June 11, 2013

We Asked For This

The reaction to last week’s revelations (courtesy of Glenn Greenwald) at the Guardian) of sweeping data gathering by the National Security Agency, the predominant reaction from the public has been one of outrage.* Even folks who otherwise fall on the “security” side of the security/civil liberties line stopped and asked if things had gotten a bit out of hand. But even the outrage is justifiable (and I think it is), should anybody really have been surprised by this?

Fourth Amendment expert and former NACDL President John Wesley Hall explains how, as distasteful as the NSA’s plans might be, they probably aren’t unconstitutional under current law:
All this data collection is perfectly legal under pre-Patriot Act law and compounded by it. In 1976, the Supreme Court held in Miller v. United States that it did not violate the Fourth Amendment for the government to gather information from bank records of a depositor under investigation. In 1979, the Court held in Smith v. Maryland that it did not violate the Fourth Amendment for the government to put a pen register on a telephone to record only the numbers being dialed because the telephone call wasn’t recorded. That was, after all, all technology allowed at the time. Think of the NSA as one huge pen register.
As for the Patriot Act, Hall notes that it:
became law without any critical thought, and it made it carte blanche for government to gather information about us. Couple this with the information technology available over the last decade and the ability to store Brontobytes of data, and that we see now was inevitable. I’m not the slightest bit surprised. Nobody keeping up is surprised.
Even beyond that, the primary bulwark keeping the government from searching people (and their stuff) willy nilly, the Fourth Amendment, has been slowly hacked away for decades. Well before 9/11 and the War on Terror, we as a society had largely ceded the protections against unreasonable search and seizure in the War on (Some People’s) Drugs. The quantum of evidence needed to search or seize someone has gradually gone down, while the only effective tool to punish breaches – the exclusionary rule – is on its death bed. In the grand tradition of “when they came for the [INSERT GROUP HERE] I did nothing,” society was largely OK with all this, as it only impacted “those people.” Who gives a shit about goddamn drugies, anyway?

Ironically it’s the drug angle that writer/producer David Simon (of The Wire, Treme, etc. fame) uses to explain why we shouldn’t really be all that freaked out about this (via):
Allow for a comparable example, dating to the early 1980s in a place called Baltimore, Maryland.

There, city detectives once began to suspect that major traffickers were using a combination of public pay phones and digital pagers to communicate their business. And they took their suspicions to a judge and obtained court orders — not to monitor any particular suspect, but to instead cull the dialed numbers from the thousands and thousands of calls made to and from certain city pay phones.

Think about it. There is certainly a public expectation of privacy when you pick up a pay phone on the streets of Baltimore, is there not? And certainly, the detectives knew that many, many Baltimoreans were using those pay phones for legitimate telephonic communication. Yet, a city judge had no problem allowing them to place dialed-number recorders on as many pay phones as they felt the need to monitor, knowing that every single number dialed to or from those phones would be captured. So authorized, detectives gleaned the numbers of digital pagers and they began monitoring the incoming digitized numbers on those pagers — even though they had yet to learn to whom those pagers belonged. The judges were okay with that, too, and signed another order allowing the suspect pagers to be “cloned” by detectives, even though in some cases the suspect in possession of the pager was not yet positively identified.

All of that — even in the less fevered, pre-Patriot Act days of yore — was entirely legal.
Simon stresses that, like the NSA program exposed in the Verizon order, they weren’t listening to calls, just getting the “metadata” (if the term was around back then). That information, he points out, is already generated without the NSA’s request and, increasingly, is going to be stored for some kind of future use by the private companies that produce it. To not utilize it for something as serious as trying to thwart terrorist attacks (or develop more traditional particularized individual suspicion) is silly.

I think Simon’s right that the only thing about the NSA program that’s different from his Reagan-era memory of Charm City is the scope of the information gathering, but, unlike him, that still bothers me. It’s possible to, at the same time, not be particularly surprised by something and yet still outraged. Furthermore, Simon appears to take Obama at his word when he says nobody’s listening to our phone calls.** There’s just no reason to believe that. As this piece at Slate points out, there’s a history of surveillance operations straying far afield from the legitimate, limited goals.

While the NSA’s programs are outrageous in and of themselves, what’s more outrageous is that they may be perfectly legal. They’re clearly authorized by statute and have been blessed by Congresspersons in the know. And, of course, they have the approval of a pair of presidential administrations from theoretically opposite parties. Furthermore, I don’t have any confidence that they violate the Fourth Amendment in its current emaciated form.

No, the real outrage is that we’ve let it come to this. For too many years we’ve traded liberty for security, from crime or from terrorism, on a bipartisan basis. If things have really gone too far for too many people, maybe we can start to roll things back. But I won’t hold my breath.

* Or maybe not. Via Orin Kerr at Volokh, a Washington Post poll found that only 41% of respondents think the NSA’s phone program is “unacceptable,” compared to 56% who find it “acceptable.” There appears to be the inevitable partisan gloss as well. We are so fucked.

** To be fair, in the comments he expresses more concern about the PSRIM internet surveillance program, which does appear to reach content, not just technical metadata.

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