More documents have been uncovered (via FOI requests) that show local law enforcement agencies in California have been operating cell phone tower spoofers (stingray devices) in complete secrecy and wholly unregulated.
Sacramento News10 has obtained documents from agencies in San Jose, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento and Alameda County — all of which point to stingray deployment. As has been the case in the past, the devices are acquired with DHS grants and put into use without oversight or guidelines to ensure privacy protections. The stingrays in use are mainly limited to collecting data, but as the ACLU points out, many manufacturers offer devices that also capture content.
Some of these agencies have had these devices for several years now. Documents obtained from the Oakland Police Dept. show the agency has had stingrays in use since at least 2007, citing 21 “stingray arrests” during that year. This is hardly a surprising development as the city has been pushing for a total surveillance network for years now, something that (until very recently) seemed to be more slowed by contractor ineptitude than growing public outrage.
The device manufacturer’s (Harris) troubling non-disclosure agreement (which has been used to keep evidence of stingray usage out of court cases as well as has been deployed as an excuse for not securing warrants) rears its misshapen head again, mentioned both in one obtained document as well as by a spokesperson reached for comment. One document states:
“The Harris (REDACTED) equipment is proprietary and used for surveillance missions,” the agreement reads. “Its capabilities can only be discussed with sworn law enforcement officers, the military or federal government. This equipment’s capabilities are not for public knowledge and are protected under non-disclosure agreements as well as Title 18 USC 2512.”
The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Dept. had this to (not) say when asked about its stingray usage:
“While I am not familiar with what San Jose has said, my understanding is that the acquisition or use of this technology comes with a strict non-disclosure requirement,” said Under sheriff James Lewis in an emailed statement. “Therefore it would be inappropriate for us to comment about any agency that may be using the technology.”
Law enforcement agencies are conveniently choosing to believe a manufacturer’s non-disclosure agreement trumps public interest or even their own protection of citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights.
The devices aren’t cheap, either. Taxpayers are shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars for these cell tower spoofers, and the agencies acquiring them are doing very little to ensure the money is spent wisely. ACLU’s examination of the documents shows that many of the agencies purchased devices without soliciting bids.
It’s hard to know whether San José or any of the other agencies that have purchased stingray devices are getting good value for their money because the contract was “sole source,” in other words, not put out to competitive bidding. The justification for skirting ordinary bidding processes is that Harris Corporation is the only manufacturer of this kind of device. (We are aware of other surveillance vendors that manufacture these devices, though a separate Freedom of Information Request we submitted to the Federal Communications Commission suggests that, as of June 2013, the only company to have obtained an equipment authorization from the FCC for this kind of device is Harris.)
With Harris effectively locking the market down, buyers are pretty much ensured prices far higher than the market would bear if opened to competition. (Not that I’m advocating for a robust surveillance device marketplace, but if you’re going to spend taxpayers’ money on products to spy on them, the least you can do is try to get the best value for their money… ) Using federal grants also allows these departments to further avoid public scrutiny of the purchase and use by circumventing the normal acquisition process.
Beyond the obvious Fourth Amendment concerns looms the very real threat of mission creep. These agencies cite combating terrorism when applying for federal funds, but put the devices to use for ordinary law enforcement purposes. The documents cite stingray-related arrests, but since so little is known about the purchase, much less the deployment, there’s really no way to tell how much data and content totally unrelated to criminal investigations has been collected (and held) by these agencies.
Homeland Security Detained US Citizen Inside The US, Used Intercepted Emails To Quiz Her About Her Sex Life
Just recently, we wrote about how the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) has been increasingly detaining and harassing people at the border (or near the border) under highly questionable circumstances — and then refusing to comment on any of it. Instead, CBP has relied on a cloak of secrecy to live outside the law, acting out what we’ve come to expect from authoritarian police states. Recently, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of a woman, Christine Von Der Haar, who is a senior lecturer at Indiana University, after CBP detained her at the airport.
