• Tag Archives surveillance
  • NSA Internet Surveillance Under Section 702 Violates the First Amendment

    The First Amendment is too often overlooked in discussions of the National Security Agency’s vast surveillance authorities. But as Congress considers whether to reauthorize Section 702 of FISA this winter, we must remember that it’s not just our Fourth Amendment rights to privacy that are in the crosshairs, but also our First Amendment rights. These rights to anonymously speak, associate, access information, and engage in political activism are the bedrock of our democracy, and they’re endangered by the NSA’s pervasive surveillance.

    The NSA uses Section 702 to justify ongoing programs to siphon off copies of vast amounts of our communications directly from the Internet backbone as well as require system-wide searches across the information collected by major Internet companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple.

    So how does the First Amendment come to apply to mass surveillance? To understand this, we need to begin with a little history of the civil rights movement.

    As part of the backlash to the Supreme Court’s ruling striking down segregation in schools, the Attorney General of Alabama, John Patterson, brought a lawsuit against a leading civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The lawsuit alleged that the NAACP violated a state law requiring “foreign corporations” to file certain paperwork and get approval before practicing business in Alabama. The NAACP is a nonprofit membership organization; it didn’t file the paperwork because it believed it was exempt. While the NAACP fought the suit, the state issued a subpoena demanding detailed records from the NAACP, including membership lists and bank records. The NAACP refused to surrender its membership lists, fearing retaliatory consequences for its members. Because of this refusal, the court fined the NAACP $10,000, which after five days was raised to $100,000. The NAACP continued to fight the order for two years until the Supreme Court took up the issue, never surrendering its membership lists.

    Ultimately the NAACP was vindicated. The Supreme Court recognized that the First Amendment protected the associational privacy interests of NAACP members. It directly recognized that freely associating for advocacy or other purposes is a fundamental right. It noted that state invasions of privacy could infringe on that right: “It is beyond debate that freedom to engage in association for the advancement of beliefs and ideas is an inseparable aspect of the “liberty” assured by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which embraces freedom of speech… Of course, it is immaterial whether the beliefs sought to be advanced by association pertain to political, economic, religious or cultural matters, and state action which may have the effect of curtailing the freedom to associate is subject to the closest scrutiny.”

    The Supreme Court found that the “Inviolability of privacy in group association may in many circumstances be indispensable to preservation of freedom of association, particularly where a group espouses dissident beliefs.”

    In short, we all have the right to engage in associate with one another and to join and communicate with political and religious groups free from government surveillance.

    As our society has moved online, our associations have become digital in nature. Signing up for a membership or learning about an advocacy group often happens over a website or app. Members of modern political groups coordinate donations, activities, and information over social networks, email, and websites. When the NSA—either by itself or by working with corporate “partners”—collects the digital communications and browsing history of countless individuals, it’s also obtaining records of innocent Americans visiting activism websites, becoming members of advocacy groups, and coordinating social movements. EFF also raised this argument in our case against the mass telephone records collection by the NSA (substantially narrowed in 2015First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles v NSA.

    The surveillance of our communications systems, and thereby the surveillance of our communications, infringes on the very rights of private association upheld by the Supreme Court in 1958.

    So while the Fourth Amendment concerns about 702 and mass surveillance are important, they are not the only problem created by the law. And as Alex Abdo, an attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, argues that when it comes to confronting government surveillance, we shouldn’t expect the Fourth Amendment alone to protect our First Amendment interests. He recently wrote that “The Fourth Amendment, unlike the First, is blind to the cumulative effects of invasions of privacy that are small in isolation but substantial in combination.”

    Those cumulative effects are especially felt when it comes to the right to publish and access information freely. While the government may be forbidden from censoring online speakers and readers, the cumulative impact of pervasive digital surveillance has a chilling effect on online communities. The specter of government surveillance quells engagement in online forums, social networks, and blogs that discuss controversial, political, or unpopular positions. Knowing that the government is keeping a digital dossier of comments we leave online and articles we digitally share creates an environment in which speakers hesitate to engage in online political advocacy.

    Readers also hesitate to visit websites that may be seen as out of favor with the government, whether that’s Al Jazeera or CNN or EFF’s own site, knowing that their visit may be recorded in a government database for years to come.

