Jacob Appelbaum

In too many ways, 2013 was a year that vindicated the long-standing paranoia of many Americans, particularly the more conservative. A bewildering number of stories littered the news that seemed to confirm exactly the sort of gross government overreach that previously sounded like a delusion of someone whose eyes were scanning the skies for black helicopters. In spring 2013, for example, we learned that the IRS had been targeting the 501(c)(3) applications of conservative and libertarian organizations, apparently based solely on their political and philosophical affiliations. Nothing in 2013, though, fanned the flames of political paranoia quite like revelations of the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance programs.

In Clapper v. Amnesty International USA, decided in February, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed Amnesty International’s constitutional challenge to a portion of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008. In its 5-4 opinion, the Court found that Amnesty lacked Article III standing, in part because the plaintiffs could not show that they had necessarily been targeted for surveillance. When Edward Snowden later disclosed details of the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program, civil libertarians experienced something of a Pyrrhic victory. Standing would not be a problem in many future lawsuits because the revelation of PRISM established that millions of Americans had been subject to some NSA spying. The only question was whether that surveillance amounted to a violation of the law.

As we leave 2013 and 2014 dawns, some new developments have emerged . . . .

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We’ve been talking a lot recently about the secretly authorized stuff our government does to us — like killing us, or molesting us at airports.

Here’s another one for the list: digging through our emails or Twitter feeds or cell phone data, without probable cause, our permission, or our knowledge. This isn’t necessarily shocking in and of itself; back in April, Kashmir Hill wrote about how often the government requests information about private individuals from tech companies.

What’s shocking is the ease with which the government gets that information and the secrecy with which it does so. Somehow it’s all based on a law that is older than the Internet. The policy recently came to light when authorities ordered a small Internet provider, as well as Twitter and Google, to turn over information about Jacob Appelbaum, an American who volunteers with WikiLeaks.

How does the U.S. government circumvent basic probable cause and search warrant requirements when it wants electronic information? Let’s see….

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