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S E C T I O N 2 Cover Story WHO’SWATCHING? By Sandy Brundage and Renee Batti W e are being watched. Surveillance programs operated by government agencies, from the National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security to local police departments, are accumulating untold amounts of information on residents who, in the vast majority of cases, are law-abiding citizens. As government agencies, in the name of public safety, step up the use of technology to follow our movements and collect personal information that once was off-limits, what safeguards are needed to protect our privacy and civil liberties? And who’s asking that question? Former state senator Joe Simitian, for one. Last year, when he was still in Sacramento and chair of the senate’s Select Committee on Privacy, Mr. Simitian introduced a bill to regulate aspects of license plate data collection. The effort ended in defeat, but the defeat didn’t end the former senator’s concerns about the increasingly pervasive data-mining of American lives. With the growing number of surveillance tools available to the government — and to the commercial sector — Mr. Simitian believes there’s cause for concern. “Are the important privacy ques- As government agencies step up the use of technology to follow our movements and mine our personal information, what’s being done to protect our privacy and civil liberties? tions being asked and answered? My observation is that these are questions that are rarely if ever asked.” Individual civil liberties advocates and organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union are also raising concerns. The ACLU released a report last July on the proliferation in the use of license plate readers across the country, stating that the trend “poses serious privacy and other civil liberties threats.” Local residents and motorists can expect a boost in the volume of information collected on their movement through public spaces as the city of Men- lo Park buys and puts into use surveillance cameras and license plate scanners capable of reading hundreds of plates a minute from their roaming patrol car perches. Balance needed Steve Taffee, a Menlo Park resident who joined the police department’s new citizens advisory group to talk about privacy issues, said that his primary concerns are data retention and data sharing, concerns echoed by two other groups he participates in. “I’ve been a longtime member of both the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I’m particularly interested in privacy issues and balancing things that would allow companies to deliver products and services that we as citizens want, while protecting our rights and data,” Mr. Taffee explained. “It seems like there’s always been a tension between these two things. Lately, the pendulum seems to be swinging more toward citizens giving up privacy rights or having privacy taken from them, without getting a lot in exchange.” Mr. Taffee, who has a background in software development, understands the utility of license plate readers, which in essence turn a manual task into an automated, faster one. “It’s a logical extension, and an important law enforcement tool,” Mr. Taffee said. “But ‘big data’ is not well understood by anyone, really — not residents, law enforcement officials, legislators and so on. There are questions that should be addressed before we get too far down that slippery slope.” It’s easier to maintain privacy rather than try to get it back once it’s gone, Mr. Taffee maintains. “My preference as a citizen is that we err on the side of being quite conservative as far as who shares the data and how long we keep the data.” Start with a retention of something See WHO’S WATCHING, page 23 September 25, 2013NTheAlmanacOnline.comNThe AlmanacN21

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