third party records

Public debate over NSA spying has only just begun

If you thought last week’s vote on the amendment offered by Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) to defund the NSA was the end of the fight to restore privacy rights, think again.

Just a couple years ago, it seemed that the PATRIOT Act and other constitutionally questionable legislation were destined to pass each time they came up for renewal. There were some minor victories along the way, but news of the NSA’s broad surveillance program, through which the agency collects third-party records (including phone records and Internet metadata), sparked a welcome backlash from Americans and many members of Congress.

The result was a strong push by civil libertarians from both parties to preserve the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees the right to privacy, but not hamper the intelligence community from doing their jobs. Instead of blanket surveillance, however, Amash’s amendment would have simply required that data collection “pertain to a person who is the subject of an investigation.”

The vote on the Amash amendment was much closer that many civil libertarians thought it would be. Just two years ago, the PATRIOT Act, through which the NSA has claimed the power to broadly surveil Americans, was renewed by a 275-144 vote.

Companies working with the NSA could get blanket immunity

National Security Agency HQ

The common American might be at a much more vulnerable spot now that Gen. Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA, asked lawmakers for more authority in order to offer liability immunity to companies working closely with the National Security Agency in digital defense programs.

The change in law would allow for mistakes to go unaccounted for in case a company hits the wrong target while attempting to block the home base of a suspicious or seemingly threatening source. While this change in the law seems harmless to some, it could offer protection to companies that act on behalf of the agency, and leave innocent consumers without any access to legal recourse.

Congress was left with the duty of rethinking how private companies are held liable. According to POLITICO, a White House official assured that the Obama administration would be willing to accept a change in the law in order to maintain a company protected while participating in defensive countermeasures online. The source remained anonymous.

While many companies still fight to protect their reputation after news regarding the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs broke, the increased immunity would strip a firm’s only incentive to resist government pressure: its good name.

While certain companies still take their consumers’ privacy into consideration, some fear losing their strong presence in the market, which is why they might be welcoming to the change in the law. Some companies may see this as an opportunity to have their assets protected by avoiding being hit with lawsuits over possible target errors.

Coalition urges Congress to pass meaningful NSA reform

A coalition compromised of nearly 40 groups expressed support for ending the federal government’s bulk data collection program in a letter to President Barack Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, and congressional leaders from both parties.

But the groups urged the administration and congressional leaders to go further than the limited duel proposals circulated last week by the White House and House Intelligence Committee by getting behind the USA FREEDOM Act (H.R. 3361).

“We the undersigned are writing to express support for ending the government’s bulk collection of data about individuals,” the coalition letter states. “We strongly urge swift markup and passage of the USA FREEDOM Act (H.R.3361), which would enact appropriate surveillance reforms without sacrificing national security.”

“This letter focuses on bulk collection,” the groups continue, “but overbroad NSA surveillance raises many more privacy and security issues that Congress and the Administration should address.”

The letter focuses on specific areas of reform. The coalition explains that bulk collection should be prohibited for all types of data, not just phone records. The White House proposal is limited to phone records, leaving loopholes for the federal government to collect other types of records and data.

“Legislation that focuses only on phone records,” the letter says, “may still allow for the bulk collection of, for example, Internet metadata, location information, financial records, library records, and numerous other records that may help ‘identify unknown relationships among individuals.’”

It turns out people don’t like being spied on after all

See Video

Did you know that the federal government can get access to your emails because of a loophole in the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA). The loophole means that after 180 days, your emails lose protected status and can be accessed by third-party providers without a warrant.

This video, produced by, offers a humorous and informative take on the very serious issue of electronic privacy. Three measures that would close the loophole have been introduced in Congress. United Liberty has covered two of them, ECPA Amendments Act (Leahy-Lee) and the Email Privacy Act (Polis-Yoder-Graves).

ACLU files appeal to NSA surveillance decision

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced on Thursday that it had filed an appeal to federal court decision upholding the legality of the National Security Agency’s bulk data collection program.

