Privacy & Technology

“The progress of science in furnishing the Government with means of espionage is not likely to stop with wiretapping. Ways may someday be developed by which the Government, without removing papers from secret drawers, can reproduce them in court, and by which it will be enabled to expose a jury the most intimate occurrences of the home…Can it be that the Constitution affords no protection against such invasions of individual security?”
-- Louis Brandeis
U.S. Supreme Court Justice
Olmstead v. United States, (1928)

The word "privacy" means many different things to different people. One widely accepted meaning is "the right to be let alone," as it was described by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.

The United States is at risk of turning into a full-fledged surveillance society. From using the telephone to seeking medical treatment to applying for a job or sending e-mail over the Internet, our right to information privacy is in peril. Our personal and business information is being digitized through an ever-expanding number of computer networks in formats that allow data to be linked, transferred, shared and sold, usually without our knowledge or consent. Employers and schools are turning to drug testing policies without any reasonable suspicions of illegal drug use. DNA has the power to disclose not only private personal and medical information about any individual but also blood-relatives. The use of DNA is expanding as a tool for crime-solving and has also been used to exonerate the innocent. The same technological advances that have brought enormous benefits also make us more vulnerable than ever before to unwanted snooping.

As technology provides new ways to gather information and databases proliferate, the need for privacy protections becomes more urgent. The ACLU is a national leader in working to guarantee that individuals may determine how and when others can gain access to their personal information.

Litigation

Gresham Cop Snatches Phone From Observer During Live Broadcast

Police Violated Free Speech and Free Press Rights During Unlawful Search and Detention of Livestreamer

February 11, 2015 - Carrie Medina firmly believes that police should always act as they would if they knew there was a camera on them. She made it a point to film police encounters she witnessed.

In February 2013, while riding the bus home from work, she heard someone exclaim, “Ooh, that must’ve hurt!” and looked outside to see two police officers arresting a young man. She got off the bus to observe the police activity and started a livestream video with her phone. Watch the video.

Medina was no stranger to livestreaming. She got her start during the Occupy Portland protests and had soon gathered a group of dedicated viewers. With donations from her supporters to help cover expenses, she had also traveled to protests in D.C. and Chicago to livestream video.

“Livestreamers” have played an important role in recent protests both by attracting large audiences in real time and also by capturing moments that can go “viral” afterwards. For example, over 750,000 viewers tuned in live to see the violent eviction of the Occupy Wall Street protestors. And recently in Ferguson, Missouri, livestreaming journalists shared video of the militarized police response toward protestors that shocked the nation.

By the time Carrie Medina was off the bus and in place to video, the young man being arrested was already in handcuffs. She stood several yards away broadcasting and narrating the events. She started to feel that the police were paying her a lot of attention and she backed even further away. That’s when Officer Letsis walked up to her and asked to see her video.

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Court Rules Warrant Is Required to Access Drug Prescription Database

Oregon PDMP v. U.S. DEA

RxFebruary 11, 2014 - Portland - For the first time, a federal judge has ruled that patients have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their drug prescription records, and that law enforcement must obtain a warrant in order to search such information. The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Oregon represented a group of Oregon patients and a physician in the lawsuit against the Drug Enforcement Administration.

“This is a victory for privacy and for the constitutional rights of anyone who ever gets drug prescriptions,” said ACLU Staff Attorney Nathan Freed Wessler, who argued the case last month. “The ruling recognizes that confidential medical records are entitled to the full protection of the Fourth Amendment. The court rightly rejected the government’s extreme argument that patients give up their privacy rights by receiving medical treatment from doctors and pharmacists.”

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Legislation

ACLU Floor Letter for "Get a Warrant" Bill for Cellphones, Tablets, and Other Electronic Devices

cell phone reader

ACLU urges a 'Yes' vote on SB 641

April 22, 2015 - Data stored on a smartphone or other portable electronic device can paint a near-complete picture of even the most intimate and personal details of our lives. Before the age of smartphones, it was impossible for police to gather this much information about a person’s communications, historical movements, and private life. Today, police officers routinely search the contents of a person’s cell phone during an arrest or after a cell phone seizure. With increasing frequency, officers perform such searches with the aid of electronic devices that strip a cell phone of its data on the scene.

This type of highly intrusive data mining implicates significant privacy concerns.

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PRIVACY: Regulate Automatic License Plate Reader (ALPR) surveillance technology (SB 639)

Law enforcement agencies deploy license plate reader surveillance technology in Oregon without adequate or consistent privacy restrictions. Many agencies retain the location information and photograph of every vehicle that crosses the camera’s path, not simply those that are associated with a criminal nexus.

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Other

The Freedom to Read

By Barbara Gordon-Lickey

Most people understand that the First Amendment gives them a right to speak on any subject, free from censorship by government officials. Probably fewer people realize that the U.S. Constitution implicitly grants the freedom to read what they choose and protects their right to read in privacy.

The First Amendment protection of freedom of speech is meaningless if you cannot gather information on subjects that you want to speak about; that is, the First Amendment requires that reading materials not be censored. The right to read also requires that you do not suffer repercussions as a result of your reading choices; therefore, your choices must be private. This privacy right is also protected by the Fourth Amendment which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure and specifically states that “papers” must be protected. In the computer era of downloads, a search of your reading choices is equivalent to a search of your papers.

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Is Ubiquitous Video Surveillance of Public Spaces Good Public Policy?

By Stuart Kaplan

The pictures of the Tsarnaev brothers walking casually through the site of the Boston Marathon bombing bomb attack may well be the iconic image from that tragedy. Taken mostly by private security cameras that were aimed at the streets near the site of the attack, these images played a significant role in the eventual apprehension of the alleged bombers. Due to their wide distribution on television and in newspapers the images quickly became important elements in the ensuing discussion about methods for protecting the public from terrorism. Shortly after the bombing Boston’s police commissioner called for adding more police surveillance cameras and camera-equipped drones. A national public opinion survey taken a week later reports that less than 20 percent of Americans oppose the use of surveillance cameras in public places.

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