Tag: free speech

Some Thoughts on the New Surveillance

Last night I spoke at “The Little Idea,” a mini-lecture series launched in New York by Ari Melber of The Nation and now starting up here in D.C., on the incredibly civilized premise that, instead of some interminable panel that culminates in a series of audience monologues-disguised-as-questions, it’s much more appealing to have a speaker give a ten-minute spiel, sort of as a prompt for discussion, and then chat with the crowd over drinks.

I’d sketched out a rather longer version of my remarks in advance just to make sure I had my main ideas clear, and so I’ll post them here, as a sort of preview of a rather longer and more formal paper on 21st century surveillance and privacy that I’m working on. Since ten-minute talks don’t accommodate footnotes very well, I should note that I’m drawing for a lot of these ideas on the excellent work of legal scholars Lawrence Lessig and Daniel Solove (relevant papers at the links). Anyway, the expanded version of my talk after the jump:

Since this is supposed to be an event where the drinking is at least as important as the talking, I want to begin with a story about booze—the story of a guy named Roy Olmstead.  Back in the days of Prohibition, Roy Olmstead was the youngest lieutenant on the Seattle police force. He spent a lot of his time busting liquor bootleggers, and in the course of his duties, he had two epiphanies. First, the local rum runners were disorganized—they needed a smart kingpin who’d run the operation like a business. Second, and more importantly, he realized liquor smuggling paid a lot better than police work.

So Roy Olmstead decided to change careers, and it turned out he was a natural. Within a few years he had remarried to a British debutante, bought a big white mansion, and even ran his own radio station—which he used to signal his ships, smuggling hooch down from Canada, via coded messages hidden in broadcasts of children’s bedtime stories. He did retain enough of his old ethos, though, that he forbade his men from carrying guns. The local press called him the Bootleg King of Puget Sound, and his parties were the hottest ticket in town.

Roy’s success did not go unnoticed, of course, and soon enough the feds were after him using their own clever high-tech method: wiretapping. It was so new that they didn’t think they needed to get a court warrant to listen in on phone conversations, and so when the hammer came down, Roy Olmstead challenged those wiretaps in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court—Olmstead v. U.S.

The court had to decide whether these warrantless wiretaps had violated the Fourth Amendment “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures.” But when the court looked at how a “search” had traditionally been defined, they saw that it was tied to the common law tort of trespass. Originally, that was supposed to be your remedy if you thought your rights had been violated, and a warrant was a kind of shield against a trespass lawsuit. So the majority didn’t see any problem: “There was no search,” they wrote, “there was no seizure.” Because a search was when the cops came on to your property, and a seizure was when they took your stuff. This was no more a search than if the police had walked by on the sidewalk and seen Roy unpacking a crate of whiskey through his living room window: It was just another kind of non-invasive observation.

So Olmstead went to jail, and came out a dedicated evangelist for Christian Science. It wasn’t until the year after Olmstead died, in 1967, that the Court finally changed its mind in a case called Katz v. U.S.: No, they said, the Fourth Amendment protects people and not places, and so instead of looking at property we’re going to look at your reasonable expectation of privacy, and on that understanding, wiretaps are a problem after all.

So that’s a little history lesson—great, so what? Well, we’re having our own debate about surveillance as Congress considers not just reauthorization of some expiring Patriot Act powers, but also reform of the larger post-9/11 surveillance state, including last year’s incredibly broad amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. And I see legislators and pundits repeating two related types of mistakes—and these are really conceptual mistakes, not legal mistakes—that we can now, with the benefit of hindsight, more easily recognize in the logic of Olmstead: One is a mistake about technology; the other is a mistake about the value of privacy.

