Electronic privacy

  • July 11, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The secret court that hears government requests for spying on Americans' communications is a durable check against government overreach because it’s made up of esteemed, independent federal court judges and the lawyers representing the nation’s intelligence apparatus are really good at their jobs. At least that’s the take of a large number of government officials who support  sweeping surveillance programs, which the secret has approved.

    Last year the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA Court) did not deny or reject the 1,789 government FISA applications. Apparently 40 of applications were modified, but since the FISA Court’s actions are secret, we don’t know in what why they were altered. In 2010, Salon reported, “there were 1,511 applications, of which five were withdrawn and 14 modified.”

    This week James Comey, President Obama’s nominee to head the FBI, told a Senate committee that the FISA Court is no “rubber stamp” and that people just don’t understand the highly secretive court, George Zornick reported for The Nation. Comey also maintained that another reason the FISA Court rarely rejects government demands for more information about Americans is that the government’s attorneys work really hard to put together sound applications.

    But just as this defense of the FISA Court as a serious check is being built, more information is seeping out about the secret court’s work. The New York Times reported that the Court does more than secretly grant general warrants for the NSA to sweep up mass amounts of information about Americans. It is also issuing opinions on “broad constitutional questions and establishing important judicial precedents with almost no public scrutiny, according to current and former officials familiar with the court’s classified decisions.”

    Ten of the FISA Court’s 11 independent federal judges, Salon’s Joan Walsh reports are appointed by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. The judges Roberts appointed are ones named to the bench by Republican presidents. “Over the last 12 years, they approved 20,909 surveillance and property search warrants and rejected only 10 government requests,” she added.

  • 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.)

     

  • February 6, 2013
    Guest Post

    By Chris Calabrese, Legislative Counsel, American Civil Liberties Union

    The Hill
    broke a fascinating story last week: many major email providers are already requiring a warrant for the content of the communications they hold.  What you say, this doesn’t sound fascinating at all?  It really is—just bear with me.

    For the last several months the Senate Judiciary Committee has been fighting over this precise issue: how to update the nearly three-decades-old Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA).  Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has long sought a standard where all communications and content must meet the warrant standard.  That would mean information in Gmail accounts, Amazon cloud storage and text messages sent through Verizon would all have to meet the same standards—a warrant based on probable cause—that police currently need to search a home.  But when Leahy brought the issue before the full committee last Congress, the response from law enforcement was that the proposal would have a dire impact on police practices.

    Some local law enforcement claimed it would delay investigation in cases of missing children.  The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association expressed “profound disappointment,” and the Federal Bureau of Investigation Agents Association worried it “could hamstring critical law enforcement efforts.”  Legislation to amend the statute with a warrant was voted out of committee but never got to the floor for a vote.  While the vote was bipartisan, some Republicans expressed reservations about the legislation and the expectation that all of this should be revised in the new Congress.

  • January 7, 2013

    by E. Sebastian Arduengo

    In the fall, the House of Representatives voted to pass the FISA Amendments Act 2012 reauthorization. The bill, which renews provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, allows the government to eavesdrop on Americans’ electronic communications, including phone calls and emails without having to show probable cause. Despite the fact that the bill flew in the face of Fourth Amendment protection, the bill cleared the Republican-controlled House by a large margin, passing 301-118. Members like Trey Gowdy (R- S.C.) rationalized trampling on constitutional by declaring “Intelligence is the lifeblood of our ability to defend ourselves … Are we to believe that the Fourth Amendment applies to the entire world?” For much of the last two months, the matching bill in the Senate was held by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who insisted that the Obama administration release information about how many Americans’ communications have been released under the law. Unfortunately, on Dec. 28, the Senate voted to pass the FISA Amendments Act 73-23, after voting down Senator Wyden’s amendment forcing disclosure.

    Senator Wyden’s amendment was of particular import because FISA Amendments Act gives the government nearly limitless spying power. For example, a request related to the “Haqqani network” allows the government to tap any communications it believes will yield information about the group that is fighting American forces in Afghanistan. The request could be based on as little as the vague belief that a phone is being used to communicate with Afghan insurgents. This casts a net so broad, that when a challenge to the FISA Amendments Act went before the Supreme Court in October, ACLU deputy director Jameel Jaffer described the law to Justice Ginsburg as "dragnet surveillance."

    Perhaps a better term would be “siphon surveillance,” as documents provided by former AT&T and NSA employees show that the NSA has created dark rooms in AT&T facilities that copy all internet traffic flowing through the facilities and transmit that information to government servers. So much information is flowing to the NSA, in fact, that they are hard at work building a $2 billion data center in the Utah desert to store it all. To put this amount of data this facility will be able to store in perspective – When it is running at full capacity, it will be able to store “about 500 quintillion (500,000,000,000,000,000,000) pages of text.” Unsurprisingly, with the data spigot on, there have been numerous documented reports of the NSA collecting purely domestic communications of ordinary Americans, and collection practices have gotten so egregious that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which usually rubber-stamps wiretap requests from the government, ruled that the government’s actions under FISA had violated the Fourth Amendment on at least one occasion.

  • December 14, 2012

    by Joseph Jerome

    Whenever an American citizen interacts with her government, the government’s first concern is increasingly ascertaining whether that individual is a terrorist. The Wall Street Journal’s Julia Angwin reports that top intelligence and law enforcement officials met in March to establish new rules permitting the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) “to create a government dragnet, sweeping up millions of records about U.S. citizens -- even people suspected of no crime.”  Flight records, the names of Americans hosting foreign-exchange students, and even casino-employee lists can be stored for up to five years, analyzed for suspicious behavior, and shared with foreign governments all in the name of fighting terrorism.

    According to Angwin, the impetus of the program came in the wake of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s failed Christmas Day 2009 bombing. After President Obama directed government agencies to send NCTC any and all leads on terrorist threats, the Department of Homeland Security provided NCTC with a vast database of information on the condition that any data of innocent U.S. persons be purged within 30 days. The tiny, unknown NCTC was unable to process the number of leads it received, so its solution was to seek unlimited access to any government information with no time limits imposed on the data’s analysis and study. 

    “All of this happened in secret,” the ACLU’s Chris Calabrese bemoans. “No public debate or comment and suddenly, every citizen can be put under the terrorism microscope.”