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The NSA (Said It) Ate Its Illegal Domestic Content Homework before Having to Turn It in to John Bates

The question of whether NSA can keep its Section 215 dragnet data past November 28 has been fully briefed for at least 10 days, but Judge Michael Mosman has not yet decided whether the NSA can keep it — at least not publicly. But given what the NSA IG Report on NSA’s destruction of the Internet dragnet says (liberated by Charlie Savage and available starting on PDF 60), we should assume the NSA may be hanging onto that data anyway.

This IG Report documents NSA’s very hasty decision to shut down the Internet dragnet and destroy all the data associated with it at the end of 2011, in the wake of John Bates’ October 3, 2011 opinion finding, for the second time, that if NSA knew it had collected US person content, it would be guilty of illegal wiretapping. And even with the redactions, it’s clear the IG isn’t entirely certain NSA really destroyed all those records.

The report adds yet more evidence to support the theory that the NSA shut down the PRTT program because it recognized it amounted to illegal wiretapping. The evidence to support that claim is laid out in the timeline and working notes below.

The report tells how, in early 2011, NSA started assessing whether the Internet dragnet was worth keeping under the form John Bates had approved in July 2010, which was more comprehensive and permissive than what got shut down around October 30, 2009. NSA would have had SPCMA running in big analytical departments by then, plus FAA, so they would have been obtaining these benefits over the PRTT dragnet already. Then, on a date that remains redacted, the Signals Intelligence Division asked to end the dragnet and destroy all the data. That date has to post-date September 10, 2011 (that’s roughly when the last dragnet order was approved), because SID was advising to not renew the order, meaning it happened entirely during the last authorization period. Given the redaction length it’s likely to be October (it appears too short to be September), but could be anytime before November 10. That means that decision happened at virtually the same time or after, but not long after, John Bates raised the problem of wiretapping violations under FISA Section 1809(a)(2) again on October 3, 2011, just 15 months after having warned NSA about Section 1809(a)(2) violations with the PRTT dragnet.

The report explains why SID wanted to end the dragnet, though three of four explanations are redacted. If we assume bullets would be prioritized, the reason we’ve been given — that NSA could do what it needed to do with SPCMA and FAA — is only the third most important reason. The IG puts what seems like a non sequitur in the middle of that paragraph. “In addition, notwithstanding restrictions stemming from the FISC’s recent concerns regarding upstream collection, FAA §702 has emerged as another critical source for collection of Internet communications of foreign terrorists” (which seems to further support that the decision post-dated that ruling). Indeed, this is not only a non sequitur, it’s crazy. Everyone already knew FAA was useful. Which suggests it may not be a non sequitur at all, but instead something that follows off of the redacted discussions.

Given the length of the redacted date (it is one character longer than “9 December 2011”), we can say with some confidence that Keith Alexander approved the end and destruction of the dragnet between November 10 and 30 — during the same period the government was considering appealing Bates’ ruling, close to the day — November 22 — NSA submitted a motion arguing that Section 1809(a)(2)’s wiretapping rules don’t apply to it, and the day, a week later, it told John Bates it could not segregate the pre-October 31 dragnet data from post October 31 dragnet data.

Think how busy a time this already was for the legal and tech people, given the scramble to keep upstream 702 approved! And yet, at precisely the same time, they decided they should nuke the dragnet, and nuke it immediately, before the existing dragnet order expired, creating another headache for the legal and tech people. My apologies to the people who missed Thanksgiving dinner in 2011 dealing with both these headaches at once.

Not only did NSA nuke the dragnet, but they did it quickly. As I said, it appears Alexander approved nuking it November 10 or later. By December 9, it was gone.

At least, it was gone as far as the IG can tell. As far as the 5 parts of the dragnet (which appear to be the analyst facing side) that the technical repository people handled, that process started on December 2, with the IG reviewing the “before” state, and ended mostly on December 7, with final confirmation happening on December 9, the day NSA would otherwise have had to have new approval of the dragnet. As to the the intake side, those folks started destroying the dragnet before the IG could come by and check their before status:

However, S3 had completed its purge before we had the opportunity to observe. As a result we were able to review the [data acquisition database] purge procedures only for reasonableness; we were not able to do the before and after comparisons that we did for the TD systems and databases disclosed to us.

Poof! All gone, before the IG can even come over and take a look at what they actually had.

Importantly, the IG stresses that his team doesn’t have a way of proving the dragnet isn’t hidden somewhere in NSA’s servers.

It is important to note that we lack the necessary system accesses and technical resources to search NSA’s networks to independently verify that only the disclosed repositories stored PR/TT metadata.

That’s probably why the IG repeatedly says he is confirming purging of the data from all the “disclosed” databases (@nailbomb3 observed this point last night). Perhaps he’s just being lawyerly by including that caveat. Perhaps he remembers how he discovered in 2009 that every single record the NSA had received over the five year life of the dragnet had violated Colleen Kollar-Kotelly’s orders, even in spite of 25 spot checks. Perhaps the redacted explanations for eliminating the dragnet explain the urgency, and therefore raise some concerns. Perhaps he just rightly believes that when people don’t let you check their work — as NSA did not by refusing him access to NSA’s systems generally — there’s more likelihood of hanky panky.

But when NSA tells — say — the EFF, which was already several years into a lawsuit against the NSA for illegal collection of US person content from telecom switches, and which already had a 4- year old protection order covering the data relevant to that suit, that this data got purged in 2011?

Even NSA’s IG says he thinks it did but he can’t be sure.

But what we can be sure of is, after John Bates gave NSA a second warning that he would hold them responsible for wiretapping if they kept illegally collecting US person content, the entire Internet dragnet got nuked within 70 days — gone!!! — all before anyone would have to check in with John Bates again in connection with the December 9 reauthorization and tell him what was going on with the Internet dragnet.

