Your tinfoil-hat fears about Big Brother might be justified. To the consternation of libertarians and lefties alike, in 2011 President Barack Obama renewed the Patriot Act, and kicked off last year by authorizing the imprisonment of citizens without charge or trial. Not scary enough? With America already surfing the slippery slope of surrendered civil liberties, 2012 ended with another whopper: in late December, the House of Representatives voted to extend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). That means virtually everyone is still vulnerable to warrantless eavesdropping and wiretapping.
Liberty has scored a few wins over the last few years; a clarification by Attorney General Eric Holder's office regarding the right to record cop activity, as expressed in a May memo to the Baltimore Police Department, was viewed as a particular victory. But overall, in the realm of privacy, Americans are increasingly exposed to an Uncle Sam who's become a Peeping Tom. In 2011, for example, law-enforcement agencies made roughly 1.3 million demands to cellphone carriers for text messages and other information. Thanks to the growing global surveillance state propagated by the National Security Administration and other all-seeing agencies, spying has metastasized to an alarming degree.
Massachusetts has its own privacy issues. As revealed in documents that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts unearthed in October — after several formal requests and a lawsuit — the Boston Police Department has been spying on activists for years. These violations are routinely inflicted by the BPD's leg of the departments of Justice and Homeland Security, better known as the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC). Such invasive activity continues unchecked, despite recent US Senate Committee findings that such "fusion centers" often generate "shoddy" reports that are "more often than not unrelated to terrorism."
And the state government's prying eyes aren't reserved strictly for rabble-rousers — these days, every driver on the road is tracked like an escaped convict. Several municipalities across the Bay State now rely on gadgets that were once exclusively wielded by movie cops from the future, like Automatic License Plate Recognition. A single ALPR unit can scan up to 3000 cars a minute — across four lanes of traffic, and regardless of the speed at which they're moving — and instantaneously route that information through any number of networks. While such devices can be effective police tools, privacy advocates are concerned about where the data — from date and time hits to GPS coordinates of scanned vehicles — is stored, and for how long. At this point, for all the public knows, omnipotent state and federal hawks are keeping detailed maps of our every move, for indefinite amounts of time.
In an attempt to rein in this constitutionally questionable frenzy of abuses, on January 18 state lawmakers will introduce a suite of four privacy bills — all of which the ACLU of Massachusetts helped develop and will be championing this session. In short, the proposals will address: whether cops can search your online accounts without a warrant (right now they can); how long authorities can store license-plate info, and what they can use it for; whether cops can surveil citizens on the basis of their religious or political beliefs; and whether companies can demand passwords to an employee's private social networks. It could be months before any of these initiatives bear fruit, if they do at all, but there is some apparent will behind them on Beacon Hill. At the least, the ACLU's upcoming fight in the Bay State will reveal if there's any hope for civil liberties — not just here, but anywhere that pols and activists strike back at the state level.