She was not entering or leaving the country. She was not even boarding a flight. She merely accompanied a friend to the airport so that he could retrieve some computer equipment that he had shipped separately a few days earlier. After detaining Von Der Haar, CBP officials, who clearly had access to some of the emails Von Der Haar and her friend had sent back and forth, quizzed her about her sex life and if she was planning to marry the friend.
CBP appeared to be concerned that the friend, a Greek national named Dimitris Papatheodoropoulos, was trying to stay in the country illegally. Von Der Haar had first met Papatheodoropoulos 40 years earlier while studying abroad, and the two had recently reconnected thanks to the internet. Papatheodoropoulos had obtained a B1/B2 business/leisure visa to the US which actually let him enter and leave the country for a period of 10 years. He came to the US for business, but while there also wished to visit Von Der Haar since they’d been catching up online.
After detaining and questioning Papatheodoropoulos for some time, CBP officials took Von Der Haar into another room and started asking questions specific to the emails between the two of them. According to the lawsuit:
Given that Mr. Papatheodoropoulos had retained his hard drive that contained the emails, the only way that the Customs and Border Protection Agents could have reviewed the emails is for someone to have surreptitiously monitored the communications between Dr. Von Der Haar and Mr. Papatheodoropoulos and reported those communications to the agents questioning her. Defendant Lieba admitted that employees of the United States had read email communications between Dr. Von Der Haar and Mr. Papatheodoropoulos.
This raises all sorts of serious questions. As the post at Papers Please (linked above) notes:
CBP officers grossly exceeded their jurisdiction. Dr. Dr. Von Der Haar’s US citizenship was never questioned; she wasn’t trying to enter, leave, or ship and goods in or out of the country; and she was never accused of any crime. In general, immigration (as distinct from customs) offenses are handled by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Border Patrol, not CBP. We’re curious what basis CBP will claim for its officers’ authority to detain and interrogate Dr. Dr. Von Der Haar or obtain her email.
The post also wonders how or why CBP got access to those emails, wondering if they were shared by the NSA. There are, of course, other possible explanations as various investigations may have resulted in CBP getting access to the emails separately, but it still raises serious questions about under what authority those emails were obtained and why she was then quizzed about her sex life.
The claims that officials made about Papatheodoropoulos were equally questionable. Again, from the lawsuit:
Customs and Border Protection agents seized Mr. Papatheodoropoulos’ passport.
On June 8, 2012, Mr. Papatheodoropoulos was served with notice that a proceeding was initiated against him for removal from the United States. The notice stated, in relevant part:
You obtained your B1/B2 visa by misrepresenting your intentions to come to the United States to wit; It is your intention to immigrate to the United States, you abandoned your foreign residence, you intend to overstay your admission to the United States.
None of this was true.
Mr. Papatheodoropoulos consulted with lawyers and the Greek Consulate in Chicago and the removal action did not proceed.
His passport was returned to him and he left the United States at the end of August of 2012 and has not returned
The whole thing seems ridiculous yet again, and you can expect DHS to use its standard cloak of secrecy. I’m sure they’ll argue some sort of state secrets or national security claim to try to get the entire case thrown out.
WASHINGTON – The CIA’s inspector general is investigating whether the agency may have been monitoring the computer usage of Senate Intelligence Committee staff members, according to articles today by The New York Times and McClatchy. The inspector general’s office has reportedly referred the matter to the Justice Department for criminal investigation.
Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, had this reaction:
“If it turns out that the CIA was spying on the Senate committee that oversees the agency, it would be an outrageous violation of separation of powers. The CIA is prohibited from spying in the United States itself, and there can be few greater violations of that rule than spying on congressional staff carrying out the constitutional duty of being a check on the CIA’s powers. CIA surveillance of Congress would be another sign that the intelligence community has come to believe that they are above the law, and should get only deference from the other branches of government, not the meaningful oversight that’s required by the Constitution. Checks and balances, especially for agencies like the CIA and NSA that have many secret operations, are essential for democratic government. At the very least, these reports should spur the committee to vote quickly for the declassification and release of its full report into the CIA’s torture program so the American people can see what it is that the CIA is so eager to hide.”
