Blog of Rights

Jay
Stanley
Jay Stanley (@JayCStanley) is Senior Policy Analyst with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, where he researches, writes and speaks about technology-related privacy and civil liberties issues and their future.  He is the Editor of the ACLU's "Free Future" blog and has authored and co-authored a variety of influential ACLU reports on privacy and technology topics. Before joining the ACLU, he was an analyst at the technology research firm Forrester, served as American politics editor of Facts on File’s World News Digest, and as national newswire editor at Medialink. He is a graduate of Williams College and holds an M.A. in American History from the University of Virginia.
The National Security State: Why it’s Important to Understand the Nature of the Beast

The National Security State: Why it’s Important to Understand the Nature of the Beast

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 3:48pm
In two recent posts I argued that it is useful to think of the national security establishment as a thoughtless organism prone to certain predictable behaviors such as self-preservation, expansion, and secrecy. But what are the policy implications, exactly, of that way of conceptualizing things?
How Can Smart, Ethical Individuals Form Dumb, Amoral Government Agencies?

How Can Smart, Ethical Individuals Form Dumb, Amoral Government Agencies?

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 12:16pm

Yesterday I set forth some reflections on our giant national security establishment, and how we should think about it. I argued that one very useful way of conceptualizing it is not as a result of politics or personality, but as an institution, which to the first approximation is best thought of as a mindless, amoral, and self-perpetuating primitive life form.

And by saying that, I do not mean to disparage any of the individuals who make up those bureaucracies. I live in Washington and am friends with many government workers who are excellent, thoughtful human beings.

But when you gather many human beings into an institution, that institution tends to take on a life of its own. Most of the individuals who make up the gigantic national security state are reasonably intelligent, and many of them no doubt are exceptionally so. But when you aggregate thousands of intelligent human minds together in a bureaucratic organization, the ironic result is that the collective is sometimes dumber than its individual parts. By the same token, there is no particular reason to think that bureaucracies attract a disproportionate number of amoral or immoral individuals—they surely form the same bell curve as any other group of humans when it comes to characteristics such as empathy, sensitivity, and conscience. But the collective set of such humans can exhibit a marked quality of amorality, as exhibited for example by the willingness of security bureaucracies to do horrifying things such as continue to detain people at Guantanamo who are known to pose no threat to the United States.

Complexity theorists have a concept called emergence, which refers to the fact that when large numbers of individuals

How to Think About the National Security State

How to Think About the National Security State

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 11:00am

The United States has grown a gigantic national security state. According to one analyst, our overall annual security budget is now more than $1.2 trillion. And we now know that includes at least $75 billion for “intelligence.” In the wake of Edward…

Hindu Man Describes Mistreatment After False-Positive Hand Swab

Hindu Man Describes Mistreatment After False-Positive Hand Swab

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 4:40pm

When the TSA in 2010 introduced the swabbing of some passengers’ hands to detect for explosive residue, we got a call from CNN asking if we’d tell them on camera what we thought of it from a privacy standpoint. It seemed to us that particle sniffers…

How NSA Overreach May Backfire Even On Agency’s Own Terms

How NSA Overreach May Backfire Even On Agency’s Own Terms

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 10:42am

Will the NSA’s sweeping surveillance programs ironically erode the agency’s ability to achieve the mission that it touts as its primary justification for those programs: stopping terrorist attacks? That’s the implication of a piece by the Washington…

From the NSA to License Plate Readers: Are We to Have a “Collect it All” Society?

From the NSA to License Plate Readers: Are We to Have a “Collect it All” Society?

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 10:44am

If the NSA needs a slogan, it should probably be “collect it all.” As phrased by an anonymous intel official recently quoted by the Washington Post, that has apparently been the approach of agency leadership in recent years. But the fight over whether that’s an appropriate strategy for keeping order in a democratic society is one that stretches far beyond the NSA programs now being debated.

For example, look at automatic license plate recognition systems, which are now sprouting up around the country. As we detailed in our recent report on the technology, many police departments are collecting and storing not only information about vehicles that are wanted by the police, but also location information about everybody who drives a car. Some police have defended this practice by arguing, essentially, that “you never know when or what we might need to solve a crime.”

In other words, nobody who accepts the NSA’s argument that universal collection is the right answer ought to be surprised when

The NSA, the Constitution, and Collection vs. Use of Information

The NSA, the Constitution, and Collection vs. Use of Information

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 10:44am

My colleague Alex Abdo has published a nice op-ed in the Guardian this morning on the NSA's dragnet data collection programs, and the Amash Amendment that is currently being considered by the house to curb it. Alex reaches to the heart of the NSA's argument:

The NSA argues that its collection of every American's phone records is constitutional because the agency stores the records in a lockbox and looks at the records only if and when it has a reason to search them. In other words, it claims that the constitution is not concerned with the acquisition of our sensitive data, only with the later searching of it.

