Tag: mass surveillance

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.

The Defense of NSA Spying that Wasn’t

In an interview with CNN yesterday, outgoing FBI director Robert Mueller offered up words one could characterize as defending mass surveillance of all Americans’ phone calling. Indeed his interview has been portrayed as a defense of such spying, with outlets like NRO’s “The Corner” reporting “Outgoing FBI Chief: ‘Good Chance’ NSA Would Have Prevented ‘Part’ of 9/11.” But Director Mueller spoke much more equivocally than that.

Here’s what he actually said.

CNN: If we had the kind of intelligence that we were collecting through the NSA before September 11th, the kind of intelligence collection that we have now, do you think 9/11 would have been prevented?

MUELLER: I think there’s a good chance we would have prevented at least a part of 9/11. In other words, there were four planes. There were almost 20 — 19 persons involved. I think we would have had a much better chance of identifying those individuals who were contemplating that attack.

CNN: By this mass collection of information?

MUELLER: By the various programs that have been put in place since then. … It’s both the programs (under the Patriot Act) but also the ability to share the information that has made such dramatic change in our ability to identify and stop plots.

Mueller vaguely cited “various programs,” giving them a retroactive chance of preventing “a part of 9/11.” But even this defense of post-9/11 powers is insufficient.

In our 2006 paper, “Effective Counterterrorism and the Limited Role of Predictive Data Mining,” IBM scientist Jeff Jonas and I recounted the ease with which 9/11 attackers Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi could have been found had government investigators pursued them with alacrity. The 9/11 Commission said with respect to al-Mihdhar, “No one was looking for him.” Had they been caught and their associations examined, the 9/11 plot probably could have been rolled up. Sluggish investigation was a permissive factor in the 9/11 attacks, producing tragic results that nobody foresaw.

That absence of foresight is a twin with retrospective assessments like Mueller’s, which fail to account for the fact that nobody knew ahead of 9/11 what devastation might occur. Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, everybody knew what such an attack could cause, and everybody began responding to the problem of terrorism.

Would Patriot Act programs have prevented at least a part of 9/11? Almost certainly not, given pre-9/11 perceptions that terrorism was at the low end of threats to safety and security. A dozen years since 9/11, terrorism is again at the low end of threats to safety and security because of multiplicitous efforts worldwide and among all segments of society. It is not Patriot Act programs and certainly not mass domestic surveillance that make us safe. Even Mueller didn’t defend NSA spying.

Cameras, Crime, and Terrorism

The attempted bombing in Times Square brought terrorism and the capabilities of surveillance cameras to the top of the headlines this week. As I pointed out in my Politico piece, cameras have not proven an effective deterrent to terrorist attacks. Cameras are generally useful in piecing together the plot after the attack (not so much in this case, since police were looking for a middle-aged white man and not a young Pakistani male) and helped in this capacity in the Madrid, London, and Moscow commuter system bombings.

I discuss the usefulness of cameras in this podcast:

Whether cameras are helpful enough to justify massive spending to install more of them in New York is another matter. NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly seems to think so, even though it’s already been the site of significant surveillance funding from the federal government. Steve Chapman remains skeptical of them, and former NYPD counterterrorism cop Michael Sheehan is honest enough to admit that their value is in investigating attacks, not deterring them. London has a million cameras, making it the most heavily-surveilled city this side of Pyongyang. Though sold on a joint counterterrorism-crime rationale, they did not deter the 7/7 bombings and roughly 80% of crime in London goes unsolved. Of the cleared cases, roughly one in a thousand is a camera success story.

As Roger Pilon points out, cameras are useful in law enforcement operations outside of blanket surveillance. They can deter excessive use of force and other unlawful conduct by police officers or at least provide a means of punishing those responsible, as they did in the recent beating of University of Maryland student. Police officers realize this, and actively deter filming their questionable activities.

A camera is an honest cop’s best friend. It can provide a defense against groundless claims of brutality. At least eleven states and 500 local jurisdictions require that interrogations be videotaped. Beyond the protection of civil liberties and preventing false or coerced confessions, these videos make for highly probative evidence. The jury gets a window into the interrogation room. The defendant’s mannerisms, demeanor, and a lack of police coercion tied to the defendant’s statements make for good, and more transparent, policing.

