Tag: NSA

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.

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.

Public More Wary of NSA Surveillance Than Pundits Claim

Based on a bevy of polls conducted in the wake of revelations that the NSA surveiled millions of ordinary Americans’ private communications, many have prematurely concluded public support or opposition to the government surveillance program (for instance here, here, and here). These polls are insufficient gauges for what Americans actually think for several reasons. First, slight wording differences result in majority support or opposition of the program as described in each particular survey question, as I’ve written about here. Second, the full extent of these government programs is not yet fully known; fully 76 percent of Americans think that we’ll find out the programs are “even bigger and more widespread than we know even now.” Third, most Americans are not even fully aware of the revealed information and its implications—according to a Time poll only 24 percent of Americans say they’ve been closely following the reports of the large-scale government surveillance program called PRISM.

The public’s view of the information leak and revelations about these programs is complicated, as Americans strike a delicate balance between security and privacy. For instance, a Time poll found that 53 percent of Americans think the “government should prosecute government officials and others who leak classified materials that might damage security efforts,” but 54 percent thought that Edward Snowden, the person who leaked the information about the secret program, “did a good thing in informing the American public.” This is likely because only 30 percent, according to a CBS/New York Times poll, think these leaks will weaken U.S. security.

Examining the different poll wordings can still offer value, demonstrating how people’s opinions change when they learn different details of the program. For instance, the public distinguishes between tracking ordinary Americans not suspected of any wrongdoing and collecting records of those suspected of terrorist activity. Pew/Washington Post found 56 percent thought it was acceptable for the NSA to get “secret court orders to track telephone call records of millions of Americans in an effort to investigate terrorism.” However, a CBS/NYTimes poll distinguished between tracking phone records of ordinary Americans and those suspected of terrorist activity. In contrast to Pew, CBS/NYtimes found 58 percent disapprove of “federal government agencies collecting phone records of ordinary Americans” but 75 percent approve of tracking “phone records of Americans that the government suspects of terrorist activity.” Americans continue to reveal their preference for targeted surveillance when 73 percent told a Rasmussen poll that the “government should be required to show a judge the reason for needing to monitor calls of any specific Americans” and 64 percent said “it is better to collect phone records only of people suspected of having terrorist connections.”

Survey data also suggests Americans distinguish between government tracking phone records and government monitoring the content of online activities. Although polls have found public support for tracking phone records to investigate terrorism, most Americans draw the line at government monitoring the content of Internet activity, such as emails and chats. For instance, Pew found 52 percent think the government should not be able to “monitor everyone’s email and other online activities.” Likewise, when Gallup describing the government program as collecting phone records and Internet communications, 53 percent disapproved.

Surveys that assume away potential misuses and abuses of the data not surprisingly find greater support for government surveillance programs. For instance, A CNN/ORC poll, found 66 percent thought the Obama administration was “right” in gathering and analyzing data on Internet activities “involving people in other countries,” while assuring respondents that the “government reportedly does not target Internet usage by US citizens and if such data is collected it is kept under strict controls.” The validity of this later assertion, however, is actually at the crux of the debate for those critical of the surveillance program. In fact, according to the same CNN poll, nearly two-thirds believe the US government has collected and stored data about their personal phone and Internet activities. Moreover, Rasmussen found that 57 percent thought it was likely that government agencies would use the data collected to “harass political opponents.” The fact that the public’s reported support for the program jumps when survey-wording guarantees the collected data will not be abused suggests that part of the reason the public is wary of the program is the very potential for abuse. The public does not desire privacy for just privacy’s sake, rather the public fears loss of privacy because of the potential for misuse or abuse. Questions that assume away this possibility are entirely unenlightening.

In sum, these data suggest the public is wary of untargeted government surveillance of ordinary Americans, especially without a warrant. They are more tolerant of government tracking phone records; however, many draw the line at government monitoring the content of ordinary Americans’ Internet activity.

A version of this post also appeared on Reason.com

Richard Epstein’s Ricochet Post on the NSA

Over at the Ricochet website, Richard Epstein elaborates on his defense of the NSA surveillance programs that were recently exposed by Edward Snowden.  In this post, I want to scrutinize some of Epstein’s observations and arguments.

Epstein begins by waving off the track record of government abuse generally.  Forget about the recent IRS scandal and the Associated Press wiretaps, he says, we must focus instead on the “parts of the government” that are organized to address terrorist activity.  According to Epstein, those parts of the government “seem to have performed well.”  Thus, he concludes, we should have confidence in the federal government’s efforts to stop terrorists.

Let’s take a closer look at the “parts of the government” that address terrorism:

•    The Federal Bureau of Investigation:  The Inspector General of the Department of Justice found that between 2003 and 2007, the FBI violated the law or government policies as many as 3,000 times as agents collected phone and financial records.  A few years later, another investigation found that the FBI repeatedly broke the law while monitoring telecommunications.  Major telecom companies had their employees detailed to work in FBI office space and they would respond to very informal verbal requests for phone records, including the “calling circles” of certain reporters.  One FBI agent said it was like having an ATM next to his desk.

•    The Central Intelligence Agency: It is still hard to believe that the American government hid prisoners from the Red Cross and engaged in torture, but it happened.  In 2005, CIA Director Porter Goss went on a TV show and said “What we do does not come close to torture … We do debriefings.”  The American public was repeatedly misled about the prisoner policies, but we later learned about the “black sites” and “ghost prisoners.”  The CIA also destroyed audio and video tapes of its interrogation practices even after the federal courts issued orders to preserve such evidence.

