Many Americans are rightfully alarmed by the disturbing revelation that the federal government regularly tracks every call made by millions of ordinary citizens while also spying on an unknown number of Americans’ international calls and emails.
The National Security Administration program PRISM, which was kept secret from the public until revealed last week by a former NSA contractor, allows thousands of federal employees and contractors to access data from at least nine major Internet companies, giving the government ready access to our emails, chats, Skype calls and more.
“This practice is akin to snatching every American’s address book – with annotations detailing whom we spoke to, when we talked, for how long and from where,” reads a lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union filed against the Obama administration on June 11, arguing the PRISM program violates Americans’ constitutional rights of free speech, association and privacy. “It gives the government a comprehensive record of our associations and public movements, revealing a wealth of detail about our familial, political, professional, religious and intimate associations.”
Even if your cell phone calls are not being recorded, and even if you have “nothing to hide,” the ability of the government to track who you communicate with and where you travel poses an enormous threat to the personal privacy of every American. Nearly every one of us takes part in some activity that is perfectly legal but the government has no business keeping tabs on, whether it’s visiting certain doctors, patronizing bars, attending a religious service or affiliating with different individuals or political groups.
What many North Carolinians might not realize is that this type of tracking is currently being used by local law enforcement all across our state and is completely unregulated by law.
An investigation the ACLU of North Carolina conducted last year into the policies of more than 40 local law enforcement agencies found that many county sheriffs and police departments in North Carolina routinely seek and obtain location data on individuals from cell phone companies, often without any warrant or court order. In Wilson County, for example, police obtain cell phone tracking data where it is “relevant and material” to an ongoing investigation – a standard much lower than having probable cause that someone committed a crime.
In one especially problematic case, records from the Cary Police Department included a request for data on every phone that used particular cell phone towers – not on merely one call or one individual, but every call and every individual that went through those cell phone towers.
Without laws on the books regulating use of this technology, there are no standards for when police can track an individual’s cell phone location, how they can use that data, or how long they can retain it. And without legal standards for accountability, judicial oversight or constitutional protections, this technology is ripe for abuse.
A bill introduced in the General Assembly earlier this year would address many of these concerns. Senate Bill 529, introduced by State Sen. Thom Goolsby, would require law enforcement to obtain a probable cause warrant before seeking location tracking data from cell phone companies, except in limited emergency situations. Through this method – which is already the practice for several state agencies – North Carolina can ensure that privacy and constitutional rights are protected while still allowing law enforcement to use such tools when they are truly necessary. A 2012 survey from Public Policy Polling found that 74 percent of state voters agree with this approach, yet the bill has languished in the legislature.
As the nation debates the much larger and complex issues of reining in the surveillance state while balancing security and liberty, North Carolina should embrace this common-sense and bipartisan measure to protect citizens’ privacy against unwarranted tracking and potential government overreach.
This writer is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.