In December 2012, the committee adopted a 6,000-page report on the CIA’s Bush-era rendition, secret detention, and torture program. The report concluded that abusive methods were ineffective, and the CIA wrote an extensive response, countering many of the Senate report’s conclusions. There is also a secret CIA report commissioned by former CIA Director Leon Panetta, which is reportedly consistent with the Senate report findings and contradicts the CIA’s response to the Senate report. All three reports are classified.
In the wake of our shareholder advocacy, AT&T has now joined Verizon and released its first transparency report. AT&T’s report shows how federal, state, and local governments have requested large volumes of customer information, typically without a warrant. While we welcome AT&T’s move, the American public remains in the dark about a lot of what’s happening behind the scenes. Greater transparency is still needed from AT&T and the federal government.
Here’s a breakdown of the many demands AT&T received in 2013. As we have long suspected, the vast majority of these demands lacked a warrant:
- AT&T received 301,816 demands related to criminal and civil litigation. Only 16,685 of these demands included a warrant based on probable cause.
- AT&T received 223,659 subpoenas for customer information. This is significantly more than the 164,184 subpoenas Verizon received during the same period.
- AT&T received 37,839 demands for location information. At least 21,000 of these demands lacked a warrant. AT&T’s full report says a warrant is “almost always required to obtain real-time location information.”
- AT&T also received 1,034 demands for “cell tower searches” last year, some of them compelling the company to identify the numbers of all phones that connected to a specific cell tower during a given period of time. Cell tower information is ripe for misuse—we know of at least one instance where a cell tower request was made for all phones within the vicinity of a planned labor protest.
AT&T also included information on national security requests (though, not the complete story):
- AT&T reported receiving between 2,000 and 3,000 National Security Letters (NSLs) from the federal government for customer information including name, address, length of service, and toll billing records. NSLs do not require prior approval from courts and the government has been criticized for misusing them. 4,000 to 4,999 AT&T customers were affected by NSLs last year. Note: Verizon has not yet revealed how many customers were affected by the NSLs it received.
- AT&T also released information about federal government demands for customer content under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), demands that may result in government access to the telephone and Internet communications of US citizens and persons abroad. For the first six months of 2013, AT&T received 0-999 requests for content that ultimately affected 35,000-35,999 customers. In fact, more AT&T customers were affected by FISA content requests in the first half of 2013 than the combined number of Facebook, Google, and Microsoft customers affected by the same sort of requests during that period.
- Unfortunately, the report omits important information on the metadata that the government reportedly obtains from AT&T under the call records program (currently being challenged by the ACLU in federal court). Phone metadata includes the phone numbers of parties to a conversation, a call’s duration, and device identifiers—information that can paint a very detailed picture of private lives. We know that the government justifies its access to phone metadata with a section of the FISA law, yet AT&T’s report states that only 0-999 customers were affected by such “non-content” requests. On its own, this lack of detail misleads the millions of AT&T customers whose phone metadata may be subject to these demands.
In addition to a clearer explanation of national security requests, we hope that AT&T’s future reports will also address the following shortcomings:
- The current report does not include the number of customers or individuals affected by all of the government demands. The company claims that it is “difficult” to tally this information.
- The report does not describe statistics on how often AT&T complies with demands.
- This report includes very limited information about demands from foreign governments.
AT&T’s transparency report, limited in what it reveals, also highlights just how essential it is for privacy laws to be updated in both the national security and law enforcement contexts. Technology has advanced exponentially and our privacy laws are still in the digital dark ages, enabling the government to engage in a largely unsupervised shopping spree of the personal data held by AT&T and other companies. This is why you should tell your member of Congress to support the USA Freedom Act and an update to the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act. We also urge AT&T to play a larger role by pushing for greater transparency, including far more detail in its future reports, and advocating for stronger privacy protections.
