As it turns out, Edward Snowden's revelations to the world about NSA surveillance of phone calls, email, text messages and any other kind of electronic communications have given more than the agency's own employees a sad. Awww. Police departments are upset, too, that the cat is out of the bag about the growing surveillance state and that people are pushing back against government scrutiny well beyond the specifics contained in the whistleblower's leaked documents.
Public disclosures about U.S. government surveillance threaten the ability of police to use powerful new technologies such as drones and mobile license plate readers, a top law enforcement official said on Sunday.
The leak of highly classified documents by National Security Agency Edward Snowden prompted tighter restrictions on key technology advances, said Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vernon Keenan, speaking at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference.
The disclosures, including about monitoring of U.S. phone records, threaten to erode existing authority to use high-tech equipment, he said.
Keenan is obviously upset that public awareness of the surveillance state threatens to hamper its advance, but other participants at the conference aren't so certain that a bad thing. Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsey pointed to license plate scanning and facial recognition technology, saying "Imagine instead of driving down the street scanning license tags, driving down the street checking the faces of individuals walking down the street." He added, "We have to remind ourselves—just because we can do something doesn't mean we should do it."
While Keenan's concerns are probably more representative than Ramsey's of law enforcement reaction to public scrutiny of their scrutiny, the head Philly cop has good reason for his warning.
When it comes to facial recognition technology, the FBI's own standards for the software that has been applied to drivers license databases in more than half the states allows for "an incorrect candidate a maximum of 20% of the time." That's a bad match one in five times, with at least 120 million of us already conscripted into the lineup, under minimal safeguards. The databases are already routinely abused.
License plate scanners are subject to similarly weak and variable safeguards, potentially allowing authorities to track our movements and map our associations. With almost three-quarters of police agencies reporting using license plate readers as of 2011, that's a growing problem.
Cellphone tracking—treating your handy mobile device as a location beacon—is also subject to weak controls, with federal and local authorities battling to keep it that way.
But all of these technologies now receive more challenges and raise more concerns precisely because Edward Snowden made the surveillance state a headline issue.
Once again, thank you, Edward Snowden.