Editor’s Note: On Tuesday, November 19, ACS held a panel discussion on constitutional protections of privacy in a time of rapid technological innovation and increasing surveillance, featuring Dahlia Lithwick of Slate, Chris Calabrese of the ACLU, Stephen Vladeck of American University Washington College of Law and others. You can watch video of the event here.
These days, according to an array of public interest groups, civil liberties appear to be taking a hit from a growing and seemingly unwieldy national security apparatus.
U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who misled Congress on domestic surveillance, attempted to quote Casablanca at a recent hearing about surveillance abroad. “My God, there’s gambling going on here!” he joked, mocking the umbrage of Senate Intelligence Committee who are regularly offered closed-door briefings on the government’s mass surveillance programs, even if they don’t always attend.
Potential harms to privacy do not end there. For example, students of all ages are being subjected to what the headmaster of Phillips Academy calls “National Security Agency-style surveillance.” Large corporations are accepting handouts from the government in exchange for turning over sensitive information. And even journalists, historically in the vanguard of free speech fights, are suggesting tools like anonymity are “a big mistake.”
Editor’s Note: On Tuesday, November 19, ACS is hosting a panel discussion on constitutional protections of privacy in a time of rapid technological innovation and increasing surveillance, featuring Dahlia Lithwick of Slate, Chris Calabrese of the ACLU, Stephen Vladeck of American University Washington College of Law and others. We hope that you will join us for this important and timely conversation. If you are interested in attending, please RSVP here.
By the end of this decade it is estimated that 30,000 drones will occupy national airspace. In 2012, Congress passed the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act, which ordered the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to promulgate regulations for the integration of drones into the national airspace. Law enforcement agencies around the country have purchased drones and are testing the new technology. As of May 2013, four Department of Justice (DOJ) divisions had acquired drones: the FBI; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF); Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA); and, the U.S. Marshals Service. On June 19, FBI Director Robert Mueller told Congress that the FBI has deployed drones for surveillance on domestic soil and is developing guidelines for their future law enforcement use.
As compared with manned airplanes and helicopters, unmanned aerial surveillance bears unique risks to society's expectation of privacy. Drones, properly called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are practically invisible at altitudes where a manned aircraft could be seen with the naked eye. Smaller UAVs operate almost silently, making them significantly harder to detect. Moreover, UAVs can be equipped with sensory enhancing technologies such as thermal imaging devices, facial recognition software, Wi-Fi sniffers, GPS systems, license plate readers and cameras that can provide high resolution images from significant altitudes. This type of aerial surveillance presents the potential for intrusion of privacy far more pervasive than the flyover of a plane or helicopter. Drone surveillance has the potential to enable users to gather unprecedented amounts of information about people and retain it well into the future.
As the NSA spying scandal has progressed, congressional Democrats have grown co-opted by an Obama administration committed to defending, entrenching, and perpetuating the Bush administration’s legacy—despite the president’s campaign promises in 2008 to reverse it. This co-optation spells grave threats not only to partisan Democrats, but also to principled progressives attached to an ideology inadvertently weakened by partisan Democrats aligned with the president.
Rallying around President Obama…to shoot themselves in the feet
In August 2013, during the debate on the House defense appropriations bill, only 7 votes protected the NSA from debilitating budget cuts that would have ended its domestic bulk collection activities. Seven members of Congress could have changed the outcome of the vote, reflecting a razor thin (under 2%) margin of victory for the surveillance state.
That margin of victory could be explained in many ways. One explanation may surprise progressives: Democrats from the Bay Area and Chicago, representing safe blue seats, who were outspoken about surveillance abuses at one point, comprised the NSA’s entire margin of victory. They chose to resign their principles, oaths of office, and constituents’ concerns in order to support their partisan patron, the president. They’re carrying the Bush administration’s water because it’s now President Obama holding the glass.
For American communities of color, the latest revelations about U.S. government surveillance, at home and abroad, has been met without much surprise and with a long memory of the injustice suffered by minority groups since our nation’s inception.
“We are a settler-colonial nation,” explained Fahd Ahmed. “Race and social control are central to the project.” As the legal and policy director for Desis Rising Up and Moving, an organization dedicated to organizing and amplifying the voice of immigrant workers, Ahmed has seen first-hand how the government isolates and targets vulnerable populations. In particular, he noted the targeting of Muslims by the NYPD under the supposition of anti-terrorism efforts, but was careful to emphasize the broader scope of the present danger. “These practices won’t be limited to one community,” he said. “After all, surveillance has a purpose – to exert the power of the state and control the potential for dissent.”
Other panelists reached similar conclusions. Surveillance is “not anything new” for people of color, observed Adwoa Masozi, a communications specialist and media activist. Recalling the COINTELPRO programs of the 1960s and 1970s, she named the major difference between then and now: “The government is just more open about it.”
Alfredo Lopez, the founder of May First/People Link, called the recent news an indication that “the ruling class is figuring out how to rule a society that is rapidly changing beneath it.”
Seema Sadanandan of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Capital Area Affiliate called the last few months a “tough time for white people,” whose relatively unchallenged faith in the Bill of Rights has been profoundly shaken.
Still, the next steps were harder to assess. For example, what role do lawyers and the law have in movements against this kind of surveillance? And how should activists interact, if at all, with the Internet and popular platforms like Facebook and Twitter?
Edward Snowden’s revelations about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court’s (FISC) secret rulings have heightened scrutiny on the court and the work it does. The court, which meets in the same building as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, is unique among federal courts in that its judges are not appointed by the president and then confirmed by the Senate. Instead, the court is made up exclusively of sitting judges who are appointed by the Chief Justice of the United States for seven-year terms with no legislative or executive oversight. Professor Theodore Ruger at the University of Pennsylvania said that the way the court is set up, the Chief has unchecked authority to appoint people to the court who share his views.