Matthew Cagle is a Volunteer Attorney for Technology and Civil Liberties with the ACLU of Northern California.
Copyright 2014 American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California
Reprinted with permission of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California http://www.aclunc.org
Law enforcement is taking advantage of outdated privacy laws to track Americans like never before. New technologies can record your every movement, revealing detailed information about how you choose to live your life. Without the right protections in place, the government can gain access to this information — and to your private life — with disturbing ease.
As long as it is turned on, your mobile phone registers its position with cell towers every few minutes, whether the phone is being used or not. Since mobile carriers are retaining location data on their customers, government officials can learn a tremendous amount of detailed personal information about you by accessing your location history from your cell phone company, ranging from which friends you’re seeing to where you go to the doctor to how often you go to church. The Justice Department and most local police forces can get months’ worth of this information, without you ever knowing — and often without a warrant from a judge.
You can do something here:
Early last year, the news surfaced that the DEA was bypassing Oregon state law by using administrative subpoenas to get around the state’s warrant requirement for drug prescription database access. “Administrative subpoenas” are yet another government tool that allows agencies to seek information that would normally require a warrant, but without the hassle of running it past a judge or even showing probable cause.
The DEA probably didn’t expect to encounter much resistance to its subpoenas. After all, drugs are bad and the DEA is fighting the good fight. But the state of Oregon wasn’t impressed with the DEA’s warrantless tactics and filed suit with the assistance of the ACLU. The ACLU is now reporting that a federal judge has ruled in its (and Oregon’s favor) and the DEA (along with other law enforcement entities) will no longer be able to skirt the state’s warrant requirement.
For the first time, a federal judge has ruled that patients have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their drug prescription records, and that law enforcement must obtain a warrant in order to search such information…
“This is a victory for privacy and for the constitutional rights of anyone who ever gets drug prescriptions,” said ACLU Staff Attorney Nathan Freed Wessler, who argued the case last month. “The ruling recognizes that confidential medical records are entitled to the full protection of the Fourth Amendment. The court rightly rejected the federal government’s extreme argument that patients give up their privacy rights by receiving medical treatment from doctors and pharmacists.”
As the ruling points out, citizens have long associated privacy with medical treatment, something that has gone hand-in-hand dating back to the 4th century B.C.E. and the origin of the Hippocratic Oath. It also points out the obvious: federal law itself (HIPAA) contains built-in privacy protections. (Hence the form you have to sign, the privacy info sheet you’re handed on every visit, and signs everywhere telling you to stand behind them for the privacy of the patient in front of you.)
The judge’s decision also notes that stripping away this expectation of privacy will have a chilling effect on those seeking medical care, something that could have very adverse effects on the health of people who might avoid seeking treatment because they fear their medical records will be exposed.
As the ACLU notes in its press release, it’s not exactly happy the state of Oregon has chosen to create a centralized database of drug prescriptions, but, if it is going to do so, it has at least chosen to take the privacy of those contained in the database very seriously.
This decision strikes a small blow against the government’s routine abuse of “exceptions” to warrant requirements as well as against its even more routine abuse of the “third party doctrine,” which the DEA actually used to claim that talking to a doctor is no different than dialing a phone. The DEA knows there’s a huge difference between these two “third parties” but applying that knowledge means showing probable cause and getting a judge to sign off on the warrant, two aspects it apparently feels only hampers its War on Drugs.
The cameras, built by Persistent Surveillance Systems, can spot people up to 25 miles away, The Washington Post reports.
The cameras, mounted on a fixed wing aircraft, can track every vehicle and person, enabling police, businesses and even private individuals to identify people and track their movements, the report says.
Ross McNutt, the president of Persistent Surveillance Systems, said the cameras have already been flown above major public events such as the Ohio political rally where Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) named Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008.
He said they have also been flown above Baltimore; Philadelphia; Compton, Calif.; and Dayton in demonstrations for police.
