Privacy breaches, no warrant required

ProPublica has published a detailed summary of the various methods that the government can use to breach your privacy, without the bother of securing a warrant. If you think your comings and goings, email and browsing habits, etc., are private, you are wrong.

The U.S. government isn’t allowed to wiretap American citizens without a warrant from a judge. But there are plenty of legal ways for law enforcement, from the local sheriff to the FBI, to snoop on the digital trails you create every day. Authorities can often obtain your emails and texts by going to Google or AT&T with a simple subpoena. Usually you won’t even be notified.The Senate last week took a step toward updating privacy protection for emails, but it’s likely the issue will be kicked to the next Congress.

Law enforcement GPS tracking: how widespread?

After the recent Supreme Court decision ruling unconstitutional at least certain types of warrantless tracking of automobiles with GPS devices attached to the cars, the FBI has apparently turned off many of its trackers.

After the ruling, the FBI had a problem collecting the devices that it had turned off, Mr. Weissmann said. In some cases, he said, the FBI sought court orders to obtain permission to turn the devices on briefly – only in order to locate and retrieve them.

What I find interesting is that it appears that around 3,000 of the devices were deactivated.  That represents 3,000 people who up to a couple of weeks ago were secretly tracked by their government without the minimum requirement of a simple search warrant. Not a huge number, but it is the number of devices in operation at one point in time. The number of people tracked by the FBI over the past several years is probably at least 180,000, assuming 30 days per person tracked over five years. And this estimate only covers the FBI. Surely other Federal agencies were using the same techniques.

This represents a significant victory over the continuing erosion of privacy rights in the United States.

Supreme Court blocks at least some warrantless GPS tracking

The US Supreme Court today unanimously blocked GPS tracking by law enforcement without a warrant, at least in certain cases.  The decision concluded that GPS tracking did constitute a “search” within the meaning of the fourth amendment, but various groupings of Justices offered differing rationales.

A good summary of the case is available at Wired’s Threat Level.

“We hold that the government’s installation of a GPS device on a target’s vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a ‘search,’” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the five-justice majority. The majority declined to say whether that search was unreasonable and required a warrant.

All nine justices, however, agreed to toss out the life sentence of a District of Columbia drug dealer who was the subject of a warrantless, 28-day surveillance via GPS.

I was particularly impressed by this dicta from Justice Sotomayor, which seems to get at the current reality of modern digital life:

Physical intrusion is now unnecessary to many forms of surveillance.  [In the case of G.P.S. devices], I would ask whether people reasonably expect that their movements will be recorded and aggregated in a manner that enables the government to ascertain, more or less at will, their political and religious beliefs, sexual habits, and so on.

[Further,] it may be necessary to reconsider the premise that an individual has no reasonable expectation of privacy in information voluntarily disclosed to third parties.

People disclose the phone numbers that they dial or text to their cellular providers; the URLs that they visit and the e-mail addresses with which they correspond to their Internet service providers; and the books, groceries, and medications they purchase to online retailers. I for one doubt that people would accept without complaint the warrantless disclosure to the government of a list of every Web site they had visited in the last week, or month, or year.