Topic: Telecom, Internet & Information Policy

Inflation and Injustice

More than a few places in this world people are trying to better themselves by saving money. Many people without access to formal financial services (or awareness of their benefits) are trying to amass capital by squirreling away cash. If wariness and luck prevent that money from being stolen, their nest-eggs might provide life-saving health care, seed capital for businesses, the means to move, education for children, and numerous other enhancements to poor people’s well-being. I say good for them. But there are people out there who don’t care if government policy stands in the way.

Unknown to many cash-hoarders—unsophisticated investors who should have our sympathy—official government policy in many countries is to inflate the currency. Under stable conditions, such policies might reduce the value of the existing stock of money at a rate of about 2% per year.

That is a boon to governments, of course, which are typically debtors. The policy quietly reduces real government debt by 2% annually without need of raising official taxes. And whether they spend the money themselves or infuse their banking sectors with liquidity, governments use monetary policy to curry favor with important political constituencies, thus solidifying power.

Ratifying NSA Spying, a Court Calls FISA ‘Courts’ Into Question

Two weeks ago, when D.C. District judge Richard Leon ruled that mass government surveillance of Americans’ telephone calling was likely unconstitutional, there was some well-poisoning about his opinion being “passionate.” The implication, of course, was that he was not being suitably judicial. The same could be said of this week’s ruling by Judge Pauley of the U.S. District Court in New York. When the first sentence intones: “The September 11th terrorist attacks revealed, in the starkest terms, just how dangerous and interconnected the world is,” and when the first citation is a “See generally” to the 9/11 Commission report, these are not signs that you’re about to get dispassionate application of law to facts.

Judge Pauley’s use of the 9/11 Commission report to argue that NSA data collection could have foiled the 9/11 plot is belied by the report’s clear statement with respect to Khalid Al-Mihdhar: “No one was looking for him.” (page 269) In our paper, “Effective Counterterrorism and the Limited Role of Predictive Data Mining,” Jeff Jonas and I detailed ways many of the 9/11 terrorists could have been found had anyone been looking. The argument that NSA spying would have prevented 9/11 is not a strong one.

But passions pitted against one another is just one of the symmetries between the two rulings. Judge Leon distinguished Smith v. Maryland. He believes that the Supreme Court case allowing the use of phone call information to convict a suspected burglar and obscene phone caller does not ratify the collection of phone calling information about every innocent American. Judge Pauley treated Smith v. Maryland as controlling. If one burglar in Baltimore doesn’t have a Fourth Amendment interest in his phone calling data, 200 million Americans don’t either. We have appeals to sort these things out, and Judge Pauley’s ruling makes it more likely that such an appeal will reach the Supreme Court, which is good.

The interesting thing in Judge Pauley’s ruling is ammunition he offers to critics of the panels of judges created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. People often refer to them as the “Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court” or “FISC.”

While the FISC is composed of Article III judges, it operates unlike any other Article III court. Proceedings in Article III courts are public. And the public enjoys a “general right to inspect and copy public records and documents, including judicial records and documents.” (citation omitted) “The presumption of access is based on the need for federal courts, although independent—indeed, particularly because they are independent—to have a measure of accountability and for the public to have confidence in the administration of justice.” (citation omitted)

Later, he writes:

The two declassified FISC decisions authorizing bulk metadata collection do not discuss several of the ACLU’s arugments. They were issued on the basis of ex parte applications by the government without the benefit of the excellent briefing submitted to this Court by the Governent, the ACLU, and amici curiae. There is no question that judges operate best in an adversarial system. “The value of a judicial proceeding … is substantially diluted where the process is ex parte, because the Court does not have available the fundamental instrument for judicial judgment: an adversary proceeding in which both parties may participate.” (citation omitted) … As FISA has evolved and Congress has loosened its individual suspicion requirements, the FISC has been tasked with delineating the limits of the Government’s surveillance power, issuing secret decision [sic] without the benefit of adversarial process. Its ex parte procedures are necessary to retain secrecy but are not ideal for interpreting statutes.

This echoes an argument Randy Barnett and I offered in our brief to the Supreme Court about NSA spying. These so-called ‘courts’ that administer NSA spy programs lack many of the hallmarks of a true court, and their use to dispose of rights that protect our privacy is a violation of due process.

There will be much more to come in the judicial path of the NSA spying debate. The legitimacy of FISA panels should be a part of that discussion.

You Could Have Read It Here First

If you’ve been reading Cato at Liberty and www.cato.org, then you already know, as the lead story in the Washington Post reported this morning, that both the constitutionality and the necessity of the NSA’s massive surveillance are in doubt:

From the moment the government’s massive database of citizens’ call records was exposed this year, U.S. officials have clung to two main lines of defense: The secret surveillance program was constitutional and critical to keeping the nation safe.

But six months into the controversy triggered by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the viability of those claims is no longer clear.

In a three-day span, those rationales were upended by a federal judge who declared that the program was probably unconstitutional and the release of a report by a White House panel utterly unconvinced that stockpiling such data had played any meaningful role in preventing terrorist attacks.

Reviewing the Review Group: Practice What You Preach

The “President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies” has issued their report. Convened in late summer to advise the president on what to do in the wake of the Snowden revelations (without mentioning Snowden), the group was rightly criticized for its ‘insider’ composition. The report has beaten the privacy community’s low expectations, which is good news. It advances a discussion that began in June and that will continue for years.

