force, agencies that have assisted the police in using the tracking system in the past. The KingFish units are mobile and can be mounted on a vehicle or carried by officers in the field.

Those concerned about the technology's capabilities worry that police will use the system to monitor the movements of suspects or subjects of its investigations without first obtaining warrants or a judge's permission.

Read more here:
Fortunately Texas state law is actually better developed than federal law on this question, and the Fort Worth police would absolutely be required to get a warrant court order in most circumstances. (A recent SCOTUS case ruled that using a GPS tracker on a vehicle is a "search," but declined to decide whether it required a warrant in federal cases.) Of course, it doesn't take very much to get a search warrant court order, and if the information is never used in court, nobody would know if they failed to get one, so in practice even that is a relatively weak limitation.

Another problem with spending that much on a piece of technology is that then the agency will feel compelled to find reasons to use it, if only to reduce the cost-per-case figure when trying to justify the expense in the budget..

Then, at CNBC there's an item about the increasing use of drones by civilian police agencies, news media and an array of other possible users. The story opens:
Heads up: Drones are going mainstream. Civilian cousins of the unmanned military aircraft that have tracked and killed terrorists in the Middle East and Asia are in demand by police departments, border patrols, power companies, news organizations and others wanting a bird's-eye view that's too impractical or dangerous for conventional planes or helicopters to get.

Along with the enthusiasm, there are qualms.

Drones overhead could invade people's privacy. The government worries they could collide with passenger planes or come crashing down to the ground, concerns that have slowed more widespread adoption of the technology.

Despite that, pressure is building to give drones the same access as manned aircraft to the sky at home.
"It's going to be the next big revolution in aviation. It's coming," says Dan Elwell, the Aerospace Industries Association's vice president for civil aviation.
Unlike mobile tracking devices, Texas law - either our statutes or case law - are no more prepared for the challenges posed by police use of drone technology than at the federal level. There's basically a vacuum that, for now, lets police and other users do nearly whatever they want.

Every kid wants to play with the newest toy in the box, and police are no different, so these technologies are going to be used. The question is can they be adequately regulated, or will their novelty confound the courts and prevent lawmakers from adequately constraining them?
Read more here:


Flintstone said...

I was a repair technician in the field for these drones for a while, and I can say that their ability to gather data through infrared, visual, and ELINT capabilities are simply amazing. And terrifying. While SCOTUS rulings currently prohibit the use of infrared technology to peer into homes, the use of "aggregate" data can probably still be used as an argument against it being an invasion of privacy. In other words, they can peer into homes, find an average heat signature, and simply scan for excessive peak signatures, presumably looking for things like pot growing operations. Of course, grandma running her heater in the spring may get a suprise DEA or PD raid. That'll look funny on the evening news.

Anonymous said...

The worst part about things like this is not necessarily the potential for abuse (not that I'm trying to minimize that!), but rather, that the individuals in law enforcement who consider, purchase, deploy, maintain, and ultimately use this kind of technology don't seem to have serious misgivings about doing so. This has to pass through so many layers before it ever sees real usage.

Why don't we hear about police who are uncomfortable with technology like cell phone tracking systems? Am I just not looking in the right places where such dissent might be found? Do they keep it to themselves out of peer pressure or fear? Do they really not see the loads of problems, both immediate and potential? I'm genuinely curious. Because what strikes me the most about stories like this is that police seem to have zero problem with increasingly invasive surveillance technology. They're people too, they are potential targets of abuse too, but they, more than anyone, can do something to stop it. Why don't they?

Anonymous said...

NObama on Feb 14th signed for up to 30,000 drones to be flying over America before 2020. All this is because of the US becoming a police state. On Jan 1st NObama signed for indefinite detention of domestic American terrorists which I think is going to apply to Americans who refuse to give up their arms. I'm thinking of getting a land line again.

dfisher said...

How long do you think it will be before some group discovers how to hack the PD's drone's command and control system and fly it into a building. I bet not to long.

As for tracking cell phones, I can see a new product hitting the market that resembles a little cell phone case that blocks all in and out bound signals.

Anonymous said...

That's fine. Your kid gets kidnapped don't ask the police then to try and track her phone. Or your wife gets kidnapped in her workplace parking lot. Or an illegal alien beats a two year old child to death and is heading back to Mexico.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

6:49, is there some reason you think that can't be done right now through the cell providers? If they're really going to get a warrant each time, why not just get the data from them like they do right now?

The main difference is that if the tech is in house and it's used without a warrant, no outside entity (like the cell phone company) will know.

RSO wife said...

Am I the only one who remembers reading George Orwell's novel, "1984". It was required reading in college. In 1949, this novel, although pure fiction, predicted things like this would happen and I don't know whether life imitates art or not, but here we are, closer and closer, to becoming a complete police state.

Anonymous said...

