Posts Tagged ‘surveillance’

Standing to Sue the NSA?

Monday, November 2nd, 2015

A couple of weeks ago, Wikimedia’s lawsuit against the NSA got thrown out. Wikimedia (and the ACLU, NACDL, Amnesty International, and many more) claimed the NSA was violating everyone’s rights with its “upstream” surveillance of internet communications. The court dismissed the case because nobody could prove that they had “standing” to bring the case in the first place. The plaintiffs failed to establish that the NSA had actually intercepted any actual communications. They relied on statistics — there are gazillions of communications that go over the wires being monitored, so there must have been improper interceptions. The court said “must have been” isn’t good enough, there isn’t standing, good day.

This isn’t the first time that’s happened. A few weeks before that, a Pennsylvania divorce lawyer had his case against the NSA shot down for the same reason — he couldn’t prove that he himself had been harmed, because he couldn’t show that any of his communications had actually been intercepted. So no standing, case dismissed.

These cases rely on the 2013 Supreme Court ruling in Clapper v. Amnesty International, which held that merely “possible” injury isn’t enough to assert standing in a case like this. You need to show that the injury is real, and either actually happened or is truly imminent. Even if there’s a reasonably good chance that your communications were intercepted, that’s not good enough. There’s no res ipsa loquitur when it comes to standing here.

Of course, that’s nonsense, because the whole doctrine of res ipsa is basically “yeah, the plaintiff can’t prove you harmed him, but come on! It’s pretty obvious you must have.” It’s rebuttable, but the doctrine at least lets the plaintiff into the courthouse. [Yes I know Fourth Amendment and First Amendment jurisprudence aren’t exactly the same as that of negligence in Torts, but come on.]

It doesn’t matter, though, because this is what the Supreme Court always does in cases like this. None of this is a surprise to anyone.

In Clapper, the appellants wanted the Court to say  §1881a of FISA is unconstitutional, as is the NSA’s surveillance of communications. The Supreme Court did not want to deal with these issues. This “no standing” decision is their way of saying that.

An important fact about the Supreme Court is that it doesn’t have to take every case that comes its way. It gets to pick and choose, for the most part. They exercise this discretion, for the most part, based on purely nonpolitical considerations such as how busy they are. Or because a given case isn’t the right one to make a ruling with, and they’re waiting for a better one to come along. (Sometimes they do appear to cross the line with their discretion, see Bush v. Gore, and when that happens the entire authority of the Court gets called into question. A lesson that has to get re-learned every now and then.)

Prudence is another consideration that the Court takes into account when accepting or rejecting a case. In other words, “we’d better not get involved in this issue.”

If you look back at all the times the Court has skirted an issue by saying a party had no standing, it’s hard to find a definition of standing that reconciles them all. I’ll go so far as to say that they are irreconcilable. There is no consistent theory that explains them all. Except, that is, the consideration of Prudence. When you take into consideration the Court’s desire to not go sticking its nose in a sensitive matter, everything becomes clear.

It’s been the Court’s practice to do this for a long time, now. This very fact was taught in the very first class of my first year of law school, back in 1993, and it was already an old habit long before then. So it cannot have come as a surprise to anyone. I’ll bet you a dollar that even if you did find proof that your personal communications had been intercepted — and after Snowden and all the other post-Clapper revelations, it’s easier to meet some of the Court’s conditions — they’d still find a way to say you lacked standing. They’ve left themselves plenty of wiggle room, there.

That doesn’t mean you don’t keep trying! Just don’t be surprised if they keep refusing to get to the merits. They don’t want any part of it.

Q&A Roundup Part 3

Friday, September 18th, 2015

Hey Nathan,

I’m ≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡, an AI MSc student. Your comic is great! : ) I have some questions.
 
(1) The Good Wife, a show about lawyers, makes law knowledge seem a bit like a weapon to be used for attack and defence to help one navigate the civilized world. To what extent is this true? That is, what exactly is the utility of law knowledge without a license to practice it? Does being the best unlicensed lawyer in the universe turn you into a superhero or just an interesting dude?
 
