You may not have noticed, but eyes in the sky were watching when demonstrators marched in American cities last month, . In Houston, Las Vegas, Portland, Washington, D.C., and other metropolitan areas, police and National Guard units employed extensive use of surveillance aircraft to monitor conditions on the streets.
One plane authorities used for this purpose was the RC-26B Condor military surveillance aircraft. Equipped with both infrared and optical cameras, it was developed to monitor US border crossings as part of the decades-long War on Drugs. As well, the RC-26B has flown missions tracking suspected terrorists in both Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s the only fixed-wing aircraft approved for military surveillance as well as domestic surveillance under National Guard authority.
Another aircraft circling over Washington, D.C. during the protests, according to flight logs, was a Cessna 560 believed to be used by the FBI. Previously, the FBI and other law enforcement authorities have equipped this plane with a mobile surveillance system dubbed “Dirtbox.” This is another piece of military technology adapted for civilian use. Dirtbox masquerades as a cell tower to fool phones into connecting and giving up their unique international mobile subscriber identity (IMSI). Dirtbox emits a stronger signal than other area cell towers, forcing devices to connect to the system. Once connected, police can track a phone’s physical location as well as monitor conversations, emails, and text messages.
In both cases, there’s no probable cause, no warrant, and no effort to target individuals who were part of a mob destroying private property or violently attacking police. Every phone within Dirtbox’s range is identified and its communications monitored.
How did we get to this point? It’s all due to an arcane legal doctrine dealing with your “expectation of privacy.” While the Fourth Amendment prohibits warrantless searches and seizures, the Supreme Court has declared in a series of decisions that the only place you have a “reasonable” expectation of privacy is in and around your home. You also have an expectation of privacy in matters relating to marriage, sex, contraception, and education. With very few exceptions, if you’re in a public place, you have voluntarily relinquished any expectation of privacy.
And these rulings don’t just extend to your cellphone.
Law enforcement already uses license plate reading technology and there’s nothing you can do about it. If you drive on a public highway or park on a public street, you implicitly consent to this surveillance.
Then there are smartphone-based mobile face recognition systems. A police officer simply snaps a photo of your face and runs the image through software that hunts for a match. Naturally, the law doesn't consider this a search, and you need not consent to the intrusion.
It gets worse.
In 1978, the Supreme Court concluded that anyone who turns over any records to a non-privileged third party has no legitimate expectation of privacy. While that decision applied to telephone records, it’s equally relevant to email messages, web postings, bank account records, and much more.
It’s easy to see how this technology could be abused. Let’s say you’re walking down the street one day near a Black Lives Matter protest. A cop armed with a mobile face recognition system matches your face to your social media profiles. A Cessna 560 flying overhead monitors your phone calls, text messages, web browsing, and emails. Even if you’re innocent of any wrongdoing, you’ve just given up all this data to be filed away for future use.
And if you don’t want subject yourself and your cellphone to warrantless surveillance? Keeping your phone in airplane mode disables its identifying signal. When you need to activate it, use apps that offer end-to-end encryption to communicate securely. And subscribe to a robust virtual private network (VPN) to prevent monitoring of your internet browsing or emails from your phone (or home PC).
A good time to begin securing your electronic life would be today. Law enforcement certainly isn’t going to do it for you.