First, the technology mistake. The property rule they used in Olmstead was founded on an assumption about the technological constraints on observation. The goal of the Fourth Amendment was to preserve a certain kind of balance between individual autonomy and state power. The mechanism for achieving that goal was a rule that established a particular trigger or tripwire that would, in a sense, activate the courts when that boundary was crossed in order to maintain the balance. Establishing trespass as the trigger made sense when the sphere of intimate communication was coextensive with the boundaries of your private property. But when technology decoupled those two things, keeping the rule the same no longer preserved the balance, the underlying goal, in the same way, because suddenly you could gather information that once required trespass without hitting that property tripwire.

The second and less obvious error has to do with a conception of the value of privacy, and a corresponding idea of what a privacy harm looks like.  You could call the Olmstead court’s theory “Privacy as Seclusion,” where the paradigmatic violation is the jackboot busting down your door and disturbing the peace of your home. Wiretapping didn’t look like that, and so in one sense it was less intrusive—invisible, even. In another sense, it was more intrusive because it was invisible: Police could listen to your private conversations for months at a time, with you none the wiser. The Katz court finally understood this; you could call their theory Privacy as Secrecy, where the harm is not intrusion but disclosure.

But there’s an even less obvious potential harm here. If they didn’t need a warrant, everyone who made a phone call would know that they could whenever they felt like it. Wiretapping is expensive and labor intensive enough that realistically they can only be gathering information about a few people at a time.  But if further technological change were to remove that constraint, then the knowledge of the permanent possibility of surveillance starts having subtle effects on people’s behavior—if you’ve seen the movie The Lives of Others you can see an extreme case of an ecology of constant suspicion—and that persists whether or not you’re actually under surveillance.  To put it in terms familiar to Washingtonians: Imagine if your conversations had to be “on the record” all the time. Borrowing from Michel Foucault, we can say the privacy harm here is not (primarily) invasion or disclosure but discipline. This idea is even embedded in our language: When we say we want to control and discipline these police powers, we talk about the need for over-sight and super-vision, which are etymologically basically the same word as sur-veillance.

Move one more level from the individual and concrete to the abstract and social harms, and you’ve got the problem (or at least the mixed blessing) of what I’ll call legibility. The idea here is that the longer term possibilities of state control—the kinds of power that are even conceivable—are determined in the modern world by the kind and quantity of information the modern state has, not about discrete individuals, but about populations.  So again, to reach back a few decades, the idea that maybe it would be convenient to round up all the Americans of Japanese ancestry—or some other group—and put them in internment camps is just not even on the conceptual menu unless you have a preexisting informational capacity to rapidly filter and locate your population that way.

Now, when we talk about our First Amendment right to free speech, we understand it has a certain dual character: That there’s an individual right grounded in the equal dignity of free citizens that’s violated whenever I’m prohibited from expressing my views. But also a common or collective good that is an important structural precondition of democracy. As a citizen subject to democratic laws, I have a vested interest in the freedom of political discourse whether or not I personally want to say–or even listen to–controversial speech. Looking at the incredible scope of documented intelligence abuses from the 60s and 70s, we can add that I have an interest in knowing whether government officials are trying to silence or intimidate inconvenient journalists, activists, or even legislators. Censorship and arrest are blunt tactics I can see and protest; blackmail or a calculated leak that brings public disgrace are not so obvious. As legal scholar Bill Stuntz has argued, the Founders understood the structural value of the Fourth Amendment as a complement to the First, because it is very hard to make it a crime to pray the wrong way or to discuss radical politics if the police can’t arbitrarily see what people are doing or writing in their homes.

Now consider how we think about our own contemporary innovations in search technology. The marketing copy claims PATRIOT and its offspring “update” investigative powers for the information age—but what we’re trying to do is stretch our traditional rules and oversight mechanisms to accommodate search tools as radically novel now as wiretapping was in the 20s. On the traditional model, you want information about a target’s communications and conduct, so you ask a judge to approve a method of surveillance, using standards that depend on how intrusive the method is and how secret and sensitive the information is. Constrained by legal rulings from a very different technological environment, this model assumes that information held by third parties—like your phone or banking or credit card information—gets very little protection, since it’s not really “secret” anymore. And the sensitivity of all that information is evaluated in isolation, not in terms of the story that might emerge from linking together all the traces we now inevitable leave in the datasphere every day.

