Tag: privacy

Will GPS Tracking Render the Fourth Amendment Quaint?

If the government put a GPS monitor on your car and used it to track every vehicular movement of yours for four weeks, do you think that would violate your Fourth Amendment rights? The government would like to be able to do that kind of thing without getting a warrant, and the Supreme Court will soon decide whether it can.

On November 8th, the Court will hear oral argument in U.S. v. Jones. Yours truly was the lead author of Cato’s amicus brief in the case, which may have a significant effect on how Fourth Amendment law intersects with new information technologies for decades to come.

In 2004, suspecting that Antoine Jones was dealing drugs, the FBI secretly attached a GPS tracking device to his car without a valid warrant. The FBI used this device to monitor and record the car’s movements, noting its location every ten seconds when it was in motion, for nearly a month before finally arresting Jones. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit found that the FBI’s action was unconstitutional because it violated Jones’s “reasonable expectation of privacy”—the two-part Fourth Amendment standard developed in the landmark case of Katz v. United States. Though he traveled on public roads, the totality of his movements was available to nobody and thus was private.

Our brief argues that the government’s conversion of Jones’s vehicle into a surveillance device was an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Even though he didn’t lose a “possessory” interest in his car, the government invaded Jones’s various property rights, including the right to exclude, the right to manage, the right to use, and the right to the profits. Similarly, using his car to collect detailed data on his movements over this extended period without getting a warrant was an unreasonable search. The data reflecting his movements would never have come into existence without the government attaching its GPS device to his car. These are tough, interesting issues arising in the new circumstances created by information technology.

We spent as much time in the brief on the “reasonable expectations of privacy” test. The product of one Justice’s lone concurrence in the Katz case, it holds that if a person has an actual (subjective) expectation of privacy and that expectation is one society is prepared to accept, then the Fourth Amendment protects the object of that expectation.

Courts have never faithfully applied this test, and for good reason: it’s a doctrinal mess that reverses the Fourth Amendment’s focus. Courts have second-guessed what the citizenry thinks in terms of privacy rather than examining government action to see if it is reasonable. Under “reasonable expectations” doctrine, things that are left in plain view are always available to the government while things that are hidden—well, the Court will look to see whether keeping it private comports with “reasonable expectations.”

The majority ruling in Katz rested on physical and legal protection that Katz had given to the sound of his voice when he entered a telephone booth. Because Katz had secured the privacy of his conversation, the government wasn’t allowed to access it using a wiretap—not without a warrant. That’s the rule the Court should apply here. The government can’t use uncommon surveillance technology to access private information, including private information about things that happened “in public,” without a valid warrant.

With information technology still rapidly increasing in power, it is critically important that the Supreme Court update Fourth Amendment law while maintaining its consistency with ancient property principles. Doing so will ensure that technology doesn’t render the Fourth Amendment’s protections for our “persons, papers, houses, and effects” quaint.

You can read more, and our brief, on the Cato.org page about U.S. v. Jones.

Kozinski on Privacy at Constitution Day

The Hon. Alex Kozinski gave the annual B. Kenneth Simon lecture at Cato’s Constitution Day conference on September 15, 2011. He spoke about changing cultural expectations of privacy regarding new technologies and how judicial applications of the Fourth Amendment have changed over time to reflect these expectations. Judge Kozinski is the Chief Judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Are Tax Havens Moral or Immoral?

Being the world’s self-appointed defender of so-called tax havens has led to some rather bizarre episodes.

For instance, the bureaucrats at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development threatened to have me thrown in a Mexican jail for the horrible crime of standing in the public lobby of a hotel and giving advice to low-tax jurisdictions.

On a more amusing note, my efforts to defend tax havens made me the beneficiary of grade inflation and I was listed as the 244th most important person in the world of global  finance — even higher than George Soros and Paul Krugman.

But if that makes it seem as if the battle is full of drama and (exaggerated) glory, that would be a gross exaggeration. More than 99 percent of my time on this issue is consumed by the difficult task of trying to convince policymakers that tax competition, fiscal sovereignty, and financial privacy should be celebrated rather than persecuted.

Sort of like convincing thieves that it’s a good idea for houses to have alarm systems.

And it means I’m also condemned to the never-ending chore of debunking left-wing attacks on tax havens. The big-government crowd viscerally despises these jurisdictions because tax competition threatens the ability of politicians to engage in class warfare/redistribution policies.

Here’s a typical example. Paul Vallely has a column, entitled “There is no moral case for tax havens,” in the UK-based Independent.

To determine whether tax havens are immoral, let’s peruse Mr. Vallely’s column. It begins with an attack on Ugland House in the Cayman Islands.

