Category: Privacy


Beyond His Power: Bush’s Authorization of Warrantless NSA Surveillance

NSA2a.jpgIn this post, I aim to explore more in depth whether Bush had the legal power to authorize warrantless NSA surveillance. As I was putting the finishing touches on this post, I noticed that Orin Kerr beat me to the punch, and I find that we’ve identified the same issues and are in substantial agreement. His post is a lot longer and more detailed than mine (which is quite long itself), so read mine for a broader overview and Orin’s for the treatise-length account.

1. Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment standards are somewhat vague. The Supreme Court declared in United States v. United States District Court, 407 U.S. 297 (1972) (often called the Keith case) that the Fourth Amendment required a warrant for the government to engage in electronic surveillance for domestic criminal investigations. However, the Court noted:

. . . [D]omestic security surveillance may involve different policy and practical considerations from the surveillance of “ordinary crime.” The gathering of security intelligence is often long range and involves the interrelation of various sources and types of information. . . . Often, too, the emphasis of domestic intelligence gathering is on the prevention of unlawful activity or the enhancement of the Government’s preparedness for some possible future crisis or emergency. Thus, the focus of domestic surveillance may be less precise than that directed against more conventional types of crime. . . . .

Different standards [for gathering domestic security intelligence] may be compatible with the Fourth Amendment if they are reasonable both in relation to the legitimate need of Government for intelligence information and the protected rights of our citizens. For the warrant application may vary according to the governmental interest to be enforced and the nature of citizen rights deserving protection.

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Freakonomics, The Apprentice, Student Grades, and Privacy


The ending of this season’s The Apprentice (with Donald Trump) has everybody talking. Rebecca Jarvis and Randal Pinkett were the finalists, both of whom Trump thought were outstanding stars. He hired Randal and later asked Randal whether he should also hire Rebecca. Randal said “no” because “there can be only one Apprentice” and the show is called “the Apprentice, not the Apprenti [sic].” Ann Althouse has more details and extensive commentary here and here.

The buzz about The Apprentice finale has also reached the Freakonomics blog, one that I greatly enjoy. I was surprised when I read a post by Steven Levitt about Rebecca:

More important, I know a celebrity! Rebecca Jarvis, the runner-up, is my former student at University of Chicago. If I remember correctly, she got an A.

Far stranger than her being my student is that we also went to the same high school in the Twin Cities.

I’ll have to dig out her old exam and get her to autograph it for me.

My surprise was at the fact that he just revealed a student’s grade on the Internet. There is likely no actionable privacy law claim for such a disclosure (perhaps breach of confidentiality), and it would be odd for a student to sue over the disclosure that she got an A in a class and quite difficult to establish damages. Nevertheless, it strikes me as a lapse in judgment to reveal a student’s grade — even a good grade — over the Internet without first obtaining that student’s consent. Perhaps Levitt did obtain Rebecca’s consent, but as I read the post, it doesn’t seem likely he did. While Levitt’s infraction isn’t one I’m too worked up about, it does demonstrate the importance of having some self-restraint in blogging. It’s easy for all of us to dash off a post in haste without thinking of the implications.

Speaking of student grades, I’ve got a pile of exams I should be getting to . . .


How Much Government Secrecy Is Really Necessary?


Responding to reports that revealed that the President authorized the NSA to conduct warrantless surveillance within the US, President Bush said:

“The existence of this secret program was revealed in media reports after being improperly provided to news organizations. As a result, our enemies have learned information they should not have, and the unauthorized disclosure of this effort damages our national security and puts our citizens at risk.”

I’m growing weary of arguments like this. How, exactly, does the revelation of the fact that Bush authorized the NSA to conduct surveillance — possibly exceeding the limits of his lawful powers — put “our citizens at risk”? Why is every disclosure about the extent of the government’s surveillance somehow assisting the terrorists?

The argument seems to be that we can’t have a national debate about the nature and extent of government surveillance because such information will help the terrorists. But central to any viable democracy is a government that is publicly accountable, and that requires that the people have the information they need to assess their government’s activities.

Recently, I blogged about a story involving a secret DOD database of protesters. And there’s a debate going on about a secret regulation in the Gilmore case. The debate has focused on whether the secret information in the case is really a regulation, a law, or something else, but the larger question remains: Why does it need to be a secret?

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Did Bush Have the Legal Authority Under FISA to Authorize NSA Surveillance?

whitehouse4.jpgYesterday, I blogged about a startling story in the NY Times about President Bush’s authorizing the NSA to conduct domestic surveillance without a warrant or even a court order. According to the NY Times story, the “legal opinions that support the N.S.A. operation remain classified.”

Today in the NY Times is a follow-up story about the legal basis for the President’s actions. According to the story:

[S]ome legal experts outside the administration, including some who served previously in the intelligence agencies, said the administration had pushed the presidential-powers argument beyond what was legally justified or prudent. They say the N.S.A. domestic eavesdropping illustrates the flaws in Mr. Bush’s assertion of his powers.

