The Supreme Court announced Monday morning that it would not be considering at this time a complaint filed months earlier that challenged the legality of the National Security Agency’s dragnet telephone surveillance program.
The high court issued a notice early Monday without comment acknowledging that it would not be weighing in on a matter introduced this past June by a privacy watchdog group after NSA leaker Edward Snowden revealed evidence showing that the United States intelligence agency was collecting metadata pertaining to the phone calls of millions of American customers of the telecommunications company Verizon on a regular basis.
That disclosure — the first of many NSA documents leaked by Mr. Snowden — prompted the Washington, DC-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC, to ask the Supreme Court to consider taking action that would end the collection of phone records on a major scale.
When EPIC filed their petition in June, they wrote, “We believe that the NSA’s collection of domestic communications contravenes the First and Fourth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and violates several federal privacy laws, including the Privacy Act of 1974 and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 as amended.”
“We ask the NSA to immediately suspend collection of solely domestic communications pending the competition of a public rulemaking as required by law. We intend to renew our request each week until we receive your response,” EPIC said.
Five months later, though, the Supreme Court said this week that it would not be hearing EPIC’s plea. A document began circulating early Monday in which the high court listed the petition filed by the privacy advocates as denied.
With other cases still pending, however, alternative routes may eventually lead to reform of the NSA’s habits on some level. Lower courts are still in the midst of deciding what action they will take with regards to similar lawsuits filed by other groups in response to the Snowden leaks and the revelations they made possible. The American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and conservative legal activist Larry Klayman have filed separate civil lawsuits in various US District Courts challenging the NSA’s program, all of which are still pending.
Cindy Cohn, the legal director of the EFF, told the Washington Post only weeks after the first Snowden leak appeared that the disclosures had been a “tremendous boon” to other matters being litigated, and pointed to no fewer than five previously-filed complaints challenging various government-led surveillance programs.
“Now that this secret surveillance program has been disclosed, and now that Congressional leaders and legal scholars agree it is unlawful, we have a chance for the Supreme Court to weigh in,” EPIC lead counsel Alan Butler told The Verge on Monday.
- Supreme Court blocks challenge to NSA phone tracking (theverge.com)
Today the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that law enforcement agents must obtain a warrant based on probable cause to attach a GPS device to a car and track its movements. The case, United States v. Katzin, is the first in which a federal appeals court has explicitly held that a warrant is required for GPS tracking by police. The ACLU submitted an amicus brief in the case (joined by the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers) and presented oral argument to the court in March.
In this case, police suspected three brothers, Harry, Mark, and Michael Katzin, of robbing several pharmacies. Without getting a warrant from a judge, FBI agents attached a GPS tracking device to Harry Katzin’s car in order to follow its movements. The government used the GPS device to track the Katzins as they drove to and from another pharmacy, and arrested them as they drove away. Before trial, the Katzins argued that police had violated their Fourth Amendment rights by using the GPS tracker without a warrant, and the district court agreed. Today’s ruling affirms that decision.
Last year, in United States v. Jones, the Supreme Court unanimously held that attaching a GPS tracker to a car to follow its movements is a search under the Fourth Amendment. The Court did not decide whether police need a warrant to conduct such a search, however, and the government argued in this case that an exception to the usual requirement of a warrant should apply. The Third Circuit rejected the government’s arguments, explaining that GPS tracking is a “vastly broader endeavor” than the kinds of limited searches that courts have allowed without warrants. In particular, the court held that the “automobile exception” to the warrant requirement does not apply to GPS tracking. The exception is designed to permit warrantless searches of cars to reveal contraband before the cars can drive away. But, as the court explained, that narrow exception does not “permit [police] to leave behind an ever-watchful electronic sentinel in order to collect future evidence” without judicial oversight.
The court also rejected a second argument made by the government: that the so-called “good faith” exception should permit use of evidence derived from the GPS tracking, even if it violated the Fourth Amendment. Because the GPS tracker was attached to the Katzins’ car before the Supreme Court decided Jones, and before the Third Circuit had addressed the issue, the government argued that FBI agents couldn’t have known that using a GPS device might raise questions under the Fourth Amendment, and therefore they acted in good faith by choosing not to seek a warrant. The court explained that this does not excuse police from the requirement of getting a warrant:
Where an officer decides to take the Fourth Amendment inquiry into his own hands, rather than to seek a warrant from a neutral magistrate — particularly where the law is as far from settled as it was in this case — he acts in a constitutionally reckless fashion. Here, law enforcement personnel made a deliberate decision to forego securing a warrant before attaching a GPS device directly to a target vehicle in the absence of binding Fourth Amendment precedent authorizing such a practice. . . . Excluding the evidence here will incentivize the police to err on the side of constitutional behavior and help prevent future Fourth Amendment violations.
