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Public Safety Concerns Not a Barrier to GAB Disclosure of Recall Petitions: Troubling Databases Next

2 Feb

Today the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin reiterated its position on the privacy rights of survivors of domestic violence in the release of petitions to recall Governor Walker and Lt. Governor Kleefisch. In a letter to the Government Accountability Board and to state Attorney General J. B. Van Hollen, the ACLU of Wisconsin asked for privacy rights of confidential electors be extended to any searchable database that may be available to the public.

The ACLU of Wisconsin wrote that state law protects the privacy rights of confidential electors in other public documents such as the election poll lists. Those same protections should be extended to other electoral public documents such as the recall petitions. Confidential electors should not have to surrender their free speech and assembly rights to participate in their democracy.  

While scanned PDF copies of recall petitions are easy to access but difficult to search, a database of petition signers makes identifying individual names and addresses very easy to find. In this case, survivors of domestic violence and targets of stalking have a clear public safety interest in having their information redacted from a searchable database. Similarly, it should be easy to redact the information of confidential electors from a database as opposed to hard copies of over a million petition signatures.

The ACLU of Wisconsin continues to urge the GAB to appropriately balance the competing public interests of electoral integrity and transparency and political speech and association by redacting the information of confidential electors from any electronic data file before it is disclosed as a public record. Further, the ACLU of Wisconsin urges the GAB to refuse any cross-checking of data with other government agencies.

We understand that the GAB has received a variety of questions and complaints from Wisconsinites on a variety of data privacy concerns. After the news media broke the news on Tuesday night that the PDF documents were available online, the GAB’s public voicemail boxes were full and people were unable to leave a message with their concerns. We hope that the GAB will provide a process to hear the privacy concerns of Wisconsinites before constructing a searchable database and at the minimum, shield the information of the confidential electors who already receive privacy protections under state law.

If there are confidential electors who are concerned about the disclosure of their information in the release of recall petition documents or electronic data files, they can share their stories with the ACLU of Wisconsin by filing a complaint with our office.

Media: Coverage of this topic before the PDF copies of the petitions were posted online included an article in the Wisconsin State Journal, an interview on the Wisconsin Radio Network and TMJ 620 AM in Milwaukee, and on NBC 15 in Madison and TMJ-4 and Fox News 6 in Milwaukee. An article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on the Attorney General’s opinion about the public nature of the petitions. However journalists tweeted from the press conference that the AG clarified that redacting some information on the petitions based on public safety concerns was up to the GAB’s discretion. This opinion was echoed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. Reactions to the posting of PDF copies included a story on NBC 15 and NBC 26 in Green Bay.

We will share more media coverage of this issue soon.

Warrantless GPS Tracking is a Violation of Fourth Amendment Rights: SCOTUS Decision Cheered by Privacy Defenders

23 Jan

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that if police attach a Global Positioning System tracking device to a car, the Fourth Amendment requires that they get a warrant to do so. The decision, United States v. Jones, protects privacy rights against one intrusive way the police use GPS technology and answers a question the Wisconsin Supreme Court sidestepped in State v. Sveum in 2010. Read more about this privacy victory in the ACLU’s Blog of Rights.

“Police should have probable cause that a crime has been or is likely to be committed before using GPS tracking technology,” said ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director Chris Ahmuty. “The ACLU of Wisconsin agrees that without a judge’s agreement, police use of warrantless GPS tracking would be a violation of our Fourth Amendment rights. The details of our private lives are revealed by our movements. Allowing police the power to obtain information on the location of anyone’s car and movements, for any reason or for no reason at all, without a valid warrant, is unconstitutional.”

In February 2010, the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a friend-of-the-court brief (PDF) with the Wisconsin Supreme Court in State of Wisconsin v. Sveum, urging the Court to hold that attaching a GPS device was a “search or seizure” requiring a warrant under the Wisconsin constitution as well as the Fourth Amendment. The brief warned that approving warrantless GPS could allow police to engage in fishing expeditions to obtain a detailed picture of someone’s personal associations by identifying the churches, bars, protests or doctor’s offices a person visited.

