Nicodemo Scarfo Jr. thought he had the ultimate snoop-stopper.
When police raided his home two years ago, they couldn't read his
computer files because he'd scrambled the data. But the FBI had
another trick up its sleeve.
Armed with a warrant, agents sneaked into the house and placed a
secret device on his computer to record his keystrokes. That
allowed officers to figure out his passwords, open his files, and
gather enough evidence to arrest him for running gambling and loan-
sharking operations for the Gambino crime family.
That's the latest in a string of high-tech coups that have given
law-enforcement a decided edge in reducing crime. From cameras that
recognize faces of criminals and e-mail reading systems to tracking
devices that can pinpoint the location of a cellphone, police are on
the verge of sweeping the streets in ways George Orwell never
There's just one problem.
Their high-tech gadgets may undermine constitutional guarantees
to the right of privacy. For years, privacy advocates have warned
that new technologies were eroding individual rights. Now, courts
and elected officials are beginning to listen.
In June, the US Supreme Court issued the first salvo, ruling that
police had to obtain a search warrant before scanning homes with
thermal imaging devices. Now, privacy advocates are waiting to see
how lower courts will react. Soon, a federal district judge in the
Scarfo case will determine whether police need a simple search
warrant or a more difficult-to-get wiretap warrant to use keyboard
If the judge disallows the computer evidence, Mr. Scarfo could go
free. If the judge allows the evidence, some say privacy will
wither. "We're on the cusp of a surveillance society," warns Barry
Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties
Union (ACLU), based in New York. "The technology is quickly
endowing law enforcement and private industry with superhuman
After years of seeing their warnings go unheeded, privacy
advocates cheered when the Supreme Court voted 5 to 4 that a
thermal imaging device trained on a suspect's house constituted a
search. Police used the technology to determine that the suspect
was using heat lamps to grow marijuana indoors. But the court ruled
that such technology required a warrant.
"The question we confront today is what limits there are upon
this power of technology to shrink the realm of guaranteed
privacy," wrote Justice Antonin Scalia in the majority opinion.
But for every court decision restricting the use of such devices,
several new technologies come along, threatening to shrink privacy
even more. Consider:
* By Oct. 1, the nation's wireless telephone companies are
supposed to have the ability to pinpoint the location of their
subscribers who make emergency 911 calls on specially equipped
phones. The system would help dispatchers obtain help to motorists
quickly and accurately. But privacy experts say the system will be
used to track users surreptitiously in nonemergency situations. The
wireless carriers have asked the Federal Communications Commission
for more time to implement the system.
* Visitors to the Ybor entertainment district in Tampa, Fla., are
routinely scanned by 36 cameras mounted on utility poles and
equipped with face-recognition technology. The system compares the
faces in the crowds with an image database of wanted criminals and
missing children. When it senses a match, it alerts officers who
determine whether it's close enough to pursue. Already deployed in
a London neighborhood, the technology has cut crime there 40
percent. But privacy advocates complain that honest citizens are
being subjected to a virtual lineup.
If satellite tracking and face-recognition software seem
impressive, hold onto your computer monitors. …