Today’s opinion offers a full-throated defense of the Fourth Amendment, and installs an important safeguard against unjustified government surveillance. As courts around the country consider challenges to warrantless location tracking by police (whether using GPS devices or cell phone signals), they would do well to follow the Third Circuit’s lead.
When Will the Government Officially Correct the False Claims It Made to the Supreme Court About NSA Surveillance?
We’ve documented again and again how the government has refused to tell the truth about NSA surveillance to news organizations, Congress, and the American public. Now it seems clear we can add the Supreme Court to that list.
First, it’s important to remember that just months before Edward Snowden became a household name, the ACLU was before the Supreme Court challenging the FISA Amendments Act—a key pillar designed to justify much of the NSA’s surveillance. The ACLU argued that since their clients—journalists, advocates, and lawyers—were the prime candidates to be subject to this surveillance, the clients should be able to challenge the law as unconstitutional.
Unfortunately, the government successfully convinced the Court that the case should be thrown out on procedural grounds. The Court ruled the ACLU’s clients didn’t have “standing.” Essentially, because they had no definitive proof they were being spied on, so couldn’t challenge the law.
At the time, many thought this reasoning was absurd, including four dissenting Supreme Court Justices. Given the law’s incredibly broad reach, of course surveillance was occurring. “Perhaps, despite pouring rain, the streets will remain dry,” quipped Justice Breyer.
So in order to convince the Supreme Court to throw out the ACLU’s challenge, the government smartly argued someone could have standing to challenge the law. Otherwise, it may have seemed absurd to at least one more Justice, and the case might have gone the other way.
Solicitor General Donald Verrilli told the Court any defendant charged with a crime would be officially notified if they were subject to NSA surveillance and then someone could challenge it—an actual target. Prosecutors, according to the government, just hadn’t used FISA evidence yet in any court case.
Turned out, that wasn’t true.
As the New York Times reported last week, “Mr. Verrilli’s assurances clashed with the practices of national security prosecutors, who had not been alerting such defendants that evidence in their cases had stemmed from wiretapping their conversations without a warrant.”
In other words, the argument the Solicitor General used to convince the Supreme Court to dismiss a challenge to the FISA Amendments Act was false, and the Solicitor General deceived the Supreme Court, though perhaps not wittingly. When Verrilli confronted the Justice Department’s national security lawyers who briefed him for his argument, they explained away this false statement as “a misunderstanding,” according to the New York Times.
The Solicitor General has apparently convinced the Justice Department to change its policy and they now claim they will start notifying defendants. If the Justice Department follows through, this move should have implications across the board and will be a welcome shift.
Remember, just a few weeks ago Reuters reported that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was receiving tips from the NSA, distributing them to local law enforcement, and then covering them up by then obtaining the same evidence under different pretenses. As we explained at the time, this not only violates the Fourth Amendment, but the Fifth and Sixth Amendments as well, which guarantee defendants a meaningful opportunity to present a defense and challenge the government’s case.
There’s also the enormous “Hemisphere” phone surveillance program, first revealed by the New York Times in August, which the DEA carries out in partnership with the AT&T. EFF just filed an amicus brief in a San Francisco case that looks suspiciously like Hemisphere surveillance was going on as well.
It’s too early to tell if the Justice Department is going to follow through on its promise to tell the truth about spying in criminal cases. Thankfully, the ACLU has sued under the Freedom of Information Act to find out the Justice Department official policies on notifying defendants of NSA surveillance.
This is only a start. Informing criminal defendants of warrantless wiretaps only exposes illegal spying on a small few, and the Justice Department has made no promises to inform the millions of ordinary American’s caught up in the NSA dragnet. But it’s an important step forward, and could lead to a court to rule on the legality of the program.
ACLU deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer has also called on the Solicitor General to file a formal acknowledgement with the Court that the government’s policy was misrepresented to the justices during arguments. As Jaffer explains, there is ample precedent for the government to do so in situations similar to this.
It’s important for the Court to know that the government has not been honest with them, as the Court considers other representations about secret programs. Unfortunately, this is not the only time the government has provided false and misleading information to a court.
The culture of misinformation around the NSA has to stop. EFF also calls on the Solicitor General to formally acknowledge to the Court its misrepresentations and promptly tell every defendant that was subject to NSA surveillance so they can challenge the unconstitutional laws behind it.
- Obama fights SCOTUS review of NSA (politico.com)
MANHATTAN – A Muslim man says he has been unable to visit his ailing mother for over two years because he refused to spy for the FBI and is now on the no-fly list.
Muhammad Tanvir says he is not the only one who the FBI unlawfully placed on the no-fly list “in retaliation for their refusal to work as informants against their communities and submit to questioning.”
The Queens man says his predicament has left him unable to visit his ailing mother in Pakistan for over two years, and that it has burdened his practice of Islam.
