Flickr image courtesy Mitch Featherston

We’ve spent a considerable amount of time here at CIR’s Elevated Risk blog asking if new technology and the government’s post-Sept. 11 push for greater surveillance powers threaten the privacy rights of Americans.

But so far we haven’t asked if corporations enjoy such rights. Government secrecy expert Steven Aftergood noted Nov. 18 that the Supreme Court is poised to answer whether corporations do have a right to privacy. The opinion could hamstring journalists and public-interest watchdogs trying to police contractors hired with taxpayer money to perform work for the government.

We’ve had our own unpleasant experiences trying to obtain contract-related documents through the Freedom of Information Act for the center’s homeland security project. In the case Supreme Court justices will answer next year, FCC officials chose to release records sought by a requester and tied to a government contract held by AT&T.

The communications giant fought the FCC’s attempted disclosure and won in an appeals court decision that concluded since corporations enjoy personhood under federal law, “personal privacy” extends to them the same way it would an individual. Government lawyers in defending the records release argued that only human beings can be granted personal privacy.

According to Aftergood:

Corporate information that qualifies as a ‘trade secret’ has long been exempt from disclosure under the FOIA. But prior to this case, no court had ever held that a corporation also has personal privacy rights. If affirmed by the Supreme Court, the appeals court ruling ‘could vastly expand the rights of corporations to shield their activities from public view,’ said Sen. Patrick Leahy this week, and it would ‘close a vital window into how our government works.’

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At Elevated Risk, we’ve also been exploring how the government uses social media sites like Facebook and Twitter for surveillance purposes. Across the pond, a British man named Paul Chambers found himself in the U.K. government’s crosshairs for facetiously declaring on Twitter after his flight was grounded by a winter storm that he would blow the airport sky high.

He’s since become a hero of sorts for free-speech activists who are using Twitter to register their displeasure with the judge who upheld nearly $5,000 in fines levied against Chambers for causing a “menace.” His supporters announced in a flood of tweets their plans to blow up everything imaginable, from whole towns and government buildings to sports teams, balloons, “my garage” and the NBC network if it cancelled a show one Twitter user liked.

From the New York Times:

That none of these people appear yet to have been arrested for doing the exact same thing that Mr. Chambers did shows how hard it has become for law enforcement officials to know how to respond to the anarchic culture of social media sites, especially Twitter, with its rapid-fire, off-the-cuff, often satirical exchanges.

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It’s simple to understand why so many people in the law enforcement community are enamored with the idea of “crowdsourcing surveillance.” This involves making images from surveillance cameras available to the public online. If Internet users spot criminal conduct, they can report it to authorities and the government then won’t have to rely so much on security personnel to monitor the cameras 24 hours a day.

But a related plan launched by Texas Gov. Rick Perry to enhance surveillance on the southwest border went bankrupt last year and critics panned it as a flop. Similar efforts are nonetheless underway elsewhere. As of this writing, anyone can observe surveillance footage online of a frozen, empty sidewalk and a mostly boring parking lot in Minnesota’s Ramsey County. The local sheriff’s office launched its “Web Cop” program earlier this year, complete with a smiling cartoon surveillance camera as a mascot.

Security expert Bruce Schneier wondered recently in his popular Crypto-Gram newsletter if neighborhood e-watching can work.

There are at least three major challenges, he argued. Actually observing a real crime will occur very rarely, and so watchers are likely to succumb quickly to boredom without some other motivation, like money, to watch closely and consistently. He adds that false alarms can be costly to deal with, and there’s also the issue of citizens in a free society monitoring the everyday activities of their neighbors.

Schneier did cite a promising idea that may have worked but never gathered much steam. Spotters could be paid to check images from surveillance cameras trained on areas where there just shouldn’t be very many people at all, like behind fences at oil refineries, nuclear power plants, dams and reservoirs.

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Police in New York are moving beyond traditional fingerprints collected from criminal suspects and beginning to capture photographs of their irises to keep better track of bad guys. The NYPD is among the most aggressive local law enforcement agencies in the United States when it comes to using modern technology for surveillance, anti-terrorism and public safety. Devices used for the iris scans are handheld, and New York City plans to deploy more than 20 of them at a cost of $24,000 each.

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Texas says it’s helping to fight the war on drugs, and the state is using combat-style terminology that seems better fit for the Marines to describe its battle with Mexican cartels. A Nov. 18 story from Fox about the Texas Department of Public Safety’s “tactical strike teams” could almost be confused with a dispatch from Baghdad.

But Texas is not Iraq. Terms and phrases like “counterinsurgency” and a “paramilitary type of engagement” are used to characterize DPS and its “undeclared war” against cartel operations on the southwest border. The story is otherwise slim on details, except to say that DPS relies on 16 state-of-the-art helicopters as part of its fight with drug warriors. Elsewhere the story focuses on how vulnerable the border is and the ruthless techniques used by cartels.

State and local police have become increasingly militarized since Sept. 11, but the process began even before then, and it remains to be seen what such a movement could do to years of softer, community-oriented policing strategies. One thing noticeable is a narrative in law enforcement that the world grows more dangerous every day, and for this reason, many agencies argue, cops should be permitted to use military-style training, apparel and weaponry.

G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.