Entries Tagged "courts"

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The Dangers of Secret Law

Last week, the Department of Justice released 18 new FISC opinions related to Section 702 as part of an EFF FOIA lawsuit. (Of course, they don’t mention EFF or the lawsuit. They make it sound as if it was their idea.)

There’s probably a lot in these opinions. In one Kafkaesque ruling, a defendant was denied access to the previous court rulings that were used by the court to decide against it:

…in 2014, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) rejected a service provider’s request to obtain other FISC opinions that government attorneys had cited and relied on in court filings seeking to compel the provider’s cooperation.

[…]

The provider’s request came up amid legal briefing by both it and the DOJ concerning its challenge to a 702 order. After the DOJ cited two earlier FISC opinions that were not public at the time — one from 2014 and another from 2008­ — the provider asked the court for access to those rulings.

The provider argued that without being able to review the previous FISC rulings, it could not fully understand the court’s earlier decisions, much less effectively respond to DOJ’s argument. The provider also argued that because attorneys with Top Secret security clearances represented it, they could review the rulings without posing a risk to national security.

The court disagreed in several respects. It found that the court’s rules and Section 702 prohibited the documents release. It also rejected the provider’s claim that the Constitution’s Due Process Clause entitled it to the documents.

This kind of government secrecy is toxic to democracy. National security is important, but we will not survive if we become a country of secret court orders based on secret interpretations of secret law.

Posted on June 21, 2017 at 6:12 AMView Comments

Surveillance Intermediaries

Interesting law-journal article: “Surveillance Intermediaries,” by Alan Z. Rozenshtein.

Abstract:Apple’s 2016 fight against a court order commanding it to help the FBI unlock the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino terrorists exemplifies how central the question of regulating government surveillance has become in American politics and law. But scholarly attempts to answer this question have suffered from a serious omission: scholars have ignored how government surveillance is checked by “surveillance intermediaries,” the companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook that dominate digital communications and data storage, and on whose cooperation government surveillance relies. This Article fills this gap in the scholarly literature, providing the first comprehensive analysis of how surveillance intermediaries constrain the surveillance executive. In so doing, it enhances our conceptual understanding of, and thus our ability to improve, the institutional design of government surveillance.

Surveillance intermediaries have the financial and ideological incentives to resist government requests for user data. Their techniques of resistance are: proceduralism and litigiousness that reject voluntary cooperation in favor of minimal compliance and aggressive litigation; technological unilateralism that designs products and services to make surveillance harder; and policy mobilization that rallies legislative and public opinion to limit surveillance. Surveillance intermediaries also enhance the “surveillance separation of powers”; they make the surveillance executive more subject to inter-branch constraints from Congress and the courts, and to intra-branch constraints from foreign-relations and economics agencies as well as the surveillance executive’s own surveillance-limiting components.

The normative implications of this descriptive account are important and cross-cutting. Surveillance intermediaries can both improve and worsen the “surveillance frontier”: the set of tradeoffs ­ between public safety, privacy, and economic growth ­ from which we choose surveillance policy. And while intermediaries enhance surveillance self-government when they mobilize public opinion and strengthen the surveillance separation of powers, they undermine it when their unilateral technological changes prevent the government from exercising its lawful surveillance authorities.

Posted on June 7, 2017 at 6:19 AMView Comments

Uber Uses Ubiquitous Surveillance to Identify and Block Regulators

The New York Times reports that Uber developed apps that identified and blocked government regulators using the app to find evidence of illegal behavior:

Yet using its app to identify and sidestep authorities in places where regulators said the company was breaking the law goes further in skirting ethical lines — and potentially legal ones, too. Inside Uber, some of those who knew about the VTOS program and how the Greyball tool was being used were troubled by it.

[…]

One method involved drawing a digital perimeter, or “geofence,” around authorities’ offices on a digital map of the city that Uber monitored. The company watched which people frequently opened and closed the app — a process internally called “eyeballing” — around that location, which signified that the user might be associated with city agencies.

Other techniques included looking at the user’s credit card information and whether that card was tied directly to an institution like a police credit union.

Enforcement officials involved in large-scale sting operations to catch Uber drivers also sometimes bought dozens of cellphones to create different accounts. To circumvent that tactic, Uber employees went to that city’s local electronics stores to look up device numbers of the cheapest mobile phones on sale, which were often the ones bought by city officials, whose budgets were not sizable.

In all, there were at least a dozen or so signifiers in the VTOS program that Uber employees could use to assess whether users were new riders or very likely city officials.

If those clues were not enough to confirm a user’s identity, Uber employees would search social media profiles and other available information online. Once a user was identified as law enforcement, Uber Greyballed him or her, tagging the user with a small piece of code that read Greyball followed by a string of numbers.

When Edward Snowden exposed the fact that the NSA does this sort of thing, I commented that the technologies will eventually become cheap enough for corporations to do it. Now, it has.

