Protect Americans' electronic privacy from government

  • Posted: Monday, January 13, 2014 12:01 a.m.

By Victoria Middleton,

Todd Rutherford

and Garry Smith



In today's hyper-partisan world of divisive rhetoric, is there an issue that can cross the divide and bring us together for the common good?

When you start to talk about the revelations of massive government intrusions into the private electronic information of individuals, it appears the answer is yes.

In South Carolina, we pride ourselves on our respect for personal liberty and freedom from government control of our lives. Unfortunately, we are not safe from government surveillance. In many communities around our state, growing surveillance capability on the part of local and state governments has a lot in common with the NSA's mass collection of our personal information.

In South Carolina, a growing number of cities, towns, and counties are attempting to protect citizens from driving distracted by instituting bans on texting while driving. While this may be intended to increase safety, it may have unintended consequences.

The typical smartphone includes location information, pictures, emails, contacts, calendars, personal records such as banking information, and often access to personal and business files. Even the typical "dumbphone" includes location information, contacts and often pictures, calendars, and other personal information.

Today you are protected from intrusion into your home to search for this information - the government would have to go to a court and justify a search before entering your home. However, in today's electronic reality, that protection only goes so far, because that information is conveniently stored on your phone, and our out-of-date electronic privacy laws fail to provide adequate protections for information stored electronically. It has never been so cheap and so easy for our governmental agencies to access and record the details of our daily lives. And it doesn't end with cell phone searches.

Consider automatic license plate readers: This seemingly innocuous technology snaps photos of passing cars' license plates and stamps them with the location, date and time. While these scanners were once limited to uncontroversial purposes such as identifying stolen vehicles, increasingly they save the photos for months or even years - even though virtually all the people whose movements are being recorded are completely innocent, and even though travel patterns can reveal sensitive details of our lives.

Ultimately, as technology continues to rapidly spread, we face the prospect of a government capable of accessing and storing the movements, communications and electronic data of every person. This sort of surveillance constitutes a significant invasion of privacy, which can reveal many things about our lives, such as what friends, doctors, protests, political events or churches we may visit.

There is growing bipartisan support in Congress for the USA Freedom Act, which would limit "bulk" suspicionless surveillance of Americans. While Congress considers the USA Freedom Act, it is incumbent upon state legislators to also take action to protect our privacy. This effort has drawn together such a widespread array of groups as the ACLU, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Center for Democracy and Technology, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Electronic Frontier Foundation, TechFreedom and companies like cloud storage provider Data Foundry.

In South Carolina, it has brought together an equally diverse group of organizations and individuals who support legislation to regulate government monitoring of citizens.

The co-authors of this op-ed find common ground in the need to protect our privacy and hope that more citizens and legislators across the political spectrum will join them.

Having the technological ability to monitor citizens 24/7 doesn't mean we should.

We and all our elected representatives have a crucial role to play in determining which uses are appropriate, which ones cross the line, and what privacy protections should be in place when cutting-edge technology is used for surveillance and police investigations.

We are grateful that that debate is beginning in the halls of Congress, and it needs to happen in the halls of the South Carolina Statehouse as well.

Victoria Middleton is executive director of the ACLU of S.C. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, and Garry Smith, R-Greenville, serve in the S.C. House of Representatives.

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