Tweets and twits. Last fall, Emma Sullivan, an 18-year-old high school student in Kansas, sent a tweet from her cell phone as she listened to Gov. Sam Brownback speak to students. "He sucked," was the opinion she sent to her personal Twitter followers. It turns out, though, that Brownback staffers secretly monitor social media, trolling for any mention of the guv. Unhappy with Sullivan's opinion, these gubernatorial twits contacted school authorities.
She was scolded and ordered to write an apology to his eminence -- but the feisty teen refused, instead going to the media to talk about free speech in social media. Brownback then got such a blowback from outraged Kansans that he was the one who had to apologize to her "for our overreaction." Nice ending, except Kansans are still wondering why their governor has the time, money, staff, and arrogance to be eavesdropping on teen tweets.
It's not just a Kansas issue, for last February the humongous Department of Homeland Security issued a little-noticed announcement that it has set up a permanent Social Media Monitoring and Situational Awareness program. It's a computerized system that routinely monitors the postings of all users of Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and other electronic communications by private citizens. DHS is deploying search tools, forming social media profiles, analyzing "an array of potentially sensitive search terms," recording results, storing the information (including names of senders) for up to five years, and disseminating relevant findings "to federal, state, local, and foreign governments, and private-sector partners."
Look, up in the sky! Neither a bird nor Superman, the next must-have toy for assorted police agencies is the unmanned aerial vehicle, better known as drones. Yes, the same miniaturized aircraft that lets the military wage war with a remote-controlled, error-prone death machine is headed to your sky, if the authorities have their way. Already, Homeland Security officials have deployed one to a Texas sheriff's office to demonstrate its crime-fighting efficacy, and federal aviation officials are presently proposing new airspace rules to help eager departments throughout the country get their drones.
But airspace problems are nothing compared to the as-yet-unaddressed Fourth Amendment problems that come with putting cheap, flying-surveillance cameras in the air. As usual, this techno-whiz gadget is being rationalized as nothing more than an enhanced eye on crime. But the drone doesn't just monitor a particular person or criminal activity, it can continuously spy on an entire city, with no warrant to restrict its inevitable invasion of innocent people's privacy. Drones will collect video images of identifiable people. Who will see that information? How will it be used? Will it be retained? By its nature, this is an invasive, all-encompassing spy eye that will tempt authorities to go on fishing expeditions. The biggest question is the one that is not even being asked: Who will watch the watchers?First, secure liberty
Astonishingly, the present, widespread torching of the Fourth Amendment is being done by, or with, the complicity of politicians who claim to be on our side! Now is not the time to push back on police power, they tell us. Jobs, war, deficits, and such have to come first. Hello -- the Constitution is on fire!
The good news is that we do have a solid core of liberty stalwarts in public office across the country (including some police officials), and there is a host of smart, intrepid organizations working across the country to put out the fires of authoritarianism and to plant new seeds of democratic rights (see Do Something).
When leaders won't stand tall, We the People must. Connect with these folks to help secure the tools of liberty that the founders put in the Bill of Rights.