The new surveillance typically seeks to observe information about conduct and communications in order to identify targets. That may mean using voiceprint analysis to pull matches for a particular target’s voice or a sufficiently unusual regional dialect in a certain area. It may mean content analysis to flag e-mails or voice conversations containing known terrorist code phrases. It may mean social graph analysis to reidentify targets who have changed venues by their calling patterns.  If you’re on Facebook, and a you and bunch of your friends all decide to use fake names when you sign up for Twitter, I can still reidentify you given sufficient computing power and strong algorithms by mapping the shape of the connections between you—a kind of social fingerprinting. It can involve predictive analysis based on powerful electronic “classifiers” that extract subtle patterns of travel or communication or purchases common to past terrorists in order to write their own algorithms for detecting potential ones.

Bracket for the moment whether we think some or all of these methods are wise.  It should be crystal clear that a method of oversight designed for up front review and authorization of target-based surveillance is going to be totally inadequate as a safeguard for these new methods.  It will either forbid them completely or be absent from the parts of the process where the dangers to privacy exist. In practice what we’ve done is shift the burden of privacy protection to so-called “minimization” procedures that are meant to archive or at least anonymize data about innocent people. But those procedures have themselves been rendered obsolete by technologies of retrieval and reidentification: No sufficiently large data set is truly anonymous.

And realize the size of the data sets we’re talking about. The FBI’s Information Data Warehouse holds at least 1.5 billion records, and growing fast, from an array of private and government sector sources—some presumably obtained using National Security Letters and Patriot 215 orders, some by other means. Those NSLs are issued by the tens of thousands each year, mostly for information about Americans.  As of 2006, we know “some intelligence sources”—probably NSA’s—were  growing at a rate of 4 petabytes, that’s 4 million Gigabytes—each month.  Within about five years, NSA’s archive is expected to be measured in Yottabytes—if you want to picture one Yottabyte, take the sum total of all data on the Internet—every web page, audio file, and video—and multiply it by 2,000. At that point they will have to make up a new word for the next largest unit of data.  As J. Edgar Hoover understood all too well, just having that information is a form of power. He wasn’t the most feared man in Washington for decades because he necessarily had something on everyone—though he had a lot—but because he had so much that you really couldn’t be sure what he had on you.

There is, to be sure, a lot to be said against the expansion of surveillance powers over the past eight years from a more conventional civil liberties perspective.  But we also need to be aware that if we’re not attuned to the way new technologies may avoid our would tripwires, if we only think of privacy in terms of certain familiar, paradigmatic violations—the boot in the door—then like the Olmstead court, we may render ourselves blind to equally serious threats that don’t fit our mental picture of a privacy harm.

If we’re going to avoid this, we need to attune ourselves to the ways modern surveillance is qualitatively different from past search tools, even if words like “wiretap” and “subpoena” remain the same. And we’re going to need to stop thinking only in terms of isolated violations of individual rights, but also consider the systemic and structural effects of the architectures of surveillance we’re constructing.

Topics:

Attorney General Tries to Silence School Choice Ad

This, finally, is too much: Eric Holder, Attorney General of the United States, walked up to former DC Councilman Kevin Chavous at an event and told him to pull an ad criticizing the administration for its opposition to the DC school voucher program. The Attorney General of the United States!

This is as outrageous and shameful as it is consistent with other administration hostilities toward free speech (see also here) and freedom of the press.

There is a deep revulsion to such behavior in this country. It is not a Republican or a Democratic revulsion, it is an American one. Obama administration officials seem not to understand that, but voters will help them get the message the next time they go to the polls.

Fact-checking Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey

I appeared on the CNN program Lou Dobbs Tonight last Thursday (Oct. 22) to discuss the medical marijuana issue and the drug war in general.  There were two other guests: Peter Moskos from John Jay College and the organization Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and Barry McCaffrey, retired General of the U.S. Army and former “Drug Czar” under President Bill Clinton.