McNutt, a former Air Force officer who helped design a similar surveillance system for use in wartime Iraq, said he hopes to deploy the systems around the country to help solve and deter crime.
However, the use of cameras in US cities is raising civil liberties concerns, though courts have put stricter limits on technology that can see things not visible to the naked eye, ruling that they can amount to unconstitutional searches when conducted without a warrant.
“If you turn your country into a totalitarian surveillance state, there’s always some wrongdoing you can prevent,” said Jay Stanley, a privacy expert with the American Civil Liberties Union. “The balance struck in our Constitution tilts toward liberty, and I think we should keep that value.”
Last week, the ACLU joined a constitutional challenge to the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 (FAA), the statute that allows the NSA to engage in dragnet surveillance of Americans’ international phone calls and emails. With the Federal Defenders Office, we filed a motion on behalf of Jamshid Muhtorov, the first criminal defendant to receive notice that he had been monitored under this controversial spying law. But Mr. Muhtorov received this notice only after the Department of Justice (DOJ) abandoned its previous policy of concealing FAA surveillance in criminal cases — a policy that violated both the statute itself and defendants’ due process rights.
For criminal defendants and for the country, it’s good news that the government is reviewing criminal cases in which FAA evidence has played a role. But the FAA is just one surveillance program among many. And given what we now know about the DOJ’s unlawful notice policy, we should be asking whether the government has concealed in criminal prosecutions its use of other mass surveillance programs.
Let’s start with the NSA’s internet-metadata program. That program involved the NSA’s bulk collection of records about Americans’ online activity between 2001 and 2011. Under this program, the NSA vacuumed up information such as the “to” and “from” data in emails and, in all likelihood, the addresses of websites visited by Americans.
As Brett Max Kaufman and I have described elsewhere, the program has a problematic past. It was secretly authorized by President Bush in 2001 and then belatedly approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) in a secret opinion, recently declassified, that has been heavily criticized. In particular, the FISC found that bulk collection of Americans’ internet metadata was permissible under FISA’s pen-register and trap-and-trace provision (PR/TT). The program was reportedly discontinued in 2011 for “operational and resource reasons” — but only after the NSA had tracked Americans’ internet activity for a decade.
It doesn’t take much to imagine that, over those ten years, some of that internet data made its way into criminal investigations and prosecutions. Indeed, we know that the NSA collected huge volumes of metadata under this program, that it routinely pools its various streams of data in order to conduct “contact-chaining,” and that it often feeds tips or leads to the FBI and even the DEA.
If the internet-metadata program did contribute to criminal prosecutions, the government had a duty to tell defendants. That’s because FISA’s PR/TT provision includes a notice requirement. Notice is also a matter of basic due process, because defendants have the right to test whether the government obtained its evidence against them lawfully.
The government has never told a criminal defendant that the internet-metadata program supplied evidence for a prosecution — but, as the FAA experience makes plain, that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. We know that for five years the government violated an identical notice provision in the FAA, adopting a self-serving interpretation of the law that allowed the government to effectively circumvent the notice provision altogether. Indeed, after learning of DOJ’s FAA notice policy, the solicitor general reportedly concluded that it “could not be justified legally.”
It seems likely that the government embraced the same flawed legal theory with respect to notice and evidence derived from the internet-metadata program. If so, then criminal defendants were almost certainly left in the dark — and were very likely convicted with the help of this evidence.
If that’s the case, those individuals went to prison without having a chance to test the legality of the government’s bulk collection of their internet records — a program that, from its inception, stood on precarious legal ground. Any failure to provide notice would have been a violation of those defendants’ due process rights, calling their convictions into question. Let’s hope their cases are part of the Attorney General’s ongoing review.
A leading civil rights group has accused Border Patrol agents of abusing the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens and legal residents living in southern Arizona.
“Border Patrol checkpoints today bear little resemblance to those authorized by the Supreme Court. Many Border Patrol officials do not understand—or simply ignore—the legal limits of their authority at checkpoints,” James Lyall, an attorney with the ACLU of Arizona, said in an administrative complaint (pdf) sent to the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Inspector General and Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.