He notes that he is a lawful permanent resident employed at a 99-cent store in the Bronx who has “never been convicted of a crime nor does he pose any threat to aviation safety.”
The FBI declined to comment.
Though the no-fly list is supposed to represent a list of suspected terrorists, the American Civil Liberties Union calls it “a draconian tool to coerce Americans into spying on their communities.” In this case, Tanvir is represented by Shayana Kadidal with the Center for Constitutional Rights.
After refusing FBI agents’ request that he serve as an informant in his predominantly Muslim community and landing on the no-fly list, Tanvir says he reached out to the FBI to clear things up. Instead of helping, FBI agents offered to take him off the list in exchange for information.
Tanvir, who has lived in the United States since 2002, again refused.
“Mr. Tanvir has been prevented from flying despite the fact that he does not present any threat to aviation security,” the lawsuit states. “Instead, defendants sought to exploit the draconian burden posed by the No Fly List – including the inability to travel for work, or to visit family overseas – in order to coerce him into serving the FBI as a spy with American Muslim communities and places of worship.”
Named as defendants are FBI Director James Comey; Terrorist Screening Center Director Christopher Piehota; Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Rand Beers; and Transportation Security Administration Administrator John Pistole.
The FBI agencies are responsible maintaining the Terrorist Screening Database, which includes the no-fly list.
Tanvir wants the court to declare as unconstitutional the FBI’s alleged practice of placing people on the no-fly list for not cooperating, then using an offer to remove them as a bribe for information.
He also wants off the list, along with damages.
A report published on Tuesday by the American Civil Liberties Union urges the Obama administration to reform the Federal Bureau of Investigation following years of documented instances in which the FBI has abused its authority.
In thousands of words spanning a 60-plus page report titled Unleashed and Unaccountable: The FBI’s Unchecked Abuse of Authority, the ACLU this week condemns the agency, particularly in the years following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
The ACLU argues that since the attacks of 9/11, the federal government has time and time again allowed the FBI to broaden its law enforcement powers, often without sufficient oversight. As a result, they write, the FBI has been transformed into “a domestic intelligence and law enforcement agency of unprecedented power and international reach.”
Despite reform enacted in the wake of the infamous years J. Edgar Hoover spent as FBI director, the ACLU says that the agency has “subverted internal and external oversight” in recent time, in turn allowing for gross abuse, often impacting the civil liberties of Americans as a result.
In a plea for change, the ACLU accuses the FBI of “squelching whistleblowers, imposing and enforcing unnecessary secrecy and actively misleading Congress and the American people” since 9/11, and says the agency has “regularly overstepped the law, infringing on Americans’ constitutional rights while overzealously pursuing its domestic security mission.”
Items highlighted by the ACLU in the report include the secretive surveillance powers the agency has inherited through the PATRIOT Act, its power to open investigations of Americans without proof of a crime, racial and religious profiling and the targeting of people exercising their First Amendment-protected rights, such as journalists and political activists.
Published on the anniversary of the signing of the US Constitution, the ACLU urges President Barack Obama and his administration “to conduct a comprehensive examination of the FBI’s policies and practices to identify and curtail any activities that are unnecessary, ineffective or misused,” especially before the newly appointed director of the agency, James Comey, can subvert any further the policies enacted by his predecessor, James Mueller, who ran the FBI from before 9/11 up until only this month.
Should the executive and legislative branches not consider reform, the ACLU writes, “FBI officials and certain members of Congress will undoubtedly demand that the new director stay the course, no matter how disastrous it may be for American civil liberties and privacy rights.”
“The list of abuses is long and demonstrates that Congress must do a top-to-bottom review of FBI politics and practices to identify and curtail any activities that are unconstitutional or easily misused,” Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, said in a statement accompanying the report. “The time for wholesale reform has come.”
One figure cited in the new report portends that the FBI “will soon have the equivalent of 20 pieces of intelligence on every American.”
“An FBI budget request for fiscal year 2008 said the FBI had amassed databases containing 1.5 billion records, and two members of Congress described documents predicting the FBI would have 6 billion records by 2012, which they said would represent “20 separate ‘records’ for each man, woman and child in the United States.”
In turn, the ACLU believes that this huge volume of amassed data can be “shared widely.”
“According to a 2012 Systems of Records Notice covering all FBI data warehouses, the information in these systems can be shared broadly, even with foreign entities and private companies, and for a multitude of law enforcement and non-law enforcement purposes.”
The National Security Agency isn’t making many friends, apparently: a new poll published this week suggests that a majority of Americans continue to have complaints with the NSA’s surveillance practices amid a myriad of recent disclosures.