I was really astonished by the doubletalk coming from McCaffrey.  Watch the clip below and then I’ll explain two of the worst examples so you can come to your own conclusions about this guy.

Doubletalk: Example One:

Tim Lynch: “Some states have changed their marijuana laws to allow patients who are suffering from cancer and AIDS–people who want to use marijuana for medical reasons–they’re exempt from the law. But there’s a clash between the laws of the state governments and the federal government. The federal government has come in and said, ‘We’re going to threaten people with federal prosecution, bring them into federal court.’ And what the [new memo from the Obama Justice Department] does this week is change federal policy. Basically, Attorney General Eric Holder is saying, ‘Look, for people, genuine patients–people suffering from cancer, people suffering from AIDS–these people are now off limits to federal prosecutors.’ It’s a very small step in the direction of reform.”

Now comes Barry McCaffrey: “There is zero truth to the fact that the Drug Enforcement Administration or any other federal law enforcement ever threatened care-givers or individual patients. That’s fantasy!”

Zero truth? Fantasy?  This report from USA Today tells the story of several patients who were harassed and threatened by federal agents. Excerpt:  ”In August 2002, federal agents seized six plants from [Diane] Monson’s home and destroyed them.”

This report from the San Francisco Chronicle tells the story of Bryan Epis and Ed Rosenthal.  Both men, in separate incidents, were raided, arrested, and prosecuted by federal officials.  The feds called them “drug dealers.”  When the cases came to trial, both men were eager to inform their juries about the actual circumstances surrounding their cases–but they were not allowed to convey those circumstances to jurors.  Federal prosecutors insisted that information concerning the medical aspect of marijuana was “irrelevant.”   Both men were convicted and jailed.

This report from the New York Times tells readers about the death of Peter McWilliams.  The feds said he was a “drug dealer.”  McWilliams also wanted to tell his story to a jury, but pled guilty when the judge told him he would not be allowed to inform the jury of his medical condition.  Excerpt:  “At his death, Mr. McWilliams was waiting to be sentenced in federal court after being convicted of having conspired to possess, manufacture and sell marijuana…. They pleaded guilty to the charge last year after United States District Judge George H. King ruled that they could not use California’s medical marijuana initiative, Proposition 215, as a defense, or even tell the jury of the initiative’s existence and their own medical conditions.”  The late William F. Buckley wrote about McWilliams’ case here.

Imagine what Diane Monson, Bryan Epis, Ed Rosenthal, and Peter McWilliams (and others) would have thought had they seen a former top official claim that federal officials never threatened patients or caregivers?!

Doubletalk: Example Two:

Tim Lynch: “After California changed its laws to allow the medical use of marijuana, [General Barry McCaffrey] was the Drug Czar at the time and he came in taking a very hard line. The Clinton administration’s position was that they were going to threaten doctors simply for discussing the pros and cons of using marijuana with their patients. That policy was fought over in the courts and [the Clinton/McCaffrey] policy was later declared illegal and unconstitutional for violating the free speech of doctors and for interfering with the doctor-patient relationship. This was the ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in a case called Conant – “C-O-N-A-N-T.”

Lou Dobbs: “The ruling stood in the Ninth Circuit?”

Tim Lynch: “Yes, it did.”

Now comes Barry McCaffrey: “That’s all nonsense!”

Nonsense?  Really?

Go here to read the New York Times story about McCaffrey’s hard-line policy.

The Conant ruling can be found here.  The name of the case was initially Conant v. McCaffrey, but as the months passed and the case worked its way up to the appeals court, the case was renamed Conant v. Walters because Bush entered the White House and he appointed his own drug czar, John Walters, who maintained the hard line policy initiated by Clinton and McCaffrey.