Update: Added clarification language.

Update: The Q2 2011 IOB report (reporting on the period through June 30, 2011) shows a 2-paragraph long, entirely redacted violation (PDF 10), which represents a probably more substantive discussion than the systematic overcollection that shut down the system in 2009.

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Sheldon Whitehouse’s Horrible CFAA Amendment Gets Pulled — But Will Be Back in Conference

As I noted yesterday, Ron Wyden objected to unanimous consent on CISA yesterday because Sheldon Whitehouse’s crappy amendment, which makes the horrible CFAA worse, was going to get a vote. Yesterday, it got amended, but as CDT analyzed, it remains problematic and overbroad.

This afternoon, Whitehouse took to the Senate floor to complain mightily that his amendment had been pulled — presumably it was pulled to get Wyden to withdraw his objections. Whitehouse complained as if this were the first time amendments had not gotten a vote, though that happens all the time with amendments that support civil liberties. He raged about the Masters of the Universe who had pulled his amendment, and suggested a pro-botnet conference had forced the amendment to be pulled, rather than people who have very sound reasons to believe the amendment was badly drafted and dangerously expanded DOJ’s authority.

For all Whitehouse’s complaining, though, it’s likely the amendment is not dead. Tom Carper, who as Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee would almost certainly be included in any conference on the bill, rose just after Whitehouse. He said if the provision ends up in the bill, “we will conference, I’m sure, with the House and we will have an opportunity to revisit this, so I just hope you’ll stay in touch with those of us who might be fortunate enough to be a conferee.”

Preston Burton Was Not Necessarily Appointed to Represent Privacy Interests; Was He Appointed to Undercut EFF?

In my post on Michael Mosman’s appointment of Preston Burton as an amicus to decide whether NSA should be permitted to keep bulk telephony data collected under section 215 past November 28, 2015 I noted he was appointed pursuant to provisions of USA F-ReDux. But I want to correct something: Burton was not — at least not necessarily — appointed to protect civil liberties and privacy.

In his order appointing Burton, here’s how Mosman cited USA F-ReDux.

This appointment is made pursuant to section, 103(i)(2)(B) of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (“FISA”), codified at 50 U.S.C. § 1803(i)(2)(B), as most recently amended by the USA FREEDOM Act, Pub. L. No. 114-23, 129 Stat. 268, 272 (2015).


By the terms of 50 U.S.C. § 1803(i)(2)(A), the Court “shall appoint” to serve as amicus curiae an individual who has been designated as eligible for such service under section 1803(i)(l) “to assist … in the consideration of any application for an order or review that, in the opinion of the court, presents a novel or significant interpretation of the law, unless the court issues a finding that such appointment is not appropriate.” Under section 1803(i)(l), the presiding judges of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review have until November 29, 2015, to jointly designate individuals to serve as amici under section  1803(i)(l). 1 To date, no such designations have been made. Under present circumstances, therefore, the appointment of such an individual “is not appropriate” under section 1803(i)(2)(A), because, as of yet, there are no designated individuals who can serve.

Section 1803(i)(2)(B) provides that the Court “may appoint an individual or organization to serve as amicus curiae … in any instance as such court deems appropriate.” Persons appointed under this provision need not have been designated under section 1803(i)(l ). Pursuant to section l 803(i)(3)(B), however, they must “be persons who are determined to be eligible for access to classified information, if such access is necessary to participate in the matters in which they may be appointed.”

Here, the Court finds it appropriate to appoint Preston Burton as amicus curiae under section 1803(i)(2)(B). Mr. Burton is well qualified to assist the Court in considering the issue specified herein. The Security and Emergency Planning Staff (SEPS) of the Department of Justice has advised that he is eligible for access to classified information.

Effectively, he points to the new language on amicus curiae as “codifying” the authority FISC already had (and has already used, when permitting Center for National Security Studies to file an amicus on phone dragnet orders and tech companies to submit amici briefs in discussions about transparency, though the latter was dismissed before the court considered those briefs, not to mention FISCR’s permission of ACLU and NACDL to submit briefs in In Re Sealed Case in 2002).

He then notes that he cannot appoint one of the 5 selected amici set up to consider “novel or significant interpretation of law” because FISC hasn’t gotten around to appointing those 5 people yet (they have until early December to do so and seem to be taking their time).

He then points to a second means of appointing an amicus — 1803(i)(2)(B) — which says the court “may” appoint an amicus “in any instance as such court deems appropriate or, upon motion, permit an individual or organization leave to file an amicus curiae brief,” as his basis for appointing Burton.

Mosman doesn’t explain why he “finds it appropriate” to appoint an amicus here, unlike when he deemed FreedomWorks an amicus addressing the issue of whether USA F-ReDux restored the phone dragnet to its prior state and therefore justified another phone dragnet order. This is what he said in that instance.

The Court finds that the government’s application “presents a novel or significant interpretation of the law” within the meaning of section 103(i)(2)(A). Because, understandably, no one has yet been designated as eligible to be appointed as an amicus curiae under section 103(i)(2)(A), appointment under that provision is not appropriate. Instead, the Court has chosen to appoint the Movants as amici curiae under section 103(i)(2)(B) for the limited purpose of presenting their legal arguments as stated in the Motion in Opposition and subsequent submissions to date.

Nor does Mosman explain what, in particular, qualifies Burton to serve as amicus here, which might provide some insight as to why he decided it appropriate to appoint an amicus at all. He just says he’s qualified and is eligible for access to classified information. Even under the appointed amici, FISC can appoint someone for reasons other than privacy, and that’s all the more true for this optional appointment.

