Archive for July, 2013

No, that’s not what the Fifth Circuit said.

Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

The internet is abuzz over yesterday’s Fifth Circuit decision on cell-site data. And hardly anyone seems to know what they’re talking about, as usual.

It’s to be expected when sources like Wired say “cops can track cellphones without warrants, appeals court rules.” Which is not what the court ruled at all. After all, you can’t expect tech zines to be accurate on the law. And it’s to be expected when tons of people get all upset on sites like Reddit, because they only saw the inaccurate headlines and are now freaking out about something that never happened. But when the usually responsible New York Times jumps in with “warrantless cellphone tracking is upheld,” it might be time to get concerned.

Yes, there is a lot of concern these days with government access of our data. A lot of that concern is legitimate, and a lot is misplaced, but the fact that the conversation is even happening is a wonderful thing. Except the conversation is downright counterproductive when nobody knows what they’re talking about. And such lazy (or deceitful?) reporting isn’t doing anyone any good.

Here’s what the court said, in a nutshell:

1) The government wanted to get historical data of cell sites that were used by certain phones. Not real-time data. Not tracking.

2) Existing law says this is allowed when the government can provide specific and articulable facts that make it reasonable to conclude that the data will be relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.

3) The government did exactly that.

4) The lower court screwed up, and applied the rule for getting real-time data. The lower court needs to do it over again. Period.

All the court did was apply existing law, correctly.

What the ACLU and EFF and others wanted, however, was for the court to break new ground, and create a new legal standard. I am in favor of such things — a court’s not going to do that unless you ask, and I encourage making such arguments at every meaningful opportunity. But this court said it wasn’t going to touch that issue with a ten foot pole. (It did suggest going to Congress, to change the law. Congress passed the statute that enables such requests of phone companies, and right now the statute simply tracks existing Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. But the statute could always impose greater burdens on the government than are required by the Fourth Amendment. The Constitution is a floor, not a ceiling, after all. So why not lobby Congress to amend the relevant statute?)

Or they could, you know, take it up with the Supreme Court and ask them to change their mind on what’s reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

The problem, of course, is that the existing rule fits neatly within the general principles of how the Fourth Amendment works.

Basically, the Fourth Amendment comes into play when the government intrudes on something that you would reasonably expect to be private. They’re allowed to do it when they have a warrant based on probable cause to believe they’ll find evidence of a crime or catch a criminal. And they’re also allowed to do it without a warrant if it’s reasonable to let the government do so — when your privacy interests are outweighed by some other concern like public safety.

So the first issue is whether historical cell-site data is something you would reasonably expect to be private. The ACLU and EFF and others say it is. The government says it isn’t. And existing law says that it isn’t. This is the new ground that the court was being asked to break.

Cell site data is not something that you create. The government isn’t going into your phone or your computer to access the data. It’s not yours. Instead, it is a record kept by your phone company. They create the data, and they retain the data.

Cell site data does not contain the contents of your communications. What you’re saying and texting and emailing and posting are not being accessed. It only says what cell tower your phone was using at the time. Which can give a general idea of where your phone was at the time.

Historical cell site data does not tell the government where your phone is right now. It’s not a tracking device. It’s not real time. It just lists the towers your phone was using back then.

This cell site data is created by the business, not by you. And it’s about a transaction which that business engaged in. It’s not just about you. It’s a record of its interaction with your phone. It’s nothing more or less than a routine business record, of the business’s own activity, kept in the ordinary and regular course of business. It’s not about you.

And the government did not compel the business to collect that data.

So when the government goes to the business and says “give us those business records,” it is not so much your privacy that’s being invaded as it is the business’s privacy. The act of getting the data, the act itself, does not require any intrusion into your own privacy. They’re not going into your phone or home or computer to get it.

And the data itself is not something that’s yours to claim as your own private information. You didn’t create it, you didn’t keep it.

But the law does recognize that you do have some expectation of privacy here. Just not anywhere near as much as if you were the one who created or kept the data. So the government has to make some showing that it’s actually relevant to an actual criminal investigation. They just don’t have to show there’s probable cause to believe they’ll get evidence of a crime. It’s a similar standard as for getting a pen register — real-time data of the numbers you’re calling, without overhearing the contents of the communications.

Also, stepping away from your interests for a moment: We don’t want law enforcement* just randomly poking through records for no reason, hoping to chance on evidence of a crime — the Fourth Amendment hates it when that happens. It’s not about your privacy, but everyone’s. So they can’t demand records in bulk. They have to be records of a specific phone, that they have specific reason to believe will be useful. It’s arguable that this consideration is even more important than your privacy interests, when it comes to setting the standard the government has to meet.

In the end, the law just isn’t on the ACLU & EFF’s side right now. They need to change the law, if they want the government to have to jump through the probable cause hoop here. They made a game effort of asking the Fifth Circuit to take the plunge, but the Circuit punted (I love mixing metaphors, don’t you judge me). They can lobby Congress to increase the government’s burden, and whip up public support for it (which is entirely possible), or they can try to get the Supreme Court to reinterpret the Fourth Amendment here (yeah, good luck with that).

But this decision broke no new ground. It did not give law enforcement new powers. It did not undermine the Fourth Amendment.

Please, if you’re going to get up in arms about it, do so for the right reasons. Not because you didn’t understand what happened in the first place. And don’t misrepresent what happened to try to foment misinformed popular outcry.

I’m looking at you, New York Times.

*Not the same as national security or intelligence, by the way, but that’s a whole nother discussion.

Ray Kelly on Stop-and-Frisk: You saved HOW many lives?