According to the results of survey released this week by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, anti-NSA sentiment remains rampant in the United States more than three months after former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden first began disclosing top-secret documents exposing the inner-workings of a vast surveillance apparatus operated by America’s premier spy agency. Meanwhile, concerns regarding those practices are growing amid members of Congress and even independent coalitions.
Polling conducted by the AP and NORC last month and released on Tuesday suggest that 56 percent of Americans surveyed oppose the NSA’s collection of telephone records, and 54 percent said they were against the practices that put Internet metadata into the hands of federal investigators.
A confused poll earlier this year in July by the PEW Research Center found that 44 percent of Americans disapproved of the NSA program, with half of the country not opposing the surveillance methods.
Now only 34 percent — or roughly one-third of those polled — say they are okay with the dragnet collection of metadata, or raw information including information on the sender and recipient, time and location pertaining to emails and phone calls. Additionally, 53 percent of Americans polled from a group of 1,008 adults say the federal government is doing a good job of ensuring freedom, a drop in seven percentage points since 2011. That earlier study concluded that 40 percent of Americans thought the government was doing a good job of protecting privacy, and today that number is down to 34 percent.
The AP poll also concluded that an overwhelming 71 percent of those asked opposed US officials eavesdropping on calls without warrant, and 62 percent said they were against the monitoring of email content.
Results from the latest poll were published on Tuesday, one day before the UK’s Guardian newspaper published the latest top-secret document in a series of classified leaks attributed to Snowden since early June. On Wednesday morning, the Guardian published a NSA memo from 2009 in which it’s revealed how US intelligence officials have shared raw data collected from American persons with Israeli counterparts without domestic agents even analyzing that information before it changes hands.
Commenting to the AP, Trevor Timm of the Electronic Frontier Foundation suggested the recent NSA disclosures undoubtedly have influenced the public’s perception of the US intelligence community and the way it conducts itself.
“For the first time, the public is able to see what’s going on behind closed doors and it’s changing minds,” Timm told the AP.
The EFF, along with the American Civil Liberties Union and more than two dozen other entities, are named as plaintiffs in a collection of lawsuits challenging the Obama administration’s surveillance programs. Attorneys for the EFF are representing plaintiffs in the matter of First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles v. NSA, which grew in size this week when five new organizations signed on to sue the White House. The EFF announced on Tuesday this week that Acorn Active Media, the Charity and Security Network, the National Lawyers Guild, Patient Privacy Rights and The Shalom Center have all signed on to the suit, which attorneys say challenges the government’s surveillance alleged abuse of Section 215 of the Patriot Act to collect bulk telephone metadata — an activity first disclosed on June 5 after Snowden leaked documents to the Guardian and Washington Post.
“The First Amendment guarantees the freedom to associate and express political views as a group,” EFF legal director Cindy Cohn said in a statement. “The NSA undermines that right when it collects, without any particular target, the phone records of innocent Americans and the organizations in which they participate. In order to advocate effectively, these organizations must have the ability to protect the privacy of their employees and members.”
Also signing on in support of NSA reform is US Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California), who only this week announced he’d be seeking changes in the way America conducts surveillance operations. Issa previously voted against a measure proposed by colleague Rep. Justin Amash (R-Michigan) which would have aimed to thwart the NSA’s now-infamous practices, but this week wrote a letter to Congress saying lawmakers on Capitol Hill should debate those policies once again as leaks continue to raise concerns.
“Now that it has been publicly acknowledged that the communications of Americans were included in the NSA’s data collection program, likely violating their Fourth Amendment rights, Congress must respond in a manner that both increases the transparency of the agency’s programs and reinforces the constitutional protections of our citizens,” Issa wrote in a letter first published by Politico.
“We’re very pleased that Chairman Issa supports our amendment,” Amash spokesman Will Adams told US News & World Report. “If the Amash amendment does get taken up by the House and it does pass this fall, it will put pressure on the committees to start passing comprehensive reforms.”
The Amash Amendment would have barred the NSA from using the PATRIOT Act provision at the center of First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles v. NSA to collect the phone records of all Americans. It was defeated in the House last month by a 12 vote margin.
A federal court took a critically important step late yesterday towards placing a check on the government’s secretive No-Fly List. In a 38-page ruling in Latif v. Holder, the ACLU’s challenge to the No-Fly List, U.S. District Court Judge Anna Brown recognized that the Constitution applies when the government bans Americans from the skies. She also asked for more information about the current process for getting off the list, to inform her decision on whether that procedure violates the Fifth Amendment guarantee of due process.
We represent 13 Americans, including four military veterans, who are blacklisted from flying. At oral argument in June on motions for partial summary judgment, we asked the court to find that the government violated our clients’ Fifth Amendment right to due process by barring them from flying over U.S. airspace – and smearing them as suspected terrorists – without giving them any after-the-fact explanation or a hearing at which to clear their names.