So reports — including by me! — that Burton would represent the interests of civil liberties may not be correct. For all we know, he could be representing the interests of the spies or DC Madams.

I find Mosman’s silence on his appointment of Burton interesting for two reasons.

First, the genesis of this entire request and deferral is unclear. Back in July — after it had gotten its first post-USA F-ReDux order, and a month before this current one was approved — ODNI issued a statement out of the blue asserting they could keep the data.

On June 29, 2015, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approved the Government’s application to resume the Section 215 bulk telephony metadata program pursuant to the USA FREEDOM Act’s 180-day transition provision. As part of our effort to transition to the new authority, we have evaluated whether NSA should maintain access to the historical metadata after the conclusion of that 180-day period.

NSA has determined that analytic access to that historical metadata collected under Section 215 (any data collected before November 29, 2015) will cease on November 29, 2015. However, solely for data integrity purposes to verify the records produced under the new targeted production authorized by the USA FREEDOM Act, NSA will allow technical personnel to continue to have access to the historical metadata for an additional three months.

Separately, NSA remains under a continuing legal obligation to preserve its bulk 215 telephony metadata collection until civil litigation regarding the program is resolved, or the relevant courts relieve NSA of such obligations. The telephony metadata preserved solely because of preservation obligations in pending civil litigation will not be used or accessed for any other purpose, and, as soon as possible, NSA will destroy the Section 215 bulk telephony metadata upon expiration of its litigation preservation obligations.

When that second dragnet order came out in August, I noticed NSA had applied for authority to keep the data, but that Mosman had deferred his answer to whether they could.

The Application requests authority for the Government to retain BR metadata after November 28, 2015, in accordance with the Opinion and Order of this Court issued on March 12,. 2014 in docket number BR 14-01, and subject to the conditions stated therein, including the requirement to notify this Court of any material developments in civil litigation pertaining to such BR metadata. The Application also requests authority, for a period ending on February 29, 2016 for appropriately trained and authorized technical personnel (described in subparagraph B. above) to access BR metadata to verify the completeness and accuracy of call detail records produced under the targeted production orders authorized by the USA FREEDOM Act. The Court is taking these requests under advisement and will address them in a subsequent order or orders. Accordingly, this Primary Order does not authorize the retention and use of BR metadata beyond November 28, 2015.

So for some reason, ODNI was asserting they were going to keep the data before they had asked whether they could — or perhaps when ODNI made that assertion someone at DOJ or in FISC realized they needed to ask permission first. I have asked ODNI for an explanation on this. Update: ODNI General Counsel Bob Litt didn’t exactly explain the timing, but did say “No one ever had any doubt that we would have to ask the court” for permission to keep this data.

But I also find Mosman’s silence about why he appointed Burton curious given that the FISC judge clearly thinks both retention issues — whether the data should be retained under EFF’s protection order issued in NDCA, and whether the data can be retained for 3 months after expiration of the 6 month extension for technical verification — are at issue.

That’s because there’s a far more qualified potential amicus to address the EFF retention issue: EFF. Indeed, Jon Eisenberg, who argued the al-Haramain suit, is a Special Counsel associated with EFF, and he either still has or is qualified to have a Top Secret clearance, and still gets classified documents in Gitmo detainee suits. Particularly given DOJ’s serial failure to accurately represent the nature of EFF’s suit (post one, post two, post three), and DOJ’s failure to notice Reggie Walton (to say nothing of Yahoo itself) of all issues relevant to Yahoo’s challenge of Protect America Act, it would be far better to have someone who has worked on these issues already and who at least has an association with EFF to weigh in, because the FISC is going to get a far better idea of the issues involved, including the stakes for privacy. So why did Mosman appoint a less qualified amicus to address this issue?

Luckily, in deeming FreedomWorks an appropriate amicus in June, Mosman has demonstrated a willingness to appoint amici for the other reason permitted under 103(i)(2)(B), because an organization asks for leave to file one. So maybe EFF should ask! I’ve asked EFF if they will respond to this appointment, but have not received an answer.

The big question, in that situation, would be whether EFF would be given the same information he has already promised to Burton, which includes the application to the court. Again, given DOJ’s serial misinformation of the court on the EFF request, it would sure be interesting to see what representations it made in that application.

Q: Whose Secrets Are More Sensitive than the DC Madam’s? A: NSA’s.

On September 17, FISC Judge Michael Mosman appointed the first known amicus under the terms laid out in USA F-ReDux; notice of which got posted yesterday (Mosman could have done so before USA F-ReDux, of course, but he did cite the statute in making the appointment). The question this amicus will help him determine is whether FISC should permit the government to retain bulk collected data past November 28, when the six month extension of the program ends. The government wants to retain the data it is collecting today for three months to make sure the new dragnet program collects the same data as the last one. But the data in question also includes data being held under an old protection order renewed last year as part of EFF’s suits against government dragnets; I suspect that data would show the extent to which one of the plaintiffs in EFF’s First Unitarian Church suit was dragnetted, and as such is critical to showing injury in that suit.

Mosman had deferred the decision on whether or not to let the government keep that data when he signed the August 28 dragnet order.

So who is the lawyer who will represent the interests of civil liberties and privacy in this question? [Update: In this post, I note Mosman may not have appointed Burton to represent privacy at all.]

White collar defense attorney Preston Burton. In addition to Russian moles Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, Burton represented Monica Lewinsky and the DC Madam, Deborah Jeane Palfrey.

Burton is, undoubtedly, an excellent lawyer. And his experience representing the biggest spies of the last several decades surely qualifies him to work with the phone dragnet data, including data that probably shows NSA mapped out an entire civil liberties’ organization’s structure using the phone dragnet 5 years ago. Though given this description, it’s not clear Burton would learn of that information from the government’s application, which is what he’ll get.

