by Tim Cushing
Tue, Apr 15th 2014 12:40pm
The FBI's Facial Recognition Database Combines Lo-Res Photos With Zero Civil Liberties Considerations
from the non-criminal-photos-mixed-in-just-for-fun! dept
Another FOIA lawsuit brought against the government by the EFF has resulted in the release of previously withheld documents. The papers cut loose this time detail the FBI's facial recognition database and other parts of its "Next Generation Identification" (NGI) program, one that aims to compile a collection of biometric data.
EPIC's FOIA lawsuit over similar information revealed last year that the FBI's facial recognition software (as of 2010) had an acceptable margin of error of 20%. With a 1-in-5 chance of "recognizing" the wrong person, the accuracy of the database had nowhere to go but up. But it appears the FBI prioritizes quantity over quality, as the first number to hit you from the "released" documents is a big one.
The records we received show that the face recognition component of NGI may include as many as 52 million face images by 2015. By 2012, NGI already contained 13.6 million images representing between 7 and 8 million individuals, and by the middle of 2013, the size of the database increased to 16 million images. The new records reveal that the database will be capable of processing 55,000 direct photo enrollments daily and of conducting tens of thousands of searches every day.The millions of images come from a handful of sources. Only 46 million of those images, however, will be from criminal databases. The other 6 million will come from other sources, not all of those necessarily related to criminal or terrorist activity.
[T]he FBI does not define either the “Special Population Cognizant” database or the "new repositories" category [which account for nearly a million images]...These employee records may be tossed into the database along with the criminal records if the FBI chooses to assign these a Universal Control Number (UCN). And these records may become more common. As the EFF points out, if you submit your fingerprints as part of a pre-employment background check, these are added to the FBI's database. If employers decide they also want a pre-employment mug shot, that will head the FBI's way as well.
A 2007 FBI document available on the web describes SPC as “a service provided to Other Federal Organizations (OFOs), or other agencies with special needs by agreement with the FBI” and notes that “[t]hese SPC Files can be specific to a particular case or subject set (e.g., gang or terrorist related), or can be generic agency files consisting of employee records.”
The database will be populated with non-criminal photos and overseen by an agency that hasn't provided an updated Privacy Impact Assessment for its facial recognition program since 2008. The low resolution (often at 0.75 megapixels or less) makes this blending of hit/non-hit photos even more problematic, as it means the FBI's actual accuracy rate still hovers between 80-85%. But the agency has weasel-worded its way out of having to defend such a lousy accuracy rating.
[T]he FBI has disclaimed responsibility for accuracy, stating that “[t]he candidate list is an investigative lead not an identification."The FBI generates a "top 50 candidates" report from searches, which it claims is only an "investigative tool," not a starting point for any investigation. That's some remarkably devious dissembling. The agency won't ever be wrong because it's not even trying to be right!
Because the system is designed to provide a ranked list of candidates, the FBI states NGI never actually makes a “positive identification,” and “therefore, there is no false positive rate.”
So, how exactly is this supposed to aid in investigations, if the best results are a grab bag of low-res photos dredged from a variety of sources, some of them non-criminal? The FBI doesn't say. All it says is that the "true candidate" will show up on the "top 50 list" 85% of the time -- and then only if the "true candidate" is already present in the database. The EFF asks the question the FBI hasn't asked itself, or at least hasn't shown any interest in answering honestly.
It is unclear what happens when the “true candidate” does not exist in the gallery—does NGI still return possible matches? Could those people then be subject to criminal investigation for no other reason than that a computer thought their face was mathematically similar to a suspect’s?The FBI's "answer" shifts all the accountability to other law enforcement agencies.
[T]he Bureau notes that because “this is an investigative search and caveats will be prevalent on the return detailing that the [non-FBI] agency is responsible for determining the identity of the subject, there should be NO legal issues.”The FBI, which hasn't updated its privacy protections in a half-decade, which knows that a majority of the photos in its database have a resolution only slightly above "useless" and which sees no problem with throwing photos of criminals and non-criminals into the same database, still has yet to see any significant pushback on its NGI expansion from anyone tasked with overseeing the agency. The fact that these documents were forced free via a FOIA lawsuit shows the FBI has no interest in sharing this info with the public. As for our representatives -- they either don't know or don't care, neither of which should make the represented happy.
