October 5, 2017 – USA Liberty Act Allows FBI’s End-Run Around The Constitution To Continue
On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee will be filing the so-called “USA
Liberty Act”, an attempt to deal with the fact that the main statutory authority for the
government’s mass surveillance programs is due to expire December 31.
The product of lengthy negotiations between ranking minority member Rep. John Conyers (DMI),
committee chair Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and others, it unfortunately showcases that a
bipartisan solution is not always a good one.
“The least the bill could have done,” says Restore The Fourth National Chair Alex Marthews, “would have been to fix the backdoor searches problem.”1
An unknown, but probably very large, number of Americans’ communications are being collected by the NSA’s systems without a warrant ‘for foreign intelligence purposes’, and then exploited by domestic agencies like the FBI for use in ordinary criminal investigations of all kinds. It’s common for the FBI to claim a connection of an investigation to foreign intelligence or counterterrorism, even when the `connection’ is nothing more than `the suspect read something on the Internet or traveled abroad.’2
The USA Liberty Act would still allow the FBI to warrantlessly search the NSA’s stored communications based on such a claim. It says a warrant is needed if the FBI already has a domestic crime it’s investigating, and wants to find more evidence among the content of Americans’ communications held by the NSA; but (a) it requires no warrant for metadata hits anyway, and (b) those aren’t the really worrying situations.
Instead, we’re worried about the stage where the FBI doesn’t really have a crime in mind yet, but is trying to find dirt on people. It has been historically very easy for them to claim a “foreign intelligence” connection in the case of any immigrant, or a “counterterrorism” connection in the case of any Muslim; effectively, if this is codified into law, the Fourth Amendment might as well be a dead letter for such people’s online communications. Under the practice of “parallel construction”, the FBI actually starts with a person of interest, uses NSA data to find the initial evidence of a crime, and then “backfills” a plausible chain of non-NSA evidence so that their use of intelligence-derived information is not challengeable in court.3 This bill won’t fix that. Most
Americans brought up on charges based on NSA-derived information are never told where that evidence came from. We don’t even know in aggregate or in general an estimate of how many Americans NSA’s “PRISM” and “UPSTREAM” programs, governed by Section 702, have had their data warrantlessly seized; Congressmembers have been asking for six years for an estimate, and the intelligence community has stolidly refused to give one.4
This bill does some good things. For example, it extends whistleblower protections to
intelligence community contractors. It codifies a ban on so-called “about collection.” But given all we have learned as a nation about mass surveillance on us since December 2012, when this law last came up for renewal, it should at the very least require a warrant for all domestic agencies’ searches of intelligence databases.
1 For more on Restore The Fourth, see www.restorethe4th.com.
2 See, among many others, the case of Tarek Mehanna of Sudbury, MA
3 See a fuller explanation at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parallel_construction.
4 This sorry history is detailed at https://www.emptywheel.net/2017/03/17/ron-wydens-history-of-bogus-excuses-for-not-counting-702-us-person-collection.
National Chair, Restore the Fourth
Restore the Fourth
Tuesday, August 8th, 2017 – Restore the Fourth has filed an amicus curiae in the case of Timothy Ivory Carpenter v. United States of America. In this case, cell-site location information (CSLI) was obtained by subpoena from a cellphone carrier pertaining to the suspect’s cellphone.
In submitting this brief, we seek to urge the court on the following points:
- From the nature of CSLI, it can be derived that privacy is relational: That is, that even when people disclose their information to third parties, that should not mean that they do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy.
- CSLI will become more revealing over time: This is due to the increasing density of tower locations, and the increased power of computers to algorithmically parse a given set of information on people’s locations to predict where they will be in the future.
- Police use of CSLI comes with a high risk of abuse: Such as, usage for LOVEINT (ie. officials with access to government surveillance and data collections utilizing it to spy on lovers, exes, etc.), police concealment of stingray use, and precedents for CLSI used to harass political dissidents abroad.
For these reasons, we urge that the Court should adopt a warrant standard for governmental searches and seizures of CSLI. We hope that the Court will see Carpenter v. USA as an opportunity to make a much-needed reexamination of the ‘third-party doctrine.’
Restore the Fourth would like to thank our counsel, Mahesha Subbaraman, of Subbaraman PLLC, for contributing this brief.