(2) Suppose hypothetically that the AI apocalypse will be upon us in 5-20 years. Will laws about AI rights be passed? Will the development of AI systems in uncontrolled environments become illegal in an effort to prevent it?
 
(3) Along similar lines, it might, in the not too distant future, be trivial to surveil everything, everywhere, all the time. How does the legal system address this? How do you see the law evolving as these waves of technology hit us?
 
Cheers,
≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡

Thanks for writing, ≡≡≡≡≡≡≡≡! Each of your questions could make for a long article in a law review, but here are some quick off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts:

1) I haven’t seen the show, but there are certainly people out there who try to use knowledge of law (and rules in general) as a tool to get their way. Sometimes it’s to prevent other people from doing something, sometimes it’s to make other people do something, and sometimes it’s to get money from people. Obstruction, compulsion, and extortion. They’re rare, in my experience, but they do exist.
If you think of life in a given society as a game, then the law is simply the rulebook for playing that game. And it can be hard to play the game if you don’t have at least a basic understanding of the rules (which is what I’m trying to give folks with my comic). The better you understand the rules that apply to you, the better you’ll be able to play the game, the less likely another player will be able to cheat you, and the better your understanding of the game itself. Similarly, the better you understand the law that applies to you, the better you’ll be able to make informed decisions, protect yourself from those who would use law as a weapon, and the deeper your understanding of our society and culture. The utility of law knowledge is the ability to navigate life.
The reason why lawyers exist, and why there is such a demand for them, is because we keep adding to the rulebook and rewriting it and making it ever more complex and arcane. Nobody can know all of it, so we hire people who understand the bit that affects us right now, and pay them for advice and to make decisions on our behalf. But that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t bother learning at least the basics of law, and just leave it all up to the lawyers. That would be like downloading a bot to play the game for you. And not even knowing which kind of bot to get.
I don’t think a fundamental knowledge of the law makes one either a superhero or extra interesting. I think it’s a basic prerequisite for functioning in any society.
2) The less we understand something, the more we fear it. The more we fear something, the more we try to prevent it. Often, this means passing laws to prohibit something when we don’t understand what we’re prohibiting. Laws like that are typically both overbroad, punishing those it wasn’t aiming at, and ineffective against the intended target.
Most people have even less understanding of technology than they do of law. Politicians and regulators are no different. I’d expect all kinds of laws trying to regulate and prohibit scary tech, and I’d expect blameless people to be prosecuted and punished simply because they’re easy to catch and easy to convict according to poorly-thought-out laws, and I’d expect people who want to develop the tech to find ways of doing so regardless.
In other words, we’ll do what we always do.
3) The concern with surveillance is mostly with how the government can do it. For individuals and businesses, the main concern is not breaking laws against wiretapping – recording someone’s voice without their knowledge. This is why many security video cameras don’t have a microphone.
When it comes to the government, all these extra cameras everywhere are a potential source of evidence that the government could subpoena – and because it wasn’t the government taking the videos, there’d be no issue about whether the government violated your rights when the video was taken. Free evidence that won’t be suppressed. The expense would be in tracking down useful videos and subpoenaing them before they’ve been deleted.
But what I think you’re getting at is whether there may be an erosion of our “expectation of privacy” – and therefore our protections against government surveillance – as surveillance in general becomes more ubiquitous and technologically advanced. I think that’s extremely likely. After all, if a reasonable person would have to expect that he or his stuff could be detected by any private individual or entity, then how can it be reasonable to prohibit the police from detecting it? Not just security video and things people capture with their cell phones, but also code that tracks behavior online, and other details yet to be imagined.
As surveillance technology advances and its use gets more ubiquitous, we’ll have two options: (a) prohibit people from using or making advanced devices; severely restrict public photography and video recording; and restrict the production and use of software that can analyze it; or (b) let the government see what any private person or organization could see. The first option is impractical, unworkable, and in my opinion morally wrong. So we’re probably going to have to go with the second. Our expectation of privacy is going to erode, and the government will be allowed to see more and more of what we do.
I’d be interested to hear what other people think about these questions. All the best!

