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Leave Mayor Schieve’s car alone

David Colborne
David Colborne
Digital internet and security graphic

At the risk of being an insufferable contrarian, I do not believe it’s morally, legally or politically prudent to attach a GPS tracking device to a car personally owned by the mayor of Reno.

I know — bold, daring opinion. Stop the presses, etc.

Ah, but doesn’t Hillary Schieve already have a smartphone following her around everywhere? As a mayor, doesn’t the public have the right to know everything about her, to be able to hold her accountable, while she remains in office? What does she have to fear if she has nothing to hide?

Yes, I too have read the bottom half of the internet, including the comment sections of social media posts about this story. Having read such comments for more than two decades now, I know how seriously these arguments are being made and, consequently, how seriously we should take these arguments — but, just for kicks, let’s go ahead and take this class of arguments seriously anyway.

Putting my priors on the table for a moment, I want a world with less surveillance, not more of it. I want a world with more privacy, not less of it. I don’t think I’m particularly unique in either regard. It’s bad enough that we buy distracting expensive rectangles which track our movements so online companies can show us more relevant advertisements (with the benefit of hindsight, we now know Aldous Huxley was closer to the truth than George Orwell, but both authors grossly underestimated the banality of evil) — but we can always turn the rectangles off. We can always throw them in the trash. We may not consent to nearly enough of what our rectangles do, but we consent to having rectangles, to paying for data plans so they connect to the internet, to plugging them back in to charge before we go to bed, and all the rest that goes with owning a smartphone in the 21st century.

Hillary Schieve never consented to having someone attach a GPS tracking device to her car without her knowledge. That lack of consent is the violating part of a “violation of privacy,” just as a lack of consent is a violation in so many other situations.

However, let’s accept for the sake of argument that elected officials should be regularly surveilled so we, the people, can hold them accountable. If that’s true, shouldn’t elected officials agree to being surveilled, in writing, when they file to run for office so they understand those are the terms of service? Additionally, why should we, the people, only surveil one car, or stop our surveillance with the tracking of the movements of one car?

For that matter, Nevada’s Open Meeting Law allows public records to be open to the public, not just individuals sneaky enough to attach a box to the bottom of a car or clients rich enough to pay sneaky individuals to attach boxes to cars. If Schieve’s driving habits really are public record, why should they be monopolized by a sole proprietor and their thus far anonymous client? 

By comparison, take the now-infamous circumstances of Elon’s Musk’s jet, which led the world’s richest moderator to ban a bunch of users from his personal forum in a huff. When Musk bought his personal jet, he consented to having an Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) device installed in his jet as part of the process required to get his aircraft licensed to fly in the United States. This device wasn’t secretly installed by a private investigator and the data broadcasted by the device doesn’t belong to a lone client — instead, like all ADS-B data, it’s publicly accessible, just like the registration number (which is also publicly searchable) painted on to the side of his plane.

ADS-B devices also aren’t just installed in Elon’s jet — they’re installed in all aircraft flying in the United States, which is how the internet knows which flights are flying over your house right now, as well as their current airspeed and altitude. In fact, I am currently tracking the “assassination coordinates” of American Airlines flight AA1777, a Boeing 737-823, registration number N840NN, as it lands at Reno-Tahoe International Airport. I’m also tracking a Maule M-7-235C Super Rocket, which originally took flight in nearby Truckee, California, as it takes a joyride near Lake Tahoe. 

If the Pentagon shipped a NASAMS system to my house instead of Kiev by accident, I suppose I could really do some harm with this information.

None of this is meant to imply that tracking the location of Elon’s jet is intrinsically harmless. If there’s one thing we should have learned from Edward Snowden’s leak of National Security Agency surveillance data roughly a decade ago, it’s that it takes surprisingly little information for malicious actors — including governments — to act against anyone’s self-interest. I certainly wouldn’t want everyone in the world to know when and where I was traveling by air — and so, when I fly, I fly commercial. Similarly, I also don’t install ADS-B devices and register my cars with the Federal Aviation Administration.

For that matter, were I Elon Musk, I probably would have sold my notoriously public plane and bought a different jet with a different registration number under a different corporate umbrella once people started tracking my plane on social media in 2020. But look, I’m not one of the richest people on the planet. Perhaps he was just too busy to get around to it, in much the same way I was too busy to empty the trash can in my bedroom this morning. Things happen.

Even so, Elon is under no obligation to host the location of his private jet on his private web forum, nor is he under any obligation to allow users who report about the location of his private jet to post about the location of his private jet, even if they work for nationally prominent news organizations. It would just be nice if he owned up to his actual self-interested editorial standard instead of trying to hastily reverse-engineer a broader prohibition against “images or videos of private individuals without their consent” (anybody know if any of the people Libs of TikTok chooses to, ah, “cover” in her videos as a “citizen journalist” signed a release?) while simultaneously presenting himself as a champion of freedom of speech.

However, picking on Elon and his jet for just a bit longer — sorry this has become yet another column about Elon Musk — there’s no natural physical law requiring everyone and sundry to have real-time access to airplane flight data. Congress could pass legislation anytime it wants restricting or modifying public access to FAA flight and aircraft registration data and we, the people, could debate any such proposed legislation on its merits before and after its passage. The Department of Motor Vehicles, after all, doesn’t have a publicly searchable database of license plates that reveals who owns every car on the road and where their registration address is located because we, the people, have chosen a different balance between transparency and privacy when we’re talking about cars instead of airplanes.

Which brings us back to Mayor Schieve.

The FAA doesn’t monitor Elon Musk, Department of Transportation staff, or, if Schieve ever buys herself a plane, Mayor Schieve. The FAA monitors airplanes. Similarly, the Private Investigators Licensing Board doesn’t specifically monitor David Stephen McNeely, owner of 5 Alpha Industries (license #2898), it licenses and monitors private investigators throughout the state. McNeely, however, took it upon himself — or was paid to take it upon himself — to track the movements of Mayor Schieve specifically.

There is no good reason to monitor Mayor Schieve the way a wildlife manager might monitor a mountain lion (rest in peace, P-22). If there were, we would have passed a law requiring her — along with every other mayor in Nevada, and perhaps every city council member as well — to consent to GPS monitoring upon being sworn into office. That we haven't strongly suggests the overwhelming majority of us rightly believes elected officials have a right to privacy, just like the rest of us.

There are, however, several bad reasons to track someone’s movements. If she’s relatively (for a very broad definition of “relatively”) fortunate, the motivation behind the tracking device is political — which, if so, would be mind-bendingly stupid and everyone responsible should be permanently disqualified from participating in the political process ever again. If she’s less fortunate, however, she was being stalked by someone interested in directly harming her and her family — not through a salacious hit piece on a blog somewhere but through direct, physical assault and battery against the Mayor of Reno.

Our elected officials, mayors included, shouldn’t have to ask their mechanics every time they get an oil change if some random stalker (much less a state-licensed private investigator) installed a GPS tracking device on their car. Our elected officials, mayors included, shouldn’t have to worry about whether they’ll be safe when they drive home each night or when they drive to work each morning.

Not because they’re elected officials. Because they’re people.

David Colborne ran for office twice. He is now an IT manager, the father of two sons, and a weekly opinion columnist for The Nevada Independent. You can follow him on Mastodon @[email protected], on Twitter @DavidColborne, or email him at [email protected]


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