This program has some very serious issues, and it's only going to get worse unless someone outside the FBI intervenes. It's obvious from its caveat emptor-esque "policy" ("not our fault if you arrest the wrong pixelated suspect") governing law enforcement's use of the intermingled good guy/bad guy database that it has no interest in policing itself.
Tue, Apr 15th 2014 11:27am
from the sneaky-sneaky dept
It turns out that trying to stifle people's ability to simplify their own lives and file their taxes for free wasn't all that great for the old public relations department, however, so Intuit has instead decided to go the sneaky route and get a bunch of unwitting mouthpieces to do it for them.
Over the last year, a rabbi, a state NAACP official, a small town mayor and other community leaders wrote op-eds and letters to Congress with remarkably similar language on a remarkably obscure topic. Each railed against a long-standing proposal that would give taxpayers the option to use pre-filled tax returns. They warned that the program would be a conflict of interest for the IRS and would especially hurt low-income people, who wouldn't have the resources to fight inaccurate returns. Rabbi Elliot Dorff wrote in a Jewish Journal op-ed that he "shudder[s] at the impact this program will have on the most vulnerable people in American society."So you're wondering where the problem in all of this is? Well, it turns out these folks didn't just independently decide to write the same op-eds. It would appear that they were approached by groups affiliated with Intuit and asked to write them. The folks targeted weren't informed of the connection, either.
Rabbi Dorff says he was approached by a former student, Emily Pflaster, who sent him details and asked him to write an op-ed alerting the Jewish community to the threat. What Pflaster did not tell him is that she works for a PR and lobbying firm with connections to Intuit, the maker of best-selling tax software TurboTax.You think? What once appeared to be some kind of grassroots campaign by the concerned public towards what might be a real issue suddenly has devolved into a public relations blitz undertaken through dishonest means by corporate interests. In other words, it's the same message we got last year, and from the same source, but that source is hiding behind unwitting accomplices. The underhanded deeds weren't over, however.
"I wish she would have told me that," Dorff told ProPublica.
The website of Pflaster's firm, JCI Worldwide, had listed Intuit among its clients, but removed it after ProPublica contacted them. Pflaster said Intuit had been listed by mistake....That's quite an error to make and quite a coincidental time for that error to be "corrected." And, while Intuit's only comment on the matter was some general mumblings about how they use multiple avenues to improve "tax empowerment" of the public, it's a special kind of shady that refers to demonizing an entirely optional and free government service as empowerment of the public. Meanwhile, of course, Intuit has lobbied heavily on bills related to free-filing.
In the end, there may indeed be flaws in the government's free-filing program and process. Actually, it'd be a bit of a shock if there weren't flaws. But it's voluntary, and the solution to those flaws is most certainly not subterfuge and dishonest attempts to coerce a public through their religious leaders.