On the DEA’s Special Operations Division

Monday, August 5th, 2013

It should be clear by now that I’m no apologist for governmental overreach or law enforcement abuses. But after the news broke this morning about the DEA’s Special Operations Division, and everyone has been freaking out about yet another erosion of the Fourth Amendment, I feel like I ought to tone it down just a little bit. I have a little inside info here, because back in my days as a narcotics prosecutor, I dealt with them. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to divulge anything I shouldn’t.)

A lot of international drug trafficking takes place outside our borders, so the idea was to take advantage of intelligence data to make the drug war more effective. You just can’t use the intelligence  data in court. So SOD was formed as a way to make the information known, without compromising criminal investigations.

As reported, what the SOD does is get evidence from sources that can never see the light of day in court — usually from intelligence services here and abroad. Wiretaps conducted without regard to Title III because they’re not intended for criminal prosecution, top secret sources, and the like. If something comes up about some big drug trafficking — not at all uncommon to hear about in the intelligence world — then the SOD hears about it. Then they clue in law enforcement. It’s up to law enforcement to figure out how to gather the evidence legally. SOD’s involvement and its tips are rarely shared with prosecutors, and almost never with the defense or the courts.

So there’s a lot of understandable brouhaha that Obama’s eroding our privacy, the Fourth Amendment has been eroded even further, it’s unfair to the defense, this country’s going to hell in a handbasket, etc. People are concerned that law enforcement is “laundering” its evidence so it can use stuff that should have been inadmissible, and lying to everyone to cover it up.

First of all, this didn’t start on Obama’s watch. It got started under Clinton, back in ’94. And its existence has been fairly common knowledge in criminal law circles ever since. It’s even been reported on before.

Second of all, the whole “evidence laundering” thing isn’t quite accurate.

When I was dealing with them, back in the late ’90s and early ’00s, we in my office only half-jokingly called them “the dark side.” It was well understood that you couldn’t build a case off of their information. We’d never know where their information came from, for one thing. Without a source to put on the stand, the information couldn’t even be a brick in the wall of any case we wanted to construct.

And to be fair, the SOD folks themselves were very clear in their instructions: Their information was not to be used as evidence. It was only to help us figure out what we were looking at in an investigation, and let us know about other things we might want to be looking for. It was all along the lines of “how you gather your evidence is up to you, but you ought to know that this Carlos guy you’re looking at is part of a much larger organization, and his role is… and their shipment chain appears to have nodes here, here, and here… and your subject Gilberto over here is looking for a new local dealer.”

So what would you do? You’d realize Carlos wasn’t the top of the food chain, and start looking at your evidence in a different way, maybe change the focus of your investigation. And you’d pay more attention to traffic going to certain places. And you’d try to get an undercover introduced to Gilberto as his new dealer. You weren’t being spoon-fed evidence, but being clued in on where to look for it and what it might mean.

The Reuters article everyone’s citing quotes former DEA agent Finn Selander as saying “It’s just like laundering money — you work it backwards to make it clean,” in reference to a practice called “parallel construction.” He makes it sound like law enforcement obtained its trial evidence illegally, and then went back and tried to think up a way to make it look admissible. That would indeed be cause for much concern. And you’re kidding yourself if you don’t think that’s something police do on a daily basis.

But that’s not what “parallel construction” means. It means “dammit, I have this evidence that I cannot use. Is there another way to go get this evidence that is lawful? Why yes there is! Let me go do that now.”

So let’s say you know that a blue van with Florida plates XXX-XXXX will be going up I-95 this weekend, loaded with heroin in a variety of clever traps. But you can’t just pull it over because you can’t introduce that information in court for whatever reason. Instead, you follow it in a series of unmarked cars, until it makes a moving violation. Which is very likely to happen, no matter how careful the driver is (it’s practically impossible to travel very far without committing some moving violation or other). You now have a lawful basis to pull the van over. And a dog sniff doesn’t even count as a Fourth Amendment search, so out comes the convenient K-9. And tada! Instant lawful search and seizure, and the original reason why you were following him is not only unnecessary but irrelevant.

