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.