Court hands at least temporary rebuke to NSA for domestic spying

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NSA (Photo credit: shawnblog)

The New York Times has been highlighting the federal government defeat in the first lawsuit over NSA surveillance of U.S. telephone and internet activity outside the FISA court jurisdiction. The decision in Klayman v. Obama represents a strong rebuke to the NSA. Written in a tone of outrage, the district court decision emphasizes the profound differences that exist in the current NSA surveillance program from the historical precedents upon which the claim of constitutionality is based.

In Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 745 (1979), the Supreme Court held that the use of a “pen register” was not a violation of the Fourth Amendment because the information sent to the telephone company was a business record provided without a reasonable expectation of privacy.[1] The pen register records only the numbers dialed on a telephone. Any expectation of privacy that could exist in the telephone numbers a person dialed was unreasonable.

From the diminutive pen register acorn, a mighty oak has grown to obliterate the sunlight that once shined light on government activities. That oak is the pervasive surveillance program:

[T]he almost–Orwellian technology that enables the Government to store and analyze the phone metadata of every telephone user in the United States is unlike anything that could have been conceived in 1979. … The notion that the Government could collect similar data on hundreds of millions of people and retain that data for a five-year period, updating it with new data every day in perpetuity, was at best, in 1979, the stuff of science fiction. By comparison, the Government has at its disposal today the most advanced twenty-first century tools, allowing it to “store such records and efficiently mine them for information years into the future. … Records that once would have revealed a few scattered tiles of information about a person now reveal an entire vibrant and constantly updating picture of the person’s life.”

Critics of the district court opinion point to the precedent of Smith to suggest that the decision reflects an activist agenda, but proper case analysis requires a judge to look to the facts of a case rather than a simplistic summary of the rule. Factually, the public expects far more privacy in the metadata disclosed on their computers, phones, tablets, and mobile devices than the 1979 consumer expected from the telephone company.

In addition, as the court highlighted, the relationship between the telecommunications companies and the government could be viewed as making the telco’s agents of law enforcement. As agents of the police, the third party doctrine no longer applies.

More importantly, the scale of the surveillance and the mosaic of coverage creates a vastly different experience than that previously adjudicated in Smith or the other decision before the Supreme Court.

In United States v. Jones, 132 S. Ct. 945 (2012), the Supreme Court started to review the potential for wide-scale extensive surveillance. The majority decision demurred on the question, finding a search occurred using common law trespass analogies. But five justices opined that the mosaic of surveillance has a constitutional consequence that will need to be addressed.

Dan Solove has written on both the Klayman decision and the importance of privacy in metadata. His conclusion:

 Smith, and many other Fourth Amendment cases, need to be rethought in light of modern technology where surveillance can be so systematic and pervasive. There is a real difference between being able to engage in a small discrete amount of surveillance and having such broad and sweeping surveillance powers as the NSA is exercising. The challenge is where to draw the lines. This problem exists mainly because Smith still remains viable and must be dealt with. I think it’s time for Smith to be overturned, and so there wouldn’t be such line-drawing challenges.

The Katz approach to expectation of privacy may not be the most useful tool for assessing the scope of pervasive privacy. Despite the coverage of the NSA, I expect that few members of the public can truly comprehend the extent to which the movement of every communication, every Internet-connected device, all information on those devices, the tracking of other objects that are reported to central databases, and photographs and video taken by anyone can be integrated into a pervasive picture of movement. Is this science fiction? Or is it the goal of the NSA five-year strategic plan. Unless the courts or Congress begin to say no to a mosaic of unrelenting surveillance, this plan will be enacted soon. With taxpayer dollars. And without oversight.

The decision is being appealed.


[1] Smith explains the constitutional privacy framework: The Fourth Amendment guarantees “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” In determining whether a particular form of government-initiated electronic surveillance is a “search” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, our lodestar is Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967). In Katz, Government agents had intercepted the contents of a telephone conversation by attaching an electronic listening device to the outside of a public phone booth. The Court rejected the argument that a “search” can occur only when there has been a “physical intrusion” into a “constitutionally protected area,” noting that the Fourth Amendment “protects people, not places.” Because the Government’s monitoring of Katz’ conversation “violated the privacy upon which he justifiably relied while using the telephone booth,” the Court held that it “constituted a `search and seizure’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.”