I should also mention that Conant was not an obscure case that McCaffrey could have somehow ”missed.”  Here’s a snippet from another New York Times report:  “The Supreme Court, in a silent rebuff on Tuesday to federal policy on medical marijuana, let stand an appeals court ruling that doctors may not be investigated, threatened or punished by federal regulators for recommending marijuana as a medical treatment for their patients.”  The point here is that the case was covered by major media as it unfolded.

When our television segment concluded, Lou Dobbs asked me some follow-up questions and asked me to supply additional info to one of his producers, which I was happy to do.

Whatever one’s view happens to be on drug policy, the historical record is there for any fair-minded person to see – and yet McCaffrey looked right into the camera and denied  past actions by himself and other federal agents.  And he didn’t say, “I think that’s wrong” or “I don’t remember it that way.”  He baldly asserted that my recounting of the facts was “nonsense.”   Now I suppose some will say that falsehoods are spoken on TV fairly often–maybe, I’m not sure–but it is distressing that this character held the posts that he did and that he continues to instruct cadets at West Point!

My fellow panelist, Peter Moskos, has a related blog post here and he had a good piece published in the Washington Post just yesterday.  For more Cato scholarship on drug policy, go here.

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One Nation Under Double Jeopardy

The Senate is about to vote on Defense Department funding with an expanded federal “hate crimes” bill. This well-intentioned piece of legislation threatens to make violations of the fundamental right against Double Jeopardy a routine practice, as federal courts will now have the power to re-prosecute defendants for what are traditionally state crimes.

The House removed language that the Senate put in place to ensure that the “hate crimes” provisions did not stretch to encompass free speech, threatening to attach criminal liability to core rights of free expression.

This expansion of federal jurisdiction guarantees that high profile cases will be retried until a guilty verdict is obtained to satisfy political factions. This politicization of justice will only harm our courts and our freedoms. The Senate should vote down this threat to the fundamental rights of all Americans.

Now for some quick background reading:

NYT: We Don’t Deserve First Amendment Protection!

I assume others have pointed this out already, but there’s something very odd about a Tuesday editorial in The New York Times arguing that campaign finance regulations that stifle the political speech of corporations must be upheld in the Citizens United case currently under consideration before the Supreme Court:

The question at the heart of one of the biggest Supreme Court cases this year is simple: What constitutional rights should corporations have? To us, as well as many legal scholars, former justices and, indeed, drafters of the Constitution, the answer is that their rights should be quite limited — far less than those of people.

In that case, surely it’s time to revisit some of the 20th century’s seminal free speech rulings. The idea that public figures cannot use libel law to squelch criticism unless they can prove an attack is intentionally or recklessly false, for instance, comes to us by way of New York Times Company v. Sullivan—a case in which the so-called “protected speech” was a paid advertisement run by a filthy corporation!  And what about the celebrated Pentagon Papers case, in which the Court found that only in the most extreme cases can the government resort to “prior restraint” of speech? Why that’s New York Times Company v. United States. In both cases, of course, the speech in question had political significance—perhaps even the potential to affect elections. In the Pentagon Papers case, by the way, the counsel for the Times was famed First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, who also argued Citizens United.

Don’t worry, though, it’s only corporations like The New York Times that will lose speech protections.  If you, as a brave individual, want to say something controversial on your blog—though you’ll probably want to do it on a server you own personally, just in case—you’re totally in the clear. And if the federal government decides to sue, you’ll be totally free to use as much of your personal savings as you want to fight back.

‘We Don’t Put Our First Amendment Rights In the Hands of FEC Bureaucrats’

I (and several colleagues) have blogged before about Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the latest campaign finance case, which was argued this morning at the Supreme Court.  The case is about much more than whether a corporation can release a movie about a political candidate during an election campaign.  Indeed, it goes to the very heart of the First Amendment, which was specifically created to protect political speech—the kind most in danger of being censored by politicians looking to limit the appeal of threatening candidates and ideas.

