I previously wrote about the government’s use of things like Dirt Box and Stingray – technologies that allow the government to surreptitiously intercept either the contents of communications, or the data about those communications (including cell phone locations) without the hassle and bother of actually having to ask the phone company for copies of their records. A recent case in Baltimore, Maryland illustrates the danger of using this technology.
In a robbery case in Baltimore, the government suspected two kids as having participated in an armed robbery of a Baltimore area Papa John’s pizza delivery driver. According to the Baltimore Sun, the police investigated the phone number used to call for the delivery, and found that this phone made many calls to their suspect in the case, 16-year-old Shemar Taylor.
The police got a warrant to search Taylor’s house. But before they executed the warrant, they did something interesting. According to the Police Detective, members of the Baltimore Police Department’s Advanced Technical Team did a “ride-by” — using “sophisticated technical equipment” — to determine that Taylor’s phone was actually inside the house.
At a suppression hearing, the police were asked how this was done, and the cop said, “I wouldn’t be able to get into that.” When pressed by the Judge to explain how he was able to peer inside the defendant’s house the detective said that he couldn’t say because of a non-disclosure agreement between the Baltimore Police Department and the FBI, said City Police Detective John L. Haley.
When the judge threatened the detective with contempt if he didn’t disclose what he had done, the prosecution agreed not to use key evidence it found inside the house, which resulted from the search that in turn resulted from the use of the unspecified technology. But the government is going to continue to prosecute Taylor.
And that’s the problem with all this surveillance technology. Like a kid at Christmas, cops love their new toys. Cool toys. Secret toys. Toys that allow them to do all kinds of secret stuff. But they don’t want the public to know what they can do. So they keep it secret, asserting that disclosure will cause irreparable harm to criminal investigations.
I call BS.
If the government has the ability to peer into our homes, I want to know about it. If they can intercept phone calls, tell us that.
This should not be a secret. At all.
As a society, we can’t debate whether or not we want our government to be doing something unless we know what our government plans to do. Sure, we shouldn’t have to tell a specific target that their phones are being tapped, but we should know that the government could tap phones.
When the government prosecuted Nicky Scarfo, they successfully alleged that a software keylogger was so classified that they couldn’t possibly tell the defense how it worked.
If the government wants to deploy technology in advance of law enforcement, more power to them. And to us. But the “search” resulting from the technology must be reasonable. That means we must be able to test its reasonableness in open court. With sunshine as a disinfectant. Not in a secret back room.