In its decision in July 2010, the Wisconsin Supreme Court sidestepped the question of whether there are any constitutional limits on police use of global positioning system devices to track people in their cars. Instead, the state’s high court decided that a court order obtained by the police satisfied the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment. Today’s unanimous decision by the U.S. Supreme Court emphatically answers the question the Wisconsin courts left open: the Fourth Amendment protects privacy against intrusive GPS tracking.

Help support the civil liberties news and opinion you get on Forward for Liberty. Join the ACLU of Wisconsin today or make a tax-deductible donation to the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation. Your contribution keeps Forward for Liberty, action alerts via email and social media, and other nonpartisan watchdog efforts going.

Selling your DVDs and CDs in Madison? Police Want Your Photo and to Know What You’ve Been Watching

16 Sep

The Madison city council’s Public Safety Review Committee met on Wednesday to consider a change to the law governing the licenses of secondhand dealers. The ordinance change would create an electronic reporting system where secondhand dealers, such as used bookstores or pawn shops, would report daily to police what was sold and would include a digital picture of the person who brought in the items. The list includes things like jewelry and electronics but it also includes recorded materials such as CDs, DVDs and audiobooks.

Whenever a change to this law comes up, the ACLU of Wisconsin’s Madison Area Office pays attention. In 2007, a campus-area alder suggested that used book dealers report their book buy-backs to police after a rash of textbook thefts. Bookstores objected saying that the reporting would be burdensome and costly. Police said they needed more tools to fight crime. The idea of electronic reporting came back in 2009 when Madison police held a listening session with stakeholders and explained the need for modernization but also heard concerns about data security, cost and customer privacy.

This proposal is an example of how whenever the government has access to a list of what we read or what we watch or the websites we visit, the ACLU must respond. Remember how librarians fought back when the Patriot Act would have required them to offer our library records for inspection? They protected our right to read because it was a core privacy issue. Our choice to posses any expressive material, be it a book or a CD or a film on DVD, is something we may choose to keep private. Especially if that material is controversial.

Government inspection of lists of such materials, even after they have been sold to a secondhand dealer, can create a profile of an individual’s personal selection or possession of intellectual or entertainment choices. We have a First Amendment protected tradition in this country to allow people to pursue and exchange information anonymously, even if that information is controversial. The only exception to this is in the realm of child pornography, although in the surveillance culture of post-9/11 America, the government now labels some information sharing as suspicious activity. The infrastructure for intelligence gathering has grown exponentially in the past ten years and our government literally has more data than it knows what to do with despite the estimated 2,000 private companies it has hired to data mine all of the cell phone records, suspicious activity reports and other bits of surveillance it has gathered from innocent people in the homeland. Our government does not need another database to spy on our personal choices.

Also whenever the government imposes on the First Amendment or the privacy rights of individuals, it has the responsibility to prove a compelling justification for that imposition. Police say theft, particularly related to drug use, justifies the need for this database. But requiring secondhand dealers to maintain electronic records and digital photographs of media sales specific to sellers and turn those records over to police daily treats all customers as potential criminals without suspicion that any particular person has stolen the CDs, DVDs, audiobooks or other media. The best way to balance fighting crime and protecting privacy is through individualized investigations by police who obtain warrants to search dealers’ own records. Database hacking or fishing expeditions or through electronic lists of who sold what would become easier and no less unacceptable under this proposed ordinance change.

Madison residents should ask their Common Council Alder to support an amendment that exempts “audio tapes, compact discs, laser discs, records, videotapes, digital video discs, portable media players or other similar audio or audio-visual recording devices,” “computer games” and digital pictures of customers who sell them from the daily electronic reporting to local police. Such an amendment would allow secondhand dealers and the city to comply with state law without compromising innocent people’s rights to privacy and freedom to exchange expressive materials.

Read the proposed ordinance online.

Madison residents can find their city council representative’s contact information on the city’s website.

While thinking about controversial materials, remember that September 24 through October 1 is Banned Books Week. We take one week out of the year to acknowledge how the work to defend our right to privacy and our right to read happens 365 days a year. Join us in Madison for a Banned Books Week kick off happy hour at Mickey’s on Friday, September 23 from 5:30 – 7:30 p.m. We will co-host a reading of banned books at Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee on Wednesday, September 28 with a reception starting at 6:30 p.m. Both events are free, but donations are welcome.