Pursuant to 50 U.S.C. § l 803(i)(6)(A)(i), the Court has detennined that the government’s application (including exhibits and attachments) and the full, unredacted Primary Order in this docket are relevant to the duties of the amicus. By September 22, 2015, or after receiving confirmation from SEPS that the amicus has received the appropriate clearances and access approvals for such materials, whichever is later, the Clerk of the Court shall make these materials available to the amicus.

Moreover, remember the government can claim privilege over this data and not share it with Burton. Mosman even invited the government to tell the Court sharing information with Burton was not consistent with national security (though he set a deadline for doing so for September 21, so I assume they did not complain).

But it’s entirely unclear to me why Burton would be picked to represent the privacy interests of Americans, including those whose First Amendment rights had been violated under this program, in deciding whether to keep or destroy this data. Mosman made no mention of those interests when he explained his choice.

Mr. Burton is well qualified to assist the Court in considering the issue specified herein. The Security and Emergency Planning Staff (SEPS) of the Department of Justice has advised that he is eligible for access to classified information.

Which is why I take this to be one more in the series of Burton’s famous clients, in which discretion about DC’s secrets is the most important factor.

Delusional DOJ Claims Documents Declassified, Released Under FOIA Not Declassified, Not Authentic

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Back in March, NYT’s Charlie Savage sued to get the NSA to respond to a FOIA request asking for “copies of — and declassification review of, as necessary” a bunch of things, including IG reports on “bulk phone records collection activities under Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act.”

In late August, they delivered an installment of their response to that suit to him including a series of IG Reports on the 215 program. Among other things, the FOIA response included an August 2, 2010 letter to FISC Judge John Bates referring to a compliance violation in Docket BR 10-10 (the order is dated February 26, 2010). In referring to the caption of that docket (and the caption redactions in other dockets are consistent in size), it named Verizon Wireless.

As I pointed out at the time, this provides Larry Klayman and other Verizon Wireless subscribers challenging the phone dragnet basis to establish standing to sue. While in the Klayman suit, Judge Richard Leon invited Klayman just to add a plaintiff who subscribed to Verizon Business Services, in Northern CA, EFF requested the 9th Circuit take judicial notice of the document.

So now DOJ has gone a bit batshit. (Josh Gerstein first reported on this here.) It mocks that EFF head Cindy Cohn “apparently believes” it fair to conclude Verizon Wireless took part in the phone dragnet because of a reference to “a company name that includes the term ‘Verizon Wireless’ in the caption of a purported FISC filing” that happens to govern the entire phone dragnet. It suggests the accuracy of the document DOJ gave to Savage can be reasonably questioned, apparently disputing its own FOIA response to Savage. And it bitches that EFF “does not contend that this document was declassified,” even though it was given to Savage pursuant to his request for “declassification review [] as necessary.”

In short, in an effort to argue the document doesn’t say what it says (which may, I admit, not mean what it says, but such is the wackiness of the secret FISA Court and the secret phone dragnet), DOJ is saying that DOJ didn’t provide Charlie Savage authentic, declassified documents like he sued to get. DOJ uses words like “purported” to describe DOJ’s own FOIA response.

I mean, I’ll grant you, those of us outside DOJ often doubt the accuracy of their FOIA responses to us. But usually DOJ at least pretends they’re giving us authentic documents.

I Con the Record: Drop the Lawsuits and We’ll Release the Data Hostages

I Con the Record just announced that the NSA will make the phone dragnet data it has “analytically unavailable” after the new system goes live in November, and unavailable even to techs three months later.

On June 29, 2015, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approved the Government’s application to resume the Section 215 bulk telephony metadata program pursuant to the USA FREEDOM Act’s 180-day transition provision. As part of our effort to transition to the new authority, we have evaluated whether NSA should maintain access to the historical metadata after the conclusion of that 180-day period.

NSA has determined that analytic access to that historical metadata collected under Section 215 (any data collected before November 29, 2015) will cease on November 29, 2015.  However, solely for data integrity purposes to verify the records produced under the new targeted production authorized by the USA FREEDOM Act, NSA will allow technical personnel to continue to have access to the historical metadata for an additional three months.

Separately, NSA remains under a continuing legal obligation to preserve its bulk 215 telephony metadata collection until civil litigation regarding the program is resolved, or the relevant courts relieve NSA of such obligations. The telephony metadata preserved solely because of preservation obligations in pending civil litigation will not be used or accessed for any other purpose, and, as soon as possible, NSA will destroy the Section 215 bulk telephony metadata upon expiration of its litigation preservation obligations.

As I understand it, whatever data has been found to be two or three degrees of separation from a baddie will remain in NSA’s maw, but the data that has never returned off a search will not.

I’m pleasantly surprised by this, as I suspect it reflects a decision to accept the Second Circuit verdict in ACLU v. Clapper and to move to shut down other lawsuits.

As I noted, two weeks ago, the ACLU moved for an injunction against the dragnet, which not only might have led to the Second Circuit ordering the government to purge ACLU’s data right away (and possibly, to stop collecting all data), but also basically teed up the Second Circuit to remind the FISC it is not an appellate court. I worried that would lead the FISC to ask FISCR to review its dragnet decisions under a provision newly provided under the USA F-ReDux.

Shortly after ACLU filed its request for an injunction, the government asked for an extension to … today, which the court granted.

So I assume we’ll shortly see that filing arguing that, since the government has voluntarily set a purge date for all the dragnet data, ACLU should not get its injunction.

That doesn’t necessarily rule out a FISCR fast track request, but I think it makes it less likely.

The other player here, however, is the EFF.

