This Is The Smell Of Inevitability

In the “you’ve got to be fucking kidding me” category, “a Missouri federal judge ruled the FBI did not need a warrant to secretly attach a GPS monitoring device to a suspect’s car to track his public movements for two months.”

I had to read that sentence twice. I simply didn’t believe it. Fortunately this one will go to the Supreme Court. The punch line from Justice Breyer is right on the money: “If you win this case, there is nothing to prevent the police or government from monitoring 24 hours a day every citizen of the United States.”

GPS tracking. Hey – did you know that you can already track me through my cell phone without my permission? How about a little tag sewn into all clothing that uniquely identifies me. Or maybe something injected under my skin. Giving the government the right to do it without probable cause or any process, or suggesting that someone doesn’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy,  just feels evil to me.

The depth of the ethics of these issues are going to be significant over the next decade. It will be trivial for any of us to be tracked all the time without our knowledge. Don’t want a device – how about image recognition view the web of surveillance cameras everywhere.

I don’t have any answer for this, but I have a lot of questions and ideas. And I’m glad that I live in the US where presumably my civil liberties, privacy, and freedom of speech are sacred. I know there are plenty of people in the US that don’t agree with this, or believe that the government should have more control around this to “keep out or find the bad guys.”

Philosophically this is a hard and complex discussion and has been since the creation of the United States of America. The difference, right now, is that technology is about to take another step function leap that no one is ready for, or is thinking about, or even understands, that will create an entirely new set of dynamics in our society. Our government, especially leaders in Congress, the White House, and the Judicial System need to get much smarter – fast – about how this works. SOPA / PIPA is an example of terrible legislation that runs the risk of massively impacting innovation and individual freedom of speech. But it’s just a start – there is a lot more coming.

Denying that there is going to be a dramatic shift in how humans and computers interact is insane. Trying to hold on to incumbent business models and stifle innovation through legislation is dumb. Trying to create complex laws to contain and manage the evolution of technology, especially when it transfers power from innovators to non-innovators, or from the rights of private citizens to the government, is a mistake and will fail long term. Trying to repress free speech of any sort is wrong and won’t be sustainable.

I live in a world where you can’t anticipate or control change. It’s coming – and fast. Let’s embrace it and use it for good, not resist is and try to surpress it in the name of “protecting ourself from bad actors.” I pledge to do my best to always be thoughtful about it and be a force for good in the world. But please, don’t deny the inevitable – embrace it, and build off of it. It’s what makes America amazing and extremely durable long term.

  • Ian Colle

    This technology has already reached the “Big Brother is Watching” stage. This type of invasion of privacy must require a warrant or we should just tear up the rest of the Bill of Rights and say “never mind”

  • “Or maybe something injected under my skin.”

    Or a tattoo w/, you know, your serial number on it.  This road leads to shit we’ve seen before + it contains all the worst ugliness of which humans are capable. 

  • Change is inevitable, and irresistible. Attempting to hold on to old models and enforce control and compliance through badly worded and (potentially) Draconian legislation is, plainly, stupid.

    “Let’s embrace it and use it for good, not resist is and try to surpress it in the name of “protecting ourself from bad actors.”” This is correct, to the point that people must question who the “bad actors” REALLY are.

  • Brad – your bigger dilemma is the fact that someone would find a way to tie this to a “track your favorite VC” app and you’d be hounded 24/7 by people raising money.  They could find you anywhere . . .

    • That already exists. It’s called Foursquare.

      • James Haft

        I think VCs are the only users of FourSquare!

  • Anonymous

    I’m impressed that the FBI has nothing better to do than track people suspected of “fudging timesheets.”

  • Blaine Warkentine MD

    thanks for this. the risk reward ratio for this is undeniably lopsided in the direction of abuse, and this comes from someone that HATES SLIPPERY SLOPE THEORIES EVEN WHEN THEY ARE FUNNY. This will become a talking point for the next election for how it tugs at just the right heart strings. there is no doubt that most people are giving this type of privacy away every day with foursquare and the like but at least its in their own control. when it is given under someone else’s particularly one that has both resources and avenues to abuse it – you must reject. must. no discussion needed. but supreme court does not “hold out hope” for me. the legislation that corporations are individuals and are afforded the same civil liberties (ie. super pacs) completely bankrupted the concept of a democracy and that was a supreme court decision. better start pushing this out as you have done. reject this notion as far as it can be rejected. 

    • It was the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court that declared corporations have free speech rights. They justified this by arguing that corporate spending on political speech does not create corruption or the appearance thereof.  A Montana court is currently resisting this justification actively. See

  • Rod Burkert

    The situation reminds me of a line I heard in an old movie or TV show line that I watched: But who is going to watch the watchers?

  • Benjamin Franklin is alleged to have said, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety” (see I don’t know whether he really said it, but it would seem to apply here.

