Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

December 30, 2013

State's phone spying raises privacy issues

Explain how this technology protects people


Kokomo Tribune

---- — Secrecy is a necessary and desirable component of fighting crime. Staying one step ahead of criminals and terrorists allows us to go about our daily lives with little worry. For that, we are immeasurably grateful to the police agencies on the front lines.

But we find it troubling that the latest high tech device deployed for keeping us safe from criminals and terrorists can also pose a threat to the privacy of every Hoosier. More troubling is the lack of basic information about how data collected is managed.

An Indianapolis Star report uncovered that the Indiana State Police spent $373,995 this year for a “Stingray” device that allows police to track the movements of nearly anyone within a radius of 1 mile with a cellphone. It also captures the telephone numbers of incoming and outgoing calls and text messages within that radius.

Beyond that, public officials refuse to reveal what they do with the data, how it’s stored, who can access it, or whether it is ever destroyed. Officials also refuse to reveal whether a court order or a search warrant is needed to deploy the device.

Things don’t get much more Orwellian than that.

Gov. Mike Pence came out publicly in support of the state police collecting cellphone data, within limits. He, too, sidestepped the issue of court orders and search warrants but said judicial review is a must.

Some Indiana lawmakers are not convinced the device is so benign. At least three state senators say they will introduce bills to require police to obtain a warrant before collecting data.

There’s no question that tracking people by cellphone and collecting cellphone data can be a powerful crime-fighting tool. But we fail to see why electronic snooping should be exempt from judicial oversight. Of course, it might be under a judicial watchdog but even that is secret information. We fail to see how data is stored, who can access it or who owns it is a state secret. This vacuum of information ought to concern all Hoosiers. Perhaps if the state police were forthcoming with basic information, it might allay some concerns.

For example: Could the data be sold to nongovernment agencies that in turn could sell it to the public? How many wives or husbands would pay to know whether their spouse actually attended a public event, and whom they called while there?

Another example: Could the state police use their Stingray to determine whether someone was texting and driving, or speeding, both illegal? One supposes cellphone data could be linked to the owner of a motor vehicle and a ticket issued through the mail, maybe over the very cellphone used to track the infraction.

If that sounds far-fetched, so did the idea of tracking people’s cellphone use a few years ago.

The Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures seems to be the biggest casualty of the technological age. There has to be middle ground to allow police to conduct necessary surveillance, but to do it legally, and without deploying a dragnet that places a blanket suspicion on the innocent and the guilty.

It’s impossible to find that middle ground when information to begin a conversation and debate on this technology is not forthcoming. That needs to change and we hope the conversation will begin with the introduction of legislation next year.

Our state police and leadership must do a better job of explaining how this technology protects us, and how they protect us from the technology.

— The Star Press, Muncie