•    The Pentagon:  We have also seen problems in the U.S. military.  The Pentagon kept a database of persons who protested against the Iraq war.  We also know that American prisoners, such as John Walker Lindh and Jose Padilla, were badly mistreated while in military custody.  And those were among the most highly publicized cases.  (The treatment of Bradley Manning is worth mentioning even though he is not an accused terrorist.)  For the non-publicized cases, let’s just recall the letter from U.S. Army Captain Ian Fishback to Senator John McCain: “Despite my efforts, I have been unable to get clear, consistent answers from my leadership about what constitutes lawful and humane treatment of detainees. I am certain that this confusion contributed to a wide range of abuses including death threats, beatings, broken bones, murder, exposure to elements, extreme forced physical exertion, hostage-taking, stripping, sleep deprivation and degrading treatment. I and troops under my command witnessed some of these abuses in both Afghanistan and Iraq.”   

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.

NSA Snooping: a Majority of Americans Believe What?

Yesterday, the Washington Post and the Pew Research Center released a joint poll that purportedly showed that “a large majority of Americans” believe the federal government should focus on “investigating possible terrorist threats even if personal privacy is compromised.”

But a careful look at the poll shows citizens are far less sanguine about surrendering their privacy rights, as the facts continue to be revealed.

Pollsters faced a difficult challenge—to accurately capture public opinion during a complex and evolving story. Recall, on Wednesday of last week, the story was about the NSA tracking Verizon phone records. So the pollsters drew up a perfectly reasonable and balanced question:

As you may know, it has been reported that the National Security Agency has been getting secret court orders to track telephone call records of MILLIONS of Americans in an effort to investigate terrorism. Would you consider this access to telephone call records an acceptable or unacceptable way for the federal government to investigate terrorism?

Fifty-six percent found this “acceptable.” Thus, the “majority of Americans” lead in the Washington Post.

However, on Thursday, the Washington Post revealed explosive details about the massive data-collection program PRISM—and the public was alerted that the NSA was not just collecting phone records, but email, Facebook, and other online records. So the pollsters quickly drew up a new question, asked starting Friday, from June 7-9:

Do you think the U.S. government should be able to monitor everyone’s email and other online activities if officials say this might prevent future terrorist attacks?

Fifty-two percent—a majority—said “no.” So Americans feel differently about the story based on the facts on Wednesday, when the story was about tracking “telephone calls,” and facts on Thursday, when the story was about monitoring all “email and other online activity.”

The Washington Post could have fairly gone with a story that a majority of Americans do not agree that the federal government should monitor everyone’s email and online communication, even if it might prevent future terrorist attacks.

Unfortunately, that’s not the story that the Washington Post went with. Subsequent media coverage of the Post-Pew poll has neglected this nuance and cemented this misinterpretation of what “majority of Americans” believe.

A more reasonable interpretation of the Post-Pew poll is that citizens’ views seem to be changing as more details are revealed about the massive extent of the NSA snooping program. Indeed, most citizens have not been following this story as closely with only 48 percent report following thing “very closely” or “fairly closely.”

I’ll be watching eagerly to see what the next polls find out about that ever elusive “majority of Americans.”

Happy Birthday Nat Hentoff!

Cato Senior Fellow Nat Hentoff turns 88 today. 

John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, recently had some high praise for our colleague:

I’ve had the privilege of working with some remarkable individuals in my lifetime—celebrities, politicians, writers, artists, musicians, journalists, people whose names are legendary and others whose impact, no less significant, was only felt by a small few—yet for sheer nerve, integrity, tenacity, vision and a love of America that has weathered the best and worst this nation has had to offer, no one can match Nat Hentoff.

Even at the ripe age of 88, Hentoff is a radical in the best sense of the word, a feisty, fiercely loyal, inveterate freedom fighter and warrior journalist with a deep-seated intolerance of injustice and a well-deserved reputation for being one of the nation’s most respected, controversial and uncompromising writers.

Armed with a keen understanding of the law and an enviable way with words, brandishing a rapier wit and teeming with moral outrage, Nat has never been one to back down from a fight, and there have been many over the course of his lifetime—one marked by controversy and fueled by his passion for the protection of civil liberties and human rights. …

A self-described uncategorizable libertarian, Hentoff adds he is also a “Jewish atheist, civil libertarian, pro-lifer.” Born in Boston on June 10, 1925, Hentoff received a B.A. with honors from Northeastern University and did graduate work at Harvard. From 1953 to 1957, he was associate editor of Down Beat magazine. He went on to write many books on jazz, biographies and novels, including children’s books. His articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Commonwealth, the New Republic, the Atlantic and the New Yorker, where he was a staff writer for more than 25 years. In 1980, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in Education and an American Bar Association Silver Gavel Award for his coverage of the law and criminal justice in his columns. In 1985, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Laws by Northeastern University. For 50 years, Hentoff wrote a weekly column for the Village Voice. When that position was terminated on December 31, 2008, Hentoff joined the Cato Institute as a Senior Fellow.

Read the whole thing.

Just a few days before Glenn Greenwald broke the explosive story about NSA surveillance, Hentoff was already complimenting Greenwald for his work defending free speech and a free press:

What all of this comes down to, as it may affect future administrations as well as generations of Americans, has been precisely underlined by Glenn Greenwald, an incisive journalist who would have given James Madison hope for the First Amendment’s future.

Writing about how “media outlets and journalists have finally awakened to the serious threat posed by the Obama administration to press freedoms, whistle blowing and transparency,” the question now, Greenwald demands, is:

“What, if anything, will they (journalists) do to defend the press freedoms they claim to value? … Thwarting government attacks like these … requires a real adversary posture, renouncing their subservience to government interests and fear of alienating official sources.

Hentoff discusses the NSA story here.

And beyond his work on civil liberties, Hentoff still finds time to review jazz music for the Wall Street Journal.  Last month, Hentoff had this article about Joe Alterman.