What about mail surveillance?

Yesterday’s posting on unconsented cell phone surveillance reminded me of an excellent column that Peter Shane wrote a while back in Jurist where he pointed out that any technical legality of the NSA surveillance program is besides the point.  Shane asked, what if the Post Office created a database with the addresses contained on every piece of mail it handles.  Even if, hypothetically, such a program were legal:

An America in which ordinary citizens have their mail “surveilled” would be a different America from the country in which virtually all of us think we live.  Our freedom would be lost not because a law was broken, but because of the breakdown in respect for the norms of liberty and government self-restraint.

I think much the same could be said of the ends-justifies-the-means thinking of the Northeastern University researchers who got a European cell phone provider to give them individualized location information on 100,000 unknowing customers. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should.

Ends, means, and cell phone surveillance

As Wired.com reports, researchers affiliated with Northeastern University “secretly tracked the locations of 100,000 people outside the United States through their cell phone use and concluded that most people rarely stray more than a few miles from home.” In the report on their study in the journal Nature (excerpt available online), the authors stated:

[O]ur understanding of the basic laws governing human motion remains limited owing to the lack of tools to monitor the time-resolved location of individuals. Here we study the trajectory of 100,000 anonymized mobile phone users whose position is tracked for a six-month period.

There’s no doubt that such a study is useful.  As one of the researchers noted, “[k]nowing people’s travel patterns can help design better transportation systems and give doctors guidance in fighting the spread of contagious diseases.”  Important and useful.

But information’s usefulness does not alone justify its acquisition.  What about privacy and ethics? This isn’t simply a study of aggregate data (such as how many people saw Iron Man), but rather a study of the specific movements of numerous individuals.  As noted in the New York Times, “The location of the user was revealed whenever he made or received a call or text message; the telephone company would record the nearest cell tower and time.”

So was an ethics panel consulted?  No.  According to Wired, one of the researchers stated no ethics panel was consulted, and another said they didn’t have to (a quote here, but apparently a paraphrase in Wired) “because the experiment involved physics, not biology.”

Say what?  Ok, so the study concerned the movement of people.  People are objects.  Physics studies the movement of objects.  I get the “physics” connection. But how does that justify tracking individuals’ cellphones and movements without their permission? Although the researchers took steps to anonymize and secure the data, how does that justify intrusions into the personal activities of 100,000 people?

According to Wired, FCC spokesman Rob Kenny stated that such unconsented tracking would be illegal if done inside the United States.  Instead, says the New York Times, the surveillance was done with the cooperation of an unnamed European cell phone provider.  But why should it be ok for an American university to go outside of the United States to do what would be illegal within?

The electronic leash: whatever happened to trusting your kids?

Verizon Wireless now offers a service that allows parents to track their kids’ movements through cellphones. According to News.com:

Parents can use the service to set up geographic limits and receive text alerts if their children, who also carry phones, go too far from home. The service also lets parents check where their offspring are via a map on their cell phone or computer.

The service — “Chaperone” for location tracking, and “Child Zone” for a boundary-setting add-on — is available for now only on a four-button phone designed for young kids, such as 5-9 year olds. (Who buys a phone for a 5 year old?) But News.com indicates that Verizon Wireless might develop a version of the program for older kids, with more sophisticated phones.

What a great way to train kids for a lifetime of submitting to technological surveillance from authorities. If you really want to be creeped out, go here on the Verizon Wireless site and watch the animated cartoon family whose kids cheerily acquiesce to their parents spying on them.

Whatever happened to trusting kids and letting them make decisions (and letting them learn to live with the consequences)?

And to be clear, I am a parent.

Thanks to Slashdot, where I first read about this.