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Staving Off the Police State of the Future

The police state of the future won’t require neighbors and family members to spy and report on each other to the local authorities. It won’t require random checkpoints and surprise inspections, or that you constantly be required to produce your papers.

That’s because we are building superior tools right now that, unmoored from constitutional boundaries, could be used by a digital police state to track our online activity (server logs), offline travel (GPS and cellphone logs), correspondence, financial transactions, political activity, and website visits and what we do on those websites.

Technology is neither inherently good nor inherently evil. By giving us the tools of connectedness, immediacy, global reach, and easy retrieval, the internet has quickly become a necessity of life in the information age. But in the hands of an unrestrained government, those very same tools could make possible a digital police state far more powerful than the old fashioned analog police state.

“Tom, you’ve been watching too much Person of Interest,” you’re probably thinking. No, actually, I’m reading the news, which this week includes the Department of Justice demanding that the DreamHost webhosting company turn over all of its information about an estimated 1.3 million visitors to an anti-Trump website.

In other words, the Trump administration is demanding personal information about its political opponents.

Yes, officials obtained a warrant—from an 84-year-old judge who officially retired 25 years ago, before the internet was even a thing. It demands “all records or other information” related to the anti-Trump website, including the names, IP addresses, geographical locations and credit card information of all visitors to the site.

What the judge has granted is a “general warrant,” which gives officials broad authority to search unspecified people for unspecified crimes.  Such warrants are designed to harass and intimidate, and they have a chilling effect upon speech and political action.  As a result, they have been deemed unconstitutional because they lack the Fourth Amendment’s specificity requirements.  

The Fourth Amendment has had a hard enough time dealing with threats to privacy in a rapidly changing world. Whether it is sufficiently robust to stand up against a government that possesses massive tracking and surveillance powers will depend on our absolute insistence that our Fourth Amendment rights be preserved.

Organizing for political activity is not a crime, and should not subject large numbers of people to a dragnet by law enforcement. The warrant is unconstitutional, and must be resisted by people of all political stripes who recognize the danger of an unrestrained government in the digital age. 

Regardless of your political orientation, if we want to prevent the police state of the future, we must strongly oppose every incremental move that threatens our Fourth Amendment protections. And that means opposing the Trump administration as it tries to gather digital information on its political opponents.