The court’s opinion recognizes – for the first time – that inclusion on the No-Fly List is a draconian sanction that severely impacts peoples’ constitutionally-protected liberties. It rejected the government’s argument that No-Fly list placement was merely a restriction on the most “convenient” means of international travel.
Such an argument ignores the numerous reasons an individual may have for wanting or needing to travel overseas quickly such as for the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, a business opportunity, or a religious obligation.
According to the court, placement on the No-Fly List is like the revocation of a passport because both actions severely burden the right to international travel and give rise to a constitutional right to procedural due process:
Here it is undisputed that inclusion on the No-Fly List completely bans listed persons from boarding commercial flights to or from the United States or over United States air space. Thus, Plaintiffs have shown their placement on the No-Fly List has in the past and will in the future severely restrict Plaintiffs’ ability to travel internationally. Moreover, the realistic implications of being on the No-Fly List are potentially far-reaching. For example, TSC [the Terrorist Screening Center] shares watchlist information with 22 foreign governments and United States Customs and Boarder [sic] Protection makes recommendations to ship captains as to whether a passenger poses a risk to transportation security, which can result in further interference with an individual’s ability to travel as evidenced by some Plaintiffs’ experiences as they attempted to travel abroad by boat and land and were either turned away or completed their journey only after an extraordinary amount of time, expense, and difficulty. Accordingly, the Court concludes on this record that Plaintiffs have a constitutionally-protected liberty interest in traveling internationally by air, which is affected by being placed on the list.
The court also found that the government’s inclusion of our clients on the No-Fly List smeared them as suspected terrorists and altered their ability to lawfully board planes, resulting in injury to another constitutionally-protected right: freedom from reputational harm.
The importance of these rulings is clear. Because inclusion on the No-Fly List harms our clients’ liberty interests in travel and reputation, due process requires the government to provide them an explanation and a hearing to correct the mistakes that led to their inclusion. But under the government’s “Glomar” policy, it refuses to provide any information confirming or denying that our clients are on the list, let alone an after-the-fact explanation and hearing.
The court has asked the ACLU and the government for more information about the No-Fly List redress procedure to help it decide the ultimate question of whether that system violates the Fifth Amendment right to due process. We are confident the court will recognize that the government’s “Glomar” policy of refusing even to confirm or deny our clients’ No-Fly List status (much less actually providing the reasons for their inclusion in the list) is fundamentally unfair and unconstitutional.
NEW YORK – The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is using secret surveillance tactics – including wiretaps and examining telephone records – to make arrests while concealing the source of the evidence from judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys, according to a story published today by Reuters. In cases where this intelligence is used to make an arrest, the DEA trains law enforcement to recreate the investigative trail in order to conceal the origins of the evidence.
“The DEA is violating our fundamental right to a fair trial,” said Ezekiel Edwards, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “When someone is accused of a crime, the Constitution guarantees the right to examine the government’s evidence, including its sources, and confront the witnesses against them. Our due process rights are at risk when our federal government hides and distorts the sources of evidence used as the basis for arrests and prosecutions.”
“When law enforcement agents and prosecutors conceal the role of intelligence surveillance in criminal investigations, they violate the constitutional rights of the accused and insulate controversial intelligence programs from judicial review,” said Jameel Jaffer, ACLU deputy legal director. “Effectively, these intelligence programs are placed beyond the reach of the Constitution, where they develop and expand without any court ever weighing in on their lawfulness. This is inappropriate, dangerous, and contrary to the rule of law.”
A ruling this week in a United States appeals court means officers of the law can legally and physically track down suspects based off of cell phone data without ever obtaining a warrant.
A 2-1 decision from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit on Tuesday means law enforcement needn’t prove probable cause when asking a telecom company for location data that could be used to pinpoint suspected criminals.
The verdict overturns a ruling made in 2011 by a magistrate judge from Houston, Texas who said federal authorities weren’t able to compel telecoms for 60 days’ worth of cell phone records without a warrant.
Following that ruling from US District Judge Lynn Hughes, the federal government filed an appeal asking the Fifth Circuit to step-in. On Tuesday, justices there overturned Hughes’ decision and said cell phone companies and their customers had no Fourth Amendment protected right to refute the government’s request for information.
A cell subscriber, said the appeals court, “like a telephone user, understands that his cellphone must send a signal to a nearby cell tower in order to wirelessly connect his call.” That data, the court concluded, is thus “clearly a business record” and can be collected by investigators bypassing what would otherwise require a warrant.
“We understand the cell phone users may reasonably want their location information to remain private,” wrote the court. “But the recourse for these desires is in the market or the political process: in demanding that service providers do away with such records… or in lobbying elected representatives to enact statutory protections. The Fourth Amendment, safeguarded by the courts, protects only reasonable expectations of privacy.”
