Tag: Fourth Amendment

D.C. Court: Smith Is Not Good Law

In debates about the NSA’s mass surveillance of all our phone calling, pro-government lawyers have often tried to play a trump card called Smith v. Maryland. Smith is a 1978 Supreme Court decision as right for our times as laws requiring public buildings to provide spittoons. But lawyering rightly relies heavily on precedent, so there it was, the argument that people don’t have a constitutional interest in data about their phone calling because a suspected burglar and obscene phone-caller didn’t have such an interest back in 1976.

D.C. district court judge Richard Leon ruled today that Smith is not an appropriate precedent for considering the constitutionality of the NSA’s mass surveillance program. “[T]he Smith pen register and the ongoing NSA Bulk Telephony Metadata Program,” he concluded, “have so many significant distinctions between them that I cannot possibly navigate these uncharted Fourth Amendment waters using as my North Star a case that predates the rise of cell phones.”

When phone calling was home- or office-bound and relatively rare, people’s interest in the information about their calling was not as great as it is today. Cell phones now accompany most people everywhere they go every single day. “[T]he ubiquity of phones has dramatically altered the quantity of information that is now available and, more importantly, what that information can tell the Government about people’s lives.” (emphases omitted)

Judge Leon applied the “reasonable expectation of privacy” test in finding that he is likely to determine that the NSA’s data seizures are a Fourth Amendment violation, even though that standard has been thrown into doubt by recent Supreme Court decisions. But what is important is that his decision breaks the circular logic adopted by the panels of judges ratifying mass domestic surveillance under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. These panels believed they could act in secret because of the premise that Americans don’t have a constitutional interest in data about their calls. Their secret operations barred Americans from contesting that premise. And the band played on. Until someone leaked this mass domestic spying to the public.

Judge Leon’s assessment of the government’s interest is notable. He picked up on the fact that the government’s collection of data about all our calls is simply to make things a little quicker when they want to do an investigation.

“[T]he Government’s interest,” he writes, “is not merely to investigate potential terrorists, but rather, to do so faster than other methods might allow. … Yet … the Government does not cite a single instance in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent attack, or otherwise aided the Government in achieving any objective that was time-sensitive in nature.” (emphases omitted)

Databasing of all our calls is a convenience and not a necessity. That stacks up poorly against the privacy costs all Americans suffer by having their phone-calling catalogued in government databases.

There will almost certainly be an appeal, and there will be more cases coming up through the courts that explore the many dimensions of this issue. But now we can tell our lawyer friends who have been a little too slavish to precedent that Smith v. Maryland is not good law.

If You Think Smith v. Maryland Permits Mass Surveillance, You Haven’t Read Smith v. Maryland

… and you’re not following developments in Fourth Amendment law.

Jeffrey Toobin is the latest to claim that Smith v. Maryland settles the Fourth Amendment issues around the National Security Agency’s acquisition of data about every call made in the United States. He even links to the text of the decision in a recent blog post.

The majority opinion in Smith did say that people don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy in phone records, but that rationale is weak, and the facts of Smith are inapposite to the present controversy. I think that’s easily gathered from reading the case with awareness of legal currents.

Here’s what happened in Smith:

On March 5, 1976, in Baltimore, Md., Patricia McDonough was robbed. She gave the police a description of the robber and of a 1975 Monte Carlo automobile she had observed near the scene of the crime. After the robbery, McDonough began receiving threatening and obscene phone calls from a man identifying himself as the robber. On one occasion, the caller asked that she step out on her front porch; she did so, and saw the 1975 Monte Carlo she had earlier described to police moving slowly past her home. On March 16, police spotted a man who met McDonough’s description driving a 1975 Monte Carlo in her neighborhood. By tracing the license plate number, police learned that the car was registered in the name of petitioner, Michael Lee Smith.

The next day, the telephone company, at police request, installed a pen register at its central offices to record the numbers dialed from the telephone at petitioner’s home. The police did not get a warrant or court order before having the pen register installed. The register revealed that on March 17 a call was placed from petitioner’s home to McDonough’s phone. On the basis of this and other evidence, the police obtained a warrant to search petitioner’s residence. The search revealed that a page in petitioner’s phone book was turned down to the name and number of Patricia McDonough; the phone book was seized. Petitioner was arrested, and a six-man lineup was held on March 19. McDonough identified petitioner as the man who had robbed her. (citations omitted)

NSA Spying in the Courts

The National Security Agency’s collection of every American’s telephone dialing information is hotly contested in the court of public opinion and in Congress. It is now seeing its first test in the courts since its existence was revealed.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center, arguing that it has no other recourse, has filed an extraordinary appeal to the Supreme Court of the order requiring Verizon to turn over telephone calling information en masse to the government. EPIC is a Verizon customer that communicates by telephone with confidential sources, government officials, and its legal counsel.

Cato senior fellow and Georgetown University law professor Randy Barnett joined me this week on a brief to the Court urging it to accept the case so it can resolve statutory and constitutional issues that have “precipitated a juridical privacy crisis.”

