Topic: Telecom, Internet & Information Policy

Mass Surveillance Opponents Launch DecideTheFuture.org

Two grassroots groups opposed to existing U.S. government surveillance policies yesterday launched a new platform aimed at the legislative branch: DecideTheFuture.org

A project of Restore The Fourth and Fight for the Future, the website rates House and Senate members on the basis of their votes on surveillance-related legislation since 2012. Those who have voted against continuation of the PATRIOT Act or sponsored legislation to repeal it are deemed to be part of “Team Internet”; those who have championed a continuation of the status quo on surveillance are dubbed “Team Surveillance.” 

Restore The Fourth’s press release provides further details:

The scoreboard builds off a similar tool released last year by a coalition of privacy advocates, adding data from the current Congress, including the PATRIOT Act renewal fight, the USA FREEDOM Act of 2015 and other relevant legislation. 

“We wanted to develop something simple and easy that would allow users to quickly see which politicians oppose mass surveillance, and who’s working to expand the surveillance state” says Alex Marthews, national chair of Restore The Fourth.

At the moment, it is unclear whether those behind DecideTheFuture.org will expand the project to include ratings on presidential candidates. Thus far, government surveillance has not been a top-tier issue in any of the presidential debates and is rarely mentioned by the candidates on the campaign trail.

No, America, You Don’t Need to Comply with the REAL ID Act

Like countless similar news stories recently, a report on Business Insider claims: “Residents from 5 US states could soon need a passport for a domestic flight.” The idea is that the Transportation Security Administration will begin to enforce the REAL ID Act in 2016 by denying airport access to travelers from non-compliant states.

It’s not true.

Nobody needs to get a passport to fly domestically. No state needs to implement the REAL ID Act’s national ID mandates.

I’ve been collecting examples of misleading reports like this at the Twitter hashtag “#TakenInByDHS.” A recent blog post of mine, also called “Taken In by DHS,” fleshes out the story of widespread misreporting on the situation with our national ID law.

In brief, the Department of Homeland Security is trying to get the states to convert their driver licensing systems into components of a U.S. national ID system. The REAL ID Act, which Congress passed in 2005, allows DHS to refuse IDs from non-compliant states, including IDs travelers present at TSA’s airport checkpoints.

This concerns some people when they first learn about it, but the REAL ID compliance deadline passed more than seven years ago with not one state in compliance. DHS has improvised deadline after deadline since then, and it has caved every single time its deadlines have been reached. I went through the history last year in my Cato Policy Analysis, “REAL ID: A State-by-State Update.”

DHS’s latest story is that it might start to enforce REAL ID in 2016. It won’t. 

Why Should California Obey Federal National ID Demands?

If California were to decline to follow federal driver licensing mandates, would the Transportation Security Administration turn Californians away at our nation’s airports, preventing more than 10% of the nation’s population from flying? Of course not. The outrage would be palpable, and it would be directed at the federal government’s most unpopular agency, TSA.

But the incredibly low risk of federal punishment is apparently what spurred the California legislature to pass A.B. 1465, which now sits on Governor Jerry Brown’s desk. If signed, the bill would move California another step closer to compliance with the REAL ID Act, increasing the burden on California driver’s license applicants just a little more, so that TSA will continue to defer enforcement of the national ID law as to California.

But TSA hasn’t enforced REAL ID for any state since the statutory compliance deadline in 2008. (It’s ongoing mass deferment is disguised by crediting some states with satisfying a “material compliance checklist.” Find a history in our report, REAL ID: A State-by-State Update.) The reason why is not kindness on the part of the feds or good faith progress on the part of states. It’s the fact that the federal government does not have the power to demand compliance from states. State leaders would not be blamed if TSA denied people’s IDs at the airports. TSA would be.

There is no need for California to spend a dime on REAL ID compliance, but the most recent analysis of A.B. 1465 says the California DMV would incur costs of approximately $5.56 million in 2016-17 and $5.4 million each year after that. The legislator most responsible for delay and expense at the DMV is Assemblymember Rich Gordon (D-Menlo Park).

The spending is absolutely unnecessary. The federal government will always back down. There is no reason California should obey federal national ID demands.

China’s REAL ID Program

China is implementing its “toughest-ever” mobile phone real-name registration system, according to the Want China Times. The effort seeks to get all remaining unregistered mobile phones associated with the true identities of their owners in the records of telecommunications firms. Those who do not register their phones will soon see their telecommunications restricted.