  • Tony Requist

    The societal impact of these technologies is a product of the actors, which in large part are the entrepreneurs that start the companies and create the products based on the technologies.
    If the entrepreneurs (and the investors behind them) are committed to making money AND to being a positive force, things can work out ok [said as a founder of a company based on RFID technology]

  • As bad as this is, and I agree that it’s really bad, it’s not even close to the top civil rights issue this week.  The National Defense Authorization Act included provisions allowing for the indefinite detention without trial of anyone that the government suspects is a terrorist, including US Citizens ( ).  While I’d prefer that the government not monitor my whereabouts at all times, I’d much rather they do that than lock me up and throw away the key with no trial to defend myself.

  • John Buehler

    I believe that we are on the same path that we have been placed on many times before. The implementation is a bit slower this time and each little piece of smelly stuff is wrapped in bacon which seems to get the public to gobble it all down. Technology makes each step more vigorous and less revokable. Some day, the few remaining will look back at this era of fools and laugh. It is our duty to choose a better path and rage agains the machines that will someday fully bind us, but I do feel the inevitability of it.

    • I love this quote.

  • Elvir

    This is no different (or any less scary) than many other social issues where a well funded actor exploits the lack of education in the general public.  I think the key is to get the word out (like you helped with SOPA/PIPA).  The key is education.  Just this morning I got an email that asked what if we stopped using the word “evil” and replaced it with “ignorance”.   This is especially true with kids.  My two teen daughters had zero objection when I sent them requests through “Find Friends” app for a 24 hour GPS iPhone tracking – didn’t even ask me why I wanted to do it, or thought about any other issue, and where only puzzled when I rejected their requests back to me for tracking me.  Privacy among that age group is not even a topic of conversation, and it needs to be.

    I trust the nation to have a meaningful discourse and come up with a reasonable decision once there is attention placed on an issue, and all the sides can be heard fully.  After all, we didn’t have Bush II Act III…we wisened up and reversed at least some of the “ignorant” things.  The key is getting the word out and forcing a conversation, say before we start (an accidental) war with Iran for example…

  • Many individuals would be shocked to find out the level of ubiquitous warrant-less tracking & surveillance already being performed by many local, state & federal agencies.

    Active tracking via GPS and cell phone are also supplemented via passive approaches, which require no “device/chip/etc” in your vehicle.  This includes automated license plate readers (Wash DC keeps a 2 year archive of all license plates + locations tracked through their network of readers), and aerial surveillance (state of VA tracks cars on interstates via planes, and has traffic signs posted indicating this).

    A recent Brookings Report ( ) expanded on this trend — specifically, how costs are going down for performing tracking & surveillance on a mass-scale.  From the report:

    “Location Data: 
    Information identifying the location of each of one million people at 5-minute intervals, 24 hours a day for a full year could easily be stored in 1,000 gigabytes, which would cost slightly over $50 at today’s prices, the report says. For 50 million people, the cost would be under $3000.  

    Phone calls:
    On a per capita basis, the cost to store all phone calls will fall from about 17 cents per person per year today to under 2 cents in 2015.”

  • Lee Drake

    Science fiction has thoroughly explored this age of “nothing is private”.  If you want to see the pluses and the minuses of such possible scenarios one has simply to pick up a book and begin reading.  I’d suggest you start with David Brin, Peter F Hamilton, or China Mieville.

    • Great suggestions.

      • Btanen

        Or The Diamond Age, of course:

        “In an era when everything can be surveiled, all we have left is politeness.” -Major Napier


        • I’ve got to go read Diamond Age again. I read it 10 years ago and it made a huge impression on me. Amazing book.

          • Btanen

            Brad —

            Very much worth a re-read now, given how much closer to that world we are getting.  

            Continued rise of China?  Mass-customization of news by class and ‘tribe’?  Less-viable nation-states in general?  Potent interactive hand-held education?  Omnipresent surveillance?  Etc., etc., etc.It seems like an understatement to call it merely a ‘prescient’ work.Enjoy!  And we have a mutual friend who’ll be happy to talk about it with you further….-Ben

  • Lee Drake

    There are already local police agencies purchasing drone surveillance equipment for aerial surveillance.  How long before they deploy them over highways to troll for speeders, or use them to chase and track “suspects” from above?  Not long at all.  Like – tomorrow.

  • James Mitchell

    These issues are not as clear cut as some claim, at least among lawyers and judges. The U.S. Constitution prohibits the police from entering your house without a warrant. Other than that, as Justice Scalia likes to point out, privacy is not really mentioned in the U.S. Constitution.

    In general, once you leave your house, you give up a lot of your privacy rights. Anyone, including police officers, can follow you or hire private investigators to follow you. If I wanted to devote the rest of my life tailing you, I could legally do so, as could any police officer. (Unless I was harassing or stalking you, in which case you could ask a judge to issue a restraining order against me.) The police can follow you from airplanes or helicopters. If properly done, planes could follow you and you would not even be aware they are doing so.