This is an extremely dangerous argument. For two centuries, American courts have taken the view that the constitution is concerned with the government's initial intrusion upon privacy, and not only with the later uses to which the government puts the information it has collected. That's why it is unconstitutional for the government, without a warrant, to seize your journal even if it never reads it; to record your phone call even if it never listens to it; or to videotape your bedroom activities even if it never presses play.

Alex also points out that if accepted, there is no limit to the data collection this argument could justify. (See also this post on that point.)

What if the Government Hid Bugs and Video Cameras in Every American Home?

What if the Government Hid Bugs and Video Cameras in Every American Home?

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 11:11am

Top government officials have been defending the NSA’s secret collection of phone records of every American. But the argument they are using today to justify mass surveillance of phone calls could be used to justify ANY amount of intrusion into Americans’ private lives. Imagine, for example, what would happen if it were discovered that the NSA had placed a secret microphone and video camera in the living room and bedroom of every home in America. It’s easy to predict how the government would defend that kind of spying. Here is what they would probably say:

  • The audio and video data collected from Americans’ homes do not constitute “surveillance” because nobody watches or listens to the recordings, unless they obtain a warrant. Actually, not a real warrant, or even a subpoena, but permission through an internal NSA process based on—trust us!—very, very strict criteria. Or in a small number of other very exceptional circumstances.
  • The program has been approved by the chairs of the major congressional intelligence committees, as well as the secret FISA Court.
  • While it’s true that even the sweepingly broad Patriot Act requires that data be “relevant” to an investigation, there has never been a requirement that every piece of data in a dataset that is turned over be relevant, only that the data set be generally relevant . When it comes to the mass of data that we are collecting from people’s homes, we know there is relevant information in there, and if we don’t preserve that data, we won’t be able to find it when we need it.
  • At least 50 acts of terrorism-like crimes have been prevented. We can’t release details of these successes, but they include several people caught building bomb-like objects in their kitchens, two instances in which women who were kidnapped years ago were found being kept prisoner within private homes, and numerous instances of domestic violence.

All of the arguments above are essentially what the NSA’s current defenders have been saying. My point is that there are few limits to the spying that their arguments could be used to justify.

The idea of the NSA secretly visiting every home in America to hide audio and video bugs inside may seem far-fetched, but what they have actually done is not quite as different as it might seem. It was not long ago that in order for the government to collect telephone metadata (all telephone numbers called and received), the authorities had to attach telephone bugs known as “pen register” and “trap and trace” devices to a home’s physical telephone line. Today it no longer needs to do that, but its mass collection of telephone metadata accomplishes the same end through virtual means, and just because the technology makes it possible to carry out such spying through the reshuffling of digital files at telephone central offices, doesn’t mean it’s any less intrusive than if the NSA were to physically attach a bug on the telephone wires outside every home.

CBP Using Its Authorization for Border Use Of Drones as Wedge For Nationwide Use

CBP Using Its Authorization for Border Use Of Drones as Wedge For Nationwide Use

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 1:51pm

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has released a very valuable set of documents it obtained via FOIA from Customs & Border Protection (CBP) on that agency’s use of drones. EFF found that CPB has greatly increased the number of missions that it has flown—inside the border region—on behalf of other state, local and federal agencies. The EFF’s Jennifer Lynch summarizes what they found nicely in this blog post.

All the public discussion around the CBP’s use of drones has centered around their use on the border. As far as I know, CBP’s drone program was intended and authorized by Congress for the purpose of patrolling the nation’s borders. It was not intended to be a general law enforcement drone “lending library,” in which Predator drones (which are quite unlike the small UAVs that police departments around the country are beginning to acquire and deploy) are used for all manner of purposes across the country. Many of those purposes are totally unobjectionable, but if such a system is to be created, it should be only following a full, open, and democratic discussion, and (as Lynch points out) with a strong set of privacy policies. It should certainly not be created in secret by a single federal agency.

Police Harassment of Photographers Remains a Problem

Police Harassment of Photographers Remains a Problem

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 1:31pm

It’s been almost two years since we posted our ”Know Your Rights” Guide for Photographers, began calling attention to the problem of police harassment of photographers (including through this video), and began blogging about the issue. And several years before that, our affiliates around the country had already begun filing what have become numerous lawsuits on the issue.

It’s also been nearly two years since the First Circuit Court of Appeals held that the right to film police officers is protected by the First Amendment and that, moreover, that principle is so “fundamental and virtually self-evident” that it should have been known to the police even before the court’s ruling. That ruling was only the most prominent—courts around the country have been pretty much unanimous in finding such a right.

Yet the problem persists.

As Carlos Miller documents on his invaluable site Photography is Not a Crime, incidents of police harassment of photographers (and worse) continue to take place around the country on a daily or near-daily basis.

Why is it so hard for police officers to learn the law? We have seen settlements in some cities in which police department management has sent clear messages to their officers instructing them on the law, but in many cities, not enough has been done to train officers and/or enforce requirements that they abide by the Constitution.

As citizens prepare to gather this Fourth of July for rallies to restore the Fourth Amendment, let’s hope that this First Amendment right is respected as well.

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