NSA Metadata Surveillance and the Fourth Amendment

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A U.S. District Court recently held that the NSA surveillance of telephone metadata likely violates the Fourth Amendment. The case is Klayman v. Obama.

The NSA surveillance program involves an incredibly broad gathering of metadata about people’s conversations. Metadata doesn’t include the conversations themselves, just data about when and to whom they are made — i.e., not the content of the phone conversations but the phone numbers of the people having the conversations.

The key Fourth Amendment case at issue is Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 745 (1979), which held that a pen register device capturing the phone numbers a person dialed wasn’t protected by the Fourth Amendment partly because the phone company had access to the phone numbers and partly because phone numbers weren’t viewed to be as sensitive as the phone conversations themselves.

The court in Klayman has an interesting view of why Smith v. Maryland is no longer applicable. Essentially, the court argues that the pen register information the government could gather when Smith was decided is much different from the very broad systematic gathering of phone records today.

The Klayman court relies on the U.S. Supreme Court’s fairly recent decision in United States v. Jones, 132 S.Ct. 945 (2012), where five justices in concurrences noted that wide-scale extensive surveillance technologies have different implications than there older more limited counterparts. Jones involved GPS, and the Court there distinguished an earlier case involving a beeper device that tracked a car. In a concurring opinion, Justice Alito wrote that “relatively short-term monitoring of a person’s movements on public streets accords with expectations of privacy that our society has recognized as reasonable. But the use of longer term GPS monitoring in investigations of most offenses impinges on expectations of privacy. For such offenses, society’s expectation has been that law enforcement agents and others would not—and indeed, in the main, simply could not—secretly monitor and catalogue every single movement of an individual’s car for a very long period.”

I find much merit to the Klayman court’s analysis. I have long argued that Smith was wrongly decided, and not too long ago, I wrote here about why there are strong privacy interests in metadata.

Smith, and many other Fourth Amendment cases, need to be rethought in light of modern technology where surveillance can be so systematic and pervasive. There is a real difference between being able to engage in a small discrete amount of surveillance and having such broad and sweeping surveillance powers as the NSA is exercising. The challenge is where to draw the lines. This problem exists mainly because Smith still remains viable and must be dealt with. I think it’s time for Smith to be overturned, and so there wouldn’t be such line-drawing challenges.

The NSA surveillance is exposing the flaws of some of the Supreme Court’s earlier Fourth Amendment reasoning. Instead of playing the game of determining that very invasive and problematic surveillance programs oddly don’t fall under Fourth Amendment protection because of some silly rule, the Supreme Court should focus more on the nature of the surveillance and the potential harms it causes. The oversight and limitations that Fourth Amendment protections bring should be imposed based upon whether they are helpful and needed, not based on some arcane test or doctrine.

I applaud Judge Leon for his forward-looking and thoughtful way to move beyond the flawed Smith opinion and breathe new life and relevance into the Fourth Amendment.

Cross-posted on LinkedIn

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