Privacy rights

  • June 6, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The Obama administration, obsessed with leaks of secret government actions, is likely seething over reporting by The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, Ewen MacAskill and Spencer Ackerman on the secretive order granting the federal government sweeping power to collect “telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon,” regardless of any suspected connection to terrorist groups or activities.

    The report reveals an order from the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court -- created by the Foreign Intellegince Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA) -- granting power to the even more secretive National Security Agency to collect phone data over a three-month period. As The Guardian reporters and others note we have no idea if the FISA Court order is one in a series of orders granting the NSA ability to collect the information.

    Salon’s Alex Pareene notes that the nation’s intelligence agencies have continued to amass power for decades. Both parties and presidents have done nothing to rein in the NSA. “While the fact the NSA has the power to do this has been public for some time, we’ve never seen, until the Guardian obtained one, an actual Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court warrant. They are very top secret. Someone will probably be prosecuted for leaking this one. That, in fact, is one of the primary issues civil libertarians, like the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have been raising: If the way the administration interprets the law is secret, the law itself is effectively secret. Now we know more. But the recent history of the U.S. and domestic surveillance suggests knowing more won’t lead to doing anything about it.”

    The ACLU and other civil liberty groups and a few Senate Democrats have tried to raise concern over the unwieldy and largely unaccountable intelligence apparatus. In a June 5 press statement, the ACLU’s Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer said, “From a civil liberties perspective, the program could hardly be any more alarming. It’s a program in which some untold number of innocent people have been put under the constant surveillance of government agents. It is beyond Orwellian, and it provides further evidence of the extent to which basic democratic rights are being surrendered in secret to the demands of the unaccountable intelligence agencies.”

    In a piece for Cato at Liberty, Jim Harper looks at the indifference Americans have toward the FISA Court and the power of the nation’s intelligence apparatus. He notes that last summer and then in late December Congress reauthorized, expanded FISA powers for another five years, “continuing the government’s authority to collect data like this under secret court orders.” One of the staunchest supporters of expanding FISA powers was Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

  • April 25, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Once again lawmakers in Congress have introduced legislation intended to advance equality for LGBT people, this time with a few more Republicans on board and in an atmosphere of heightened public support.

    The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) would prohibit employers from discriminating against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. As noted earlier this week, other variations of ENDA have languished in past congressional sessions. But the effort – to outlaw employment discrimination of LGBT people – is integral to advancing equality. The U.S. Supreme Court is considering cases involving marriage equality and nine states and the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriages. Rhode Island and Delaware state lawmakers are considering legislation to allow same-sex couples to wed. (Rhode Island’s Senate has approved a marriage equality bill.)

    So while there has been positive movement on marriage equality -- though a setback could be forthcoming depending on the how the Roberts Court handles the cases before it – efforts to bar employment discrimination against LGBT persons have seen more mixed results. As the ACLU notes more than 30 states include laws that fail to provide LGBT people solid protection from employment discrimination.

    But Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) in a press statement announcing the introduction of ENDA sounded an upbeat note, saying that “bipartisan coalitions” in both chambers are supporting the measure. Merkley’s statement concludes, “In a sign of the growing momentum to end discrimination against LGBT Americans, the Senate sponsors expect the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee” to take action on the legislation in this Congress.

    The ACLU, Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Transgender Law Center issued a statement today concluding, in part, that in a “country that values fairness and equal treatment under the law, we believe the current situation is unacceptable.” That situation centers on the fact that there remain far too many states without protections against employment discrimination of LGBT people.

  • April 5, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    In a bleak era of state and federal lawmakers striving to dictate to women on health care concerns, primarily centering on birth control, a federal court today offered a respite. It ruled that the federal government must stop making it difficult for young women to get access to emergency contraception.

    U.S. District Court Judge Edward Korman found that the FDA’s refusal to remove restrictions on the availability of Plan B, a medication to help prevent pregnancy, was “arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable.”

    The Atlantic’s James Hamblin notes that “leaders in the FDA have advocated” the availability of the drug for some time now. “In 2011, FDA commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg concluded that it was safe to sell Plan B One-Step over the counter. The American Medical Association, Americans Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and American Academy of Pediatrics have since endorsed unrestricted access to emergency contraception.”

    But, in a move reminiscent of the George W. Bush administration’s disdain for science, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius last year ignored the FDA’s recommendation and held that young women could not get access to Plan B without a prescription.