The brief first argues that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act does not authorize a sweeping warrant for all communications data. The law requires such a warrant to show relevance to an existing investigation, which is impossible when the data is gathered in support of future, entirely speculative investigations. Not only the text of the statute, but Congress’s intent and the structure of the statute support this interpretation.

Atlas Bugged II: Is There an NSA Mass Location Tracking Program?

Way back in 2011—when “Snowden” was just a quiescent indie band from Atlanta—I wrote two posts here at the Cato blog trying to suss out what the “secret law” of the Patriot Act that Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and others were raising alarms about might involve: “Atlas Bugged” and “Stalking the Secret Patriot Act.” Based on what seemed like an enormous amount of circumstantial evidence—which I won’t try to summarize here—I speculated that the government was likely engaged in some kind of large scale program of location tracking, involving the use of the Patriot Act’s Section 215 to bulk collect cell phone location records for data mining purposes.

I remained reasonably confident in my guess until the disclosure of the Section 215 bulk call records program, which was soon followed by insistent public statements from NSA officials that they did not collect location records “under this program.” That ubiquitous qualifier certainly left some wiggle room, but naturally the government collects location information in some circustances for intelligence purposes—at the very least when it has a FISA warrant for full electronic surveillance of a specific target—and it seemed only natural that if the government was engaged in bulk location tracking and data mining, it would obtain that information in tandem with its bulk collection of call detail records. So, I concluded, I had probably guessed wrong: The secret Section 215 program did involve bulk collection of phone records—but not phone location records.

Then, last week, Wyden gave a barnburner of a speech on NSA surveillance at the Center for American Progress—one that makes me think I may have guessed correctly after all. Between his talk and the question and answer sessions that followed, Wyden explicitly mentioned location tracking no fewer than five separate times—discussing it far more frequently than the program we actually know about, involving bulk collection of call records:

[A]s you listen to this talk, ponder that most of us have a computer in our pocket that potentially can be used to monitor us 24/7. […]

 This is particularly true if you’re vacuuming up cell phone location data, essentially turning every American’s cell phone into a tracking device. We are told this is not happening today, but intelligence officials have told the press that they currently have the legal authority to collect Americans’ location information in bulk. […]

The piece of technology we consider vital to the conduct of our everyday personal and professional life hapens to be a combination phone bug, listening device, location tracker, and hidden camera. […]

Today, government officials are openly telling the press that they have the authority to effectively turn Americans’ smart phones and cell phones into location-enabled homing beacons. […]

These smartphones that everybody’s got in their pockets […] can be used as a tracking system for everyone in this room, 24/7.

This is not exactly subtle. Wyden’s constant references to location tracking in this context would be nothing short of bizarre unless he had reason to believe that the governments assurances on this score are misleading, and that there either is or has been some program involving bulk collection of phone records. Wyden, of course, would know full well whether there is or is not any such program via his role on the Intelligence Committee—and his focus on location tracking over the activities we know NSA is engaged in, such as monitroing of Internet communications and bulk collection of phone records, would be an inexplicable obsession if he knew that no such program existed.

There’s another hint along these lines early in the talk, when Wyden says that “secret rullings of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court have interpreted the Patriot Act as well as section 702 of the FISA statute in some surprising ways.” Wyden says that these rulings “can be astoundingly broad” and then adds: “The one that authorizes the bulk collection of phone records is as broad as any I have ever seen.” (Emphasis mine.) That’s a very specific word choice: not broader than any he has seen, or the broadest ruling he has seen—even though a ruling authorizing bulk collection of every American’s phone records would be the broadest anyone without access to classified information had ever seen—but rather as broad. As in: there are other rulings of comparable breadth, perhaps allowing bulk collection of other types of information about all Americans. Wyden gestures in this direction again later, calling it “especially troubling” that “there is nothing in the Patriot Act that limits this sweeping bulk colection to phone records.”

If this sounds like overreading, consider that actually it’s consistent with several Senators’ previous efforts to hint at the nature of their concerns without directly exposing classified programs. As Wyden noted at the outset of his talk, he and his colleague Mark Udall (D-CO) may not be able to “tap out the truth in Morse code,” but they have “tried just about everything else we could think of to warn the American people.” That means they have often, without explicitly disclosing classified information, given some very strong hints to what they were concerned about to those of us paying close attention. For instance, as I noted in one of those prior posts, Sen. Udall frequently explained his concerns using the same specific, and rather curiously worded example, warning that Section 215 gave the government “unfettered” access to “business records ranging from a cell phone company’s phone records to an individual’s library history.” (Emphasis mine.) The pointed contrast between “an individual’s” library records and “a cell phone company’s” phone records was, in retrospect, about as close as Udall could come to explicitly warning that phone records were being collected in bulk, not merely for specifically targeted individuals. Perhaps this talk was as close as Wyden can come to warning us—without coming right out and saying it—that there’s a bulk location tracking program yet to be disclosed.

How Would I Amend the Constitution? End All Extra-Legal Amendments Thereto

The Fiscal Times recently asked me and a number of others, “How would you amend the Constitution?“ Here’s how the Times categorized my response:

DON’T CHANGE A THING

Several major conservative thinkers suggested that the Constitution does not need to be changed, but rather to have its principle of limited government guide both Congress and the president.