@ 11:37.....can you point to an instance where law enforcement, the Marshal's service, has abused the cell phone tracking capability?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

7:23, in the Jones case that went to SCOTUS, law enforcement continued to use a mobile tracking device after their warrant expired, does that count?

Sheldon tyc#47333 said...

Anonymous 6:49 scare tactics by the ignorant for the ignorant. The ability to waste time filling a pig report on line makes calling pigs totally useless.
There are parts for about 10 bucks at the shack that can block those signals. Just like there is stuff to block drug screening. No parolee I mentor will ever fail a drug test. Remember our government uses the lowest bid with kickbacks included.
The way the LEO scum treat the citizens is a reflection of society. When the voting public wallows in its foolishness and elects enemy’s of freedom this is what you get. It will be historic when America truly elects an African American as President. Arifat said decades ago the Americans are the most gullible people on the planet.
Grits this can be done right not. Ghetto PCS allows the government free access to cell phone records. Another thing I tell my parolees is never use a Ghetto PCS phone.
The citizens of this country could win the war on drugs if we could get the feds out of the drug business and open it up to free enterprise. Shame we have to continue to prove Arifat right.

Anonymous said...

@ it doesn't count. The Jones case was about le installing a "bird dog" on the defendant's vehicle. We are talking about cell phone tracking now. So my question again is, can you point to an instance where law enforcement, the Marshal's service, has abused the cell phone tracking capability?

DeathBreath said...

What a load of hogwash. The US Supreme court handed down a ruling that required the FBI to take down 3,000 GPS tracking devices. I find this posting difficult to believe.

What's wrong? Did the cops rattle your cage in Austin when you were stopped on your stroll?

Sometimes, you can tell when someone has been in stir by the way they behave around cops.

By the way, Round Rock PD recently encrypted police dispatch as a function of morons misusing scanner apps.

If you give law enforcement an inch, they will take miles in return. Tell me, where is the transparency? Their typical excuse for using encryption is compliance with HIPPA laws. There are thers ways to deal with these laws without the use of encryption.

The next time you see a drone in your area, grab a mask and think of skeet shooting.

If you live in Houston, you are in a constitution-free zone. So, technically, you are at the mercy of rooting pigs.

Anonymous said...

“The more they overthink the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain.” —Scotty

Anonymous said...

Right. So. Does cop dick taste like donuts?

Anonymous said...

Go volunteer for your local police department. You would be amazed at what they already track. I did just that and got a huge wake-up lesson. I learned that while it certainly isn't CSI, I was amazed at their current technology.

I continue to say that I don't have any reason to worry about, let them track my whereabouts because I am not a criminal. But what happens in a "police state" when they want my guns, or don't like my political opinions? I'm more concerned about this technology being used by the wrong side of the law. To show that no cell phones are in the home, so it is empty and they can safely break in, or your abusive ex who is in a motorcycle gang finishes his prison sentence for attempting to kill you and is now out and looking for you, or Pro-life groups using it to see who is using the services of Planned Parenthood, or Religious groups that want to tell your wife you spent your lunch hour at a topless club when you told her you had meetings. Right now, it is THOSE illegal uses that scare me more.. because criminals are ahead of the police.... That scares the crap out of me far worse than the police knowing that I'm at Dillard's this afternoon.

john said...

Sure, I'm terrified. Think on this: our whole lives there has been TV propaganda how great the FBI, the police, the lawyers, now CSI are--As if the citizen's buddy. The other focus of cop shows is how they should protect each other like family against the dirty rest of us. Not only is regulation needed, but oversight and redress of grievance. SO NOW COPS WILL CARRY THROW-DOWN DRONES & PHONES? You WISH you were rich enough to take those in power to court. It's become THEIR court, you see.

Paranoid Paranoia said...

Oh hell! The sky is falling the sky...

I mean the commies are coming the commies...

I mean the drones are coming the drones are coming!

Same old story, just different characters. It makes for good banter at the head-shop but in actuality more paranoia than real threat. Put down the bong and soon your mental prison will fade away.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

DeathBreath, do you have a cite/link on the FBI taking down 3,000 tracking devices?

Technically, SCOTUS did NOT say the monitors require a warrant in Jones. They agreed only that it was a search, but not every search requires a warrant and they did not rule in that case whether one was required. (There was a TON of misreporting on that btw, see here.)

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Never mind, DeathBreath, I found the story - didn't realize it just came out. Extraordinary.

The Comedian said...

Great! Now Internal Affairs can better monitor their cops picking up their payoffs from drug dealers, harassing motorists, visiting Mrs. Jones while Mr. Jones is at work, running their side businesses and providing security for donut shops.

Anonymous said...

@ 11:31...interesting. BTW, these are available to the public

I would be more concerned with public access than police access.

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Anonymous said...

I recently was tracked by my cell. My ex's brother is a US Marshal and it seems so wrong. Im not a criminal nor do I do anything illegal. How can this be right?