    The NSA’s digital surveillance of countless law-abiding Americans also indirectly affects another key First Amendment right: our right to assembly. Today’s modern protest movements are often organized and fueled by social media and digital communication, where activists coordinate across a wide range of physical locations. The NSA’s pervasive digital surveillance challenges our values as a society that respects and safeguards the right to plan and participate in protests and other political activity, rights which are themselves baked into the First Amendment.

    The pervasive digital surveillance programs of the NSA chip away at the First Amendment protections that underpin our democracy. As Congress considers whether to reauthorize or reform Section 702 surveillance in the coming weeks, we urge them to remember that their choice will not just impact the privacy of Americans, it will have a profound impact on freedom of speech, association, and assembly protected by the First Amendment and ultimately, upon our democracy itself.

    Contact Congress today to speak out against NSA surveillance.

    Source: NSA Internet Surveillance Under Section 702 Violates the First Amendment | Electronic Frontier Foundation



  • Stop the Border Surveillance Bill

    EFF opposes a new federal bill that would dramatically expand dragnet biometric and other surveillance of U.S. citizens and immigrants alike at and near the U.S. border. Sen. Cornyn (R-TX) introduced S. 1757, styled the Building America’s Trust Act, in August.

    EFF’s opposition letter objects to the following provisions of the bill:

    Biometric Border Screening. The bill would require the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to collect biometric information from all people who exit the U.S., including U.S. and foreign citizens. This would entrench and expand DHS’s existing program of facial recognition of all international travelers who take certain outgoing flights from U.S. airports. EFF opposes such biometric border screening, given the sensitivity of biometric information, the threat it will be stolen or misused, and the hazard of mission creep.

    Collection of Immigrants’ DNA. The bill would require DHS to collect DNA and other biometric information from “any individual filing an application, petition, or other request for immigration benefit or status.” EFF has long opposed dragnet biometric surveillance of immigrants. DNA surveillance raises special concerns, because DNA can expose sensitive information about familial history and health issues.

    Dissemination of Immigrants’ Biometrics. The bill would require DHS to share its biometric information about immigrants with the FBI, the Defense Department, and the State Department. It also would require DHS to store its voiceprints and iris scans of immigrants in a manner compatible with state and local law enforcement database. EFF opposes this dissemination of immigrants’ biometrics. The greater the distribution, the greater the risks of theft, employee misuse, and mission creep.

    Screening Social Media of Visa Applicants. The bill would require DHS to review the social media accounts of visa applicants from “high risk countries.” EFF opposes existing DHS and State Department programs of screening social media of foreign visitors. These programs threaten the digital privacy and free speech of innocent foreign travelers, and the many U.S. citizens who communicate with them. The bill would entrench and expand these programs. Also, it is all too likely that the bill’s focus on “high risk countries” will invite “extreme vetting” of visitors from Muslim nations.

    Drones Near the Border. The bill would require DHS and the Defense Department to deploy drones at the U.S. border. This will invariably capture the faces and license plates of the vast number of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents who live close the border.

    ALPRs Near the Border. The bill would appropriate $125 million to upgrade the automatic license plate readers (ALPRs) deployed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. ALPRs collect massive amounts of sensitive location information about identifiable law-abiding people. It is unclear whether the bill’s new ALPR surveillance would be limited to cars that actually cross the U.S. border, or would also apply more broadly to cars at CBP’s many interior checkpoints, some located as far as 100 miles from the border. CBP should not track people’s movements merely because they live and work near the border.

    Source: Stop the Border Surveillance Bill | Electronic Frontier Foundation


  • Trump’s FBI Pick Has a Troubling History on Digital Liberties

    President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the FBI, Christopher Wray, will begin his confirmation process next week, giving lawmakers an opportunity to press him on his previous statements about expansive surveillance authorities and aggressive copyright prosecution.

    Defense of the USA PATRIOT Act

    During his tenure as Assistant Attorney General in the Bush Administration, Wray vocally defended a range of controversial provisions in the USA PATRIOT Act—including Section 215, which would later provide the basis for the bulk collection of Americans’ telephone metadata.