I believe both ACLU and EFF’s phone dragnet client Council on American Islamic Relations, had not only standing as clients of dragnetted companies, but probably got swept up in the two-degree dragnet. But CAIR probably has an even stronger case, because it is public that FISC approved a traditional FISA order against CAIR founder Nihad Awad. Any traditional FISA target has always been approved as a RAS seed to check the dragnet, and NSA almost certainly used that more back when Awad was tapped, which continued until 2008. In other words, CAIR has very good reason to suspect the entire organization has been swept up in the dragnet and subjected to all of NSA’s other analytical toys.

EFF, remember, is the one NGO that has a preservation order, which got extended from its earlier NSA lawsuits (like Jewel) to the current dragnet suit. So when I Con the Record says it can’t destroy all the data yet, it’s talking EFF, and by extension, CAIR. So this announcement — in addition to preparing whatever they’ll file to get the Second Circuit off its back — is likely an effort to moot that lawsuit, which in my opinion poses by far the biggest threat of real fireworks about the dragnet (not least because it would easily be shown to violate a prior SCOTUS decision prohibiting the mapping of organizations).

We’ll see soon enough. For the moment, though, I’m a bit surprised by the cautious approach this seems to represent.

Update: Timeline on data availability fixed.

Update: Here’s the government’s brief submitted today. I’m rather intrigued by how often the brief claims USA F-ReDux was about bulk “telephony” data when it was supposed to be about all bulk collection. But I guess I can return to that point.

Update: They depart from describing USA F-ReDux as a ban bulk collection of telephony when they describe it as a ban on collection of bulk collection under Section 215, also not what the bill says.

Part of the compromise on which Congress settled, which the President supported, was to add an unequivocal ban on bulk collection under Section 215 specifying that “[n]o order issued under” Section 215(b)(2) “may authorize collection of tangible things without the use of a specific selection term that meets the requirements” of that subsection.

Update: This is key language — and slightly different from what they argued before FISC. I will return to it.

Plaintiffs assert that, by not changing the language of Section 215 authorizing the collection of business records during the transition period, Congress implicitly incorporated into the USA FREEDOM Act this Court’s opinion holding that Section 215 did not authorize bulk collection. See Pls.’ Mot. 7- 8. Plaintiffs rely on language providing that the legislation does not “alter or eliminate the authority of the Government to obtain an order under” Section 215 “as in effect prior to the effective date” of the statute. USA FREEDOM Act § 109, 129 Stat. at 276. That language does not advance plaintiffs’ argument, however, because the statute says nothing expressly about what preexisting authority the government had under Section 215 to obtain telephony metadata in bulk. It is implausible that Congress employed the  word “authority” to signify that the government lacked authority to conduct the Section 215 bulk telephony-metadata program during the 180-day transition period, contrary to the FISC’s repeated orders and the Executive Branch’s longstanding and continuing interpretation and application of the law, and notwithstanding the active litigation of that question in this Court. That is especially so because language in the USA FREEDOM Act providing for the 180-day transition period has long been a proposed feature of the legislation. It is thus much more plausible that the “authority” Congress was referring to was not the understanding of Section 215 reflected in this Court’s recent interpretation of Section 215, but rather the consistent interpretation of Section 215 by 19 different FISC judges: to permit bulk collection of telephony metadata.

CryptoWars, the Obfuscation

The US Courts released its semiannual Wiretap Report the other day, which reported that very few of the attempted wiretaps last year were encrypted, with even fewer thwarting law enforcement.

The number of state wiretaps in which encryption was encountered decreased from 41 in 2013 to 22 in 2014. In two of these wiretaps, officials were unable to decipher the plain text of the messages. Three federal wiretaps were reported as being encrypted in 2014, of which two could not be decrypted. Encryption was also reported for five federal wiretaps that were conducted during previous years, but reported to the AO for the first time in 2014. Officials were able to decipher the plain text of the communications in four of the five intercepts.

Motherboard has taken this data and concluded it means the Feds have been overstating their claim they’re “going dark.”

[N]ew numbers released by the US government seem to contradict this doomsday scenario.


“They’re blowing it out of proportion,” Hanni Fahkoury, an attorney at the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), told Motherboard. “[Encryption] was only a problem in five cases of the more than 3,500 wiretaps they had up. Second, the presence of encryption was down by almost 50 percent from the previous year.

“So this is on a downward trend, not upward,” he wrote in an email.

Much as I’d like to, I’m not sure I agree with Motherboard’s (or Hanni Fahkoury’s) conclusion.

Here’s what the data show since 2012, which was the first year jurisdictions reported being unable to break encryption (2012; 2013):

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You’ll see lots of parenthetical entries and NRs. That’s because this data is not being reported systematically. Parenthetical references are to encrypted feeds not reported until years after they get set, and usually those have been decrypted by the time they’re reported. NRs show that we have not getting these numbers, if they exist, from federal law enforcement (and the numbers can’t be zero, as reported here, because FBI has been taking down targets like Silk Road). The reporting on this ought to raise real questions about the quality of the data being reported and perhaps might spark some interest in mandating better reporting of this data so it can be tracked. But it also suggests that — at a time when law enforcement are just beginning to find encryption they can’t break (immediately) — there’s a lot of noise in the data. Does 2013’s 2% of encrypted targets and half-percent that couldn’t be broken represent a big problem? It depends on who the target is — a point I’ll come back to.

Congress will soon have that opportunity (but won’t avail themselves of it).

Even as US Courts were reporting still very low levels of encryption challenges faced by law enforcement, both the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee announced hearings next Wednesday where Jim Comey will have yet another opportunity to try to present a compelling argument that he should have back doors into our communication. SJC even saw fit to invite witnesses with opposing viewpoints, which the “intelligence” committee saw no need to do.

