Technology Tests Privacy Rights
Friday, February 16th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6
SAN DIEGO (AP) â€” With each new high-tech gizmo police use to watch and catch suspected criminals, defense lawyers and prosecutors face new confrontations over privacy rights.
From new ``face-mapping'' computer technology, used to check for terrorists at last month's Super Bowl, to alcohol-sniffing equipment at the end of a traffic cop's flashlight, technology is an increasingly large part of law enforcement.
The Supreme Court hears a case next week that will test whether police violated Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches when they used heat-detection equipment to find a homegrown marijuana operation.
Lawyers and prosecutors attending the winter convention of the American Bar Association are examining the 400,000-member organization's privacy guidelines for technology-assisted surveillance.
Police and prosecutors often argue that technology merely improves on the human eye, ear or touch without altering any fundamental expectation of individual privacy.
That is the argument the federal government will make in next week's drug case. Police could watch Danny Lee Kyllo's house without a warrant, the government argued in legal papers, so scanning the exterior of his Oregon house with a thermal imager wasn't much different.
``Thermal imagers do not literally or figuratively penetrate the home and reveal private activities within,'' the solicitor general's office wrote.
The Agema Thermovision 210, which detected suspicious hot spots along Kyllo's roofline and garage, is a passive device, ``unlike a hypothetical sophisticated X-ray device or microphone that could perceive activity through solid walls,'' the government wrote.
Those examples of more intrusive police methods, which the government said would constitute a search, aren't so hypothetical.
Technology already exists to check pupil dilation secretly for signs of drug use, or breath for evidence of alcohol, without police ever laying a hand on a potential suspect.
Hundreds of police departments are using the ``P.A.S. III Sniffer,'' a tiny battery-powered alcohol detector, during traffic stops.
An officer shines a flashlight into a car after a traffic stop, and the device sucks in the motorist's breath. A driver who tested clean would likely drive away none the wiser.
Civil liberties groups say the device violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the 4th Amendment, but the device's manufacturer says there have been no lawsuits.
Police point out they would quickly arrest a drunk who reeks of alcohol, so the sniffer technology is really just a more sensitive version of the officer's nose.
Security cameras were trained on the faces of happy fans entering the turnstiles at the Jan. 28 Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla., and the digitized images instantly compared with those in computer banks of terrorists and other criminals.
No arrests were made, but the system did identify a known ticket scalper, who fled into the crowd. Tampa police said they are pleased with the system's performance.
The American Civil Liberties Union called it the ``Snooper Bowl'' and said it subjected unsuspecting fans to a ``computerized police lineup.''
Authorities know of no legal challenges so far.
Security planners for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City are now evaluating whether the same technology should be used there.
``It certainly has value,'' Christopher Kramer, spokesman for the Utah Olympic Planning Security Command, said afterward. ``It could be a preventive measure to stop terrorism.''
Carol Gnade, executive director of the Utah ACLU, has said the technology is ``outpacing our basic privacy rights.''
On the Net: Supreme Court site: http://www.supremecourtus.gov
Flashlight sniffer manufacturer site: http://www.sniffalcohol.com
American Civil Liberties Union: http://www.aclu.org