The Government’s Intrusive Surveillance of Americans
Despite the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which prohibits warrantless government searches, U.S. agencies are proving to be ever more intrusive in their routine surveillance of Americans’ speech and activities.
Are you concerned about the government’s violation of your privacy rights? Despite the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of warrantless government searches, U.S. agencies are increasingly surveilling Americans’ speech and activities without any evidence of a crime. Working with private companies and banks, agencies like the FBI are misusing laws against foreign terrorism to sift through the private data of millions of Americans.
As Congress debates reauthorizing relevant sections of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that are set to expire this year, the libertarian Cato Institute held a four-day conference last week, which featured calls for major legal reforms by conservative and liberal speakers alike.
“The violations that we’ve seen have not just been epic in scale, but they’ve also been persistent, over and over again,” Jake Laperruque, a deputy director at the Center for Democracy and Technology, told attendees.
“To put a human scale on this, what we’re talking about is not just random typos or wrong clicks; we’re looking at things like pulling up batches of thousands of political donors in one go, without any suspicion of wrongdoing,” Laperruque said. “We’ve had reports of journalists, political commentators, a domestic political party; these compliance violations are the most worrisome type of politically focused surveillance.”
Evidence of Abuse
Congressional debates about whether to renew Section 702 are coming amid numerous reports that the FBI and other federal intelligence agencies have abused the surveillance authority granted to them by this law. Critics say there is mounting evidence that federal agencies have been using laws, which were intended to target foreign terrorists, to conduct extensive, long-term domestic spying campaigns on U.S. citizens.
“To prevent Section 702 from being used as an end run around [Fourth Amendment] protections, Congress did two things: It required the government to minimize the collection, sharing and retention of Americans’ personal information … and it required the government to certify to the FISA court on an annual basis that it is not using Section 702 to try to access the communications of particular known Americans,” Elizabeth Goitein, a senior director at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, told conference attendees.
“What has become abundantly clear over the last 15 years is that these protections are not working,” Goitein said. “All agencies that receive Section 702 data have procedures in place, approved by the FISA court, that allow them to run electronic searches … for the purpose of finding and retrieving the phone calls, text messages and emails of Americans.”
A report by the Brennan Center for Justice states that “since 2006, the National Security Agency (NSA) has been secretly collecting the phone records of millions of Americans from some of the largest telecommunications providers in the United States, via a series of regularly renewed requests by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).”
Rise of Data Brokers
Speaking to attendees of the Cato Institute conference, Nathan Wessler, a director at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), detailed “the rise of data brokers” that assemble enormous databases of photo IDs that they then sell to law enforcement for profit.
“Many companies are selling face recognition algorithms to government and private industry buyers,” Wessler said. “That might be state driver’s license photos, arrest photos, federal passport photos.
“And then there’s another company, ClearView AI, which has been scouring the internet for billions of photos,” he said. “The last I heard, they had a database of 30 billion photos of people from social media, from employer websites, from local newspapers, and anywhere else on the internet where there’s a photo that might be attached to a name, building giant databases of face prints extracted from those photos, and selling that to police departments and other law enforcement around the country.”
This, Wessler said, “presents a truly unprecedented ability for the government to instantaneously identify anyone in any situation and then take action without usually any kind of court oversight, and often in tremendous secrecy.”
House Works to Extend Section 702
On March 22, the House Intelligence Committee established a bipartisan working group to assess under what conditions Section 702 should be extended. Simultaneously, pressure to kill the provision is coming from people on both the left and the right who are concerned with a pattern of civil rights violations by federal agencies.
“Many Americans have rightfully lost faith in the FBI and the FISA
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