One discussion we need to have is whether or not this behavior is legal. But another, more important, discussion is whether or not it is ethical. Do we want to live in a society where corporations wield this sort of power against government? Against individuals? Because if we don’t align government against this kind of behavior, it’ll become the norm.

Posted on March 6, 2017 at 6:24 AMView Comments

The NSA and "Intelligence Legalism"

Interesting law journal paper: “Intelligence Legalism and the National Security Agency’s Civil Liberties Gap,” by Margo Schlanger:

Abstract: This paper examines the National Security Agency, its compliance with legal constraints and its respect for civil liberties. But even if perfect compliance could be achieved, it is too paltry a goal. A good oversight system needs its institutions not just to support and enforce compliance but also to design good rules. Yet as will become evident, the offices that make up the NSA’s compliance system are nearly entirely compliance offices, not policy offices; they work to improve compliance with existing rules, but not to consider the pros and cons of more individually-protective rules and try to increase privacy or civil liberties where the cost of doing so is acceptable. The NSA and the administration in which it sits have thought of civil liberties and privacy only in compliance terms. That is, they have asked only “Can we (legally) do X?” and not “Should we do X?” This preference for the can question over the should question is part and parcel, I argue, of a phenomenon I label “intelligence legalism,” whose three crucial and simultaneous features are imposition of substantive rules given the status of law rather than policy; some limited court enforcement of those rules; and empowerment of lawyers. Intelligence legalism has been a useful corrective to the lawlessness that characterized surveillance prior to intelligence reform, in the late 1970s. But I argue that it gives systematically insufficient weight to individual liberty, and that its relentless focus on rights, and compliance, and law has obscured the absence of what should be an additional focus on interests, or balancing, or policy. More is needed; additional attention should be directed both within the NSA and by its overseers to surveillance policy, weighing the security gains from surveillance against the privacy and civil liberties risks and costs. That attention will not be a panacea, but it can play a useful role in filling the civil liberties gap intelligence legalism creates.

This is similar to what I wrote in Data and Goliath:

There are two levels of oversight. The first is strategic: are the rules we’re imposing the correct ones? For example, the NSA can implement its own procedures to ensure that it’s following the rules, but it should not get to decide what rules it should follow….

The other kind of oversight is tactical: are the rules being followed? Mechanisms for this kind of oversight include procedures, audits, approvals, troubleshooting protocols, and so on. The NSA, for example, trains its analysts in the regulations governing their work, audits systems to ensure that those regulations are actually followed, and has instituted reporting and disciplinary procedures for occasions when they’re not.

It’s not enough that the NSA makes sure there is a plausible legal interpretation that authorizes what they do. We need to make sure that their understanding of the law is shared with the outside world, and that what they’re doing is a good idea.

EDITED TO ADD: The paper is from 2014. Also worth reading are these two related essays.

Posted on July 27, 2016 at 6:47 AMView Comments

Visiting a Website against the Owner's Wishes Is Now a Federal Crime

While we’re on the subject of terrible 9th Circuit Court rulings:

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit has handed down a very important decision on the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act…. Its reasoning appears to be very broad. If I’m reading it correctly, it says that if you tell people not to visit your website, and they do it anyway knowing you disapprove, they’re committing a federal crime of accessing your computer without authorization.

Posted on July 13, 2016 at 2:10 PMView Comments

Password Sharing Is Now a Crime

In a truly terrible ruling, the US 9th Circuit Court ruled that using someone else’s password with their permission but without the permission of the site owner is a federal crime.

The argument McKeown made is that the employee who shared the password with Nosal “had no authority from Korn/Ferry to provide her password to former employees.”

At issue is language in the CFAA that makes it illegal to access a computer system “without authorization.” McKeown said that “without authorization” is “an unambiguous, non-technical term that, given its plain and ordinary meaning, means accessing a protected computer without permission.” The question that legal scholars, groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and dissenting judge Stephen Reinhardt ask is an important one: Authorization from who?

Reinhardt argues that Nosal’s use of the database was unauthorized by the firm, but was authorized by the former employee who shared it with him. For you and me, this case means that unless Netflix specifically authorizes you to share your password with your friend, you’re breaking federal law.

The EFF:

While the majority opinion said that the facts of this case “bear little resemblance” to the kind of password sharing that people often do, Judge Reinhardt’s dissent notes that it fails to provide an explanation of why that is. Using an analogy in which a woman uses her husband’s user credentials to access his bank account to pay bills, Judge Reinhardt noted: “So long as the wife knows that the bank does not give her permission to access its servers in any manner, she is in the same position as Nosal and his associates.” As a result, although the majority says otherwise, the court turned anyone who has ever used someone else’s password without the approval of the computer owner into a potential felon.

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act has been a disaster for many reasons, this being one of them. There will be an appeal of this ruling.

Posted on July 13, 2016 at 11:07 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.