October 2, 2022

Do Judges Play a Role After the NSA Call Records Have Been Collected?

Those who defend the NSA’s massive call records collection program point out that although the program allows indiscriminate data collection, it also meaningfully restricts data analysis and use. They note, in particular, this paragraph from Director of National Intelligence Clapper’s June 6, 2013, press release:

By order of the FISC, the Government is prohibited from indiscriminately sifting through the telephony metadata acquired under the program. All information that is acquired under this program is subject to strict, court-imposed restrictions on review and handling. The court only allows the data to be queried when there is a reasonable suspicion, based on specific facts, that the particular basis for the query is associated with a foreign terrorist organization. Only specially cleared counterterrorism personnel specifically trained in the Court-approved procedures may even access the records.

It seems to me that some have probably misunderstood this paragraph to suggest that the judges of the FISA Court (FISC) play a role in approving each individual query made to the data, the way a judge approves a warrant to search for or seize evidence in a criminal case. An article in Slate explained, somewhat approvingly, that “the rules that most of us would apply at the collection stage—reasonable suspicion, specific facts, court approval—are applied instead at the query stage”. A blog post author on Forbes explained that “[i]n order to analyze the data at hand, the NSA must get a court order justified by the reasonable suspicion of an imminent terrorist act.” Some legal scholars may be making the same assumption.
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United States v. Jones is a Near-Optimal Result

This morning, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in United States v. Jones, the GPS tracking case, deciding unanimously that the government violated the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights when it installed a wireless GPS tracking device on the undercarriage of his car and used it to monitor his movement’s around town for four weeks without a search warrant.

Despite the unanimous result, the court was not unified in its reasoning. Five Justices signed the majority opinion, authored by Justice Scalia, finding that the Fourth Amendment “at bottom . . . assure[s] preservation of that degree of privacy against government that existed when the Fourth Amendment was adopted” and thus analyzing the case under “common-law trespassory” principles.

Justice Alito wrote a concurring opinion, signed by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan, faulting the majority for “decid[ing] the case based on 18th-century tort law” and arguing instead that the case should be decided under Katz’s “reasonable expectations of privacy” test. Applying Katz, the four concurring Justices would have found that the government violated the Fourth Amendment because “long-term tracking” implicated a reasonable expectation of privacy and thus required a warrant.

Justice Sotomayor, who signed the majority opinion, wrote a separate concurring opinion, but more on that in a second.

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Supreme Court Takes Important GPS Tracking Case

This morning, the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal next term of United States v. Jones (formerly United States v. Maynard), a case in which the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals suppressed evidence of a criminal defendant’s travels around town, which the police collected using a tracking device they attached to his car. For more background on the case, consult the original opinion and Orin Kerr’s previous discussions about the case.

No matter what the Court says or holds, this case will probably prove to be a landmark. Watch it closely.

(1) Even if the Court says nothing else, it will face the constitutionally of the use by police of tracking beepers to follow criminal suspects. In a pair of cases from the mid-1980’s, the Court held that the police did not need a warrant to use a tracking beeper to follow a car around on public, city streets (Knotts) but did need a warrant to follow a beeper that was moved indoors (Karo) because it “reveal[ed] a critical fact about the interior of the premises.” By direct application of these cases, the warrantless tracking in Jones seems constitutional, because it was restricted to movement on public, city streets.

Not so fast, said the D.C. Circuit. In Jones, the police tracked the vehicle 24 hours a day for four weeks. Citing the “mosaic theory often invoked by the Government in cases involving national security information,” the Court held that the whole can sometimes be more than the parts. Tracking a car continuously for a month is constitutionally different in kind not just degree from tracking a car along a single trip. This is a new approach to the Fourth Amendment, one arguably at odds with opinions from other Courts of Appeal.

(2) This case gives the Court the opportunity to speak generally about the Fourth Amendment and location privacy. Depending on what it says, it may provide hints for lower courts struggling with the government’s use of cell phone location information, for example.

(3) For support of its embrace of the mosaic theory, the D.C. Circuit cited a 1989 Supreme Court case, U.S. Department of Justice v. National Reporters Committee. In this case, which involved the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) not the Fourth Amendment, the Court allowed the FBI to refuse to release compiled “rap sheets” about organized crime suspects, even though the rap sheets were compiled mostly from “public” information obtainable from courthouse records. In agreeing that the rap sheets nevertheless fell within a “personal privacy” exemption from FOIA, the Court embraced, for the first time, the idea that the whole may be worth more than the parts. The Court noted the difference “between scattered disclosure of the bits of information contained in a rap-sheet and revelation of the rap-sheet as a whole,” and found a “vast difference between the public records that might be found after a diligent search of courthouse files, county archives, and local police stations throughout the country and a computerized summary located in a single clearinghouse of information.” (FtT readers will see the parallels to the debates on this blog about PACER and RECAP.) In summary, it found that “practical obscurity” could amount to privacy.