    The US Supreme Court currently has a case under submission over this very issue (U.S. v.  Jones, docket 10-1259) — the police were issued a warrant to place a GPS device on someone’s car, but they did so in the wrong locale and outside the permitted time period:

    One commentator thinks the police will lose:

    According to this commentator, most of the justices think that some line needs to be drawn and a GPS device is on the wrong side of the line, basically because it means the cops don’t have to do any work to follow you all of the time. But of course the cops could just get a warrant if they had sufficient evidence.

    I have always viewed privacy and civil liberties as just one desirable good that, if there is a tradeoff, must be weighed against other desirable goods, such as personal safety. Assume that a curtailing of civil liberties leads to a reduction in violent crime. To be more specific, assume that you live in certain parts of Mexico, where the drug gangs essentially have control over the government. These drug gangs randomly kill people, apparently just to keep in practice. Assume that in those areas, you have a 1 out 10 chance of being murdered in 2012, and also assume you cannot leave. Assume that a certain curtailment of civil liberties will decrease the odds of your being murdered to 1 out 1000 in 2012. I don’t know about you, but my response would be, “Where do I sign?”

    • Anonymous

      The key sentence in your comment is “But of course the cops could just get a warrant if they had sufficient evidence”. Right. That is how our system works. So let them get the warrant. If the current SCOTUS case allows the use of warrantless GPS trackers, that seems isomorphic to me to just installing the trackers at time of manufacture of every car, and collecting and archiving the full location data steam all the time. It is ultimately up to us whether we want to live in that situation.




  • most Tech education must be included in civics education now. 

  • Nick

    It’s interesting that as the US economy gets worse it gets more hard line communist and censored! While the economies in the far east are growing – through population if nothing else – and are becoming more open!

  • Linda

    “Anyone who would give up liberty for security deserves neither.”  B. Franklin

  • Johnny Mac

    Brad as self proclaimed “unabashed Obama supporter” you are surprised by this ruling and other legislation such as SOPA?  Come on.

  • Thinking

    Brad, aren’t you invested in some facial recognition technology play through one of your investment vehicles (e.g. personally, Foundry, TechStars)? I thought I read somewhere about facial recognition billboard or something. If that is true aren’t investments like that helping to enable the types of things that can be done as you describe above?

    • I’m invested in a bunch of enabling technology. The technology is going to happen.

      That doesn’t mean I believe the government should do whatever it wants. In fact, I feel very strongly that it shouldn’t – civil liberties matter a huge amount to me.

  • I find it amazing how Orwell and Rand look like prophets as we slowly inch forward towards Orwell’s “1984” or Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”.  After reading about a potential Internet blackout by some of the webs largest sites as a protest over SOPA (link below), I couldn’t help draw parallels to Atlas Shrugged…  I just hope I find the gulch before all hell breaks loose.  Brad I know you know where the gulch is and your probably writing these blog posts from there.  Please throw me a clue how to find it–  is it really near Boulder?

    • I live in Galt’s Gulch. It’s just an awesome awesome place.

      • I’ve always wondered that, and secretly hoped CO is like that. A bit excited to hear you put it that way. 

  • Josh Forman

    About this and all the comments, one thing every one of us can do is know who is running for elected office and vote for those that will make sure “1984” is not in our future. As hopeless and ambivalent as I sometimes get about government, I try to remember that I have helped create it, and voting is one way that I have.

    • Good and important point.

  • GeorgeB

    Anyone care (or now dare?) to conjecture on the type and amount of data…
    – that will be “required” by the (no-one-was-watching-and-I was-in-a-hurry-so-I-made-the)
    – appointment of an entirely new CZAR of the new Half-BILLIN/Yr Consumer Agency 
    – (formerely referred to as “I’M from the government and I’m watching-out for you” )
    – and every transaction that you engage in from now on…(to protect us, except from gov’t)..?

  • Derek Scruggs

    New business idea: the 21st Century version of a “fuzz buster.” Instead of detecting radar guns, it detects when you are being tracked and disables the device with a near-area EMF disruptor.

  • Derek Scruggs

    New business idea: the 21st Century version of a “fuzz buster.” Instead of detecting radar guns, it detects when you are being tracked and disables the device with a near-area EMF disruptor.

    • Oooh – sneaky.

    • Dave W Baldwin

      Actually, we need a Fuzz Blocker

  • JoshB

    Something injected under your skin and monitoring a car’s *public movements* are wholly different. How do you Constitutionally equate the two? Or at least put former on a slippery slope from the latter?

    • If I own the car (my property) why would it be ok to put something on my private property to monitor me? I get that it’s not the same as putting something under my skin, but it’s in the same zip code.

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