After all, hard-hitting political speech is something the First Amendment’s authors experienced firsthand.  They knew very well what they were doing in choosing free and vigorous debate over government-filtered pablum.  Moreover, persons of modest means often pool their resources to speak through ideological associations like Citizens United.  That speech too should not be silenced because of nebulous concerns about “level playing fields” and speculation over the “appearance of corruption.”  The First Amendment simply does not permit the government to handicap speakers based on their wealth, or ration speech in a quixotic attempt to equalize public debate: Thankfully, we do not live in the world of Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron!

A few surprises came out of today’s hearing, but not regarding the ultimate outcome of this case.  It is now starkly clear that the Court will rule 5-4 to strike down the FEC’s attempt to regulate the Hillary Clinton movie (and advertisements for it). Indeed, Solicitor General Elena Kagan – in her inaugural argument in any court – all but conceded that independent movies are not electioneering communications subject to campaign finance laws.  And she reversed the government’s earlier position that even books could be banned if they expressly supported or opposed a candidate!  (She went on to also reverse the government’s position on two other key points: whether nonprofit corporations (and perhaps small enterprises) could be treated differently than large for-profit business, and what the government’s compelling interest was in prohibiting corporations from using general treasury funds on independent political speech.)

Ted Olson, arguing for Citizens United, quickly recognized that he had his five votes, and so pushed for a broader opinion.  That is, the larger – and more interesting – question is whether the Court will throw out altogether its 16-year-old proscription on corporations and unions spending their general treasury funds on political speech.  Given the vehement opposition to campaign finance laws often expressed by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, all eyes were on Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, in whose jurisprudence some have seen signs of judicial “minimalism.”  The Chief Justice’s hostility to the government’s argument – “we don’t put our First Amendment rights in the hands of FEC bureaucrats” – and Justice Alito’s skepticism about the weight of the two precedents at issue leads me to believe that there’s a strong likelihood we’ll have a decision that sweeps aside yet another cornerstone of the speech-restricting campaign finance regime.

One other thing to note: Justice Sotomayor, participating in her first argument since joining the Court, indicated three things: 1) she has doubts that corporations have the same First Amendment rights as individuals; 2) she believes strongly in stare decisis, even when a constitutional decision might be wrong; and 3) she cares a lot about deferring to the “democratic process.”  While it is still much too early to be making generalizations about how she’ll behave now that she doesn’t answer to a higher Court, these three points suggest that she won’t be a big friend of liberty in the face of government “reform.”

Another (less serious) thing to note: My seat – in the last row of the Supreme Court bar members area – was almost directly in front of Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold (who were seated in the first row of the public gallery).  I didn’t notice this until everyone rose to leave, or I would’ve tried to gauge their reaction to certain parts of the argument.

Finally, you can find the briefs Cato has filed in the case here and here.

Citizens United and Supreme Court Precedent

My old friend E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post writes that the Citizens United v. FEC rehearing on Wednesday is “A Test Case for Roberts.” Because, you see, Chief Justice John Roberts said in his confirmation hearings that “it is a jolt to the legal system when you overrule a precedent. Precedent plays an important role in promoting stability and evenhandedness. It is not enough – and the court has emphasized this on several occasions – it is not enough that you may think the prior decision was wrongly decided.”

Dionne says that if Roberts and the Court overturn the precedents that seem to point to banning a movie with a political agenda because it was produced by a nonprofit corporation, “he will unleash havoc in our political system and greatly undermine the legitimacy of the court he leads.”

I disagree with Dionne on the scope of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. But I sort of admire him for staking out such a strong stand in favor of precedent and “settled expectations.” After all, a firm commitment to precedent can lead to some uncomfortable positions. Given the firmness of Dionne’s reliance on the importance of precedent and “settled expectations” to “the legitimacy of the court,” I assume he has opposed previous cases where the Court overturned settled law and its own precedent. Such as Brown v. Board of Education, which overturned a 58-year-old case, Plessy v. Ferguson. And Lawrence v. Texas, which overturned a 17-year-old precedent that had upheld state sodomy laws.

Or surely he does not mean that only precedents he approves of are deserving of respect and vital to the legitimacy of the court?