Privacy Rights Online – Who is Checking You Out? A Discussion on 4th Street Forum

26 Feb

Did you catch this week’s 4th Street Forum on Milwaukee Public Television? The topic was on data privacy rights and the ACLU of Wisconsin’s Executive Director Chris Ahmuty was among the guest panel to discuss current trends.

During the conversation on current issues in data privacy, Ahmuty talked about the concerns ACLU members have about data mining by the government and their privacy online, even in a time of social networking and sharing.

He also discussed the lesser-known topic of government data fusion centers (check out the ACLU’s national map), locally known as the Wisconsin Statewide Information Center. He spoke about the abuse of threat assessments on anti-abortion protesters who demonstrated at a UW Regents meeting (read more: ACLU of WI quoted in blog post from The Progressive magazine).

Other topics included employment discrimination related to social media posts and Wisconsin’s Circuit Court Access Program, the potential reauthorization of Patriot Act provisions and a discussion of the fact that the Electronic Communications Privacy Act hasn’t been updated since 1986.

Enrique Figueroa hosted this edition of 4th Street Forum called, “Privacy: Checking You Out.” Other guests included Dr. Michael Zimmer, co-director, Center for Information Policy Research at UW-Milwaukee; Tannette Elie, independent on-line news journalist; and Bruce Boyden, JD BRUCE BOYDEN, JD, assistant professor of law at Marquette University Law School.

Police GPS Tracking Question Left Unanswered by WI Supreme Court; ACLU Seeks Legislative Response

20 Jul

On Tuesday July 20th, the Wisconsin Supreme Court sidestepped the question of whether there are any constitutional limits on police use of global positioning system devices to track people in their cars. Instead, the Court decided that a court order obtained by the police in the case of State v. Sveum satisfied the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Wisconsin Constitution. We’ve blogged before on the privacy implications of this issue.

Although the Court did not decide whether a warrant is required, its ruling has the effect of overturning the Court of Appeals’ prior decision, which held that placement of and tracking with GPS devices was not “search or seizure,” and thus did not require a warrant from a judge or even that the placement and tracking be “reasonable.”

“The Court’s decision leaves open the core question of whether there are any constitutional limits to prevent the police from misusing such powerful technology to invade the privacy of innocent people,” said Catherine Crump, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, who submitted a friend-of-the-court brief along with the ACLU of Wisconsin (PDF) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“The Court’s decision underlines the need for the legislature to put common-sense limits on use of GPS technology to prevent police officers with personal grudges or elected sheriffs with political axes to grind from placing GPS units on enemies’ vehicles to see what meetings they attend, what night spots they frequent and what churches they do – or do not – attend,” said Chris Ahmuty, Executive Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin. “Except in rare emergencies, law enforcement should have to show a judge they have a reasonable law-enforcement basis for tracking someone before they start.”

Lawyers on the friend-of-the-court brief include Amelia Bizzaro of Henak Law Office in Milwaukee, Crump of the national ACLU, Jennifer Granick of the EFF, and Larry Dupuis of the ACLU of Wisconsin. G. Michael Halfenger of Foley & Lardner argued the case before the Supreme Court on behalf of the amici. Madison Attorney Dean Strang, of Hurley, Burish & Stanton, represented Sveum.

The issue has had news coverage by the Associated Press and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and on WCCO, a CBS affiliate that serves the Twin Cities and western Wisconsin, WAOW-TV in Wausau, the Wisconsin Radio News and Wisconsin Public Radio.

Sunday: Pub Politico with Dr. Zimmer in Madison, Take Action on Obama’s Privacy Advisory Board

19 Mar

Did you hear on NPR this week about how NO ONE is on Obama’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board? The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board was a recommendation of the 9/11 Commission and was originally established by the Bush administration. Congress made the board more independent in 2007 but it hasn’t had any appointments since.

The President needs an independent body to give input on the civil liberties and privacy implications of laws from the Patriot Act renewal to full body scanners at airports. The ACLU signed on to a coalition letter demanding that this Board get appointments as soon as possible.

This is just one example of how the American Civil Liberties Union is watching out for privacy rights – and you can take action on this issue in Madison this weekend…

On Sunday, the ACLU of Wisconsin will welcome University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor and Internet privacy expert Dr. Michael Zimmer at the next monthly installment of Pub Politico. Dr. Zimmer will discuss “Failures in Self-Regulation in Online Privacy” and other trends in social networking, Internet search engines and data privacy.

