Privacy and Public Places


Privacy is a tricky thing, there’s privacy of your home, expectations of privacy around mail, privacy related to digital devices, privacy in your car, and privacy in even more public places – each one of them we have different understood or assumed levels of privacy. These maybe different from person to person, but generally we assume in certain places that we’re pretty safe from being eavesdropped on. Furthermore, even though we often talk or talk on our phones in public we expect them to be relatively safe from being overheard, because most people simply don’t care about what we’re saying.

In the public there are some clear rules about what is free for police to inspect and what is not public. For example a police officer can listen to your conversations if they have the right equipment. It is possible for the police to photograph you as well whenever you’re walking around in public. Another place that is mostly a public place is actually your car. If anything is clearly visible on the seats through the windows it’s considered public. However, if something would be in your trunk or glove box the police officer cannot search it unless you give them permission, they have probable cause, or they have some sort of a warrant.

Recently the police and FBI have been using something called a “sting ray” which is effectively a middle man attack between your cell phone and the cell phone provider. The FBI believe, according to recent filings, that a stingray is something that they should be able to use in public without requiring a warrant. They argue that since the person on the cell phone is speaking in public they should have no expectation of privacy.

I think that this raises a lot of concerns. First, even if the sting ray is deployed in a “public” place there are definitely places that you can expect privacy. For instance if you live above a series of bars the bulk of the people that would be hit by the sting ray would likely be in a public place. Even areas that are mostly park still have areas that are private or might even be residential. For this to be even close to realistic the FBI would have to 100% certain that ever person possibly impacted this is in a public place.

Personally, I don’t think that this argument will fly. I believe that this is very similar in terms of technology used and methodology as GPS trackers on cars or more similarly is the GPS information from cell phones. Even if you are using a third party application or technology you still have the expectation of privacy. I believe that this should hold in this instance as well. You’re expecting your communication to be secure between your phone and the cell phone provider without anyone listening in.

I seriously hope that the FBI loses this, because I find the fact that using a technology like this to intercept my cell phone calls from going to the cell provider to be terrifying and if a similar technology was used by any one other than the authorities, they would be on charges for computer fraud and likely put in jail for a very very long time.

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