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013

NYC’s Police Commissioner Ray Kelly wrote a piece for today’s WSJ titled “The NYPD: Guilty of Saving 7,383 Lives” and subtitled “Accusations of racial profiling ignore the fact that violent crime overwhelmingly occurs in minority neighborhoods.” In it, he makes a great case for the fact that his cherished stop-and-frisk program is not effective policing, and may in fact lead to more crime.

That’s not his intent, of course. His purpose is to defend the NYPD’s much-maligned stop-and-frisk program (and also its surveillance of political dissidents). He doesn’t succeed. In fact, he does a great job of discrediting himself right off the bat. Which is a shame, because he makes it too easy to roll your eyes at him, and that would be a mistake. This stuff demands serious discussion.

He starts off with a burst of illogic and bad math, to wit:

(A) During the 11 years Bloomberg’s been mayor, unspecified tens of thousands of weapons have been seized by the police;
(B) During those same 11 years, there were 7,383 fewer murders than in the preceding 11 years [though he cites 13,212 and 5,849 as the figures, so the actual difference would be 7,363];
(C) The NYPD has saved 7,383 lives.

Uh huh. Right.

Well, he IS right that crime is way down. A careful statistician might even observe that crime in this city is way WAY down. And this is a good thing.

But to what extent is it a result of the police seizing all those weapons? (And how many weapons did they seize in the 11 years before Bloomberg? He doesn’t say.) In fact, to what extent is the drop in crime the result of policing policies at all? Most research I’ve read seems to support demographic shifts and maturing community attitudes as its primary causes.

Kelly makes this “we saved lives” point in order to justify the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program. He makes other arguments, too. Taken together, his arguments all boil down to “it works, therefore it’s justified.”

No. Wrong.

Just because something works, that doesn’t make it right. Or even legal. Just think of the atrocities the State could commit if mere effectiveness was all the justification it needed. Better yet, don’t think of them. I don’t want to give you nightmares.

But put that aside for now. Is he even right to claim that it’s working, in the first place?


It is silly to deny that good policing can affect crime rates. When the police are effective — when criminals stand a good chance of being caught and punished — then that effectiveness serves as a deterrent. People who otherwise might have committed a crime are more likely to think twice about it.

Then again, we are talking about violent crime, here. How much violent crime is even capable of being deterred? Most assaults and murders are unplanned, spur-of-the-emotions stuff. The odds of being caught and punished aren’t exactly being weighed. Even an effective police force will have an iffy deterrent effect there, at best.

But that’s not what stop-and-frisk is about. And it’s not really about getting weapons off the streets, either.

Stop-and-frisk is about making the risky people take their risky behavior somewhere else.

The NYPD is doing it because they think it will work. That it has worked. That it is working.

And they are wrong.


First things first: It is (more…)

Confused about the outcome

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

You’re not the only one to ask, that’s for sure.  The short answer is this:

  1. The prosecution had the burden to remove all reasonable doubt from the jury’s minds — both that Zimmerman had committed every element of the crimes charged, and that he had not acted in self-defense.
  2. This was a very difficult case for them to prove.  Their evidence was iffy and called for a lot of speculation.  Their arguments were easily shot down by the defense.  And the defense view of the case was fairly consistent with the evidence.  At the end of the day, there was plenty of room for doubt about a lot of important things.
  3. With all that doubt, the jurors found that the state had not met its burden, which meant that they had to say “not guilty.”

Different people are confused and upset about this for different reasons.

Some are confused about what the evidence was, how the law applied to it, and where all the reasonable doubt came from.  I can try to go over all that with illustrations later, if you like. (I don’t mind, it’d be fun.)

Others are confused because they think the jury’s job was to decide what really happened, rather than to decide whether the state had proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt.  The jury’s verdict doesn’t mean “George Zimmerman is innocent” or “George Zimmerman was justified to shoot in self-defense.”  All it means is “the prosecution did not prove every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt” and “the prosecution did not prove it wasn’t self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Also, in cases like this, a lot of people take sides without knowing (or even caring) what the actual evidence was, or how the law applies to it.

Instead, a lot of people take sides, for and against, because they want to further some sort of political agenda.  There is a narrative they want the case to tell, regardless of what the facts really were.  It’s all about their cause, not the case.  So of course they get upset when the jury’s verdict doesn’t fit their narrative.

And a lot of other people take sides because they get the sense that one or the other is the “right” side to be on.  Sort of a knee-jerk, follow-the-crowd sort of thing.  They may not really know what was going on, but they feel that they are on the side of good and justice.  So of course they get upset when the jury’s verdict isn’t what the crowd had led them to expect.

Yes, juries can and do come back with bizarre verdicts that make you wonder how many brain cells they had between them.  But this just isn’t one of those cases.  The jury’s verdict was not at all unsurprising, given what came out during the trial.  It would be very easy for people of ordinary judgment to believe that the government came nowhere near proving its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Zimmerman may or may not have committed the crime with which he was charged.  But that jury had good reason to come back with a “not guilty” verdict after that trial.


You wanna hear something shocking?  I don’t think the prosecutors really (more…)

Hello again

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

Hello, again. That was quite the hiatus, there.

Long story short, I sort of got the feeling that folks wanted me to spend more time on the comic, which ate into the time I would have spent doing this.  And eventually took over.  Which is a shame, because here I don’t have to stick to my syllabus, but get to write about whatever’s going on.

But three people in three days have told me that this blog was in fact valuable for them.  And I did miss it.  So I guess I’ll have to make time for both.

The next post won’t take any time at all, though — I’m just going to cut-and-paste an answer I wrote to one of my Tumblr followers last night about the Zimmerman case. That’s cheating, I know.  But I promise more new content shortly.