Jan 04 2019

Issues for the revitalized Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board

With its recent revival, the Federal government’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) has a chance to take a fresh look at how far the USA has gone since 9/11 in implementing a combination of “pre-crime” policing (à la Minority Report) and “social credit scoring” integrated with commercial service providers (à la China) as a means of control of what people can and cannot do, and where they can and cannot go.

The PCLOB didn’t have a quorum since early 2017, and was down to only one member. But three new members were confirmed in October 2018. An Executive Director – who may end up with longer-term influence than the members of the Board, especially given that the new members weren’t appointed and confirmed until just three months before one of their terms is scheduled to end – is currently being hired. Civil libertarians able to obtain a security clearance and willing to relocate to DC are encouraged to apply.

What should the PCLOB focus on, with its limited time and resources? The PCLOB is an advisory committee with neither legislative nor prosecutorial authority. The best use it can make of its limited mandate is to ask hard questions and raise issues that Federal agencies won’t otherwise acknowledge or address.

The TSA and DHS were created in haste after 9/11 without consideration of the privacy and civil liberties implications of their new activities, many of which have never been explicitly approved by Congress. The reactivation of the PCLOB after the latest hiatus is a chance to take a fresh look at the big picture of what these agencies are doing, and what this means for privacy and civil liberties. It might be tempting to focus on “emerging” threats, but the first priority should be to assess the DHS surveillance and control systems that are already in place:

  1. Conversion of state licensing of motor vehicle operators into a national ID system. More than a decade after Congress enacted the REAL-ID Act of 2005, we are entering the endgame of DHS efforts to pressure states into participating in an outsourced, privately-operated, national ID database created to enable compliance with the REAL-ID Act. SPEXS already includes records sourced from states about more than 50 million Americans, but is not subject to any direct government control and has never been the subject of any publicly-disclosed review of its implications for privacy and civil liberties.

  2. Mass surveillance and permission-based predictive control of movement and travel. Congress has never debated whether air travelers should be required to identify themselves, whether the government should keep histories of innocent citizens’ movements (compiled from commercial airline reservations for common carrier travel, license plate readers for travel by private vehicle, and facial recognition for pedestrian movement), or whether existing judicial mechanisms for restricting the right to travel and movement through injunctions or restraining orders should be replaced with secret, extrajudicial administrative prior restraint through “no-fly” and similar orders. How has travel been transformed from a right to a privilege exercised only by government permission? How does this implicate the 1st Amendment right to assemble and the right of freedom of movement recognized by international human rights treaties? How widely, and with what implications for privacy and civil liberties, has the precedent set by real-time “pre-crime” predictive control of travel expanded to other activities and transactions?

  3. Suspicionless dragnet administrative searches. Today, the most common hands-on interaction between a Federal agent and a person not suspected of any crime is a TSA pat-down. But there’s never been any comprehensive review of the legality or the implications for privacy and security of the proliferation of suspicionless administrative searches since the creation of the DHS and TSA: security theater in airports, warrantless searches at internal checkpoints (domestic airports, CBP roadblocks on roads that don’t cross the US border, etc.), and attempts to claim the right to impose searches on the public in other forms of transportation.

There’s much more that we and others could say about each of these issues, if the PCLOB choses to consider them. But the first challenge for the PCLOB is whether it will tackle these big-picture issues.