by Mike Masnick
Tue, Apr 15th 2014 10:35am
Judge Richard Posner's Ruling In Wacky 'Banana Lady' Case Highlights Just How Wrong Judge Kozinski Was About Copyright
from the two-famous-judges,-two-very-different-rulings dept
A new ruling by Posner in a case that is... well... positively bananas, provides a nice quick lesson in just how wrong Kozinski was. The case of Catherine Conrad, the "Banana Lady" involves Conrad suing a bunch of credit unions over a variety of wacky theories after she performed at some event they held. All of the basic theories got tossed out by a state court, but since copyright is a federal issue, it went through the federal courts, ending up in front of Posner and two other judges in the 7th Circuit. The issue is that Conrad claims a copyright on a bunch of things she likely has no copyright claim over, but in part, told the credit unions that people in attendance could take photographs and videos, but only for "personal use." Conrad, additionally, insists that posting such images and videos to Facebook is not personal use, and therefore her copyrights have been violated. There are a whole bunch of problems with this argument, as you might imagine, but let's focus on one part of Posner's decision that Kozinski might want to take note of:
The performance itself was not copyrighted or even copyrightable, not being “fixed in any tangible medium of expression.” 17 U.S.C. § 102(a); see, e.g., Kelley v. Chicago Park District, 635 F.3d 290, 303–04 (7th Cir. 2011); Baltimore Orioles, Inc. v. Major League Baseball Players Assʹn, 805 F.2d 663, 675 (7th Cir. 1986); United States v. Moghadam, 175 F.3d 1269, 1280–81 (11th Cir. 1999); 1 Melville B. Nimmer & David Nimmer, Nimmer on Copyright § 2.03[B], p. 2‐32 (Aug. 2004). To comply with the requirement of fixity she would have had either to have recorded the performance or to have created a written “dance notation” of it. See Martha Graham School & Dance Foundation, Inc. v. Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance, Inc., 380 F.3d 624, 632 and n. 13 (2d Cir. 2004); Horgan v. Macmillan, Inc., 789 F.2d 157, 160 and n. 3 Wikipedia, (2d Cir. 1986); “Dance Notation,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dance_notation. She did neither.What's somewhat incredible is that the David Nimmer that Posner relies on above to highlight that a performance itself is not copyrightable is one of the few "copyright experts" to claim that Kozinski's bizarre interpretation makes sense. Of course, while Nimmer is still one of the most respected copyright scholars around, his analysis of copyright law has been increasingly odd over the past few years.
Meanwhile, Posner notes all the other problems with Conrad's wacky claim, including the idea that she could have a valid copyright on a banana costume:
Conrad has copyrights, which we'll assume are valid, on photographs and sculptures of her in her banana costume. She has also registered a copyright on the costume itself, but there is doubt (not necessary for us to resolve) about the validity of that copyright because banana costumes quite similar to hers are, we are surprised to discover, a common consumer product. See, e.g., “Adult Banana Costumes,” Google, www.google.com/#q=adult+banana+costumes&tbm=shopI just love the thought of Richard Posner doing that Google search. There's also a somewhat hilarious explanation of what a "singing telegram" is. However, he accepts the possibility that she might have a valid copyright and explores whether or not photos and videos taken by audience members could possibly infringe. He finds that suggestion pretty much preposterous (again, Kozinski should read this):
Photos or videos made by members of the audience could conceivably have been either reproductions of, or works derivative from—that is, creative variants of, Gracen v. No. 13‐2899 5 Bradford Exchange, 698 F.2d 300, 304–05 (7th Cir. 1983)—copyrighted elements of Conrad’s performance, such as the costume (if it is copyrightable). And she has the exclusive right to create or license reproductions of and derivative works from works that she has validly copyrighted. 17 U.S.C. §§ 106(1), (2). It’s unlikely that the photos and videos were derivative works; to be such a work, a photograph, or any other copy, must have an element of originality, Schrock v. Learning Curve Intʹl, Inc., 586 F.3d 513, 519 (7th Cir. 2009); Ets‐Hokin v. Skyy Spirits, Inc., 225 F.3d 1068, 1076–77 (9th Cir. 2000)—some modicum of creativity added to the copyright‐ed work. Cf. Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 U.S. 340, 345 (1991); Bleistein v. Donaldson Litho‐graphing Co., 188 U.S. 239, 249–50 (1903) (Holmes, J.); Jewelers’ Circular Publishing Co. v. Keystone Publishing Co., 274 F. 932, 934 (S.D.N.Y. 1921) (L. Hand, J.). “To extend copyrightability to minuscule variations would simply put a weapon for harassment in the hands of mischievous copiers intent on appropriating and monopolizing public domain work.” L. Batlin & Son, Inc. v. Snyder, 536 F.2d 486, 492 (2d Cir. 1976) (en banc). But whether the photos or videos were mere depictions, or sufficiently departed from the originals to be derivative works, they would violate Conrad’s copyrights if the copyrights covered material that members of the audience duplicated in their photos and videos.Separately, Posner notes that it seems clear that Conrad seems to spend an inordinate amount of time filing frivolous lawsuits, including one in which she even sued someone for not posting a video of her performance -- somewhat the opposite of the present case.
