Free Future

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.

Fighting a Striking Case of Warrantless Cell Phone Tracking

Fighting a Striking Case of Warrantless Cell Phone Tracking

By Bennett Stein, ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project at 4:16pm

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals is currently considering a case that could be pivotal in determining whether the government needs a warrant to track your cell phone. Today the ACLU, together with the ACLU of Maryland, Center for Democracy &…

Activists Leverage Stronger EU Privacy Laws to Seek More Information on PRISM

Activists Leverage Stronger EU Privacy Laws to Seek More Information on PRISM

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 3:03pm

A group of European activists yesterday filed complaints with European data protection authorities against Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Skype, and Yahoo alleging that the companies are violating EU privacy law by cooperating with the NSA's PRISM…

Ignorant Armies Eavesdropping By Night?

Ignorant Armies Eavesdropping By Night?

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 10:11am

As revelations continue to pour forth about how the talents of thousands of brilliant math and computer experts are being utilized by the National Security Agency, we also saw last week the release of a report to Congress that attempts to defend the…

First in the Nation: Montana Requires a Warrant for Location Tracking

First in the Nation: Montana Requires a Warrant for Location Tracking

By Allie Bohm, Advocacy & Policy Strategist, ACLU at 10:15am

Montana just made history. It recently enacted the first state law in the nation (sponsored by Rep. Daniel Zolnikov (R-Billings)) requiring...

Call Logs? Try Kilowatts: Reports Reveal Demands for California Energy Data

Call Logs? Try Kilowatts: Reports Reveal Demands for California Energy Data

By Matthew Cagle, Volunteer Attorney, ACLU of Northern California at 4:34pm

Amid recent revelations that the NSA has been secretly spying on phone records and the Internet activity of people in the United States, transparency reports filed by the California utilities companies and obtained by the ACLU of California show that…

Some Thoughts on DMV Image Databases and the Police

Some Thoughts on DMV Image Databases and the Police

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 2:28pm

The Washington Post has an excellent, in-depth article today on the growing use of driver’s license photo databases combined with face recognition analytics by police.

There are two ways to think about this. First, it is yet another long…

Who Decides?

Who Decides?

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 9:32am

I’d like to make one major point about the NSA surveillance scandal that many people have made indirectly, or implicitly, or seem to have assumed, but have not stated baldly and explicitly. That point is how this incident has laid bare the arrogance of our national security officials.

Because there are really two separate issues behind last week’s revelations. The first is, how much surveillance of the American people should the government conduct? The second is, who should decide how much surveillance of the American people the government should conduct?

And on that second question, the government has arrogated to itself the power to make that decision, unilaterally, in secret, on behalf of the American people.

In his only comments on this scandal, President Obama said,

ACLU Files Lawsuit Challenging NSA's Patriot Act Phone Surveillance

ACLU Files Lawsuit Challenging NSA's Patriot Act Phone Surveillance

By Brett Max Kaufman, Legal Fellow, ACLU National Security Project at 3:30pm

In the wake of the past week's revelations about the NSA's unprecedented mass surveillance of phone calls, today the ACLU filed a lawsuit charging that the program violates Americans' constitutional rights of free speech, association, and privacy.

This…