Practical obscurity is an idea that hasn’t gotten much traction in the Courts since National Reporters Committee. But it is an idea well-loved by many privacy scholars, including myself, for whom it helps explain their concerns about the privacy implications of data aggregation and mining of supposedly “public” data.

The Court, of course, may choose a narrow route for affirming or reversing the D.C. Circuit. But if it instead speaks broadly or categorically about the viability of practical obscurity as a legal theory, this case might set a standard that we will be debating for years to come.

If Wikileaks Scraped P2P Networks for "Leaks," Did it Break Federal Criminal Law?

On Bloomberg.com today, Michael Riley reports that some of the documents hosted at Wikileaks may not be “leaks” at all, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. Instead, according to a computer security firm called Tiversa, “computers in Sweden” have been searching the files shared on p2p networks like Limewire for sensitive and confidential information, and the firm supposedly has proof that some of the documents found in this way have ended up on the Wikileaks site. These charges are denied as “completely false in every regard” by Wikileaks lawyer Mark Stephens.

I have no idea whether these accusations are true, but I am interested to learn from the story that if they are true they might provide “an alternate path for prosecuting WikiLeaks,” most importantly because the reporter attributes this claim to me. Although I wasn’t misquoted in the article, I think what I said to the reporter is a few shades away from what he reported, so I wanted to clarify what I think about this.

In the interview and in the article, I focus only on the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (“CFAA”), the primary federal law prohibiting computer hacking. The CFAA defines a number of federal crimes, most of which turn on whether an action on a computer or network was done “without authorization” or in a way that “exceeds authorized access.”

The question presented by the reporter to me (though not in these words) was: is it a violation of the CFAA to systematically crawl a p2p network like Limewire searching for and downloading files that might be mistakenly shared, like spreadsheets or word processing documents full of secrets?

I don’t think so. With everything I know about the text of this statute, the legislative history surrounding its enactment, and the cases that have interpreted it, this kind of searching and downloading won’t “exceed the authorized access” of the p2p network. This simply isn’t a crime under the CFAA.

But although I don’t think this is a viable theory, I can’t unequivocally dismiss it for a few reasons, all of which I tried to convey in the interview. First, some courts have interpreted “exceeds authorized access” broadly, especially in civil lawsuits arising under the CFAA. For example, back in 2001, one court declared it a CFAA violation to utilize a spider capable of collecting prices from a travel website by a competitor, if the defendant built the spider by taking advantage of “proprietary information” from a former employee of the plaintiff. (For much more on this, see this article by Orin Kerr.)

Second, it seems self-evident that these confidential files are being shared on accident. The users “leaking” these files are either misunderstanding or misconfiguring their p2p clients in ways that would horrify them, if only they knew the truth. While this doesn’t translate directly into “exceeds authorized access,” it might weigh heavily in court, especially if the government can show that a reasonable searcher/downloader would immediately and unambiguously understand that the files were shared on accident.

Third, let’s be realistic: there may be judges who are so troubled by what they see as the harm caused by Wikileaks that they might be willing to read the open-textured and mostly undefined terms of the CFAA broadly if it might help throw a hurdle in Wikileaks’ way. I’m not saying that judges will bend the law to the facts, but I think that with a law as vague as the CFAA, multiple interpretations are defensible.

But I restate my conclusion: I think a prosecution under the CFAA against someone for searching a p2p network should fail. The text and caselaw of the CFAA don’t support such a prosecution. Maybe it’s “not a slam dunk either way,” as I am quoted saying in the story, but for the lawyers defending against such a theory, it’s at worst an easy layup.

Court Rules Email Protected by Fourth Amendment

Today, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that the contents of the messages in an email inbox hosted on a provider’s servers are protected by the Fourth Amendment, even though the messages are accessible to an email provider. As the court puts it, “[t]he government may not compel a commercial ISP to turn over the contents of a subscriber’s emails without first obtaining a warrant based on probable cause.”

This is a very big deal; it marks the first time a federal court of appeals has extended the Fourth Amendment to email with such care and detail. Orin Kerr calls the opinion, at least on his initial read, “quite persuasive” and “likely . . . influential,” and I agree, but I’d go further: this is the opinion privacy activists and many legal scholars, myself included, have been waiting and calling for, for more than a decade. It may someday be seen as a watershed moment in the extension of our Constitutional rights to the Internet.

And it may have a more immediate impact on Capitol Hill, because in its ruling the Sixth Circuit also declares part of the Stored Communications Act (SCA) of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act unconstitutional. 18 U.S.C. 2703(b) allows the government to obtain email messages with less than a search warrant. This section has been targeted for amendment by the Digital Due Process coalition of companies, privacy groups, and academics (I have signed on) for precisely the reason now attacked by this opinion, because it allows warrantless government access to communications stored online. I am sure some congressional staffers are paying close attention to this opinion, and I hope it helps clear the way for an amendment to the SCA, to fix a now-declared unconstitutional law, if not during the lame duck session, then early in the next Congressional term.

Update: Other reactions from Dissent and the EFF.