It doesn’t matter if the original reason you wanted to pull the van over came from the dark side or from an anonymous tip or from a hunch. It’s a legal stop, and the original reason doesn’t matter. This is a very common scenario in day-to-day law enforcement, and isn’t specific to the SOD.

Or think of this equally very common scenario: Someone inside an organization has given you probable cause to go up on a wire and to arrest a lot of people. But you don’t want that person’s identity to ever come out, or even raise any suspicion that there was ever an inside informant. So you get that guy to introduce an undercover. Who maybe introduces yet another undercover. And you only use information that the undercovers themselves develop to build your probable cause and build your case. The original informant’s identity need never be disclosed.

Those examples are parallel construction. It’s not about going back and laundering your evidence. It’s about going forward to gather it lawfully this time.

I’m not saying the dark side isn’t cause for concern. Law enforcement and intelligence are supposed to be two entirely different things. We have given the government amazing intelligence-gathering powers on the understanding that it won’t be used against our own citizens, and won’t be used for law enforcement. A very good argument can be made that the SOD program subverts that super-important limitation on government power.

But it’s harder to argue that it violates the Fourth Amendment or gets evidence in court that should have been inadmissible.

If you’re gonna complain about it, at least complain for the right reason.

NY High Court Requires Warrant for GPS Tracking, But Offers No Guidance for Future Technologies

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

gps-track.png

In a lengthy decision today New York’s highest court ruled that police must get a warrant before they can put a GPS tracking device in a suspect’s car. In its ruling today, in the case of People v. Weaver, the New York Court of Appeals went out of its way to distinguish the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in U.S. v. Knotts, 460 U.S. 276 (1983).

In Knotts, the Supreme Court had said it was fine for law enforcement to put a rudimentary “beeper” tracking device inside a container of chloroform so that they could track its movements. Of course, technology has progressed since then. In today’s case, state police had slapped a GPS device known as a Q-Ball on Scott Weaver’s car, and left it there for 65 days. The device recorded in exact detail where the car went throughout that time, how fast it was going, essentially performing an uninterrupted physical surveillance.

The New York court said that, although the old technology was just an enhancement of ordinary surveillance, the new technology is just too invasive, and therefore requires a warrant before law enforcement can use it.

In getting there, the court spent a pleasant few pages outlining the evolution of Fourth Amendment law, reminding us that until at least 1928 it only protected searches of material property, and so intangible searches such as wiretaps required no warrant. Brandeis, however, wrote a dissent to that 1928 case that struck a chord, and soon American law had come to agree with him that:

The protection guaranteed by the [4th and 5th] Amendments is much broader in scope [than the protection of property]. The makers of our Constitution undertook to secure conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness. They recognized the significance of man’s spiritual nature, of his feelings and of his intellect. They knew that only a part of the pain, pleasure and satisfactions of life are to be found in material things. They sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations. They conferred, as against the Government, the right to be let alone — the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men. To protect that right, every unjustifiable intrusion by the Government upon the privacy of the individual, whatever the means employed, must be deemed a violation of the Fourth Amendment. And the use, as evidence in a criminal proceeding, of facts ascertained by such intrusion must be deemed a violation of the Fifth.

Olmstead v. U.S., 277 U.S. 438, 478-479 (1928)(Brandeis, J., dissent). Still, the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t really get around to adopting this view until Katz v. U.S., 389 U.S. 347 (1967):

the underpinnings of Olmstead and Goldman have been so eroded by our subsequent decisions that the ‘trespass’ doctrine there enunciated can no longer be regarded as controlling. The Government’s activities in electronically listening to and recording the petitioner’s words violated the privacy upon which he justifiably relied while using the telephone booth and thus constituted a ‘search and seizure’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. The fact that the electronic device employed to achieve that end did not happen to penetrate the wall of the booth can have no constitutional significance.

It looks as if the Court of Appeals wanted to continue the evolution of Fourth Amendment law, at least in New York state cases. The Knotts case had analogized the beeper tracker to a powerful set of binoculars that merely assisted cops see something they were already looking at. But a modern GPS is far more than that. “GPS is a vastly different and exponentially more sophisticated and powerful technology that is easily and cheaply deployed and has virtually unlimited and remarkably precise tracking capability.”