There is a building in the Cayman Islands that is home to 12,000 corporations. It must be a very big building. Or a very big tax scam.

As I’ve already explained in a post about a certain senator from North Dakota, a company’s home is merely the place where it is chartered for legal purposes. A firm’s legal domicile has nothing to do with where it does business or where it is headquartered.

In other words, there is nothing nefarious about Ugland House, just as there is nothing wrong with the small building in Delaware that is home to more than 200,000 companies. President Obama, by the way, demagogued about Ugland House during the 2008 campaign.

Let’s see what else Vallely has to say:

Are there any legitimate reasons why anyone would want to have a secret bank account – and pay a premium to maintain their anonymity – or move their money to one of the pink dots on the map which are the final remnants of the British empire: the Caymans, Bermuda, the Turks and Caicos and the British Virgin Islands?

Actually, there are lots of people who have very compelling reasons to keep their money in havens, and only a tiny minority of them are escaping onerous tax burdens.What about:

  • Jews in North Africa and the Middle East?
  • Persecuted ethnic Chinese in Indonesia and the Philippines?
  • Political dissidents in places such as Russia and Venezuela?
  • Entrepreneurs in regimes such as Venezuela and Zimbabwe?
  • Families threatened by kidnapping failed states such as Mexico?
  • Homosexuals in homophobic regimes such as Iran?

As this video explains, there are billions of people around the world who are subject to state-sanctioned (or at least state-permitted) religious, ethnic, racial, political, sexual, and economic persecution. These people are especially likely to be targeted if they have any money, so the ability to invest their assets offshore and keep that information hidden from venal governments can, in some cases, be a life-or-death matter.

And let’s not forget the residents of failed states, where crime, expropriation, kidnapping, corruption, extortion, and economic mismanagement are ubiquitous. These people also need havens where they can safely and confidentially invest their money.

Vallely is apparently unaware of these practical, real-world concerns. Instead, he is content with sweeping proclamations:

The moral case against is clear enough. Tax havens epitomise unfairness, cheating and injustice.

But if he is against unfairness, cheating, and injustice, why does he want to empower the institution — government — that is the largest source of oppression in the world?

To be fair, Vallely does attempt to address the other side of the argument.

Apologists insist that tax havens protect individual liberty. They promote the accumulation of capital, fair competition between nations and better tax law elsewhere in the world. They also foster economic growth.

…Yet even if all that were true – and it is not – does it outweigh the ethical harm they do? The numbered bank accounts of tax havens are notoriously sanctuaries for the spoils of theft, fraud, bribery, terrorism, drug-dealing, illegal betting, money-laundering and plunder by Arab despots such as Gaddafi, Mubarak and Ben Ali, all of whom had Swiss accounts frozen.

He can’t resist trying to discredit the economic argument by resorting to more demagoguery, asserting that tax havens are shadowy regimes. Not surprisingly, Vallely offers no supporting data. Moreover, you won’t be surprised to learn that the real-world evidence directly contradicts what he wrote: the most comprehensive analysis of dirty money finds 28 problem jurisdictions, and only one could be considered a tax haven.

Last but not least, the author addresses the issue that really motivates the left: the potential loss of access to other people’s money, funds that they want the government to confiscate and redistribute.

Christian Aid reckons that tax dodging costs developing countries at least $160bn a year — far more than they receive in aid. The US research centre Integrity estimated that more than $1.2trn drained out of poor countries illicitly in 2008 alone. …Some say an attack on tax havens is an attack on wealth creation. It is no such thing. It is a demand for the good functioning of capitalism, balancing the demands of efficiency and of justice, and placing a value on social harmony.

There are several problems with this passage, including Vallely’s confusion of tax evasion with tax avoidance. But the key point is that the burden of government spending in most nations is now at record levels, undermining prosperity and reducing growth. Why add more fuel to the fire by giving politicians even more money to waste?

Consider some real-world evidence: The Wall Street Journal has an article on the Canton of Zug, Switzerland’s tax haven within a tax haven. This hopefully won’t surprise anyone, but low-tax policies have been very beneficial for Zug:

Developed nations from Japan to America are desperate for growth, but this tiny lake-filled Swiss canton is wrestling with a different problem: too much of it. Zug’s history of rock-bottom tax rates, for individuals and corporations alike, has brought it an A-list of multinational businesses. Luxury shops abound, government coffers are flush, and there are so many jobs that employers sometimes have a hard time finding people to fill them.

Here’s some more evidence of how better fiscal policy promotes prosperity. This is economic data, to be sure, but isn’t the choice between growth and stagnation also a moral issue?

