Remember when we thought we were going to make the world a better place?
In the city where Jello Biafra once ran for mayor on a platform that would have required businessmen to wear clown suits, recently graduated engineers arrived wearing jeans and pocket-tees. Like the countercultural icons who came before them, they thumbed their collective noses at the stuffy protocols that had come to dominate the white collar workforce. While New York’s business elite had members-only clubs, local tech CEOs kept a kegerator in the office — right next to the ping-pong table and bean bag chair lounge. The Silicon Valley “campus,” complete with outdoor shopping centers and arcades, replaced the corporate headquarters, and open floor plans dismantled the sterile grid of cubicles.
This was the Left Coast. On this side of the country, the son of a teen mom and a cuban immigrant could rise to become the world’s first trillionaire and a couple of bearded, shaggy college dropouts could build a world-conquering personal computer company while pledging to Think Different.
In late November, a California state court issued a final decision interpreting a 2015 California state law regulating government agency use of cell site simulators, devices that can be used to locate and track cell phones. The devices are commonly known as “stingrays.” The challenge—the first brought under this law—argued that the City of Vallejo was not in compliance with the law’s requirement that a local public body approve, at a public meeting, both police acquisition of the technology and a policy determining how and when these devices can be used. The court upheld this view of the law, providing an important victory for transparency.
Stingray devices present serious privacy risks because they allow law enforcement to track the physical location of anyone with a cell phone in real time. Originally billed as anti-terrorism tools, police often use them in routine investigations of nonviolent crimes. Furthermore, stingray devices can access data about all phones in an area, ranging from a few hundred yards to about 2 miles, even if the police are interested in only one device. Because of these “dragnet” capabilities, I and others have argued that localities should have the opportunity to decide if and how stingray and similar devices should be used in their communities. The California state law mandates this local decision-making process, providing an opportunity for needed transparency and democratic oversight.
The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office is being sued for failing to release records about its use of surveillance equipment, location tracking technologies and data collection operations, according to a lawsuit filed last month.
The Aaron Swartz Day Police Surveillance Project, a watchdog group named after the late computer programmer and hacker, filed the lawsuit in November with the Fresno County Superior Court after more than two years of attempting to retrieve documents.
According to the lawsuit, the group made six public records requests between December 2018 and January 2019 over the agency’s use of unarmed drones, license plate readers, thermal cameras, social media monitoring and predictive algorithmic software as well as any potential contracts with federal law enforcement agencies.
The US remains wholly incapable of tracing Covid-19 contagion, but if it tried, we might wind up with “the worst of both worlds” – a horror of coercion and confusion that still failed to stop the epidemic.
“Communities have reasonable fears that at least some law enforcement agencies might use access to contact tracing data to harass low income communities.”
Ann Garrison spoke to Bay Area privacy activist Tracy Rosenberg about the danger that data contact tracing to track the spread of COVID-19 will become available to the surveillance state.
Ann Garrison:Many fear that digital contact tracing to stop the spread of COVID-19 will expand surveillance states’ ability to curtail privacy and control their populations. Can you explain what contact tracing is?
Tracy Rosenberg: Contact tracing is the process of creating a map of a person’s movements and associations in order to identify the possible spread of infectious disease. Before the age of digital technology, it was an onerous process of paper surveys, which while they contained very personal information, had some practical limitations on any additional use. In the age of digital technology, the ability to retain, repurpose and search large data chains is greater than it has ever been in human history. Contact tracing data, when performed by government public health agencies, is medical health data and is protected by the same laws that protect other health data.
AG: What dangers does it pose?
TR: Well, there are quite a few. One is emergency protocols. A large tracing program set up under emergency conditions can often lead to incomplete frameworks and poorly trained personnel, including some with relatively little or no familiarity with health data protections. When data protections, storage and access protocols are not well-planned, leaks, hacks and unauthorized access sometimes occur.
This Open Vallejo podcast focuses on the City of Vallejo’s purchase of a cell site simulator or stingray, a dangerous and expensive piece of surveillance equipment used to track the location of a cell phone by impersonating a cell phone tower.
Oakland Privacy, the Bay Area’s ant-surveillance coalition, sued the City of Vallejo to enforce state law and require the City to allow public comment and a City Council vote on the device’s usage policy.
MA ED Tracy Rosenberg is a contributor to this edition of the Open Vallejo podcast entitled “Tiny Constables.
That’s the question I asked policing and privacy expert Tracy Rosenberg, Executive Director of Media Alliance, and coordinator of Oakland Privacy.
Ann Garrison: What do you think Trump and his goons might be up to in Portland and the cities with “liberal Democratic mayors” that he’s threatening to invade next? Is this much more than politics, an attempt to win the election with law and order extremes?
Tracy Rosenberg: Certainly, first and foremost, it is a political stunt to capture the law and order crowd and press on divides between the coastal cities and inland voters. But it’s also more sinister than that. The use of federal forces is designed to weaken local accountability by freezing out local government that constituents can reach. Portland’s mayor might not even have opposed some “help” from the feds, but he wasn’t asked. In other words, this wasn’t mutual aid. This was indeed an invasion.