    When Wray went before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2003 to defend the PATRIOT Act, a Department of Justice document indicated that Section 215’s business records provision had never been used. Wray insisted that was a sign of restraint: “We try to use these provisions sparingly, only in those instances where we feel that this is the only tool that we can use.” In fact, as the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) made clear in its report on the bulk metadata program, Section 215 was sitting fallow because the Bush Administration was already collecting much of that data—without statutory authorization.

    Granted, Wray didn’t have all of the information about that secretive wiretapping program until 2004, which we’ll get into below. Still, his insistence that Section 215 was just an effort to bring counterterrorism powers in line with ordinary criminal authorities reflected a concerning lack of skepticism about the risk of abuse. The same holds for his defense of a range of other PATRIOT Act provisions: “sneak and peek” warrants that allow law enforcement to search first and serve notice later; a reduced bar for obtaining a FISA warrant that one district court later found inconsistent with the Fourth Amendment; and a vaguely worded expansion of the kind of Internet data, some of it potentially very sensitive, that can be collected with a pen/trap order.

    Experience teaches that broad grants of surveillance authority are invariably abused, as the PATRIOT Act has been. During Wray’s confirmation process, lawmakers should press him on his insistence that the Act “helped preserve and protect liberty and freedom, not erode them.”

    Outstanding Questions about STELLARWIND

    President Bush’s sweeping constellation of warrantless surveillance programs, codenamed STELLARWIND, played a key role in the mythos that surrounded the last two FBI Directors. Wray was reputedly one of the senior Justice Department officials ready to resign if then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey chose to do so over STELLARWIND’s legality—though Wray himself wasn’t aware of its existence at the time. Wray has since praised then-FBI Director Bob Mueller’s willingness to challenge President Bush over those surveillance programs, telling WIRED, “I think that the great thing about [people with] strong moral compasses is that they don’t have to hand-wring. When they’re uncomfortable, they know what they have to do.”

    But when Wray was confronted with a constitutional concern about those intelligence efforts, his response, as reflected in a 2009 inspector general report, seems to have been underwhelming. Wray was read into STELLARWIND in 2004 to address concerns that the government—in working to preserve the spying program’s secrecy—was failing to disclose potentially exculpatory material to which criminal defendants were entitled under the Constitution. As the Justice Department’s Inspector General later found, “[T]he Department made little effort to understand and comply with its discovery obligations with Stellar Wind-derived information for the first several years of the program.” What legal analysis had been conducted was, the IG would later write, “factually flawed and inadequate.”

    Wray and another attorney in the Justice Department’s Criminal Division were tasked with reviewing it. But beyond ordering the other attorney to write a memo of his own, it’s not clear Wray took any action to remedy the problem. While the memo recommended further research, there seems to have been no follow up. Four years after Wray left the Justice Department, its Inspector General would write that efforts to comply with the Constitution and other legal responsibilities “are not complete and do not fully ensure that the government has met its discovery obligations.”

    Before he’s given the top job at the country’s law enforcement agency, Wray should have to square his praise for officials willing to challenge unconstitutional surveillance with his apparent inaction on a constitutional question about the rights of defendants swept up in spying programs.

    Aggressive Copyright Prosecutions

    As Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division, Wray also oversaw and touted the Justice Department’s aggressive prosecutions for intellectual property infringement, some of them alarmingly trivial. In 2004, for instance, Wray named a guilty plea from a defendant who shared a pre-release copy of “The Hulk” in a chat room as one of the most significant intellectual property prosecutions of the year. That emphasis seems disproportionate, to say the least. As Senator Leahy put it in the same Judiciary Committee hearing, “That movie sank like a rock at the box office. Within a couple of weeks, they probably could not have given away the copies.” Still, the impact on the defendant was very real—including six months’ home confinement.

    In a climate in which copyright law is increasingly abused to chill and deter speech online, Wray’s past comments are cause for concern. Lawmakers should press him to commit to reasonable enforcement and respect for free expression protections.

    An Obligation to Explain—and Reconsider

    If confirmed, Christopher Wray will lead an agency with vast power to intrude on fundamental digital liberties. During his last tour in government service, he expressed views that should concern everyday Internet users. During this upcoming confirmation process, we expect lawmakers to review Wray’s record, and we hope he will disavow some of his more dangerous views on the government surveillance activities that we know to violate our core civil liberties.