In an apparent attempt to regain some credibility before these hearings (Jim Comey is nothing if not superb at working the media), Comey went to Ben Wittes to suggest his claimed concern with increasing use of encryption has to do with ISIS’ increasing use of encryption. Ben quotes from Comey’s earlier comments to CNN then riffs on that in light of what Comey just told him in a conversation.

“Our job is to find needles in a nationwide haystack, needles that are increasingly invisible to us because of end-to-end encryption,” Comey said. “This is the ‘going dark’ problem in high definition.”

Comey said ISIS is increasingly communicating with Americans via mobile apps that are difficult for the FBI to decrypt. He also explained that he had to balance the desire to intercept the communication with broader privacy concerns.

“It is a really, really hard problem, but the collision that’s going on between important privacy concerns and public safety is significant enough that we have to figure out a way to solve it,” Comey said.

Let’s unpack this.

As has been widely reported, the FBI has been busy recently dealing with ISIS threats. There have been a bunch of arrests, both because ISIS has gotten extremely good at the inducing self-radicalization in disaffected souls worldwide using Twitter and because of the convergence of Ramadan and the run-up to the July 4 holiday.

As has also been widely reported, the FBI is concerned about the effect of end-to-end encryption on its ability to conduct counterterrorism operations and other law enforcement functions. The concern is two-fold: It’s about data at rest on devices, data that is now being encrypted in a fashion that can’t easily be cracked when those devices are lawfully seized. And it’s also about data in transit between devices, data encrypted such that when captured with a lawful court-ordered wiretap, the signal intercepted is undecipherable.


What was not clear to me until today, however, was the extent to which the ISIS concerns and the “going dark” concerns have converged. In his Brookings speech, Comey did not focus on counterterrorism in the examples he gave of the going dark problem. In the remarks quoted by CNN, and in his conversation with me today, however, he made clear that the landscape is changing fast. Initial recruitment may take place on Twitter, but the promising ISIS candidate quickly gets moved onto messaging platforms that are encrypted end to end. As a practical matter, that means there are people in the United States whom authorities reasonably believe to be in contact with ISIS for whom surveillance is lawful and appropriate but for whom useful signals interception is not technically feasible.

Now, Ben incorrectly blurs the several roles of FBI here. FBI’s interception of ISIS communiques may be both intelligence and law enforcement. To the extent they’re the former — to the extent they’re conducted under FISA — they won’t show up in US Courts’ annual report.

But they probably should, if Comey is to have any credibility on this front.

Moreover, Ben simply states that “there are people in the United States whom authorities reasonably believe to be in contact with ISIS for whom surveillance is lawful and appropriate.” But there’s no evidence presented to support this. Indeed, most of the so-called ISIS prosecutions have shown 1) where probable cause existed, it largely existed in the clear, in Twitter conversations and other online postings and 2) there may not have been probable cause before FBI ginned it up.

It ought to raise real questions about whether Comey’s going dark problem is a law enforcement one — with FBI being unable to to access evidence on real criminals — or is an intelligence one — with FBI being unable to access First Amendment protected speech that nevertheless may be important for an understanding of the threat ISIS poses domestically. Again, the data is not there, one way or another, but given the law enforcement data, we ought to demand real numbers for intelligence intercepts. Another pertinent question is whether this encrypted data is easily accessible to NSA (ISIS recruiters are almost entirely going to be legitimate NSA targets located overseas), but not to FBI?

And all this presumes that Comey is telling the truth about ISIS and not — as he and just about every member of the Intelligence Community has done routinely — used terror threats to be able to get authorities to wield against other kinds of threats, especially hackers (which is not to say hackers aren’t a target, just that the IC likes to pretend its authorities serve an exclusively CT purpose when they clearly do not). The law enforcement data, at least, show that even members of very sophisticated drug distribution networks are using encryption at a really low level. Is ISIS’ ability to coach potential recruits into using encrypted products on Twitter really that much better, or is Comey really talking about hackers who more obviously have the technical skills to encrypt their communications?

Thus far, Comey would have you believe that intelligence — counterterrorism — targets encrypt at a much higher rate than even drug targets. But the data also suggest even federal law enforcement (that is, Comey’s agency, among others) aren’t tracking this very effectively, and so can’t present reliable numbers.

Before we go any further in this cryptowar debate, we ought to be able to get real numbers on how serious the problem is.

Judge White Makes Crucial Error While Capitulating to State Secrets, Again

Judge Jeffrey White, who has been presiding over the EFF’s challenges to warrantless wiretapping since Vaughn Walker retired, just threw out part of Carolyn Jewel’s challenge to the dragnet on standing and state secrets ground (h/t Mike Scarcella).

Based on the public record, the Court finds that the Plaintiffs have failed to establish a sufficient factual basis to find they have standing to sue under the Fourth Amendment regarding the possible interception of their Internet communications. Further, having reviewed the Government Defendants’ classified submissions, the Court finds that the Claim must be dismissed because even if Plaintiffs could establish standing, a potential Fourth Amendment Claim would have to be dismissed on the basis that any possible defenses would require impermissible disclosure of state secret information.

White also does what no self-respecting judge should ever do: cite Sammy Alito on Amnesty’s “speculative” claims about Section 702 collection in Amnesty v. Clapper, which have since been proven to be based off false government claims.

In Clapper, the Court found that allegations that plaintiffs’ communications were intercepted were too speculative, attenuated, and indirect to establish injury in fact that was fairly traceable to the governmental surveillance activities. Id. at 1147-50. The Clapper Court held that plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge NSA surveillance under FISA because their “highly speculative fear” that they would be targeted by surveillance relied on a “speculative chain of possibilities” insufficient to establish a “certainly impending” injury.