“Obviously we have to do things differently because of the terrorist threat,” said Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker, former general counsel of both N.S.A. and the Central Intelligence Agency, who served under both Republican and Democratic administrations. “But to do it without the participation of the Congress and the courts is unwise in the extreme.” . . .

William C. Banks, a widely respected authority on national security law at Syracuse University, said the N.S.A. revelation came as a shock, even given the administration’s past assertions of presidential powers.

“I was frankly astonished by the story,” he said. “My head is spinning.”

Professor Banks said the president’s power as commander in chief “is really limited to situations involving military force – anything needed to repel an attack. I don’t think the commander in chief power allows” the warrantless eavesdropping, he said. . . .

In engaging in the surveillance, the President may have ignored the legal procedures set forth in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978.

The FISA allows the government to engage in electronic surveillance if it obtains a court order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), which meets in secret. The government must demonstrate probable cause that the monitored party is a “foreign power” or an “agent of a foreign power.” 50 U.S.C. § 1801. If the monitored party is a U.S. citizen, however, the goverment must establish probable cause that the party’s activities “may” or “are about to” involve a criminal violation. Id.

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President Bush, the National Security Agency, and Surveillance

NSA2a.jpgThe New York Times has an in-depth story about how President Bush authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to engage in surveillance after 9/11:

Months after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying, according to government officials.

Under a presidential order signed in 2002, the intelligence agency has monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants over the past three years in an effort to track possible “dirty numbers” linked to Al Qaeda, the officials said. The agency, they said, still seeks warrants to monitor entirely domestic communications.

The previously undisclosed decision to permit some eavesdropping inside the country without court approval represents a major shift in American intelligence-gathering practices, particularly for the National Security Agency, whose mission is to spy on communications abroad. As a result, some officials familiar with the continuing operation have questioned whether the surveillance has stretched, if not crossed, constitutional limits on legal searches.

“This is really a sea change,” said a former senior official who specializes in national security law. “It’s almost a mainstay of this country that the N.S.A. only does foreign searches.”

Read the article. It is, in my view, quite startling. Here’s another very troubling fact:

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A Secret Defense Department Database of Protesters

protest1a.jpgFrom MSNBC:

A year ago, at a Quaker Meeting House in Lake Worth, Fla., a small group of activists met to plan a protest of military recruiting at local high schools. What they didn’t know was that their meeting had come to the attention of the U.S. military.

A secret 400-page Defense Department document obtained by NBC News lists the Lake Worth meeting as a “threat” and one of more than 1,500 “suspicious incidents” across the country over a recent 10-month period. . . .

The Defense Department document is the first inside look at how the U.S. military has stepped up intelligence collection inside this country since 9/11, which now includes the monitoring of peaceful anti-war and counter-military recruitment groups. . . .

The DOD database obtained by NBC News includes nearly four dozen anti-war meetings or protests, including some that have taken place far from any military installation, post or recruitment center. One “incident” included in the database is a large anti-war protest at Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles last March that included effigies of President Bush and anti-war protest banners. Another incident mentions a planned protest against military recruiters last December in Boston and a planned protest last April at McDonald’s National Salute to America’s Heroes — a military air and sea show in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

The Fort Lauderdale protest was deemed not to be a credible threat and a column in the database concludes: “US group exercising constitutional rights.” Two-hundred and forty-three other incidents in the database were discounted because they had no connection to the Department of Defense — yet they all remained in the database. . . .

There are more interesting facts in this lengthy article, including this one:

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Update on the Seigenthaler Wikipedia Defamation Case

Wikipedia.jpgPaul Secunda over at Workplace Prof Blog brings news about an update to the Seigenthaler Wikipedia defamation case I blogged about recently. In the case, an anonymous individual wrote in Seigenthaler’s Wikipedia entry that Seigenthaler was involved in President Kennedy’s assassination. Seigenthaler complained that he was unable to track down the identity of the alleged defamer.

Enter Daniel Brandt, who earlier had complained about information in his Wikipedia profile he claimed was false. I blogged about Brandt’s case a while back. According to the New York Times:

Using information in Mr. Seigenthaler’s article and some online tools, Mr. Brandt traced the computer used to make the Wikipedia entry to the delivery company in Nashville. Mr. Brandt called the company and told employees there about the Wikipedia problem but was not able to learn anything definitive.

Mr. Brandt then sent an e-mail message to the company, asking for information about its courier services. A response bore the same Internet Protocol address that was left by the creator of the Wikipedia entry, offering further evidence of a connection.

Paul Secunda nicely explains what happened next:

Chase later resigned from his job because he did not want to cause problems for his company. Seigenthaler has urged Chase’s boss to rehire him, but so far Chase is still without a job.

Oh, the wrath of bloggers!

More details at the NY Times article and at Paul Secunda’s post.