From planting a single device, the court said, the police may now “learn, practically effortlessly… the whole of a person’s progress through the world, into both public and private spatial spheres… over lengthy periods possibly limited only by the need to change the transmitting unit’s batteries.” [That’s true. Indeed, when we used to run investigations involving GPS transmitters and eavesdropping bugs placed inside cars, they’d be set up to run off the cars’ batteries, giving them unlimited staying power.] Police can get instantaneous disclosure of indisputably private trips. Knowing where someone went tells you much more: their political affiliation, their religious community, their lovers, their associations, their activities, what they do and who they do them with.

That doesn’t mean the police shouldn’t be allowed to use this tool, but only that the potential invasion of privacy is now so great that it requires court approval before it can happen. And there will of course be exceptions to the warrant requirement, as in a kidnapping or other exigent circumstance.

There was nothing in the record indicating why the police in this case used a GPS, so there was no evidence of an exigent circumstance. It seemed to be little more than “a hunch or curiosity” that caused them to do it.

The court was careful to state that this only applies to New York state law. The U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t ruled on this yet, and neither have most of the Circuits. But the states are free to provide greater individual protections than those established by federal law, which is only a bare minimum rather than an exemplar.

New York isn’t the first to issue a ruling like this. Washington did it in 2003, as did Oregon in 1988. But that’s only two states out of fifty, and their jurisprudence is not quite representative of the rest of the country. Just last Thursday, for example, Wisconsin’s court ruled the opposite way. And the federal Circuit courts that have decided this issue have permitted GPS to be used without a warrant. And this case isn’t going to the Supreme Court, because it’s a state decision under the state constitution. So we wouldn’t go looking for this to become the law of the land any time soon.

This was a far from unanimous decision, as well. Judge Smith wrote for himself and two others that the court drew an artificial and unworkable line between the kinds of technology that are okay to use without a warrant, and the kinds that require a warrant. “The attempt to find in the Constitution a line between ordinary, acceptable means of observation and more efficient, high-tech ones that cannot be used without a warrant seems to me illogical, and doomed to fail.” This appears to ignore the U.S. Supreme Court’s warrant requirement for heat-sensing cameras that reveal marijuana-growing lamps which the police wouldn’t have seen with the naked eye.

But we do get Smith’s point, and it’s a valid one. The majority failed to set forth an actual underlying principle here for where to draw the line. Clearly, high-powered binoculars don’t require a warrant. Surveillance cameras on street corners don’t need a warrant. Unsophisticated “beeper” trackers don’t need a warrant. GPS trackers do need a warrant.

What if the police actually had a surveillance camera on every street corner, and used current software that enabled them to track not only vehicles but faces — would they still need a warrant to use GPS when they’d get the same information without a warrant by using the cameras? If so, why? If not, why not? The court has given no direction here to future technological advances. All it has done is say this particular technology needs a warrant at this particular point in time. That’s not a useful decision.

In a separate dissent, Judge Read argued that the ruling here imposes an unnecessary burden on police, and at the same time “handcuff[s] the Legislature by improperly constitutionalizing a subject more effectively dealt with legislatively than judicially.” Judge Graffeo joined both dissents.

We have to disagree with Read here. Interpreting the Fourth Amendment is so obviously more appropriate to the courts than to the legislature that we have to wonder why she went to the trouble of claiming otherwise.

She’s also wrong in that the ruling really doesn’t handcuff the police — not in real life. Again thinking back (only a couple of years) to when we were doing these kinds of investigations ourselves, we routinely got a warrant for GPS transmitters. It was not exactly a burden. It still isn’t a burden. And if there’s a real emergency, the cops wouldn’t have to get a warrant anyway. They’d just have to be able to articulate it later, which should be easy if there really was an exigent circumstance.

The only burden this ruling puts on cops is to stop them from slapping a GPS on someone just because they feel like it. If they’ve got a good reason to do it, no judge will say they can’t, and they’ll easily get a warrant.