Also along the way, White claims the plaintiffs had made errors in their depiction of the upstream dragnet.

But I’m fairly certain he has done the same when he claims that only specific communications accounts can be targeted under both PRISM and upstream Section 702 collection.

Once designated by the NSA as a target, the NSA tries to identify a specific means by which the target communicates, such as an e-mail address or telephone number. That identifier is referred to a “selector.” Selectors are only specific communications accounts, addresses, or identifiers. (See id; see also Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board Report on the Surveillance Program Operated Pursuant to Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (“PCLOB Report”) at 32-33, 36.)

Indeed, his citation to PCLOB doesn’t support his point at all. Here are what I guess he means to be the relevant sections.

The Section 702 certifications permit non-U.S. persons to be targeted only through the “tasking” of what are called “selectors.” A selector must be a specific communications facility that is assessed to be used by the target, such as the target’s email address or telephone number.113 Thus, in the terminology of Section 702, people (non-U.S. persons reasonably believed to be located outside the United States) are targeted; selectors (e.g., email addresses, telephone numbers) are tasked.


Because such terms would not identify specific communications facilities, selectors may not be key words (such as “bomb” or “attack”), or the names of targeted individuals (“Osama Bin Laden”).114 Under the NSA targeting procedures, if a U.S. person or a person located in the United States is determined to be a user of a selector, that selector may not be tasked to Section 702 acquisition or must be promptly detasked if the selector has already been tasked.115


The process of tasking selectors to acquire Internet transactions is similar to tasking selectors to PRISM and upstream telephony acquisition, but the actual acquisition is substantially different. Like PRISM and upstream telephony acquisition, the NSA may only target non-U.S. persons by tasking specific selectors to upstream Internet transaction collection.131 And, like other forms of Section 702 collection, selectors tasked for upstream Internet transaction collection must be specific selectors (such as an email address), and may not be key words or the names of targeted individuals.132

First of all, unless they’ve changed the meaning of “such as” and “for example,” PCLOB’s use of email and telephone numbers is not exhaustive (though it does mirror the party line witnesses before PCLOB used, and accurately reflects PCLOB’s irresponsible silence on the use of 702 — upstream and downstream — for cybersecurity, even after ODNI has written publicly on the topic). Indeed, the NSA uses other selectors, including cyberattack signatures, in addition to things more traditionally considered a selector.

And given the government’s past, documented, expansion of the term “facility” beyond all meaning, there’s no reason to believe the government’s use of “use” distinguishes appropriately between participants in communications.

Ah well, all that discussion probably counts as a state secret. A concept which is getting more and more farcical every year.

Update: Clarified to note this is only partial summary judgment.

Why Did ODNI Fight So Hard to Hide the Census Opinion?

Congratulations to EFF, which yesterday liberated another document on Section 215: a 2010 OLC opinion finding that the Department of Commerce (then counseled by Cameron Kerry who, curiously enough, hosted the Bob Litt speech the other day) did not have to turn over data to the FBI under Section 215 (which was the only one of many statutes it reviewed that OLC considered possibly binding).

After reviewing a bunch of legislative language on both Congress’ intent to provide affirmative confidentiality to census data and on its silence on census data during the PATRIOT Act reauthorization debates, Deputy Assistant Attorney Genereal Jeannie Rhee concluded,

We therefore conclude that section 215 should not be construed torepeal otherwise applicable Census Act protections for covered census information, such that they would require their disclosure by the Department of Commerce.Because no other PatriotAct provision that you have, identified, nor any such provision that we have separately reviewed, would appear to have that effect, we agree that the Patriot Act, as amended, does not alter the. confidentiality protections in sections 8, 9, and 214 of the Census Act in a manner that could require the Secretary of Commerce to disclose such information.

Many outlets are hailing this as OLC noting some limits to the otherwise unlimited demands the government thinks it can make under Section 215.

But I’m left puzzled.

Why did the Administration fight so hard to keep this secret? This suit has been going on for years, and ODNI tried to keep this secret long after reams of more interesting — and more classified — information got released on the phone dragnet and related authorities.

I can think of several possible reasons (and these are all speculative):

FISC decisions

Perhaps the government thinks this might endanger FISC’s decision that Section 215 does repeal two other privacy statutes. In 2008, Judge Reggie Walton found that Section 215 overrode the privacy protections for call data under ECPA [SCA]. And in 2010, John Bates found that it overrode the privacy protections in RFPA. Effectively, both decisions found that the government could do with Section 215 (and court review) what the FBI could otherwise do with NSLs. But of course, by doing them under Section 215, the government managed to do them in greater bulk, and probably with some exotic requests added in. At least the ECPA opinon was probably elicited by DOJ IG pointing out that the NSL rule did prevent other access to such data. In both opinions, the FISC reviewed the absence of legislative language and used it to conclude something dissimilar to what OLC concluded here: that in the absence of language, it provided permission. Does ODNI think the publication of this OLC opinion will make it easier to challenge the use of Section 215 for phone and financial records?

Update: This passage, from ACLU’s challenge to the phone dragnet, more eloquently suggests this is precisely why ODNI wanted to bury this opinion. It cites the importance of statutory construction, and then notes ties it to earlier statements on the Census Act.

On its face, Section 215 provides the government with general authority to compel the disclosure of tangible things. However, the Stored Communications Act (“SCA”) specifically addresses the circumstances in which the government can compel the disclosure of phone records in particular. The SCA provision states that a “provider of remote computing service or electronic communication service to the public shall not knowingly divulge a record or other information pertaining to a subscriber to or customer of such service . . . to any governmental entity.” 18 U.S.C. § 2702(a)(3). While the SCA provision lists exceptions to its otherwise categorical prohibition, see id. §§ 2702(c), 2703, Section 215 is not among them. This omission is particularly notable because Congress enacted sections 2702(c) and 2703 in the same bill as Section 215.

