Will SCOTUS Invent a “Database-and-Mining” Exception to the Fourth Amendment?
As I noted yesterday, the Administration appealed the 2nd Circuit Decision granting review of the FISA Amendments Act to the Supreme Court last week. I wanted to talk about their argument in more detail here.
Over at Lawfare, Steve Vladeck noted that this case would likely decide whether and what the “foreign intelligence surveillance” exception to the Fourth Amendment, akin to “special needs” exceptions like border searches and drug testing.
Third, if the Court affirms (or denies certiorari), this case could very well finally settle the question whether the Fourth Amendment’s Warrant Clause includes a “foreign intelligence surveillance exception,” as the FISA Court of Review held in the In re Directives decision in 2008. That’s because on the merits, 50 U.S.C. § 1881a(b)(5) mandates that the authorized surveillance “shall be conducted in a manner consistent with the fourth amendment to the Constitution of the United States.” Thus, although it is hard to see how surveillance under § 1881a could violate the Fourth Amendment, explication of the (as yet unclear) Fourth Amendment principles that govern in such cases would necessarily circumscribe the government’s authority under this provision going forward (especially if In re Directives is not followed…).
I would go further and say that this case will determine whether there is what I’ll call a database-and-mining exception allowing the government to collect domestic data to which no reasonable suspicion attaches, store it, data mine it, and based on the results of that data mining use the data itself to establish cause for further surveillance. Thus, it will have an impact not just for this warrantless wiretapping application, but also for things like Secret PATRIOT, in which the government is collecting US person geolocation data in an effort to be able to pinpoint the locations of alleged terrorists, not to mention the more general databases collecting things like who buys hydrogen peroxide.
I make a distinction between foreign intelligence surveillance and “database-and-mining” exceptions because the government is, in fact, conducting domestic surveillance under these programs and using it to collect intelligence on US persons (indeed, when asked about Secret PATRIOT earlier this month, James Clapper invoked “foreign or domestic” intelligence in the context of Secret PATRIOT). The government has managed to hide that fact thus far by blatantly misleading the FISA Court of Review in In re Directives and doing so (to a lesser degree) here.
In In re Directives, the government misled the court in two ways. First, according to Russ Feingold, the government didn’t reveal (and the company challenging the order didn’t have access to) information about how the targeting is used. The amendments he tried to pass–and which Mike McConnell and Michael Mukasey issued veto threats in response to–suggest some of the problems Feingold foresaw and the intelligence community refused to fix: reverse targeting, inclusion of US person data in larger data mining samples, and the retention and use of improperly collected information.
The government even more blatantly misled the FISCR with regards to what it did with US person data.
The petitioner’s concern with incidental collections is overblown. It is settled beyond peradventure that incidental collections occurring as a result of constitutionally permissible acquisitions to not render those acquisitions unlawful.9 [citations omitted] The government assures us that it does not maintain a database of incidentally collected information from non-targeted United States persons, and there is no evidence to the contrary. On these facts, incidentally collected communications of non-targeted United States persons do not violate the Fourth Amendment.
9 The petitioner has not charged that the Executive Branch is surveilling overseas persons in order intentionally to surveil persons in the United States. Because the issue is not before us, we do not pass on the legitimacy vel non of such a practice.
The notion that the government doesn’t have this US person data in a database is farcical at this point, as the graphic above showing the relative size of the NSA’s data center in UT–which I snipped from this larger ACLU graphic–makes clear (though the government’s unwillingness to be legally bound to segregate US person data made that clear, as well). Read more →