We all know about the digital recorders in vehicles that store personal data, but did you know that companies like Digital Recognition Network (DRN) use high speed cameras to capture up to 60 license plate numbers in a second and stores about 70 million records monthly. DRN serves insurance companies and lenders of automobile loans to efficiently track down the location of cars belonging to drivers who default on the loans. What does DRN do with all the millions of plate numbers that aren't part of the repo operation? It sells them to law enforcement agencies, private investigators and financial institutions.
The U.S. Marshals Service has been engaging in an "eye in the sky" form of surveillance since 2007. Using small Cessna aircraft equipped with specialized electronic devices, cell phone calls can be intercepted and the location of the caller can be determined to within 10 feet. The Marshals Service justifies the use of the devices as a tool to find suspects who are known to be in a certain geographic location. The problem is that while looking for that suspect, thousands of conversations between law abiding Americans are also intercepted, and no information has come forward about what is done with that data.
In an effort to curb some of this information gathering, U.S. Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) authored HR 3361, which addressed concerns about surveillance of American citizens. The USA Freedom Act is an acronym for Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet-collection and Online Monitoring Act.
Starting out with good intentions, including limiting the extension of the Patriot Act, the USA Freedom Act was amended and watered down by House Republicans loyal to the intelligence community.
The Senate version of the bill, S2685, was authored by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT). Leahy and his backers didn't think the bill went far enough to stop the bulk collection of data by the government. Much of the support for the bill stemmed from earlier revelations by Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who exposed the extent of government spying on citizens of America and others.
Supporters of the government's right to engage in bulk data collection and phone records claim such practices are necessary to safeguard American's freedom by finding terrorists, both foreign and domestic. Meanwhile, others question which is the larger threat to freedom, terrorists or the NSA?
On November 18, 2014, the Senate Republicans were able to block passage of the bill by a vote of 58-42 to end debate on a motion to proceed to the USA Freedom Act. Although the vote seemed to tip in favor of ending the debate on the motion, 60 votes were needed to end the debate by Senate rules.
Senator Leahy was joined by three Republican co-sponsors of S2685, including Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) who is considered a possible future candidate to run for president. Ironically, Senator Rand Paul, a Libertarian minded champion of civil liberties, did not sponsor the USA Freedom Act.
With all the rhetoric coming from the NSA and others about these measures being necessary to protect freedom, the question remains whether freedom can be defended if it's not protected from intrusions in the first place.