Michael Cannon at the Cato Institute noted that the Fourth Amendment protects against warrantless searches, “yet the National Security Agency tracks everybody with Congress’ tacit if not explicit consent.”

First of all, and I fear I will be explaining this to reporters for the rest of my life, I am not a conservative. I support gay marriage, cutting military spending, closing all U.S. bases in foreign nations, and ending the prohibitions on drugs, gambling, and prostitution. Of such stuff conservatives are not made.

Second, the above excerpt scarcely captures my response to the Times’ inquiry. Don’t change a thing?? Here is my response in full:

There are constitutional amendments I want to see. And yet.

Americans don’t need to amend the Constitution so much as they need politicians to honor what the Constitution already says. The Constitution creates a government of enumerated and therefore limited powers; Congress and the president routinely exceed those powers. The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, particularly political speech; Congress heavily regulates and rations political speech. The Fourth Amendment protects “persons, houses, papers, and effects” from “unreasonable searches” and requires “no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause”; yet the NSA tracks everybody with Congress’ tacit if not explicit consent. The states could ratify an amendment that says, “Hey, we mean it!”; but the Constitution already contains two amendments saying that (the Ninth and Tenth). What is the point of amending the Constitution if Congress will just ignore that amendment too?

This could soon become a Very Big Problem. If Congress keeps acting like it is not bound by the Constitution, then eventually the people will conclude that they aren’t either.

That is, I don’t want to amend the Constitution so much as I want to stop politicians and bureaucrats from amending it unlawfully – i.e., without going through the Article V amendment process  – and stop the courts from rubber-stamping those extra-legal amendments. 

It would be great if, as the Times writes, the Constitution’s principle of limited government were to guide both Congress and the president. I would settle for having the plain words of the Constitution constrain Congress and the president. That constraint will have to come from the people, and federal judges.

NSA Spying, NSA Lying, and Where the Fourth Amendment Is Going

If you want a good primer on the NSA spying disclosed so far, check out the item by Cato alum Tim Lee on the Washington Post’s WonkBlog. It’s a blessedly brief but informative run-down covering:

- mass collection of phone records;

- the PRISM program, which gathers data about Americans incidentally to its stated aim of foreign surveillance; and

- the NSA’s fiber optic eavesdropping: “[T]he NSA has a broad program (actually, several of them) to sweep up Internet traffic from fiber optic cables.”

Also, be sure to read the letter Senators Wyden (D-OR) and Udall (D-CO) sent to NSA head General Keith Alexander yesterday. In it, they point out inaccurate and misleading statements the NSA made in a recently distributed fact sheet. At a certain point, inaccuracies become willful.

On the question of whether surveillance of every American’s phone calling is constitutional, Lee notes how the government and its defenders will rely on a 1979 case called Smith v. Maryland. In that case, the government caused a telephone company to install a pen register at its central offices to record the numbers dialed from the home of a suspected robber. Applying doctrine that emerged from Katz v. United States (1967), the Court found that a person doesn’t have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” in phone calling information, so no search occurs when the government collects and examines this information.

It takes willfulness of a different kind to rely on Smith as validation the NSA’s collection of highly revealing data about all of us. Smith dealt with one suspect, about whom there was already good evidence of criminality, if not a warrant. The NSA program collects call information about 300+ million innocent Americans under a court order. And the Supreme Court is moving away from Katz doctrine, having avoided relying on it in recent major Fourth Amendment cases such as Jardines (2013), Jones (2012), and Kyllo in 2001.

Nobody knows where exactly the Court is headed with the Fourth Amendment in the challenging area of communications, but I’ve argued for reaching back to the wisdom of Justice Butler, dissenting in Olmstead (1929):

Telephones are used generally for transmission of messages concerning official, social, business and personal affairs, including communications that are private and privileged – those between physician and patient, lawyer and client, parent and child, husband and wife. The contracts between telephone companies and users contemplate the private use of the facilities employed in the service. The communications belong to the parties between whom they pass.

Using Metadata to Find Paul Revere

What stood out to me in David Brooks’ amateur psychologizing about NSA leaker Edward Snowden on Monday was his claim that Snowden “has not been able to point to any specific abuses.” Brooks’ legal skills are even worse than his psychologizing. He didn’t notice that the document Snowden leaked was a general warrant. It fails to satisfy the Fourth Amendment’s requirements of probable cause and particularity. That’s an abuse.

I gather that it’s hard to apply the principles of liberty and our nation’s founding charter to the new world of data. In aid of your consideration, I offer you the fun essay: “Using Metadata to Find Paul Revere,” which recounts how metadata (so-called) reveals relationships and, from the perspective of King George, sedition.

The essay concludes:

[I]f a mere scribe such as I—one who knows nearly nothing—can use the very simplest of these methods to pick the name of a traitor like Paul Revere from those of two hundred and fifty four other men, using nothing but a list of memberships and a portable calculating engine, then just think what weapons we might wield in the defense of liberty one or two centuries from now.

The present-day federal surveillance programs revealed in media reports are “the tip of the iceberg,” Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) said Wednesday after being briefed Tuesday.