Participants will be invited to send their own letters to the President on the PCLOB issue.

“One of the most common questions we get at the local ACLU office is about people’s right to privacy in the electronic age,” said community advocate Stacy Harbaugh. “The ACLU of Wisconsin is working to defend the rights of individuals in an ever-changing digital landscape. Just because information is easy to share and technology changes, your right to privacy does not.”

Pub Politico is a monthly political salon-style discussion group that invites experts to share information on current legislative and social justice issues. The event will be upstairs at the Brocach Irish Pub, 7 W. Main St. in Madison at 2:00 p.m. Pub Politico is free and open to the public.

Dr. Michael Zimmer is an assistant professor in the School of Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an associate at the Center for Information Policy Research. With a background in new media and Internet studies, the philosophy of technology, and information policy, Zimmer studies the ethical dimensions of new media and information technologies, with particular interest in privacy, social media, information ethics, access to knowledge, and value-conscious design. More information about Dr. Zimmer’s research can be found on his blog,

Big Brother Honadel’s Call to Fingerprint Poor Children Gives Businessmen a Bad Name

15 Feb

Today State Representative Mark Honadel (R-South Milwaukee) sent out a media release announcing his plan to introduce legislation to require fingerprinting of poor children in the Wisconsin Shares day care program every day at check-in and check-out. The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin opposes treating our children – including poor children — like parts at an auto supply store or boxes of cereal at a grocery store. ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director, Chris Ahmuty said today that, “the children in the Wisconsin Shares program, many infants under age one, are not inventory.”

Ahmuty went on to ask what Rep. Honadel would have poor parents say to their youngsters when they discover that more well-to-do children are not fingerprinted.

Rep. Honadel has criticized the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families for not adopting an automated attendance system at day care centers more quickly. He told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “As a businessman I could make this happen in a couple of months.”

“Technology can be an important tool for government, just like it can for businessmen such as Rep. Honadel,” Ahmuty said, “But just because a technology exists does not mean that we should ignore our values. Unlike businessmen, like Rep. Honadel, government must operate within the limits proscribed by our Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which protect Wisconsin residents from government abuse and safeguard their privacy. Fortunately, the Department of Children and Families, thus far, is being more deliberative and compassionate than Rep. Honadel.”

This issue got some news coverage on Green Bay radio station WTAQ’s website, as well as Milwaukee radio station WTMJ’s website.

The ACLU of Wisconsin will continue to monitor changes to the Wisconsin Shares program to ensure that state actions protect the rights of poor children and families. Read more about the work the ACLU is doing nationally on technology and liberty.

Today is Data Privacy Day – It’s About More Than Your Credit Card and Social Security Number

28 Jan

Today is Data Privacy Day and it is an opportunity to remind everybody that while we enjoy the ever-changing and evolving technologies available to us, from Facebook to medical record sharing, we should always know that our data and our information belongs to us. Any searching or sharing of our information needs our permission.

A year ago, Wisconsin Senator Erpenbach took the lead on authoring a resolution recognizing Data Privacy Day (PDF) in Wisconsin. We now have an official statement about what data privacy means to our state government. In this statement, and in the continued educational work of the ACLU of Wisconsin, privacy rights are more than protection against credit card fraud and identity theft: it is a practice of safety, protection and practices for everybody.

“Privacy rights need to be defended year-round,” said ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director Chris Ahmuty. “Today is a great day to recognize how we can protect ourselves against identity theft, encroaching surveillance and data insecurity.”

Nationally the ACLU has been in the center of courtrooms, legislative hearings and the media to show what is wrong with public video surveillance, why the Real ID program doesn’t secure our identities and should be overturned, and how government surveillance technology is outpacing legal restraints to abuses of power.

Read more about the work that the ACLU is doing nationally to support privacy rights. Aspects of privacy rights that we work on include biological technology privacy (our DNA is our own), consumer privacy (don’t spy on what I buy), Internet free speech and privacy (make those Facebook photos private!), medical privacy (sharing electronic records is great for doctors, but shouldn’t be searched by non-medics), students rights (with cell phones and their non-directory information), and workers’ privacy (from camera surveillance to lack of protection of personal records).