She had, it is true, authorized the arrangers of the trade association event to permit the members of the audience to take photos, or make videos, for their personal use. But that was a limited license. We don’t know how limited; but maybe it didn’t authorize posting photos or videos on the internet, or at least on some of the internet sites on which they were posted; and in that event such posting may have violated the provision of the Copyright Act that forbids unauthorized video or tape recording of a musical performance, 17 U.S.C. § 1101(a), or the provision that forbids the unauthorized public display of copyrighted musical or choreographic works. § 106(5). The arrangers might therefore be charged with having induced violation of those provisions. Cf. Metro‐Goldwyn‐Mayer Studios Inc. v. Grokster, Ltd., 545 U.S. 913, 930 (2005). But Conrad does not invoke either provision, and probably couldn’t because one of the arrangers advised the audience of the prohibition at the end of the performance—and Conrad doesn’t contend that any photos or videos of it were posted on the internet before the performance ended.
So her suit has no merit.
But we cannot end this opinion without remarking her abuse of the legal process by incessant filing of frivolous lawsuits. This is at least the eighth case she's filed in federal court since 2009, and she has filed at least nine cases in state court just since 2011.... She appears not to have won any judgments, but she did obtain settlements in the first three federal suits that she filed.Posner closes by questioning why the federal district court has not yet barred her from filing further suits until she has paid her previous litigation debts.
She once sued event organizers who mailed persons attending the event a postcard that had a picture of her in her banana costume. On another occasion she sued persons who videotaped her performance but declined to post the video on their website after she demanded a $40,000 license fee; her theory was that the recording infringed her copyright even though she had consented to it and that the individual defendants’ decision not to post the video (and thus avoid paying the license fee) constituted tortious interference with her business. The defendants obtained summary judgment in that suit after enduring 15 months of litigation.
She has filed suits in state and federal court against her former lawyers, and once sued her web hosting company for taking down her web site after she failed to pay the bill. The web host had paid $4000 to compensate her for “lost business” while the web site was down—even though it was down because of her failure to pay. She pocketed the $4000 but sued the web host—and in both state and federal court—anyway.
Her previous state‐court complaint against persons who are defendants in the present case accused one of them of being “armed and dangerous,” compared him to the Unabomber, and suggested that “someone from Homeland Security or Fort Know” (she must have meant Fort Knox) should take his “threats seriously.” She didn’t specify what those threats were, or whether she meant that he had made threats or that he posed a threat. She demanded that another defendant both admit having been “physically present at the Kennedy Compound located in Boston, MA” (presumably she meant Hyannis Port, not Boston) on the day before or the day of the trade association event involved in this case and produce all her travel documents for those days.
The defendants in one of Conrad’s federal suits were awarded more than $55,000 in costs and fees, pursuant to 17 U.S.C. § 505, which authorizes the award of costs, including a reasonable attorney’s fee, to the prevailing party in a copyright suit. She has been sanctioned at least $23,000 in her state court suits on the authority of Wis. Stat. §§ 802.05(3), 895.044, and possibly $73,000 more in one of the suits, though we can't be sure just why her company was ordered to pay that amount to the defendants in that suit.
