PRIVACY + SECURITY BLOG

News, Developments, and Insights

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ACLU vs. NSA: Standing to Challenge NSA Warrantless Wiretapping

Standing 01

In ACLU v. NSA, –F.3d — (6th Cir. 2007), a panel from the 6th Circuit held that the ACLU and other plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the Bush Administration’s warrantless wiretapping program conducted by the National Security Agency (NSA). NYT coverage is here. According to the sketchy details known about the program, the court noted, “it has been publicly acknowledged that the TSP [the Terrorist Surveillance Program, as it has now been named by the Administration] includes the interception (i.e., wiretapping), without warrants, of telephone and email communications, where one party to the communication is located outside the United States and the NSA has ‘a reasonable basis to conclude that one party to the communication is a member of al Qaeda, affiliated with al Qaeda, or a member of an organization affiliated with al Qaeda, or working in support of al Qaeda.”

The plaintiffs are “journalists, academics, and lawyers who regularly communicate with individuals located overseas, who the plaintiffs believe are the types of people the NSA suspects of being al Qaeda terrorists, affiliates, or supporters, and are therefore likely to be monitored under the TSP.” The plaintiffs claimed that the NSA wiretapping violated, among other things, the First Amendment, Fourth Amendment, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

According to Judge Batchelder’s opinion, the plaintiffs could not establish standing because they could not directly prove that they were subject to surveillance. One of the problems with the court’s reasoning is that there is little way for the plaintiffs to find out more specific information about whether particular plaintiffs’ phone calls have been wiretapped. As a result, the government can violate the plaintiffs’ First and Fourth Amendment rights with impunity if they cannot ever learn enough to gain standing to challenge the surveillance.

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Councilman: Just What Does it Take for a Law to Be Vague?

Wiretap

To nobody’s surprise, my colleague and electronic surveillance law expert extraordinaire Orin Kerr at the VC beat everybody to the punch in announcing that the 1st Circuit reversed the panel in United States v. Councilman. As Kerr concisely explains the panel decision in an earlier post:

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How Private is Our Email? Councilman’s unfinished business

Privacy of Email - Councilman

In United States v. Councilman, a 1st Circuit panel held that email intercepted contemporaneously with its transmission did not fall under the protections of the Wiretap Act.  The case went en banc and an opinion has yet to issue. Orin Kerr at the VC just wrote a post about recent developments about the issue.   He writes:

Congress has introduced a number of statutory amendments to try to settle the matter. The best was introduced on April 28: Senator Leahy introduced S. 936, the E-Mail Privacy Act of 2005, which is a very short and sweet solution. The Leahy bill adds just a few words to the definition of “intercept” under the Wiretap Act to make its already implicit temporal scope textually explicit. It’s an elegant and correct amendment.

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