Had the court ruled otherwise, federal investigators could be told they must show a judge evidence of probable cause to obtain a warrant for location data. Instead, however, the appeals court agreed that only a substantially easier to acquire court order could be used to compel telecoms for that data.
Unlike a search warrant, a court order in such a case only requires authorities to argue there are reasonable grounds that the information is relevant to an investigation.
Privacy advocates attacked Tuesday’s ruling, including George Washington University law professor, who filed an amicus brief in the case opposing the side the appeals court took.
“The opinion is clear that the government can access cell site records without Fourth Amendment oversight,” Kerr told the New York Times this week.
“This decision is a big deal,” Catherine Crump of the American Civil Liberties Union added to the Times. “It’s a big deal and a big blow to Americans’ privacy rights.”
But while the appeals verdict impacts how federal investigations will be conducted for now, recent legislation adopted in two US states have taken the first steps towards installing local laws that limit the ability to collect location data. Both Montana and New Jersey approved legislation in June and July, respectively, saying a search warrant is required by state investigators in order to collect cell phone location data.
WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wants two US states, Florida and Massachusetts, to open their own investigations into the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) shooting death of a Chechen immigrant acquainted with one of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects.
“A person was shot and killed at the hands of law enforcement in Florida. That alone should require Florida officials to investigate, and explain to the public what happened,” said Howard Simon, Florida Executive Director for the nonprofit civil liberties organization, in an ACLU press release.
The FBI and the Department of Justice are conducting an internal inquiry into the death of 27-year-old Ibragim Todashev, who was shot and killed by a Boston-based FBI agent during an interrogation with several different law enforcement agencies at his Orlando, Florida apartment on May 22.
Todashev was being questioned about a triple murder in the Boston area and his link to suspected marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed during a shootout with police in the Boston suburb of Watertown four days after the bombings.
There have been varying reports about exactly what happened when Todashev was killed.
“Florida officials are simply deferring to the FBI, allowing the FBI to investigate itself, but it is difficult to accept the FBI’s honesty in this matter,” the ACLU wrote in a letter to Commissioner Gerald Bailey of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, adding, “Now, more than eight weeks later, the public has very little information about this incident… Officials in both states should conduct their own investigations.”
In a similar letter to Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, the ACLU of Massachusetts (ACLUM) pointed to a New York Times analysis that found “FBI shooting reviews… virtually always clear the agency of wrongdoing.”
Last week the FBI blocked the release of Todashev’s autopsy by the Florida medical examiner’s office.
Carol Rose, ACLUM executive director, wrote, “It seems unlikely that the FBI investigation will meaningfully inform Massachusetts residents about what happened.”
Coakley’s office does not plan to open a new investigation.
“While the use of deadly force by law enforcement should be appropriately investigated, this particular incident happened in another state, which is outside our jurisdiction,” Coakley spokesman Brad Puffer told RIA Novosti.
Officials in Florida did not immediately respond to a request for comment from RIA Novosti.
- FBI withholds autopsy of Tsarnaev associate ‘shot in head’ during questioning (alethonews.wordpress.com)
Automatic license plate readers are the most widespread location tracking technology you’ve probably never heard of. Mounted on patrol cars or stationary objects like bridges, they snap photos of every passing car, recording their plate numbers, times, and locations. At first the captured plate data was used just to check against lists of cars law enforcement hoped to locate for various reasons (to act on arrest warrants, find stolen cars, etc.). But increasingly, all of this data is being fed into massive databases that contain the location information of many millions of innocent Americans stretching back for months or even years.
This is what we have found after analyzing more than 26,000 pages of documents from police departments in cities and towns across the country, obtained through freedom of information requests by ACLU affiliates in 38 states and Washington, D.C. As it becomes increasingly clear that ours is an era of mass surveillance facilitated by ever cheaper and more powerful computing technology (think about the NSA’s call logging program), it is critical we learn how this technology is being used. License plate readers are just one example of a disturbing phenomenon: the government is increasingly using new technology to collect information about all of us, all the time, and to store it forever – providing a complete record of our lives for it to access at will.
Today, we are releasing all of the documents we have received (accessible through this interactive map and this issue page) and are publishing a report, “You Are Being Tracked,” which explains what these documents say about license plate readers: what they are capable of, how they are being used, and what privacy harms they can cause if protections aren’t put in place. We’re also offering more than a dozen recommendations we think local police departments and state legislatures should follow when they pass laws about this technology.
As is often the case with surveillance technology, there are unobjectionable – even beneficial – uses of license plate readers. We don’t object when they’re used to identify people who are driving stolen cars or are subject to an arrest warrant. But they should not become tools for tracking where each of us has driven.
License plate readers capture vast amounts of data on innocent people
Because of the way the technology works – these devices snap photos of every passing car, not just those registered to people suspected of crimes – virtually all of the data license plate readers gather is about people who are completely innocent. Data that we obtained through our records requests illustrates this point vividly.