This policy will have wonderful security benefits. It will make identity fraud, anonymous communication, and various conspiracies much easier to detect and punish—including conspiracies to dissent from government policy.

The United States is a very different place from China—on the same tracking-and-control continuum. We have no official policy of registering phones to their owners, but in practice phone companies collect our Social Security numbers when we initiate service, they know our home addresses, and they have our credit card numbers. All of these are functional unique identifiers, and there is some evidence that the government can readily access data held by our telecommunications firms.

We have no national ID that would be used for phone registration, of course. The Department of Homeland Security says it will begin denying travel rights to people from states that do not comply with the REAL ID Act beginning in 2016.

Should NSA Be Immune from Constitutional Scrutiny?

Today the Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit issued a ruling in NSA v. Klayman that has almost no practical effect, but is a potent illustration of how excessive secrecy and stringent standing requirements effectively immunize intelligence programs from meaningful, adversarial constitutional review.

Contrary to some breathless headlines, today’s opinion does not “uphold” the NSA’s illicit bulk collection of telephone records—which, thanks to the recent passage of the USA Freedom Act, must end by November in any event. Rather, the court overturned an injunction that only ever applied specifically to the phone records of the plaintiffs. And they did so, not because the judges found the program substantially lawful, but because the plaintiff could not specifically prove that his telephone records had been swept into the database, even though the ultimate aim of the program was to collect nearly all such records.

Together with other similar thwarted challenges to mass government surveillance—most notably the Supreme Court case Clapper v. Amnesty International—the decision sends the disturbing signal that mass scale surveillance of millions of innocent people by our intelligence agencies is, for all practical purposes, immune from meaningful constitutional scrutiny. Even when we know about a mass surveillance program, as in the case of NSA’s bulk telephony program, stringent standing rules raise an impossibly high barrier to legal challenges. Perversely, the only people with a realistic chance of challenging such programs in court are actual terrorists who the government chooses to prosecute. The vast, innocent majority of people affected by bulk surveillance—those with the strongest claim that their rights have been violated—are effectively barred from ever having those rights vindicated in court.

Given the routine refusal of courts to step in to protect our Fourth Amendment rights, it is fortunate that Congress has already acted to bring this intrusive and ineffective program to a halt.

Internet Industry More Popular Than Ever-60% Have Favorable View

New polling from Gallup finds that more Americans view the internet industry favorably than any time since Gallup began asking the question in 2001. Today, 60% of Americans have either a “very positive” or “somewhat positive” view of the industry, compared to 49% in 2014.

Favorability toward the Internet industry has ebbed and flowed during the 2000s, but today marks the most positive perception of the industry. Compared to other industries, Gallup found that the Internet industry ranks third behind the restaurant and computer industries.

Perceptions have improved across most demographic groups, with the greatest gains found among those with lower levels of education, Republicans and independents. It is likely these groups are “late adopters” of technology and have grown more favorable as they’ve come to access it. Indeed, late adopters have been found to be older, less educated and more conservative. Pew also finds that early users of the Internet have been younger, more urban, higher income Americans, and those with more education. Indeed, as Internet usage has soared from 55% to 2001 to 84% in 2014, many of these new users come from the ranks of conservative late adopters.

These data suggest the more Americans learn about the Internet the more they come to like it and appreciate the companies who use it as a tool to offer consumer goods and services.

Please find full results at Gallup.

Research assistant Nick Zaiac contributed to this post.

A Transparency Milestone

This week, I reported at the Daily Caller (and got a very nice write-up) about a minor milestone in the advance of government transparency: We recently finished adding computer-readable code to every version of every bill in the 113th Congress.

That’s an achievement. More than 10,000 bills were introduced in Congress’s last-completed two-year meeting (2013-14). We marked up every one of them with additional information.

We’ve been calling the project “Deepbills” because it allows computers to see more deeply into the content of federal legislation. We added XML-format codes to the texts of bills, revealing each reference to federal agencies and bureaus, and to existing laws no matter how Congress cited them. Our markup also automatically reveals budget authorities, i.e., spending.

Want to see every bill that would have amended a particular title or section of the U.S. code? Deepbills data allows that.

Want to see all the bills that referred to the Administration on Aging at HHS? Now that can be done.

Want to see every member of Congress who proposed a new spending program and how much they wanted to spend? Combining Deepbills data with other data allows you to easily collect that imporant information.