Three and a half years ago, when Kade Crockford first began working part-time at the ACLU of Massachusetts, the state’s local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, she was tasked with looking into the federal government’s surveillance activities within the U.S. that grew after the 2002 establishment of the Department of Homeland Security.
But in a short while, Crockford says she naturally began gravitating toward the digital world. That’s where the ACLU has found, for example, that hundreds of law enforcement agencies around the U.S. have tracked cell phone location records. It’s also an area where Google has reported a steady rise in government requests for data about its users.
While there has been much focus on guarding personal information in the commercial online space, Crockford argues that protecting individual online data from governmental access without a search warrant should be an even a bigger priority.
“Google can’t break down your door at three in the morning and take you away,” says Crockford. “But the government can.”
In 2011, Crockford was hired full-time by the ACLU of Massachusetts and was a natural choice to serve as director of Technology for Liberty & Justice for All, a new initiative to address threats to civil liberties by digital technology. The chapter announced on March 12 that it had received a $1 million contribution from two local technology figures, Joshua Boger, founder of Vertex Pharmaceuticals, and Paul Sagan, executive vice chairman of Akamai Technologies, to jump-start the initiative.
While Crockford acknowledges that the U.S. Bill of Rights in theory should provide guidance in the online space, the reality is that “nothing is black and white with privacy.”
Recent efforts by legislators and ACLU affiliates have shown that the absence of clear rules has resulted in serious violations of individuals’ privacy. In July 2012, based on a request from Reps. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas), cell phone companies released records that showed they had received more than 1.2 million requests from police for customer information including location and text message and data.
That same month, the ACLU requested public records in 38 states and Washington, D.C., to determine how state and local law enforcement agencies were utilizing and storing personal data gathered by automatic license plate readers. In addition, the ACLU and the ACLU of Massachusetts filed federal Freedom of Information Act requests with the departments of Justice, Homeland Security and Transportation to learn about the government’s data collection practices.
The Link to Customer Data Privacy
Crockford says that clarifying the rules for when governmental bodies can access an individual’s digital data should help businesses as well as the public at large.
“Any information a company keeps on its customers can be requested and warranted by the government,” she says. Therefore, a company that markets itself as being mindful of its customers’ privacy should want better assurances that they can legally reject certain requests by law enforcement.
While its initiatives have achieved varying results, the ACLU’s drive for more government transparency regarding the collection and analysis of personal digital data remains controversial. In January 2013, the Department of Justice refused to release two memos mentioned in public last year by the FBI’s general counsel that document the agency’s views on using GPS technology to track Americans without major redactions, the ACLU reported.
The ACLU has a strong tradition of paying close attention to the civil rights of minorities and immigrants, and the Technology for Liberty effort is no exception. Right now, the national organization is backing five different bills in Congress related to privacy, including one of which requires the government to produce a warrant for online access to private information.
Crockford argues that the ACLU of Massachusetts is the perfect place to initiate such an effort to strengthen laws related to online privacy. “Massachusetts is known as the cradle of liberty in the United States,” she says. “It’s also a place where a lot of innovative technology is born.”
Alec Foege, a contributing editor at Data Informed, is a writer and independent research professional based in Connecticut, and author of the book The Tinkerers: The Amateurs, DIYers, and Inventors Who Make America Great. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at