Tagged: DOJ

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The Vanishing Distinction Between Real-time and Historical Location Data

A congressional inquiry, which recently revealed that cell phone carriers disclose a huge amount of subscriber information to the government, has increased the concern that Big Brother tracks our cell phones. The New York Times reported that, in 2011, carriers responded to 1.3 million law enforcement demands for cell phone subscriber information, including text messages and location information. Because each request can acquire information on multiple people, law enforcement agencies have clearly obtained such information about many more of us than could possibly be worthy of suspicion. Representative Markey, who spearheaded the inquiry, has followed up with a thorough letter to Attorney General Holder that asks how the Justice Department could possibly protect privacy and civil liberties while acquiring such a massive amount of information.

Among many important questions, Representative Markey’s letter asks whether the DOJ continues to legally differentiate between historical (those produced from carrier records) and real-time (those produced after an order is issued) cell site location information and what legal standard the DOJ meets for each (or both). Traditionally, courts have accorded less protection to historical location data, which I have criticized as a matter of Fourth Amendment law in my amicus briefs and in my scholarship. The government’s applications for historical data in the Fifth Circuit case, which is currently considering whether agents seeking historical location data must obtain a warrant, provide additional evidence that the distinction between real-time and historical location data makes no sense.

Some background. Under the current legal rules for location acquisition by law enforcement, which are complex, confusing, and contested, law enforcement agents have generally been permitted to acquire historical location data without establishing probable cause and obtaining a warrant. Instead, they have had to demonstrate that the records are relevant to a law enforcement investigation, which can dramatically widen the scope of an inquiry beyond those actually suspected of criminal activity and yield the large number of disclosures that the recent congressional inquiry revealed. Generally, prospective (real-time) location information has required a higher standard, often a warrant based on probable cause, which has made it more burdensome to acquire and therefore more protected against excessive disclosure.

Some commentators and judges have questioned whether historical location data should be available on an easier to satisfy standard, positing the hypothetical that law enforcement agents could wait just a short amount of time for real-time information to become a record, and then request it under the lower standard. Doing so would clearly be an end run around both the applicable statute (ECPA) and the Fourth Amendment, which arguably accord less protection to historical information because it is stored as an ordinary business record and not because of the fortuity that it is stored for a short period of time.

It turns out that this hypothetical is more than just the product of concerned people’s imagination. The three applications in the Fifth Circuit case requested that stored records be created on an ongoing basis. For example, just after a paragraph that requests “historical cell-site information… for the sixty (60) days prior” to the order, one application requests “For the Target Device, after receipt and storage, records of other information… provided to the United States on a continuous basis contemporaneous with” the start or end of a call, or during a call if that information is available. The other two applications clarify that “after receipt and storage” is “intended to ensure that the information” requested “is first captured and recorded by the provider before being sent.” In other words, the government is asking the carrier to create stored records and then send them on as soon as they are stored.

To be clear, only one of the three applications applied for only a relevance-based court order to obtain the continuously-created stored data. That court order, used for historical data, has never been deemed sufficient for forward-looking data (as the continuously-created data would surely be as it would be generated after the order). The other two applications used a standard less than probable cause but more than just a relevance order. It is not clear if the request for forward-looking data under the historical standard was an inadvertent mistake or an attempt to mislead. But applications in other cases have much more clearly asked for forward-looking prospective data, and didn’t require that data to be momentarily stored. Why would the applications in this case request temporary storage if not at least to encourage the judge considering the application to grant it on a lower standard?

I am optimistic that the DOJ’s response to Representative Markey’s letter will yield important information about current DOJ practices and will further spur reform. In the meantime, the government’s current practice of using this intrusive tool to gather too much information about too many people cries out for formal legal restraint. Congress should enact a law requiring a warrant based on probable cause for all location data. It should not codify a meaningless distinction between historical and real-time data that further confuses judges and encourages manipulative behavior by the government.

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Hearing on National Security Leaks

On Wednesday morning the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and National Security held a hearing on the recent national security leaks.  I have just finished watching a video of the hearing so you won’t have to (you can thank me later).  Experts testifying included President George W. Bush’s homeland security advisor Kenneth Wainstein, American University Professor Stephen Vladeck, George Mason Professor Nathan Sales, and US Army (Ret.) Colonel Kenneth Allard.

As the witnesses pointed out, this is the third time in a year and a half that Congress has called for testimony on national security leaks.  The sheer frequency of the hearings indicates that Congress should really try to figure out how to reform the Espionage Act, but I am not going to be holding my breath waiting for this to happen.  Today’s hearing raised some interesting questions but unfortunately provided little guidance on how Congress might revise the Espionage Act.

Not surprisingly, Republican members of the Subcommittee largely used this hearing as an opportunity to rail against the lack of a special prosecutor to investigate the most recent national security leaks, while Democrats spent their time pointing out the most recent leaks were nothing new because leaks have been going on since the founding of this country.

The most interesting part of the hearing from my perspective was the Republicans’ attacks on the media for publishing national security secrets.  As I had mentioned in one of my first posts, almost all of the hostile reaction to the most recent round of high-profile leaks was initially directed at the leakers themselves and not the media entities that published those leaks.  Well, no more.  Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas began the attacks on the media at the outset of the hearing when he said that newspapers publish national security secrets not because they are committed to transparency but rather because they want to increase circulation.  Colonel Allard happily jumped on the media-bashing bandwagon, stating that the N.Y. Times “abuses its position” and that David Sanger’s reporting was “the equivalent of having a KGB operation running against the White House.”  (Colonel Allard also had one of the best quotes from the hearing: “In wartime, I am as opposed to the free flow of information as I am to the free flow of sewage.”  Yikes!)

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Antitrust in Obamaland

Antitrust enforcement was one area where most observers expected significant changes from the Bush years, particularly at the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department. For the past eight years, the Antitrust Division had vigorously prosecuted cartels, but had not been active in monopolization or merger enforcement. In addition to bringing relatively few cases in these areas, the Division had filed a number of amicus briefs in support of defendants, opposed a petition for certiorari sought by its sister agency the Federal Trade Commission, and issued a number of reports and policy recommendations that restricted the reach of the antitrust laws or imposed significant burdens on private plaintiffs. During this same period, the FTC proved to be more active in the competition area, particularly in the health care and intellectual property fields which suggests that the FTC will have a greater continuity in the competition area despite key changes at the Commissioner and staff levels.

The key officials in the Obama administration came into the antitrust agencies promising change. Christine Varney, the new head of the Antitrust Division, gave a speech in her early days promising more vigorous enforcement and hearkening back to the days of Thurman Arnold during the latter half of the New Deal. At the same time, she repudiated a highly restrictive report on monopoly power issued during the waning days of the prior administration issued by the Justice Department alone because a majority of the FTC had refused to endorse. In addition, the Division has reversed policy and filed an amicus brief in support of plaintiffs in a key Supreme Court case involving the pharmaceutical industry. Most recently, the Justice Department and the FTC jointly announced a new initiative to revisit the Merger Guidelines of the 1990s used by both agencies to decide which mergers and acquisitions to challenge on competition grounds. Read More