Zug long was a poor farming region, but in 1947 its leaders began to trim tax rates in an effort to attract companies and the well-heeled. In Switzerland, two-thirds of total taxes, including individual and corporate income taxes, are levied by the cantons, not the central government. The cantons also wield other powers that enable them compete for business, such as the authority to make residency and building permits easy to get.

…[B]usinesses moved in, many establishing regional headquarters. Over the past decade, the number of companies with operations of some sort in the canton jumped to 30,000 from 19,000. The number of jobs in Zug rose 20% in six years, driven by the economic boom and foreign companies’ efforts to minimize their taxes. At a time when the unemployment rate in the European Union (to which Switzerland doesn’t belong) is 9.4%, Zug’s is 1.9%.

It turns out that Zug is growing so fast that lawmakers actually want to discourage more investment. What a nice problem to have.

Describing Zug’s development as “astonishing,” Matthias Michel, the head of the canton government, said, “We are too small for the success we have had.”

…Zug has largely stopped trying to lure more multinationals, according to Mr. Michel.

It’s worth pointing out that the residents of Zug are not some sort of anomaly. The rest of Switzerland is filled with people who recognize the value of limited government:

[T]he Swiss are mostly holding fast to their fiscal beliefs. Last November, in a national referendum, they overwhelmingly rejected a proposal that would have established a minimum 22% tax rate on incomes over 250,000 francs, or about $315,000.

Sadly, even though the world is filled with evidence that smaller government is good for prosperity (and even more evidence that big government is bad for growth), statism is not abating.

Indeed, the anti-tax haven campaign continues to gain steam. At a recent OECD meeting, high-tax nations (with the support of the Obama administration) put in place a bureaucratic monstrosity that is likely to become a world tax organization.

This global tax cartel will be akin to an OPEC for politicians, and the impact on taxpayers will be quite similar to the impact of the real OPEC on motorists.

If that’s a moral outcome, then I want to be amoral.

To conclude, here are two other videos on tax havens. This one looks at the economic issues:

And here’s a video debunking some of the usual attacks on low-tax jurisdictions:

TSA’s Partial Retreat From Full-Body Scans

It’s tempting to believe that the Transportation Security Administration’s move to change the software in strip-search machines is a response to the court ruling finding that it violated the law in rolling out the machines, but it’s almost surely coincidence.

The new software will show items that the software deems suspicious on a generic outline of a body rather than showing a detailed body image. The change will indeed reduce the invasiveness of the machine strip-search process. And because the image is less revealing, it can be viewed in the screening area instead of at a remote location. That means there doesn’t need to be a person dedicated to looking at denuded images of travelers. A major cost of running these machines—payroll—drops by a substantial margin.

The software will almost certainly not do as good a job of discovering hidden weapons as a human looking at a detailed image would. If it’s calibrated to over-report, TSA agents will rightly start to ignore its alerts on belt buckles and underwire bras. If it’s calibrated to under-report, well, it might fail to alert on an actual weapon or bomb. But those things are exceedingly rare, and the increased risk probably won’t make a difference.

In fact, that’s the interesting thing happening here: the TSA is allowing a small increase in risk in exchange for large gains in privacy and cost savings. The reason it took years of complaints, litigation, legislation, and other conflict is because the TSA did not analyze the risks and its responses before going forward with strip-search machines as it did. Trial-and-error isn’t costly to the government. The taxpayer fronts the money and gives up the privacy.

None of this means the TSA has now gotten the balance right. The airport security gauntlet will still be an overwrought mess and an affront to constitutional liberty. We will have to remain insistent on principle, on dignity and privacy, and on sound risk management while TSA gets a public relations bump from being less awful than it was before.

Obama Administration Fights Privacy Act Liability

In February 2004, privacy advocates were put off by a Supreme Court case called Doe v. Chao, in which the Court found that the Privacy Act requires a victim of a government privacy violation to show “actual damages” before receiving any compensation. The Act appeared to provide for $1,000 per violation in statutory damages, but the Court interpreted the legislation to require that actual damages be proven, after which the victim would be entitled to a minimum award of $1,000. (Statutory damages are appropriate in privacy cases against the government because government bureaucrats pay little price themselves when their agency gets fined. A penalty is required to draw oversight and political attention to violations of the law.)

Doe v. Chao was a close call given the statutory language, and the Court chose the outcome that would limit the government’s exposure to Privacy Act liability. Doing so marginally weakened the government’s attentiveness to the already insubstantial protections of the Privacy Act.