To be clear, this case is nuttier than the Garcia case in many ways, but the underlying principle concerning copyright is basically the same: whether or not a "performer" has any copyright claim. Posner dismisses such a preposterous idea quickly, whereas Kozinski upended decades of otherwise settled law.
by Mike Masnick
Tue, Apr 15th 2014 9:33am
from the are-these-people-serious dept
For reasons that are beyond comprehension, the political color commentary sportscasters at Politico decided to ask Yoo if the Pulitzer vindicated Snowden, and he (of course) answered with an emphatic no, though in a way that suggests he still has no clue what this story is about:
John Yoo, a former deputy assistant attorney general and author of the 2002 memos advising the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques, said the Pulitzer committee’s decision did not vindicate Snowden.Except, of course, the award was not for their coverage of Snowden's actions (mislabled "crimes") by Yoo, but rather the NSA's actions. So if we replace "Snowden's crimes" in the quote above with "the NSA's crimes" the quote actually makes some sense. The reporting certainly was no vindication of the NSA -- quite the opposite. The award itself was always for the reporting on the NSA, and the reason it vindicates Snowden (and which Yoo seems unable to comprehend) is because without Snowden, there would be no reporting on the NSA's unconstitutional and illegal behavior. There would be no "national debate" on the surveillance state, and there would be no ongoing effort in all three branches of government to change how the intelligence community spies on people.
“I’m not surprised the Pulitzer committee gave The Washington Post a prize for pursuing a sensationalist story, even when the story is a disaster for its own country,” he said. “I don’t think we need automatically read the prize as a vindication for Snowden’s crimes. Awarding a prize to a newspaper that covered a hurricane does not somehow vindicate the hurricane, [and] awarding a Pulitzer for a photo of a murder does not somehow vindicate the crime.”
The award wasn't for reporting on Snowden. It was on the NSA. And it's that reporting that vindicates Snowden. It's simply crazy that folks like Yoo are so focused on hating Snowden that they still don't seem to realize that.
by Tim Cushing
Tue, Apr 15th 2014 8:34am
from the because-only-Senate-staffers-are-allowed-to-access-unauthorized-documents dept
Sen. Feinstein seemed incredibly outraged that her office was spied on by the CIA in its efforts to keep a torture report under wraps. This was noted with some attendant irony, given Feinstein's boisterous support of the NSA's surveillance efforts.
Now, she's stepped into irony again, opening an investigation of McClatchy News for leaking a condensed, bullet-points-only summation of the findings hidden within the still-unreleased 6,600-page "torture report."
The Senate Intelligence Committee has opened an investigation into how McClatchy obtained the classified conclusions of a report into the CIA’s use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation tactics, the panel’s chairwoman said Friday.Unauthorized disclosure, maybe. But it's looking more and more like the only way Americans are ever going to see the inside of the infamous report is via unauthorized channels, what with the CIA asking for redaction privileges. This is the same Senator who fought the CIA over control of this report, only now she wants to control how the information is fed to the public.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she was also referring the case to the Justice Department for investigation.
“If someone distributed any part of this classified report, they broke the law and should be prosecuted,” Feinstein said in a prepared statement. “The committee is investigating this unauthorized disclosure and I intend to refer the matter to the Department of Justice.”
The investigation of the CIA wasn't performed just because Washington had money to waste. Supposedly this was done in the public interest, even if almost everyone involved has done as much as they can to keep the information out of the public's hands. It's the kind of government no one wants: one that internalizes its investigative efforts and withholds the findings. The public is frequently treated like an unwanted side effect of governing. "Shut up," Feinstein explained, "or we'll make you regret ever speaking up."
Disappointing, yes. But worse, it's predictable. McClatchy isn't happy.
“We are disappointed that Sen. Feinstein plans to seek a Justice Department investigation of our journalism,” said James Asher, McClatchy’s Washington bureau chief. “We believe that Americans need to know what the CIA might have done to detainees and who is responsible for any questionable practices, which is why we have vigorously covered this story.”Asher is right about the public knowing, which is ostensibly the endpoint of investigations like these. But now that it's all been compiled, representatives are (somewhat inadvertently) joining forces with the same agency they decried and throwing as much dirt as they can over any exposure. There's a slim chance that much of the 480-page "executive summary" will survive the rounds of redactions headed its way. For McClatchy to release a 2-page summary is a drop in bucket compared to the voluminous whole.
