A recent ruling by a Tacoma judge fined the city $300,000 for violating the state’s Public Records Act. The city of Tacoma refused to release records pertaining to the city’s use of cell site simulators to conduct surveillance on its residents. It’s not against the law for municipalities to utilize this technology, but the refusal of cities to release details about how they use surveillance technology should be causing people to re-evaluate privacy violations at a local level.
In 2013, Edward Snowden revealed the extent of the US government’s surveillance. As troubling as this was, the fact that the surveillance was being conducted in such a centralized way, and at a federal level, meant that it could at least be addressed and legislation passed to make agencies more transparent. Whistleblowers like Edward Snowden can prompt widespread change, but we can’t rely on whistleblowers to shed light on the privacy violations that are occurring independently in cities across the United States. When the threat is at the local level, it can often fly under the radar indefinitely.
Privacy threats at the local level can impact people’s lives much more directly than NSA dragnets. There are over 19,000 “Incorporated Places” in the united states, each one of them potentially violating privacy of US citizens. The police departments in these incorporated places are also willing to use high-tech surveillance to bust people for relatively trivial crimes: police have even used cell-site simulators to gather evidence against criminals for offenses as minor as stealing an order of fried chicken. You probably don’t have to worry about the NSA busting you for chicken theft, but it’s something local police are clearly willing to do.
The unwillingness of municipalities to release records relating to the use of cell site simulators only makes people more suspicious of what they’re doing with them.
Perhaps people should spend more time being paranoid about their local officials than the NSA. This is yet another reason to vote in local elections and push for candidates to campaign against unchecked surveillance.