A companion case to Doe v. Chao has now reached the Supreme Court. FAA v. Cooper, which the highest court recently agreed to hear, involves a victim of a government privacy invasion who alleges “actual damages” based on evidence of mental and emotional distress. Cooper, a recreational pilot who was HIV-positive, had chosen to conceal his health status generally, but revealed it to the Social Security Administration for the purposes of pursuing disability payments. When the SSA revealed that he was HIV-positive to the Department of Transportation, it violated the Privacy Act. Cooper claims in court that he suffered mental and emotional distress at learning of the disclosure of his health status and inferentially his sexual orientation, which he had kept private.

In the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and now in the Supreme Court, the Obama Administration has argued that it doesn’t have to pay the victim of this privacy violation because mental and emotional distress do not qualify as “actual damages.” No one disputes that Cooper has to present objective proof of harm as a check on the truth of his claims. But the government isn’t saying that Cooper is faking distress at having his health status and sexual orientation illegally exposed by the government. The government is arguing that the court should limit “actual damages” to economic injury simply because it’s the government being sued.

The doctrine of sovereign immunity holds that the state is generally not subject to lawsuits. The state can make itself liable by a clear statement in legislation that it agrees to be sued. In the Privacy Act, Congress did exactly that: it created a cause of action against the government for Privacy Act violations.

But now the Obama Administration is arguing that the statute should be interpreted narrowly based on sovereign immunity. It’s an attempt to limit Privacy Act liability once again, insulating government officials from consequences of their wrongdoing. The Court should reject the sovereign immunity argument. Congress made the government subject to suit, and the chips should fall where they may on the question of what constitutes “actual damages.”

Putting aside sovereign immunity, what about the “actual damages” question? Should the Court recognize mental and emotional distress as a harm coming from privacy violations?

Privacy is the subjective condition people enjoy when they have the power to control information about themselves and when they have exercised that power consistent with their interests and values. People can, and often do, maintain privacy in information they share with a limited audience for limited purposes. Privacy is violated when that sense of control and controlled sharing is upended.

A privacy violation is called a “violation” because of the loss of confident control over information, which, depending on the sensitivity and circumstances, can be very concerning and even devastating. When privacy violations have this effect–not idle worry about who knows what, but the shock and mortification of having specific, sensitive information wrested from one’s control and exposed–that’s the case when actual damages should probably be found. If the Privacy Act is to protect the interest after which it’s named, the Court will recognize proven mental and emotional suffering as “actual damages.”

Sorrell vs. IMS Health: Not a Privacy Case

The Supreme Court’s decision in Sorrell vs. IMS Health is being touted in many quarters as a privacy case, and a concerning one at that. Example: Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) released a statement saying “the Supreme Court has overturned a sensible Vermont law that sought to protect the privacy of the doctor-patient relationship.” That’s a stretch.

The Vermont law at issue restricted the sale, disclosure, and use of pharmacy records that revealed the prescribing practices of doctors if that information was to be used in marketing by pharmaceutical manufacturers. Under the law, prescription drug salespeople—“detailers” in industry parlance—could not access information about doctors’ prescribing to use in focusing their efforts. As the Court noted, the statute barred few other uses of this information.

It is a stretch to suggest that this is a privacy law, given the sharply limited scope of its “protections.” Rather, the law was intended to advance the state’s preferences in the area of drug prescribing, which skew toward generic drugs rather than name brands. The Court quoted the Vermont legislature itself, finding that the purpose of the law was to thwart “detailers, in particular those who promote brand-name drugs, convey[ing] messages that ‘are often in conflict with the goals of the state.’” Accordingly, the Court addressed the law as a content- and viewpoint-oriented regulation of speech which could not survive First Amendment scrutiny (something Cato and the Pacific Legal Foundation argued for in their joint brief.)

What about patients’ sensitive records? Again, the case was about data reflecting doctors’ prescribing practices, which could include as little as how many times per year they prescribe given drugs. (They probably include more detail than that.) The risk to patients is based on the idea that patients’ prescriptions might be gleaned through sufficient data-mining of doctors prescribing records (no doubt with other records appended). That’s a genuine problem, if largely theoretical given the availability and use of data today. Vermont is certainly free to address that problem head on in a law meant to actually protect patients’ privacy—against the state itself, for example. Better still, Vermonters and people across the country could rely on the better sources of rules in this new and challenging area: market pressure (to the extent possible in the health care area) and the (non-prescriptive, more adaptive) common law.

Whatever the way forward, Sorrell vs. IMS Health is not the privacy case some are making it out to be, it’s not the outrage some are making it out to be, and it’s not the last word on data use in our society.