At least 15 American citizens have been subjected to unlawful acts by Border Patrol agents at checkpoints in Arizona, the ACLU claims.
“Residents often experience extended interrogation and detention not related to establishing citizenship, unwarranted searches, racial profiling, verbal harassment, and physical assault, among other abuses,” the letter said.
In one instance, a Border Patrol agent drew his gun at a driver, pulled him from his car and handcuffed him for 45 minutes after the individual declined to answer questions unrelated to citizenship.
Another incident saw Border Patrol agents order a driver and passenger from their vehicle, and place them in wire cages while their car was searched—and all because a service dog detected something in another car.
A third case involved a mother of twin six-year-old children being threatened and assaulted by agents for lawfully attempting to record a search of her vehicle following a false canine alert.
All of the aforementioned individuals, as well as others mentioned in the ACLU complaint, were released and never charged with violating immigration or other laws. The ACLU wants the incidents it documented to be investigated.
The group previously filed two other complaints (in April 2012 and October 2013) alleging abuses by Border Patrol agents. To date, it has not received a response from the government about them.
“The ACLU believes the lack of response to widespread civil rights abuses by the nation’s largest federal law enforcement agency is symptomatic of broader oversight failures within CBP and DHS,” it said in a press release.
To Learn More:
Border Patrol Checkpoints in Southern Arizona Violate the Constitutional Rights of Border Residents, ACLU of Arizona Demands Investigation (American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona)
Complaint and Request for Investigation of Abuses at U.S. Border Patrol Interior Checkpoints in Southern Arizona, including Unlawful Search and Seizure, Excessive Force, and Racial Profiling (American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona and American Civil Liberties Union Border Litigation Project) (pdf)
Federal Judge Rules that Border Patrol Does Not Need Reasonable Suspicion to Confiscate Laptops and Phones (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)
10 Lawsuits Filed against Border Patrol for Abuse (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)
In his recent speech on surveillance, President Obama treated the misuse of intelligence gathering as a relic of American history. It was something done in the bad old days of J. Edgar Hoover, and never countenanced by recent administrations. But the accumulation of menacing stories—from fusion centers to “joint terrorism task forces” to a New York “demographics unit” targeting Muslims—is impossible to ignore. The American Civil Liberties Union has now collected instances of police surveillance and obstruction of First Amendment‐protected activity in over half the states. From Alaska (where military intelligence spied on an anti-war group) to Florida (where Quakers and anti-globalization activists were put on watchlists), protesters have been considered threats, rather than citizens exercising core constitutional rights. Political dissent is a routine target for surveillance by the FBI.
Admittedly, I am unaware of the NSA itself engaging in politically driven spying on American citizens. Charles Krauthammer says there has not been a “single case” of abuse. But the NSA is only one part of the larger story of intelligence gathering in the US, which involves over 1,000 agencies and nearly 2,000 private companies. Moreover, we have little idea of exactly how information and requests flow between agencies. Consider the Orwellian practice of “parallel construction.” Reuters has reported that the NSA gave “tips” to the Special Operations Division (SOD) of the Drug Enforcement Administration, which also shared them with the Internal Revenue Service.
The legal status of such information sharing is murky at best: the national security data is not supposed to be used for law enforcement purposes. Apparently the SOD sidestepped these niceties by re-creating criminal investigations from scratch, fabricating alternative grounds for suspecting the targets. Thus the “parallel construction” of two realities for the law enforcers: one actual, secret record of how targets were selected, and another specially crafted for consumption by courts. Two senior Drug Enforcement Administration officials defended the program and called it legal, but did not disclose their reasoning. At present, the practice looks like little more than intelligence laundering. Five senators asked the Department of Justice to assess the legality of “parallel construction;” it has yet to respond.
