More from the “everybody does it” department. A Missouri sheriff was sentenced to six months in prison for tracking important people instead of nobodies.
There is a massive infrastructure dedicated to tracking Americans. The sheriff used a private company, the ironically named Securus. They do not keep your information secure. Why should they? You are not their customer. You can’t respond to a security breach by saying “I’m taking my business elsewhere.” When they fix a security hole it is only to prevent people from using their service without paying.
The biggest surveillance company in the world also contributes. If you run Google software on your phone, Google records everywhere you go. With a single request any police officer can get the location of everybody in a city. Everybody jogging in Central park. Everybody on I-95 the night of a bank robbery. Everybody standing on a sidewalk on Main Street the night somebody gave the police chief the finger. Using its motion sensor your phone knows if you’re sitting, standing, walking, running, or riding in a car. And so does Google. And so does any law enforcement officer or surveillance company employee who cares to ask.
Companies also track your license plate. Much of the information comes from police-operated license plate readers. If you ask for the information, police will fight you. LAPD insisted every license plate scan was a confidential record of an active criminal investigation. Meanwhile, many governments are sharing that information with private companies.
More echoes of the Cold War, when classifying government secrets served mainly to keep them from Americans. The Soviet Union had plenty of spies. People looking for government waste or misconduct had to rely on the goodwill of the bureaucracy.
The U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri was not worried about any of that. The crimes Sheriff Hutcheson pleaded guilty to were fraud and criminal possession of phone numbers. Fraud means he lied to Securus to get information. Same as if you lied about your income to get a loan.
They’re not really punishing him for stealing from Securus, any more than a police officer who tags you for “40 in a 35” really cares about your speed. The real crime was tracking a judge.
If the government had wanted to signal that this conduct is not tolerated there would have been one more criminal charge.
Warrantless cell phone phone tracking is a Fourth Amendment violation. We’re accustomed to the exclusionary rule being the exclusive remedy for violations of civil rights but that’s not what the law says.
Sheriff Hutcheson committed criminal violation of rights under color of law by tracking locations without a warrant. He’s not going to prison for that and neither are the countless other police officers found by a judge to have violated defendants’ rights. Even repeat Fourth Amendment violators don’t go to jail. Asking federal prosecutors to start protecting the Fourth Amendment is like asking the ACLU to protect the Second. You might argue it falls within a literal reading of their mission, but it just isn’t done.
If prosecutors treated civil rights violations as crimes police would be afraid to violate people’s rights. Prosecutors would get fewer drug cases and less forfeiture revenue. There’s a huge conflict of interest.
For the same reason most states have not followed Minnesota’s lead in being open about DMV queries. One of the privileges of being a police officer is looking up women you’re curious about. That’s a violation of federal law for which damages can be awarded. No worries. Another privilege of being a police officer is having your employer pay for your misconduct. The city of Minneapolis was just ordered to pay $585,000 to a victim of illegal snooping, bringing its total liability in recent years close to $2 million. The names of the police officers who actually broke the law have been kept secret. The government will pay the bill. And so the government has very little interest in making it easy to recover damages.
In Norway you can look up anybody’s income, but the target will be informed you looked it up. We need a report like that for tracking records. Send everybody in the DMV database and every cell phone user an annual report of every query, the name of the person doing the query, and the stated reason.
If they aren’t doing anything wrong they’ll have nothing to fear.
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