Why we should worry
Should the government be logging for months, years, or indefinitely the movements of the other 99 percent of people, who are innocent?
The answer to this question is no. License plate reader information can be very revealing. While one snapshot at one point might not seem sensitive, as blankets of plate readers cover our streets, and as the government stores data for longer and longer, the technology quickly morphs into a powerful tracking tool.
As computer technology and storage capacity get cheaper every year, we need to prepare for a future not just where there are a few license plate reader cameras in every town, but one in which there are multiple cameras on every block.
What can location data reveal about people? Trips to places of worship, political protests, or gun ranges can be powerful indicators of people’s beliefs. Is it really the government’s business how often you go to the drug store or liquor store, what doctors you visit, and the identities of your friends? I’m sure all of us can remember something from our past that could embarrass us. If the government comes to suspect you of something in 2020, should it have access to databases stretching back years that could dig up facts about you that previously went unnoticed?
What’s happening now
Law enforcement data-retention policies today are all over the map. While some police departments store data briefly, others keep it for a long time, or indefinitely.
The government doesn’t have a great track record of using this kind of information responsibly. As our report details, the data can be abused for official purposes, like spying on protesters merely because they are exercising their constitutionally protected right to petition the government, or unofficial ones, like tracking an ex-spouse.
Prior to the rise of powerful surveillance technology, it simply wasn’t possible to watch all of the people all of the time. But as these natural limits erode and the impossible becomes possible, we have to make conscious choices about how technology should be used.
What’s the right line with license plate readers?
There is a reasonable way to regulate this technology. The primary law enforcement use of these systems is to take pictures of plates to make it possible to check them against “hot lists” of cars of interest to law enforcement. This can be done virtually instantaneously. While plates that generate a “hit” may need to be stored for investigative purposes, there is no need to store plates for months or years to achieve this purpose.
That is to say, the answer to regulating license plate readers is to have strict limits on how long plate data can be retained. While we don’t recommend a specific cutoff date, we think it should be measured in days and weeks, not months and certainly not years.
To their credit, some law enforcement agencies already comply with this principle. For example, the Minnesota State Patrol deletes all data after 48 hours.
Others keep data for longer, and the rationale given is always the same: Although you can’t tell immediately that someone is committing a crime, some of those people may well be doing something wrong, goes the argument. But in our society, the government doesn’t watch all of us all the time just in case we commit a crime.
This is not just an issue we’ll have to decide in the context of license plate readers, but the most important surveillance issue of our time. Should the NSA collect all data about everyone’s calls, just in case it’s useful to identify a terrorist? Why stop there? Why not store all of the contents of the calls we make as well? And emails? This is not just about communications or public movements. It’s also about what happens inside the home. As electric companies convert to “smart grids” that provide them data about the patterns of your electricity usage, it could well become apparent when you take a shower and whether you run your dishwasher more frequently than others in your demographic profile. … Full article
Attorneys for the Electronic Frontier Foundation have sued the Obama administration and are demanding the White House stop the dragnet surveillance programs operated by the National Security Agency.
Both the White House and Congress have weighed in on the case of Edward Snowden and the revelations he’s made by leaking National Security Agency documents. Now the courts are having their turn to opine, and with opportunities aplenty.
Day by day, new lawsuits waged against the United States government are being filed in federal court, and with the same regularity President Barack Obama and the preceding administration are being charged with vast constitutional violations alleged to have occurred through the NSA spy programs exposed by Mr. Snowden.
The recent disclosures made by Snowden have generated commotion in Congress and the White House alike. The Department of Justice has asked for the 30-year-old former Booz Allen Hamilton worker to be extradited to the US to face charges of espionage, and members of both the House and Senate have already held their share of emergency hearings in the wake of Snowden’s series of disclosures detailing the vast surveillance programs waged by the US in utmost secrecy. But with the executive and legislative branches left worrying about how to handle the source of the leaks — and if the policies publicized should have existed in the first place — the courts could soon settle some disputes that stand to shape the way the US conducts surveillance of its own citizens.
Both longstanding arguments and just-filed claims have garnered the attention of the judicial branch in the weeks since the Guardian newspaper first began publishing leaked NSA documents attributed to Snowden on June 6. But while the courts have relied previously on stalling or stifling cases that challenge Uncle Sam’s spy efforts, civil liberties experts say the time may be near for some highly anticipated arguments to finally be heard. Now on the heels of lawsuits filed by the likes of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Privacy Information Center, groups are coming out of the woodwork to wage a legal battle against the White House.