The Government Can Monitor Your Location All Day Every Day Without Implicating Your Fourth Amendment Rights

If you have a mobile phone, that’s the upshot of an argument being put forward by the government in a case being argued before the Third Circuit Court of Appeals tomorrow. The case is called In the Matter of the Application of the United States of America For An Order Directing A Provider of Electronic Communication Service To Disclose Records to the Government.

Declan McCullagh reports:

In that case, the Obama administration has argued that Americans enjoy no “reasonable expectation of privacy” in their—or at least their cell phones’—whereabouts. U.S. Department of Justice lawyers say that “a customer’s Fourth Amendment rights are not violated when the phone company reveals to the government its own records” that show where a mobile device placed and received calls.

The government can maintain this position because of the retrograde “third party doctrine.” That doctrine arose from a pair of cases in the early 1970s in which the Supreme Court found no Fourth Amendment problems when the government required service providers to maintain records about their customers, and later required those service providers to hand the records over to the government.

I wrote about these cases, and the courts’ misunderstanding of privacy since 1967’s Katz decision, in an American University Law Review article titled “Reforming Fourth Amendment Privacy Doctrine”:

These holdings were never right, but they grow more wrong with each step forward in modern, connected living. Incredibly deep reservoirs of information are constantly collected by third-party service providers today. Cellular telephone networks pinpoint customers’ locations throughout the day through the movement of their phones. Internet service providers maintain copies of huge swaths of the information that crosses their networks, tied to customer identifiers. Search engines maintain logs of searches that can be correlated to specific computers and usually the individuals that use them. Payment systems record each instance of commerce, and the time and place it occurred. The totality of these records are very, very revealing of people’s lives. They are a window onto each individual’s spiritual nature, feelings, and intellect. They reflect each American’s beliefs, thoughts, emotions, and sensations. They ought to be protected, as they are the modern iteration of our “papers and effects.”

This is a case to watch, as it will help determine whether or not your digital life is an open book to government investigators.

Put Surveillance Cameras on Police Guns, Not Street Corners

Mayor Daley of Chicago is planning to put a surveillance camera on every corner to aid first responders and deter terrorism.  As I’ve said before, cameras don’t deter terrorism, but they do satisfy the need to “do something” without really improving security.  Police officers prevent attacks with traditional investigation and intelligence gathering; cameras are only useful in picking up the pieces after the attack is done.  My colleague Jim Harper is cited in this piece that addresses their utility in more detail.  Cameras didn’t stop the 7/7 bombings in London, but they took lots of pictures of the attack (creepy Big Brother shots here).  The London police doubled down on mass surveillance, but reported that the cameras have not reduced crime.  Worse yet, the British have effectively outlawed taking photos of police officers, prompting photo protests.

Chicago isn’t the first major American city to take this route.  New York did so, as did the District of Columbia.  The cameras in D.C. have not prevented crime, and this piece makes the case that they are a waste of resources - no one can point to a prosecution that used the camera footage to obtain a conviction, and several murders have been committed within a block of a surveillance camera.

Surveillance cameras can and should play a prominent role in law enforcement - mounted on officers’ firearms.  A company is now producing a camera that attaches to the tactical rail found on modern pistols and rifles.  A New York county has invested in the technology for its officers, and their experience looks promising.  Putting a camera on the guns of SWAT officers will keep them honest and prevent falsification of evidence after the fact to cover up a mistaken address or unlawful use of lethal force.

Mayor Cheye Calvo can attest to these horrors, as detailed in a recent Washington Post Sunday Magazine cover story, this Cato Policy Report, and this Cato Policy Forum, “Should No-Knock Police Raids be Rare-or Routine?”  Click here for video - Mayor Calvo calmly captures the raw shock of having your life turn into a tactical problem for a SWAT team to solve, and he is now advocating for a Maryland state statute to mandate tracking the deployment of tactical law enforcement teams.  As Radley Balko would tell you, this is long overdue.