I have little doubt that the DEA used parallel construction in cases involving some pretty nasty characters. It must be tempting to apply “war on terror” tactics to the “war on drugs.” Nevertheless, there are serious legal and ethical concerns here. One of the American revolutionaries’ chief complaints against the British Crown was the indiscriminate use of “general warrants,” which allowed authorities to search the homes of anyone without particularized suspicion they had committed a crime. Thus the 4th Amendment to the US Constitution decrees that “no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause.” Law enforcers aren’t supposed to set up “dragnet surveillance” of every communication, or use whatever data stores are compiled by the National Security Agency, unless there is a true security threat.
Between 1956 and 1971, the FBI’s COINTELPRO program engaged in domestic covert action designed to disrupt groups engaged in the civil rights, antiwar, and communist movements. As Lawrence Rosenthal has observed, “History reflects a serious risk of abuse in investigations based on the protected speech of the targets,” and politicians at the time responded. Reviewing intelligence agency abuses from that time period, the Church Committee issued a series of damning reports in 1975-76, leading to some basic reforms. If a new Church Committee were convened, it would have to cover much of the same ground. Moreover, it would need to put in place real safeguards against politicized (or laundered) domestic intelligence gathering. Those are presently lacking. I have yet to find a case where the parties involved in any of the intelligence politicization (or laundering) were seriously punished. Nor have I seen evidence that the victims of such incidents have received just compensation for the unwarranted intrusion on their affairs.
Before we can develop better surveillance policy, we need something like a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to review (and rebuke) the politicization of intelligence gathering post-9/11. Too many privacy activists have been unwilling to admit the persistence of catastrophic threats that may only be detected by spies. But the US government has been even less moored to reality, unwilling to admit that a runaway surveillance state has engaged in precisely the types of activities that the Bill of Rights is designed to prevent. To have a debate about the proper balance between liberty and security, we need to confront the many cases where misguided intelligence personnel spied on activists with neither goal in mind.
Frank Pasquale is Professor of Law at the University of Maryland. His research agenda focuses on challenges posed to information law by rapidly changing technology, particularly in the health care, internet, and finance industries. Frank accepts comments via email, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Court Says Border Searches Of Your Computer Are Okay Because You Shouldn’t Keep Important Info On Your Computer
This one is hardly a surprise, given how many (though not all) courts have ruled concerning searches of computing devices at the border. The government’s general theory is that there is no 4th Amendment right at the border, and thus customs officials can search anything. The argument that they’re trying to prevent “bad stuff” from getting into the country really doesn’t make much sense though. If bad stuff is “on a computer” it could easily be sent digitally across the border with no intervention from a customs official. Furthermore, making border searches of laptops and phones even more troubling is the nature of how information is stored. When we pack for a trip we deliberately choose what to include in our suitcase — so we know what’s coming with us. However, on our electronic devices, we pretty much store absolutely everything. Arguing that these are subject to a full search seems problematic — but many courts have found otherwise.
And, now there’s another one. A judge in NY has dismissed a challenge to the searches brought by the ACLU. The judge, Edward Korman, repeatedly quotes former head of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, who now makes money by hyping up the threats the country faces, so it’s not like he’s the most unbiased of folks to be relying on for how important these border searches really are. Judge Korman claims that the defendants have no standing to bring the case in the first place. There is one individual (a PhD. student) who actually had his computer searched, and then some professional organizations who worried about their members having their computers searched. The judge is simply not impressed by their arguments… at all. He notes that Customs and Border Patrol appears to search so few laptops that it’s highly unlikely that any individual will have theirs searched — and thus these groups can’t really allege a likely harm. He points out that it’s wrong to use a declaratory judgment case to address “a claim of alleged injury based on speculation as to conduct which may or may not occur at some unspecified future date.”
As for the one guy, Pascal Abidor, who did have his laptop searched, Judge Korman is also not impressed, noting that he’s not suing over that particular search, but the possibility of future searches. The judge seems a bit perplexed by this decision, but notes that it takes away his ability to get standing:
Abidor could have established standing in this case by adding a cause of action for damages based on his claim that he was subject to an unreasonable search. Such a cause of action would have provided the occasion for a trial or a motion for summary judgment that would have fully developed the record with respect to both the initial quick look search and subsequent forensic search. No such action is alleged.
