Justice Department documents released today by the ACLU reveal that federal law enforcement agencies are increasingly monitoring Americans’ electronic communications, and doing so without warrants, sufficient oversight, or meaningful accountability.
The documents, handed over by the government only after months of litigation, are the attorney general’s 2010 and 2011 reports on the use of “pen register” and “trap and trace” surveillance powers. The reports show a dramatic increase in the use of these surveillance tools, which are used to gather information about telephone, email, and other Internet communications. The revelations underscore the importance of regulating and overseeing the government’s surveillance power…
In fact, more people were subjected to pen register and trap and trace surveillance in the past two years than in the entire previous decade.
For the government, the usual goal of a pen/trap tap is to identify who you are communicating with and when. In particular, individuals can often be identified based on the IP address assigned to their computer. IP addresses are generally allotted in batches, semi-permanently, to institutions such as universities, Internet service providers (ISPs), and businesses. Depending how the institution distributes its IP address allotment, it may be more or less difficult to link specific computers, and users, to certain IP addresses. It is often surprisingly easy. ISPs often keep detailed logs about IP address allotment, and as we’ll discuss later, those logs are easy for the government to get using a subpoena. Similarly, if the government is collecting email addresses with a pen/trap, it’s easy for them to go to the email provider and subpoena the identity of the person who registered that address.
Another purpose of pen/trap taps is to access information about your cell phone’s location in real-time. When your handset is powered on, it connects to nearby cell towers to signal its proximity, so that the towers can rapidly route a call when it comes through. Law enforcement can use pen/trap devices to monitor these connections, or “pings”, to pinpoint the physical location of the handset, sometimes within a few meters. And although Congress has made clear that pen/trap orders alone cannot be used to authorize this sort of location surveillance, it hasn’t yet clarified what type of court order would suffice. So, although many courts have chosen to require warrants for location tracking, others have not, and the government has routinely been able to get court authorization for such tracking without probable cause.
Even more alarming, the latest figures — which were for years 2010 and 2011 — open only a tiny window into the U.S. surveillance society.
Consider that last year mobile carriers responded to a staggering 1.3 million law enforcement requests — which come from federal, state and local police, as well as from administrative offices – for subscriber information, including text messages and phone location data. That’s according to data provided to Congress that was released in July.
The nation’s major phone providers said they were working around the clock and charging millions in fees to keep up with ever-growing demands…
All of this only concerns disclosed monitoring. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, in ongoing litigation, claims the National Security Agency, with the help of the nation’s telecoms, is hijacking all electronic communications.
More troubling still, says Crump, is just how hard the surveillance data was for the ACLU to obtain. Despite requirements that the warrantless surveillance orders be reported to Congress annually, Congress hasn’t bothered to publish the data for the last two years. The ACLU instead was forced to file Freedom of Information Act requests for the data and then sue the Department of Justice in May to force it to comply.
Even the documents the ACLU has succeeded in publishing, Crump points out, only cover the Department of Justice. That means surveillance orders by the Secret Service, the Department of Homeland Security, and every state and local police force aren’t included. In reports of wiretaps, those state-by-state orders often outnumber the federal surveillance cases.
Gee, and all this time I thought Democrats hated wiretaps and warrantless surveillance.
Among these likely libertarian voters, the presidential horserace currently stands:
Romney’s share of the libertarian vote represents a high water mark for Republican presidential candidates in recent elections.
Via the ACLU.