The district court held that Section 215 constitutes an implicit exception to Section 2702 because Section 215 orders “are functionally equivalent to grand jury subpoenas.” SPA027. But well-settled rules of statutory construction require that the list of exceptions in section 2702 and 2703 be treated as exhaustive. See United States v. Smith, 499 U.S. 160, 167 (1991) (“Where Congress explicitly enumerates certain exceptions . . . additional exceptions are not to be implied, in the absence of evidence of a contrary legislative intent.” (quotation marks omitted)). Congress has enacted a comprehensive scheme to regulate the government’s collection of electronic communications and records relating to those communications. That comprehensive scheme, which addresses the precise circumstances in which the government can collect the records at issue in this case, must be given precedence over provisions that are more general. See In re Stoltz, 315 F.3d 80, 93 (2d Cir. 2002) (holding that it is a “basic principle of statutory construction that a specific statute . . . controls over a general provision” (quoting HCSC–Laundry v. United States, 450 U.S. 1, 6 (1981))); see also PCLOB Report 92–93.

Indeed, the Justice Department has itself acknowledged that it would contravene the structure of the SCA to “infer additional exceptions” to the “background rule of privacy” set out in section 2702(a). See Office of Legal Counsel, Memorandum Opinion for the General Counsel [of the] FBI: Requests for Information Under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act 3 (Nov. 5, 2008), http://1.usa.gov/1e5GbvC (concluding that the FBI could not use national security letters to compel the production of records beyond those specifically exempted from the general privacy rule). Moreover, it has acknowledged that principle with respect to Section 215 itself, concluding that the statute does not override the privacy protections of the Census Act, 13 U.S.C. §§ 8, 9, 214. Letter from Ronald Weich, Assistant Attorney General, to Hon. Nydia Velázquez, Chair, Congressional Hispanic Caucus, U.S. House of Representatives (Mar. 3, 2010), http://wapo.st/aEsETd. [my emphasis]

The Second Circuit already sounded like it wanted to boot the dragnet on statutory grounds (if they did, doing so should have the same effect for financial records as well). And the release of this opinion may well help them do that.

Presumptive Section 215 Collection

In 2010, this OLC memo reveals, DOJ’s National Security Division — then headed by David Kris — believed that the government ought to be able to use Section 215 to obtain raw census data (the rest of DOJ, curiously, did not agree). Kris lost that battle.

But data very similar to census data is readily available, from private marketing brokers. If NSD saw the need to obtain this kind of data, it’s not clear what would prevent the government from just obtaining very similar data from marketing firms. Should we assume it has done so?

Census data in racial profiling

I also wonder whether this came up in the context of ways both the NYPD (with CIA assist) and FBI have used census data to conduct their racial profiling efforts. Both have relied on published (aggregated) census data to find which neighborhoods to spy on. Was there some kind of effort to fine tune this racial profiling by using the underlying data?

NCTC’s access to internal databases

Finally, I wonder whether ODNI’s reticence about this OLC opinion pertains to its own National Counterterrorism Center guidelines  on information sharing, which permit NCTC to demand entire databases from other government agencies if it says the database includes information on terrorists (effectively making us all terrorists). Discussions about doing so started in 2011 and resulted in broad new data sharing guidelines in 2012, so that change actually took place after this opinion. Also note the opinion’s interesting timing: January 4, 2010, so probably too soon after the UndieBomb attempt on Christmas day in 2009 to be considered part of the expanded information sharing that happened after that attack, though not so long after the Nidal Hassan attack.

Whatever the timing, I’m curious how this opinion has influenced discussions about and limits to that data-sharing initiative — and how it should have influenced such data sharing?


The FBI PRTT Documents: Combined Orders

As I noted the other day, I’m working through documents submitted in EPIC’s FOIA for PRTT documents (see all of EPIC’s documents on this case here).

In addition to the documents released (the reports to Congress, the extensive reporting on the Internet dragnet), the government submitted descriptions of what appear to be two (possibly three) sets of documents withheld: documents pertaining to orders combining a PRTT and Section 215 order, and documents pertaining to a secret technique, which we’ll call the Paragraph 31 technique. In this post I’ll examine the “combined order” documents.

The Vaughn Index for this FOIA made it clear that a number of the documents Withheld in Full (WIF) pertained to orders combing the Pen Register and Section 215 (Business Record) authorities, as does this list from David Hardy’s second declaration.

Screen Shot 2014-11-30 at 11.46.30 AM

Footnotes 3, 4, and 5 all note that these documents have already been successfully withheld in the EFF’s FOIA for Section 215 documents, and by comparing the page numbers in that Vaughn Index in that case, we can guess with some confidence that these orders are the following documents and dates:

  • Document 16 is EFF 89D, dated  2/17/2006, 17 pages
  • Document 17 is EFF 89K,  dated 2/24/2006, 8 pages

As I’ll show, this correlates with what we can glean from the DOJ IG Reports on Section 215.

I’m less certain about Document 12. Both the EFF and ACLU Vaughn Indices show a 10/31/06 document (it is 82C in the EFF Vaughn) that is the correct length, 4 pages, that is linked with another 10/31/06 document (see 82B and 84, for example). For a variety of reasons, however, I think we can’t rule out Document 89S which appears only in the EFF FOIA (but not the ACLU FOIA), which is dated December 16, 2005 (intriguingly, the day after NYT exposed Stellar Wind), in which case the withheld portion might be the relevant 4 pages of a longer 16 page order.

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