But, as Judge Korman notes, if he can’t show any real likelihood of future harm, he can’t show standing.
Even after dismissing for lack of standing, the judge decides to take on the issue anyway, and this is where he starts to get really insulting to anyone who thinks that perhaps they should have some privacy rights at the border. He openly mocks the plaintiffs for arguing for the need for a “reasonable suspicion” standard for searches, noting that this bar is so low that it’s not like they’d get much more privacy out if it anyway:
Plaintiffs must be drinking the Kool-Aid if they think that a reasonable suspicion threshold of this kind will enable them to “guarantee” confidentiality to their sources.
He goes on to suggest that since traveling internationally involves going into other countries, these same people would probably have even less privacy over their data, since other countries may be even more willing to search their computers. He even cites the situation of David Miranda having his electronics searched in the UK.
Surely, Pascal Abidor cannot be so naive to expect that when he crosses the Syrian or Lebanese border that the contents of his computer will be immune from searches and seizures at the whim of those who work for Bassar al-Assad or Hassan Nasrallah. Indeed, the New York Times recently reported on the saga of David Michael Miranda who was detained for nine hours by British authorities “while on a stop in London’s Heathrow airport during a trip from Germany to Brazil.”
While the judge’s point is correct that other countries are unlikely to protect the privacy of travelers as well, and that means that any information on a laptop may be inherently unsafe, it seems like a bit of a weak copout to argue that since other countries have no respect for your electronic privacy, that the US shouldn’t either.
He goes even further, arguing that because there’s a “special need” at the border to stop bad people, that it’s perfectly fine to ignore things like probable cause or reasonable suspicion — again quoting Michael Chertoff to suggest that border laptop searches have stopped “bad people” from entering the US.
But then he argues that since everyone knows they may be searched at the border, there isn’t really an invasion of privacy:
The invasion of privacy occasioned by such a border search, however, like the search of luggage, briefcases, and even clothing worn by a person entering the United States, is mitigated by other factors….. As Professor LaFave observes, because “the individual crossing a border is on notice that certain types of searchers are likely to be made, his privacy is less invaded by those searches.” …. Thus, “[t]he individual traveler determines the time and place of the search by his own actions, and he thus has ample opportunity to diminish the impact of that search by limiting the nature and character of the effects which he brings with him.”… Indeed, because of the large number of laptop computers (close to a million per year) that are lost by travelers–numbers that far exceed the comparative handful of laptops that are searched at the border–the sensible advice to all travelers is to “[t]hink twice about the information you carry on your laptop,” and to ask themselves: “Is it really necessary to have so much information accessible to you on your computer.”
This seems problematic on multiple levels. First, if we go by the idea that there’s less of a privacy violation because you know it’s coming, then that gives the government the right to ignore the 4th Amendment so long as it tells you ahead of time that it’s going to ignore the 4th Amendment. Even the Supreme Court in Smith v. Maryland — the infamous case concerning the 3rd party doctrine — states that such a scenario is ridiculous, and that just because you know that you’re going to be searched, it doesn’t automatically make the search reasonable.
As for the suggestion that you shouldn’t store stuff on your computers, I’m sure that’s great in theory, but I’d like judges to make decisions based in reality. This suggestion is basically “don’t use your computer for what it’s designed for, because we might search it.” That’s not exactly compelling.
Again, given past precedents, and the specific facts of this case, it’s not entirely surprising. That doesn’t mean it’s not disappointing to see yet another middle finger given to the 4th Amendment to close out the year.
- Lawsuit Challenging Laptop Searches at US Border Is Dismissed by Federal Judge (dissenter.firedoglake.com)
- RT: Constitution ‘exemption’ zone spans 100 miles inland of US border – judg (jhaines6.wordpress.com)