Some observations:

- Contrary to expectations, the report is outside the White House’s “comfort zone.” That’s good, because, as noted, this group could easily have decided to ratify the status quo, handing the administration and the National Security Agency a minor victory. The report positioned Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) to say: “The message to the NSA is now coming from every branch of government and from every corner of our nation: You have gone too far.”

- There is no reason to treat the report as a reform “bible.” This was a problem with the 9/11 Commission report, for example, which was held up as sacrosanct even when it was wrong. The Review Group report is right about some things, such as eliminating administratively issued National Security Letters, it is wrong about some things, and it omits some key issues, such as the government-wide penchant for secrecy that created the current problems.

- Weaknesses are more interesting than strengths, and a particular weakness of the report is its call for retaining the phone calling surveillance program. Recommendation Five calls for legislation that “terminates the storage of bulk telephony meta-data by the government under [USA-PATRIOT Act] section 215, and transitions as soon as reasonably possible to a system in which such meta-data is held instead either by private providers or by a private third party.” The debate over data retention mandates ended some years ago, and the government was denied this power. The NSA’s illegal excesses should not be rewarded by giving it authorities that public policy previously denied it. Outsourcing dragnet surveillance does not cure its constitutional and other ills.

- The data retention recommendation is in conflict with another part of the report, which calls for risk management and cost-benefit analysis. “The central task,” the report says, “is one of risk management.” So let’s discuss that: Gathering data about every phone call made in the United States and retaining it for years produces only tiny slivers of security benefit, the NSA’s unsupported claims to the contrary notwithstanding. Considering dollar costs alone, it almost certainly fails a cost-benefit test. If you include the privacy costs, the failure of this program to manage security risks effectively is more clear. The Review Group’s conclusion about communications surveillance is inconsistent with its welcome promotion of risk management.

Most legal scholars and most civil liberties and privacy advocates punt on security questions, conceding the existence of a significant threats, however undefined and amorphous. They disable themselves from arguing persuasively about what is “reasonable” for Fourth Amendment purposes. Concessions like these also prevent one from conducting valid risk management and cost-benefit analysis. Some of us here at Cato don’t shy from examining the security issues, and we do pretty darn good risk management. The Review Group should practice what it preaches if it’s going to preach what we practice!

The Economic Impact of NSA Spying

At some point, I hope someone does a thorough, empirical study of the impact of NSA spying on U.S. companies.  But for now, all we have is anecdotal evidence, like this:

Today Brazil’s government announced it won’t buy $4.5 billion worth of US fighter jets in a move attributed to anger over controversial US intelligence-gathering that targeted Brazilian citizens and officials, including president Dilma Rousseff.

The Brazilian government’s official statements pointed to performance and cost issues as the reason to pick Sweden’s Saab AB to develop 36 fighters, though many observers had believed Boeing had the upper hand while bidding to expand Brazil’s air force.

Calling the decision “disappointing” in a statement, Boeing says it isn’t done trying to sell to Brazil, a major client for the company’s commercial air business, noting that ”over the next several weeks, we will work with the Brazilian Air Force to better understand its decision.”

One way to understand it: “The NSA problem ruined it for the Americans,” a Brazilian government official told Reuters. Public opinion turned against the US, and Brazil is leading the charge for a United Nations resolution that would limit electronic surveillance. Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor whose leaks revealed the US surveillance, obliquely requested asylum in Brazil earlier this week, but it looks the country isn’t interested in hosting the whistleblower.

Today, a White House panel charged with assessing American electronic snooping released a report urging new limits on US intelligence agencies. One of its recommendations is to more carefully assess the costs of surveilling foreign leaders like Brazil’s Rousseff. On this front, Brazil’s decision on the fighter planes is a costly object lesson for the US government.

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.

A Data Retention Mandate? NO

The Wall Street Journal reports that a panel convened by the president to review the National Security Agency’s programs will recommend that “the records of nearly every U.S. phone call now collected in a controversial NSA program be held instead by the phone company or a third-party organization.” That recommendation is a non-starter.

Mandatory data retention has been floated for years using the most politically appealing rationale, child predation. In 2007, we characterized the idea as costly, outsourced surveillance, and Congress has consistently denied that power to the government. In fact, child protection bills containing data retention mandates were introduced in several Congresses but only passed once provisions deputizing communications providers into government surveillance were stripped out. Randy Barnett and I made this point in our brief urging the Supreme Court to take up the NSA’s mass surveillance of Americans’ telephone calling.

“Congress has declined to institute mandatory data retention laws because the costs, risks, and privacy consequences for innocent citizens outweigh their law enforcement and security benefits,” we wrote. “The Verizon order reverses this Congressional policy by requiring a telecommunications provider to turn all data over to the government for retention by the National Security Agency.”

How ironic it would be if the NSA’s illegal excesses delivered it a victory on a policy initiative that it lost years ago. Is secretly violating Americans’ communications privacy really rewarded by a policy requiring the violation of Americans’ communications privacy?

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), who claims authorship of the USA-PATRIOT Act, came to Cato two months ago to lament the NSA’s use of that law for domestic spying he did not intend the NSA to have. In the past, he has said that data retention “runs roughshod over the privacy rights of people who use the Internet for thousands of lawful purposes.” Assumedly, he believes the same as to people’s use of the phone, and he will continue working with other privacy-minded legislators to relegate data retention mandates to the dustbin of history.