    Judge Korman blasted Sebelius’ decision as revealing “a strong showing of bad faith and improper political influence,” TPM’s Sahil Kapur reports.

    President of NARAL Pro-Choice American Ilyse Hogue lauded Korman’s decision, saying it is an “affirmation that policy can and should be driven by facts and by public health. For years, women have had to jump through hoops because officials in Washington played politics with our health. Today’s ruling brings us one step closer to putting women in control of our destinies.”

    It’s also a court ruling that will undoubtedly be attacked by the rabid and righteous groups bent on controlling certain health care decisions that should be left solely to women.

  • March 29, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Tea Party activists and many of today’s Republican politicians claim to loathe big government. They say they want a limited government role in our lives. But when it comes to the autonomy of women or privacy rights of gay couples, many of those same activists and politicians clamor for government interference.

    A few weeks after Arkansas lawmakers adopted one of the nation’s most restrictive measures on abortions, banning them at 12 weeks of pregnancy; North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed into law an even more outlandish attack on abortion. The law forbids abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detectable, as The New York Times reported earlier this week. Fetal heartbeats, the newspaper noted can be detected “as early as six weeks” by using an invasive procedure, a transvaginal ultrasound.

    In his statement announcing signing of the bill, HB 1456, into law, Gov. Dalrymple said “the likelihood of this measure surviving a court challenge remains in question,” but it is nevertheless “a legitimate attempt by a state legislature to discover the boundaries of Roe v. Wade.”

    Discovering the boundaries of Roe is a euphemism for lawmakers’ efforts to topple the landmark Supreme Court opinion. State lawmakers have been on a tear over the last few years passing measures aimed at making it incredibly difficult for women to obtain abortions, especially for women with little means to travel long distances to find a physician willing and able to perform abortions. It is not enough that lawmakers have crafted laws that force women to listen to government propaganda about the alleged dangers of abortions or undergo invasive medical procedures; they want the ability to bar women from receiving abortions.

    In Roe, the high court held that the Constitution’s protections of privacy include the decision to have an abortion. The Roe Court only said that states could regulate that right at the point of viability, about 24 weeks.

  • March 20, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    While the Obama administration has justifiably been knocked for its secretive and deadly use of Reaper and Predator drones to kill suspected terrorists overseas, the private and public use of drones here at home is in need of some serious discussion say groups and individuals concerned about eroding privacy rights.

    During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing today a law professor and Amie Stepanovich of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (epic.org) urged lawmakers to revamp the nation’s privacy laws to ensure that public and private use of drones do not shred what privacy rights we have left.

    Ryan Calo, assistant professor of law at the University of Washington School of Law, told the committee that citizens have good reason to be concerned about the increasing use of drones for an array of purposes. During his testimony, Calo reiterated the need for the nation to update laws to protect privacy – technology is fast outpacing laws protecting privacy.

    “Drones have a lot of people worried about privacy – and for good reason,” Calo told the Senate committee. “Drones drive down the cost of aerial surveillance to worrisome levels. Unlike fixed cameras, drones need not rely on public infrastructure or private partnerships. And they can be equipped not only with video cameras and microphones, but also the capability to sense heat patterns, chemical signatures, or the presence of a concealed firearm.

    “American privacy law,” he continued, “meanwhile, places few limits on aerial surveillance. We enjoy next to no reasonable expectation of privacy in public, or from a public vantage like the nation’s airways. The Supreme Court has made it clear through a series of decisions in the nineteen-eighties that there is no search for Fourth Amendment purposes if an airplane or helicopter permits officers to peer into your backyard. I see no reason why these precedents would not extend readily to drones.” See Calo’s written testimony here.    

    The drones discussed at today’s hearing are not like the types employed overseas in ongoing counterterrorism operations.  (A subcommittee led by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) will explore the drone war and its intersection with constitutional rights in April.) The drones are much, much smaller and have been used for police surveillance and by public safety agencies to assess damages from storms, study hurricanes, tornados and flooding for example. Many of those drones weigh mere pounds and are operated in a limited fashion. Michael Toscano, president & CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), told the committee that the industry does not support “weaponization” of civil drones. (He also informed the lawmakers that the industry does not refer to the technology as drones, they may be pilotless, but they are operated by humans from nearby control centers. (Sen. Leahy said he and others on the committee would refer to drones as drones regardless of what the industry dubs them.)