Wednesday, July 14, 2004

What the Supreme Court should have known...

...before issuing its ruling in the case of Larry Hiibel, when it found a requirement for people to give their name to police under pain of arrest was entirely proper because your name is an "insignificant" piece of information. The story is two weeks old, but still a must-read.
A police officer stops you on the street, then taps something into a device in the palm of his hand.

The next minute, he knows who your relatives are, who lives in your house, who your neighbors are, the kind of car you drive or boat you own, whether you've been sued and various other tidbits about your life.

Science fiction? Hardly.
Rather, it's the result of the increasing police use of handheld wireless devices that give any cop instant access to a vast amount of personal information about you - about as many as 98% of the people in the country, if the vendors are to be believed - held in commercial databases.

Various police departments have been testing such devices, usually to gain access to databases that are intended only for police work - for example, containing outstanding warrants or prior convictions. In addition, they've been using desktop computers to link to commercial databases - but those normally came into play only in the case of arrests or of investigation of actual suspects.

The new devices combine the two and put all that personal data within the reach of any cop who cares to demand your name, whether you're suspected of anything or not.
"If the police went around keeping files on who you lived with and who your roommates were, I think people would be outraged," said Jay Stanley, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union, "And yet in this case, they're not doing it, but they're plugging into a company that is able to do it easily."
On the other hand, there are of course cops who think the idea is great.
Massachusetts State Police Lt. Thomas Coffey, who works at Logan [Airport], said he felt the LocatePLUS service [one of the commercial outfits selling the service] would be useful.

"We're in the information business, obtaining information about individuals or groups. It's an intelligence gathering tool. It just allows us to do our job better," he said.
That's funny, I thought you were in the crime-fighting business. Apparently, I was wrong.

It would have been fascinating to see the reaction of the five Justices who voted against Hiibel if someone there had one of these devices and entered each of their names in turn. I wonder if they'd still think revealing a name is "insignificant."

As Chris Hoofnagle, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center put it, "the private sector has become Big Brother's little helper."

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