by Peter M. Shane, Jacob E. Davis and Jacob E. Davis II Chair in Law, Moritz College of Law, The Ohio State University
* Author's Note: I had the privilege on April 4 of delivering the following remarks as part of a panel on "Creating the Politics of Privacy," a session of the capstone conference for Ohio State's 2013-14 series of campus-wide programs on the distinction between public and private.
America's cultural turn in recent decades toward a glorification of the private and a denigration of the public has coexisted with what quite obviously is a deterioration in privacy. As individuals, we have dramatically less capacity than in earlier decades to control information about even the most personal aspects of our lives. This is not just historical coincidence. The cultural turn to the "private" has actually hurt privacy.
What I mean by a cultural turn is that, for the last 35-ish years, U.S. law and politics have moved away from the public-regarding orientation of the New Deal and its programmatic outgrowths and toward the individualist orientation of Reaganite small-government conservatism. We can see these moves in a variety of ways that implicate the private/public distinction. For example, we know that public institutions, such as schools, simultaneously create both public value and private value. They help both to benefit society through an educated citizenry and to prepare individuals for economic self-sufficiency. Yet our public policy toward schools has increasingly emphasized only their private value as providing persuasive reasons for their support.
Likewise, private action simultaneously has both private and public impacts. What I do as an individual both serves my personal needs and gratifications and imposes externalities on others. Not all externalities are positive. Yet courts and politicians have increasingly resisted treating negative externalities as a sufficient justification for regulation. Supreme Court decisions limiting Congress' powers to keep guns away from schools or to provide federal remedies for domestic violence are perfect examples. The court's 2012 decision that Congress lacked power under the Commerce Clause to compel the private purchase of health insurance was based on legal arguments that earlier courts would have rejected out of hand.
During the long, hard fight to bring the outdated Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) into the 21st century, advocates have run into the most unlikely of opponents: the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Yes, the SEC—the agency charged with regulating the securities industry—has brought the ECPA update to a screeching halt. Yesterday the ACLU, along with the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Tax Reform and the Center for Democracy and Technology, sent the agency a letter calling them out on their opposition.
ECPA, enacted in 1986, is the main statute protecting our online communications from unauthorized government access. Unfortunately, as our lives have moved online the law has remained stagnant, leaving dangerous loopholes in our privacy protections. A broad coalition including privacy and consumer advocates, civil rights organizations, tech companies, and members of Congress from both parties has been pushing for an update. Strong bipartisan legislation to update the law has over 200 sponsors and is making serious headway in Congress. Even the Department of Justice—the law enforcement agency with arguably the most to lose in such an update—testified that some ECPA loopholes need to be closed.
But the SEC is pushing back – essentially arguing that they should get to keep one of the loopholes that have developed as the law has aged. When ECPA was passed in 1986, Congress developed an elaborate framework aimed at mirroring existing constitutional protections. Newer email, less than 180 days old, was accessible only with a warrant. Based on the technology of the time, older email was assumed to be “abandoned” and was made accessible with a mere subpoena. Similarly, another category of digital records, “remote computing services,” was created for information you outsourced to another company for data processing. Seen as similar to business records, it could also be collected with a subpoena under the law.
Fast forward to the 21st Century. Now we keep a decade of email in our inboxes and "remote computing services” has morphed into Facebook keeping all our photos or Microsoft storing our Word documents in their cloud. Suddenly the SEC can access content in way it never could before.
The Snowden revelations about NSA activities have brought government access to online data into the public eye over the past year. Allegations that surveillance programs may have impacted American citizens have led to public outrage. In response, the president has promised to reform the U.S. government surveillance apparatus to “provide greater transparency to our surveillance activities and fortify the safeguards that protect the privacy of U.S. persons.”
Long before the Snowden revelations, enhancing the privacy of U.S. persons was the focus of less-visible efforts to reform the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), a law enacted well before the Internet era that allows law enforcement access to a panoply of electronic information held by third-party information service providers without first obtaining a warrant.
In December 2013, more than 100,000 Americans signed an online petition calling on the Obama administration to support ECPA reform. Although a warm spring finally is emerging in Washington, D.C., the White House has remained silent as reform bills (e.g.,S. 607 and H.R. 1847) remain frozen in Congress.
Writing for Bloomberg, distinguished Harvard Law School professor Cass R. Sunstein objects to the “originalist” approach to constitutional interpretation. Sunstein reveals originalism’s “alluring siren’s call” and why “our constitutional tradition has been right to resist it.”
Today, members of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding their report on the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of phone records. Jennifer Granick of Just Security offers eight important questions Congress should be asking the PCLOB about the controversial surveillance tactics under section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act.
Last year, the Internal Revenue Service proposed new rules regulating political speech for select nonprofit organizations. Reporting for the ACLU’s Blog of Rights, Gabe Rottman and Sandra Fulton explain why these rules “create the worst of all worlds.”
At the NAACP, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and NAACP Senior Director of Health Programs Shavon Arline-Bradley celebrate Black History Month with a discussion about the Affordable Care Act.
NPR’s Carrie Johnson notes Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr.’s call for 11 states to repeal laws prohibiting current or formerly convicted felons from voting
JPMorgan Chase has agreed to pay the U.S. government $614 million to settle its defective loan case. Announced Tuesday, the deal settles claims stemming from JPMorgan’s approval of unqualified home mortgage loans since 2002. NPR reports on the legal ramifications being felt by the world’s biggest banks.
The U.S. Department of Transportation is designing new “Vehicle to Vehicle” communication technology that would help prevent traffic accidents. Reporting for the ACLU’s Blog of Rights, Jay Stanley discusses the privacy implications surrounding the new technology.
Herbert Smulls, a convicted inmate in Missouri, was executed before his final stay was denied last week by the U.S. Supreme Court. Andrew Cohen at The Atlantic reports on what went wrong and reveals a “breach in ethics and in the law.”
Daphne Eviatar at Just Security addresses the issues surrounding drone technology and what must be done to guarantee that its use remains within the law.
Writing for The Root, Henry Louis Gates Jr. provides a brief history of Black History Month and its founder, Dr. Carter G. Woodson.