The DOJ will now (possibly) start searching for yet another whistleblower, one who felt the refusal to discuss the contents beyond vague generalities was an intellectually dishonest move by those heading the investigation. But it's even more wrongheaded for Feinstein to request an investigation into this leaked document, only a few months removed from the CIA asking the DOJ to investigate Feinstein's staffers for their "unauthorized removal" of documents. It's apparently OK to take "unauthorized" documents if you're a Senator, but not so much if you're a journalist.
by Mike Masnick
Tue, Apr 15th 2014 7:16am
Why We Filed An Amicus Brief In Garcia v. Google: Blaming 3rd Parties Has Serious Impact On Free Speech
from the not-just-about-copyright dept
After some consideration, we teamed up with the Organization for Transformative Works to file our own brief concerning "intermediary liability." While the 9th Circuit noted it would accept briefs from all interested parties, it also said those briefs had to be shorter than 2,500 words, which is not a lot of space to make complex legal arguments. We fully expected many others to focus in on all of the (many, many) troubling copyright aspects in Kozinski's ruling, but wanted to raise a separate (and, in some ways, larger) issue that was almost entirely ignored by the ruling: that third parties should not be blamed for the actions of their users -- and that Judge Kozinski's broad injunction did just that.
Lawyer Cathy Gellis wrote up an amicus brief on our behalf, highlighting Congress's clear intent in both Sections 230 of the CDA and 512 of the DMCA in providing safe harbors from liability for third parties, in order to encourage them to support free and open dialogue and discourse online, without fear of legal repercussions. As our brief argues, while many have ignored Section 230 (which excludes intellectual property), it should be quite clear that Garcia's case was really nothing more than an attempt to misuse copyright law in order to get around Section 230 and to hold a third party liable. Furthermore, as we've noted in the past, Judge Kozinski's injunction appears to go well beyond what the law says is appropriate in responding to copyright claims.
There is a reason why Congress was so intent on providing safe harbors, recognizing the incentives for broad censorship when you blame service providers for the actions of their users. Judge Kozinski appears to have ignored nearly all of Congress' intent in his ruling, and we're hopeful that (among the many other reasons why his ruling should be reviewed), the rest of the 9th Circuit will recognize that the original ruling has serious First Amendment implications, beyond just the basic copyright questions.
by Mike Masnick
Tue, Apr 15th 2014 5:16am
from the didn't-think-so dept
Tue, Apr 15th 2014 3:12am
from the plenty-of-examples dept
There are many concrete examples of network neutrality violations around the world. These network neutrality violations include ISPs blocking websites and applications, ISPs discriminating in favor of some applications and against others, and ISPs charging arbitrary tolls on technology companies.
We have seen network neutrality violations all over the world.
Even in the U.S., there have been some major violations by small and large ISPs. These include:
- The largest ISP, Comcast, secretly interfering with peer-to-peer technologies, including some of the most popular basic technologies used to distribute online TV and music (2005-2008);
- A small telephone ISP called Madison River blocking Vonage, a company providing competing telephone service online (2005);
- Apple blocking Skype on the iPhone, subject to a secret contract with AT&T, a company that competes with Skype in providing telephone service (2008-2009);
- Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile blocking the functionality of Google Wallet on Nexus devices, while all three of those ISPs are part of a competing mobile payments joint venture called Isis (late 2011- +today);
- and Comcast's disputes with Level 3 and Netflix over termination fees, and the appearance that Comcast is deliberately congesting its network connections to force Netflix to pay Comcast for an acceptable connection (2010- +today).
In the European Union, widespread violations affect at least 1 in 5 users. That is the conclusion of a report issued in June of 2012 by the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC), a body composed of the regulatory agencies of each EU country. Most of these restrictions were on online phone services, peer-to-peer technologies (which are used not only by copyright pirates, but also in a variety of well-known technologies, including Skype and several Amazon cloud services), as well as other specific applications "such as gaming, streaming, e-mail or instant messaging service."
ISPs block and discriminate against applications and websites even in countries that require disclosure of the violations and even in countries with far more competition among ISPs than the U.S. A recent Oxford dissertation on the topic explores the wide-scale blocking and discrimination in the United Kingdom, a market with both considerable competition among ISPs and robust disclosure laws.