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Airline Screening List Mathematics

airline-screening-list1.jpgWhat do Santa Claus and DHS have in common? They both keep a list of who’s naughty or nice. DHS’s list isn’t quite as large as Santa’s, but it’s getting quite big. From the AFP:

A watchlist of possible terror suspects distributed by the US government to airlines for pre-flight checks is now 80,000 names long, a Swedish newspaper reported, citing European air industry sources.

The classified list, which carried just 16 names before the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington had grown to 1,000 by the end of 2001, to 40,000 a year later and now stands at 80,000, Svenska Dagbladet reported.

Airlines must check each passenger flying to a US destination against the list, and contact the US Department of Homeland Security for further investigation if there is a matching name.

A few days ago, I blogged about a news article that revealed that 30,000 people are wrongly flagged as “matches” on the list.

So applying my very amateur mathematics skills, that means of the 80,000 names on the list, possibly about 30,000 of them (37.5%) match those of an innocent traveler.

Now, I bet that there are repeats, so several of the 30,000 could have the same name. If John Smith is one of the names on the list, it could account for a number of innocent travelers being flagged. Still, these numbers strike me as quite alarming. Something is seriously wrong. Is this really a competent way to go about airline security? What, precisely, gets a name on the list? Why are these lists so bad that they capture so many innocent people?

I guess the DHS is no Santa Claus.

Related Posts:

1. Solove, 30,000 Innocent Travelers Flagged on Airline Screening Lists

2. Solove, The Airline Screening Playset: Hours of Fun!

3. Solove, Airline Screening Stories

4. Solove, When Nuns Can’t Fly

Hat tip:


Privacy and Guns

gun2.jpgOver at the Volokh Conspiracy, Eugene Volokh (law, UCLA) fires off a few questions regarding the privacy of gunowners. He asks whether gun registration and licensing records should be available to the public. He also asks whether the requirement in some places that one cannot carry a concealed weapon is “an impermissible burden on people’s privacy.” Eugene writes:

I’m particularly interested in the views of those people who are sympathetic to gun controls — and especially in limits on concealed carry — but also see themselves as supporters of privacy.

Well, that’s me, so I’ll take a shot at responding. Although I am generally sympathetic to gun controls (not absolute bans of guns), I don’t support infringing upon the privacy of gun owners. Often, this is used as a proxy for gun control, and it isn’t a legitimate one or even an effective one.

Gun records should not be publicly available. I haven’t heard a good articulation for why the public needs to know who owns a gun.

However, I generally support government recordkeeping of gun ownership as well as requiring technologies to enhance the traceability of discharged ammo to particular weapons. This might be very useful in solving gun crimes. I would, of course, favor strong protections to prevent government abuse of such data or government dragnet searches of people who own guns.

Regarding open carry laws, I have a hard time understanding the justifications for these laws. Do we really want people walking around with their guns openly displayed in their holsters? This isn’t the Wild West, and I don’t understand the benefits of prohibiting concealed guns. Unless there’s a compelling benefit articulated, I don’t think that open carry laws would be justified against the infringement upon privacy.


Should Divorce Records Be Public or Private?

divorce2.jpgA USA Today story raises the issue about whether divorce records should be public or private. The article has a good discussion of the law of divorce record confidentiality, and it has examples of several cases where reporters obtained divorce records of celebrities and politicians in order to glean juicy bits of gossip. One of the most interesting cases involves Republican U.S. Senate candidate Jack Ryan, who ran in Illinois in 2004:

Republican contender Jack Ryan quit the race after news organizations persuaded a Los Angeles judge, over objections by Ryan and his ex-wife, to unseal their 2000 child-custody battle. Jeri Ryan, an actress in TV’s Boston Public and Star Trek: Voyager, had alleged that her husband dragged her to “sex clubs” and asked her to have sex with him in front of strangers. She said she refused. . . .

I’m quoted in the story as siding with keeping divorce records confidential:

Daniel Solove, a professor and privacy advocate at George Washington University Law School, says it was “inappropriate” for the court to release the Ryan allegations. “It’s a private matter, essentially a dispute between this couple. We don’t say, ‘You’re running for politics and your priest should have to divulge confession records.’ ”

But Donald Schiller, a Chicago attorney, says, “If you’re putting your character on the line for voters to see, maybe there should be no secrets. But that shouldn’t apply to the average man or woman.”

Although my quote came out fine, I wouldn’t describe myself as a “privacy advocate.” Both Schiller and I agree that divorce records should be private, but Schiller believes that they shouldn’t be private for politicians. I believe they should be presumed to be private unless there’s a very compelling reason to the contrary. Who’s right, Schiller or myself? What about the divorce records of celebrities? Should they be public because celebrities are public figures? And perhaps, one could argue, divorce records should be public for everybody, even if they’re not famous. After all, people getting a divorce are availing themselves of the courts, and courts are public institutions.

This is a very interesting and contentious issue. States are all over the place when it comes to policies regarding whether divorce records remain sealed or not. The article continues:

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