A core issue in U.S. v. Jones has noting to do with connecting “trivial” bits of data to see a mosaic; it is about the simple ability to have a perfect map of everywhere we go, with whom we meet, what we read, and more. It is about the ability to look backward and see all that information with little to no oversight and in a way forever. That is why calls to shift the vast information grabs to a third party are useless. The move changes little given the way the government already demands information from private data hoards. Yes, not having immediate access to the information is a start. That might mitigate mischief. But clear procedures are needed before that separation can be meaningful. That is why telecom and tech giants should be wary of “The central pillar of Obama’s plan to overhaul the surveillance programs [which] calls for shifting storage of Americans’ phone data from the government to telecom companies or an independent third party.” It does not solve the problem of data hoards.
As I argue in my new article Constitutional Limits on Surveillance: Associational Freedom in the Age of Data Hoarding:
Put differently, the tremendous power of the state to compel action combined with what the state can do with technology and data creates a moral hazard. It is too easy to harvest, analyze, and hoard data and then step far beyond law enforcement goals into acts that threaten civil liberties. The amount of data available to law enforcement creates a type of honey pot — a trap that lures and tempts government to use data without limits. Once the government has obtained data, it is easy and inexpensive to store and search when compared to storing the same data in an analog format. The data is not deleted or destroyed; it is hoarded. That vat of temptation never goes away. The lack of rules on law enforcement’s use of the data explains why it has an incentive to gather data, keep it, and increase its stores. After government has its data hoard, the barriers to dragnet and general searches –ordinarily unconstitutional — are gone. If someone wishes to dive into the data and see whether embarrassing, or even blackmail worthy, data is available, they can do so at its discretion; and in some cases law enforcement has said they should pursue such tactics. These temptations are precisely why we must rethink how we protect associational freedom in the age of data hoarding. By understanding what associational freedom is, what threatens it, and how we have protected it in the past, we will find that there is a way to protect it now and in the future.