Essentially, a specific rule that would be upheld in court is necessary protect network neutrality and address a major, global problem.
* Footnote: Thanks to Stanford professor Barbara van Schewick, whose recent letter to the FCC inspired my thinking in this post.
by Tim Cushing
Tue, Apr 15th 2014 12:15am
from the the-government's-been-skating-for-far-too-long dept
At long last, there finally seems to be a recognition by members of the judicial branch that they are, in fact, there to provide checks and balances against government overreach. We've already covered the recent orders by Magistrate Judge John Facciola, who has twice sent the government back to fix its overly broad warrant requests seeking access to email accounts and cell phone content. (This is tempered somewhat by another Facciola decision, which declared the law enforcement agency in question didn't need a search warrant for a supposedly "abandoned" phone.) Facciola isn't the only judge pushing back against the government's vague warrant requests, however.
In the past year, U.S. magistrate judges John Facciola in Washington, D.C., and David Waxse in Kansas City, Kan., have rejected or modified a number of applications for warrants to search people's emails and other electronic communications at Internet firms such as Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc.This has been the government's process for years: obtain everything and keep whatever is deemed "relevant" to the case. Both of these judges appear to realize that they are the last line of Fourth Amendment defense between the government and the public. Presumably, the Snowden leaks have played a part in this altered mindset. As both judges have pointed out in their orders, what the government has routinely sought is unbounded access to communications via unconstitutional warrants.
The rulings go against the grain of a federal judiciary that has generally approved them, according to current and former law-enforcement officials. They also come against the backdrop of a legal and political debate over the scope of government surveillance that has raged since the National Security Agency's bulk collection of phone records was revealed last summer.
At issue is the Justice Department's two-step process of obtaining all emails and other electronic information in the accounts of a person under investigation, and then using names and keywords to sift through it in hopes of finding evidence of wrongdoing.
The judges have ruled the government needs to refine its requests to comply with the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches.
These two have suggested an alternate route, if the government can't manage to operate within the constraints of the Constitution.
Both judges have suggested Internet service providers and other Web firms could do their own searches based on specific guidance from the Justice Department, and turn over only the information that appears relevant to an investigation. They have also proposed systems in which a court-appointed official or others could perform the initial search, providing a buffer between investigators and bulk data.Of course, the government thinks these are terrible ideas.
"I don't think ISPs or email providers have the institutional competence to conduct the searches of their customers for evidence of crimes," said Neil MacBride, a former U.S. attorney in Virginia who described the magistrate judges' rulings as "outliers."Maybe. Maybe not. But it's clear the government is no better than the private sector at performing targeted searches. Instead, it simply demands everything and expects to be trusted to only take a look at what is pertinent. Despite the fact that the government routinely asks (or rather, expects) the judicial branch, along with those defending the accused, to simply trust it with petabytes of someone's personal data, it seems completely unwilling to trust a private company with fulfilling searches for relevant data on its behalf.
The days of the government simply saying "it's complicated" and running broad warrant requests past technically-incompetent judges might finally be numbered.
Judge Waxse said he believed more people would come around to his view if they better understood recent technological advances and how service providers operate. "What Facciola and I are saying is, use what is now developed, and you can comply with the Fourth Amendment," he said. "There are too many lawyers and judges who don't have a clear grasp of how it all works."This is also part of the problem. Far too often, technically-ignorant judges have credulously accepted the government's arguments because they don't have the knowledge to challenge these assertions. They could seek the input of those who can parse the technological demands, but rather than do so, this crucial part of the system of checks and balances has simply allowed the government to portray its circumvention of the Fourth Amendment as unavoidable.
Following the revelations of the last several months, including documents showing the NSA misrepresented its bulk records collections for nearly three years straight, the government has been shown it cannot be trusted with unlimited access to people's data and content. Hopefully, this pushback from the judicial branch will become the new standard.