Nearly 20 years ago, in the sleepy seaside village of Florence, Oregon, a member of the Oregon National Guard pointed a thermal imaging device, the Agema 210, at a frumpy triplex. For a few weeks, agents had been casing the house, looking for evidence that marijuana was being grown and sold there. With help from the Agema 210, the agents discovered two "hot spots"—areas in the house that were unnaturally warm. They concluded that the residents were using heat lamps to grow pot. Eventually, that discovery led to the residents' arrest and incarceration.
But what the agents didn't expect was that their seemingly simple action—using what was then considered pretty cutting edge spy technology to build a case against a small time pot grower—would set in motion a series of legal cases that helped delineate the constitutional guidelines for police searches.
The so-called Kyllo case eventually landed on the doorstep of the U.S. Supreme Court, that in a 5-4 decision in early 2001, agreed it was not okay to spy with such space age tools. It was an important change in mindset. Throughout the 20th Century, technology had outpaced legal protocols, and with each advance in technology—from wiretaps in the 1920s to monitoring cell phone conversations in the 1990s—the Supreme Court tended to whittle away an individuals' privacy. But with the Kyllo case, it seemed as if the Supreme Court was drawing an important line in the sand for the upcoming century.
But a decade later, such legal cases seem quaint. Furthermore, consider the context: Just two weeks before the Kyllo case was argued at the Supreme Court, at the first Super Bowl of the 21st Century—and months before the 9/11 attacks—the FBI secretly photographed spectators as they entered Raymond James Stadium in Florida and compared those photos against a database of known terrorists. There was a public outrage at the time.
But now, with 2013 closing out, and news organizations (ourselves included) compiling "most memorable" lists, certainly the concept of surveillance—and its countervailing secrecy—casts a much larger shadow over our daily lives than ever before. Photos and facial recognition at the Super Bowl? Don't we just expect that now?
The past year has seen both sides of the coin: In April, when two pressure cooker bombs blew up near the finish line for the Boston Marathon, the FBI quickly compiled photographs from traffic and surveillance cameras, and curated mountains of cell phone footage. Almost overnight, two suspects were indicated and chased down. It was both impressive and unnerving to recognize that anonymity in a crowd is something of the past.
About the same time, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden released reams of documents detailing the extent of the federal government's "monitoring" of ordinary residents.
Indeed, folks, it is a Brave New World. The debate is no longer whether cops may use heat monitors to bust pot growers on the Oregon coast, or whether federal agents can photo-scan faces in crowds.
Fortunately, in the middle of the debate, we are proud to be represented by Sen. Ron Wyden. He has spent the past dozen years serving on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and was the first senator to pump the brakes on surveillance programs. This September, Sen. Wyden bravely tried to set in place the first round of reasonable restrictions on the federal government's current surveillance programs. In October, the Atlantic Monthly called him "the lonely hero of the battle against the surveillance state."
As we wind down 2013, it is important to understand where we have been, and what preface that serves for the future. We feel a little bit better with Sen. Wyden's hand on the helm as we steer into another year—and one that promises to further outline what is and isn't allowed for surveillance.
On Thursday, Sen. Wyden will be in Bend—first, at a "Listen to the Future" townhall meeting with students at Summit High School, and next at the Bend Senior Center. While neither appearance directly relates to surveillance concerns, stop by and thank him.