The most recent example came this week when a coalition of various organizations filed suit together against the Obama administration by challenging “an illegal and unconstitutional program of dragnet electronic surveillance, specifically the bulk acquisition, collection, storage, retention and searching of telephone communications information.” Represented by attorneys from the EFF and others, the plaintiffs in the latest case filed Tuesday in San Francisco federal court include an array of groups, such as: First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles; Bill of Rights Defense Committee; Calguns Foundation; California Association of Federal Firearms Licensees; Council on Islamic Relations; Franklin Armory; Free Press; Free Software Foundation; Greenpeace; Human Rights Watch; Media Alliance; National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws; Open Technology Institute; People for the American Way, Public Knowledge; Students for Sensible Drug Policy; TechFreedom; and Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.
Cindy Cohn, the legal director of the EFF, told the Washington Post that the NSA leaks credited to Snowden have been a “tremendous boon” to the plaintiffs in recently filed court cases challenging the surveillance state. The courts are currently pondering at least five important cases, Cohn told the Post, which could, once and for all, bring some other issues up for discussion.
Since June 6, the American Civil Liberties Union, a Verizon Wireless customer and the founder of conservative group Judicial Watch have all filed federal lawsuits against the government’s collection of telephony metadata, a practice that puts basic call records into the government’s hands without a specific warrant ever required and reported to the media by Mr. Snowden. Larry Klayman of Judicial Watch has also sued over another revelation made by Snowden — the PRISM Internet eavesdropping program — and the Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC, has asked the Supreme Court to vacate the order compelling Verizon Business Network Services to send metadata to the feds.
Perhaps most important, however, is a California federal court’s recent decision to shut down the government’s request to stop the case of Jewel vs. NSA from proceeding. That debate first began in 2008 when Jewel, a former AT&T customer, challenged the government’s “illegal and unconstitutional program of dragnet communications surveillance” as exposed by a whistleblower at the telecom company. That case has seen roadblock after roadblock during the last five years, but all that changed earlier this month. The government long argued that Jewel v. NSA can’t go up for discussion because the issues at hand are privileged as ‘state secrets’ and can’t be brought into the public realm.
“[T]he disclosure of sensitive intelligence sources and methods . . . reasonably could be expected to cause exceptionally grave harm to national security,” the government wrote in one earlier filing. “The very purpose of these cases is to put at issue whether the NSA undertook certain alleged activities under presidential authorization after 9/11, and whether those activities continue today. At every stage, from standing to the merits, highly classified and properly privileged intelligence sources and methods are at risk of disclosure. The law is clear, however, that where litigation risks or requires the disclosure of information that reasonably could be expected to harm national security, dismissal is required.”
Following Snowden’s recent disclosures, though, Judge Jeffrey White of the Northern District of California ruled on July 8 that there’s a way for those cases to still be heard.
“The court rightly found that the traditional legal system can determine the legality of the mass, dragnet surveillance of innocent Americans and rejected the government’s invocation of the state secrets privilege to have the case dismissed,” the EFF’s Cohn, who is working on the case, said in a statement issued at the time of the ruling. “Over the last month, we came face-to-face with new details of mass, untargeted collection of phone and Internet records, substantially confirmed by the Director of National Intelligence. Today’s decision sets the stage for finally getting a ruling that can stop the dragnet surveillance and restore Americans’ constitutional rights.”
Weighing in weeks later to the Post, Cohn said that outcome could have more of an impact than many might imagine. “It’s tremendous, because anything that allows these cases to proceed is important,” she said.
Speaking to the New York Times this week, American Civil Liberties Union attorney Jameel Jaffer said that until now the government has operated a “shell game” to shield it’s surveillance programs from litigation. “[T]he statute has been shielded from judicial review, and controversial and far-reaching surveillance authorities have been placed beyond the reach of the Constitution,” he said.
Should Cohn’s prediction come true, though, the courts could decide to weigh in and reshape the way the government currently conducts surveillance.
According to University of Pittsburgh law professor Jules Lobel, a victory there could come in more than one way. “There is a broader function to these lawsuits than simply winning in court,” he told the Post. “The government has to respond, and forcing them to go before a court might make them want to change aspects of the programs.”
“The government does things to avoid embarrassment,’’ he added, “and lawsuits are a key pressure point.’’
Interviews to the Post and the Times come just days after Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), a long-time member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he thought the revelations made by Snowden may influence the White House to reconsider their surveillance practices before the courts can even have their chance.
“I have a feeling that the administration is getting concerned about the bulk phone records collection, and that they are thinking about whether to move administratively to stop it,” Sen. Wyden told the Times.
“I think we are making a comeback,” he said.
- Federal Judge Allows EFF’s NSA Mass Spying Case to Proceed (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Privacy groups led by EFF sue to stop NSA and FBI electronic surveillance (guardian.co.uk)
- Unitarian Church, Gun Groups Join EFF to Sue NSA Over Illegal Surveillance (eff.org)