“We believe that the NSA’s call-tracking program violates both statutory law and the Constitution, and we look forward to making our case in the appeals court,” said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the ACLU, in a statement. “The government has a legitimate interest in tracking the associations of suspected terrorists, but tracking those associations does not require the government to subject every citizen to permanent surveillance.”

“Further, as the president’s own review panel recently observed, there’s no evidence that this dragnet program was essential to preventing any terrorist attack. We categorically reject the notion that the threat of terrorism requires citizens of democratic countries to surrender the freedoms that make democracies worth defending,” he added.

U.S. District Court Judge William Pauley ruled last week that the NSA bulk data collection program is legal and dismissed the ACLU’s lawsuit. In a 53-page opinion, he argued that Americans don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy when it comes to third-party records, including phone records. The legal precedent for the opinion was established in Smith v. Maryland, a case that was decided in 1979, before the existence of modern digital communications.

Justin Amash appears on Fox News Sunday, slams NSA surveillance

The distinctions between a government that adheres to constitutional limitations and a government that runs roughshod over the Bill of Rights were heard yesterday on Fox News Sunday.

General Michael Hayden, former director of the NSA and the CIA, defended the programs being employed to surveil Americans accused of no crime and said that efforts to limit them would put the country at risk. He also proclaimed that there is no expectation of privacy when it comes to third-party records, including phone records collected by the NSA.

But Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) disputed this notion, explaining that the Founding Fathers put the Fourth Amendment to protect Americans from an overreaching government.

“[I]t’s precisely because we live in this dangerous world that we need protections like the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution,” Amash told Chis Wallace, host of Fox News Sunday. “The Framers of the Constitution put it in place precisely because they were worried that you would have national security justifications for violating people’s rights.”

ObamaCare is the next Big Brother threat

Not only are Americans dealing the NSA’s unconstitutional surveillance and metadata collection, they will also be forced to contend with yet another big government database, brought via ObamaCare, that will gain access to their vital information through data-sharing with government and third-party records:

Would you trust thousands of low-level Federal bureaucrats and contractors with one-touch access to your private financial and medical information? Under Obamacare you won’t have any choice.

Bipartisan group of Senators push NSA on book, gun data collection

A bipartisan group of 26 Senators, led by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), are urging the National Security Agency (NSA) to disclose whether they collected information related to book purchases, medical records, firearms sales and other third-party data.

Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act allows intelligence and law enforcement agencies to gain access to third-party data. While the information is supposed to be related only to specific investigations into terrorist activities, the NSA has been collecting phone records from virtually every American, even if they are not suspected of any wrongdoing.

“[W]e are concerned that by depending on secret interpretations of the PATRIOT Act that differed from an intuitive reading of the statute, this program essentially relied for years on a secret body of law,” wrote the Senators in the letter to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. “Statements from senior officials that the NSA ‘[doesn’t] hold data on US citizens’ had the effect of misleading the public about how the law was being interpreted and implemented. This prevented our constituents from evaluating the decisions that their government was making, and will unfortunately undermine trust in government more broadly.”

Rand Paul praises online efforts to protect the Fourth Amendment

In the wake of revelations about the broad surveillance being conducted by the National Security Agency, there has been a growing movement online known as Restore the Fourth that is organizing rallies in several dozen cities around the United States in support of the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee of privacy.

Much of what the Restore the Fourth movement is doing is being driven off of reddit, a community site with dedicated sub-reddits on various topics. They’ve amassed a community of over 18,500 readers from all areas of the country who are discussing ways to raise awareness to privacy. And they’ve gotten the attention of Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY).

In a video to redditors participating in the Restore the Fourth movement, Paul expressed his gratitude, explained why the Founding Fathers put the Fourth Amendment in place, and surmised that the Supreme Court will eventually have to take up the issue.

“Thanks for rallying to protect the Bill of Rights. I often tell people that you can’t have the Second Amendment if you don’t have the Fourth Amendment. I think your third-party records — the records you give up to Visa, MasterCard, your bank, to your telephone company, to your Internet service provider — these records are yours,” said Paul. “You have arrangements and agreements for privacy, and those arrangements and contracts ought to be defended. The Fourth Amendment ought to be defended.”

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