ACLU Challenges Gag Orders Issued To Tech Companies By The DOJ
from the hey,-we-notified-SOMEBODY...-that-counts-for-something dept
The ACLU is hoping to intervene in Microsoft’s legal battle against the government, challenging gag orders attached to warrants and subpoenas issued under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). Microsoft sued the DOJ back in April, arguing for the right to notify customers that their communications and data have been handed over to the government.
Microsoft didn’t have a problem with the government’s gag orders in every case. It’s just that the demand for secrecy accompanied more than half of the ~300 orders per month Microsoft receives. And nearly 70% of those gag orders arrived with no fixed end date.
The ACLU petitioned the court to intervene in the case on its own behalf, citing its position as a Microsoft customer. The DOJ filed a motion to dismiss Microsoft’s lawsuit, hoping the court will find Microsoft has no standing to challenge gag orders on its customers’ behalf. The ACLU is trying to prevent this from happening until the DOJ addresses the issues raised by the ACLU’s (attempted) intervention. In its opposition [PDF] to the DOJ’s motion, the ACLU points out that the government’s “no standing” argument pretty much nullifies any sort of due process for Microsoft customers (including the ACLU) who’ve been targeted by the DOJ’s super-secret warrants, relegating them to a Kafka-esque legal purgatory.
The government attempts to insulate its refusal to provide notice from judicial review, arguing that neither Microsoft nor the ACLU has standing to raise these important constitutional questions. By the government’s logic, Microsoft does not ever have standing to defend its customers’ right to notice, and Microsoft’s customers, including the ACLU, may not defend their own right to notice until after they receive the primary relief they would seek—that is, notice. In the government’s view, the only plaintiffs who have standing to sue for notice are those who have already gotten it, and those deprived of notice forever have no ability to seek a remedy at all. That is not the law.
The hope here is to not only find the open-ended gag orders unconstitutional, but also the law granting this secrecy — the ECPA — unconstitutional as well. The shift from physical “papers” to digital files was addressed by legislators in the worst way possible. The ECPA did away with the notification requirement attached to searches of physical places. When a home or business is searched, the owner or resident is served with a warrant. For electronic communications, a third party is approached. Legislators apparently felt as long as someone was notified, that was good enough — even if that someone isn’t the target of the search warrant.
That’s basically the government’s argument: notice is served to the site of intrusion. If the affected parties don’t actually reside there (but their “papers” do), too bad.
The government’s argument conflates a historical anachronism with a constitutional principle. The government is correct that officers traditionally provided Fourth Amendment notice at the physical site of the intrusion. But that is so because, for the first 175 years of the Fourth Amendment’s application, it was understood to cover primarily physical trespasses. See Katz, 389 U.S. at 353. As a result, notice provided at the site of the intrusion was notice to the individual whose Fourth Amendment rights were at stake. It is no surprise, therefore, that Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 41 reflects that historical context. Under Rule 41(f), an officer executing a warrant must “give a copy of the warrant and a receipt for the property taken to the person from whom, or from whose premises, the property was taken or leave a copy of the warrant and receipt at the place where the officer took the property.”
The ECPA is the DOJ’s argument committed to paper. Notice only needs to be provided to the third party where communications and documents are held. To ensure the party whose documents/communications are being taken is kept out of the loop, the DOJ takes the wording of the law to heart and ignores the intent behind the Fourth Amendment protections granted to citizens.
The ECPA does not require the government to provide notice when it relies on a warrant, and so the government now routinely searches and seizes individuals’ electronic communications without providing any notice—delayed or otherwise—to those whose private information it has obtained. According to Microsoft’s Complaint, nearly half of the federal demands it has received under ECPA in the last eighteen months were accompanied by gag orders, the majority of which contained no time limit. Accordingly, a substantial portion of the individuals whose electronic communications the government demands from Microsoft receive no notice whatsoever, from either the government or Microsoft.
The law undercuts the Fourth Amendment by preventing those affected from challenging the lawfulness of the search or seeking redress through the judicial system for violations. Gag orders that run indefinitely allow the government to avoid being held accountable for any wrongdoing. In addition, the service of warrants to third parties is done without any meaningful oversight, putting the DOJ in the position of policing itself — something it does with no particular enthusiasm or effectiveness.