Big Brother Is Searching You

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While everyone is concerned about privacy violations from Facebook Places, government agencies may be using powerful new technology to violate 4th-Amendment protection against unreasonable searches.

Here's what the 4th Amendment says: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

The spirit of and the letter of this amendment is that government agencies are not allowed to go on hunting expeditions looking for violations or transgressions. If government officials want to search your property, they have to demonstrate good reason why they suspect you of committing a crime.

Let's say a small town wanted to crack down on swimming pool permit violations. If local police went house to house, telling people they were going to look for swimming pools in everybody's backyards, nobody would accept this because it would clearly violate the 4th Amendment. However, if you do exactly the same thing using cameras in space, it's somehow OK.

The town of Riverhead on Long Island used Google Earth to search all back yards in the town for swimming pool transgressions.

They found about 250 pools built without permits and collected about $75,000 in fines. Critics say they did it for the money, but city officials said they're concerned mainly about safety.

There's no such ambiguity in Greece. Greek officials are spotting undeclared swimming pools -- and they're definitely doing it for the money. Faced with a budget crunch, Greece's government is using Google Earth to hunt for swimming pools, giving them a justification for collecting extra taxes.

The idea is: Hey, we need more money. Let's go find some.

The Greece example is similar in that respect to the use of Google Earth in the U.K. by fish thieves. In at least 12 documented cases, exotic-fish thieves used Google Earth to find backyard ponds. The crooks broke into the yards and stole expensive live fish that they intended to sell for big bucks.

The purpose of the 4th Amendment is to prevent the U.S. government from doing what Greece's government is doing, which is essentially what U.K. fish thieves are doing: Using arbitrary searches to hunt for opportunities to take something away from people.

Here's the problem. If one town sets a precedent that's it's OK to violate 4th Amendment protections as long as you use satellite imagery, then any government can do the same for any reason. And the technologies and methods for doing so are becoming very sophisticated.

A company called Remote Sensing Metrics is buying satellite pictures from privately owned satellite photography companies including DigitalGlobe and GeoEye, counting cars in Wal-Mart parking lots, then selling analysis of the data to hedge funds and other analysts. They're selling it as a discreet package billed as "satellite parking lot fill rate analysis."

Other firms are monitoring crops to better predict commodity pricing for wheat, corn and so on.

The NYPD already uses satellite imagery for crime fighting. They track crimes, look for clusters where many crimes are occurring together, then flood those locations with police officers.

Taking it to the next level

Those all sound like legitimate and creative uses for new technology. But where is it all going?

Once you combine all-seeing satellite imagery with sophisticated computerized number-crunching, you end up with massive potential for abuse -- especially by government agencies.

One might imagine a dystopian future where automated systems constantly scan every house in the country for all kinds of violations, from heat escaping the house to backyard barbecues to the counting of people coming and going from every house.

It's the ol' slippery slope argument, but it must be taken seriously. If it's OK for a town government to peek into every backyard in Riverhead to find a handful of pool-permit violators, why would it not be acceptable for other agencies to look at all homes and businesses in the nation for a much wider variety of potential violations.

And if it's OK to do that using satellite imagery, what about using other technologies?

A company called American Science and Engineering sells a high-end, tricked out security vehicle called the Z Backscatter Van. Its sole purpose, if used by government agencies, is to violate the 4th Amendment.

The van sits there by the side of the road and X-rays cars passing by. It's like a full-body scan at the airport, but for cars. The manufacturer brags about the fact that the van keeps a "low profile." The Web site says: "The system is unobtrusive, as it maintains the outward appearance of an ordinary van."

What the van does is unreasonable searches without probable cause and without the knowledge of the person who owns the property being searched. That's its only function.

Private companies and your privacy

American Science and Engineering would no doubt argue that they're selling it to private companies, which raises yet another question. Is it acceptable for private companies to do what would be a 4th Amendment violation if it were done by a government agency?

Private security companies can't search your home without a warrant, and they can't pull you over and search your car. So why can they search your car with an X-ray scanner?

Within a few years, we'll have technology that can see through walls and on a large scale. We'll be able to feed the data into supercomputers and get results on trends and other analysis.

We need to figure out what's OK and what isn't. The first step is to apply the 4th Amendment to searches conducted without probable cause via Google Earth.

Riverhead officials should be forced to give back all fees collected for unpermitted swimming pools, for example, and banned from future hunting expeditions.

Technology should not be used to exempt government agencies from the Constitution. Quite the opposite. Technology empowers governments to violate our rights with ruthless efficiency.

I wonder if satellites can detect America's Founding Fathers rolling over in their graves?

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at, follow him on Twitter Twitter @mike_elgan or his blog, The Raw Feed.

This story, "Big Brother Is Searching You" was originally published by Computerworld.

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