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Tag Archive: ACLU


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People Are Waking Up to the Dark Side of American Policing, and Cops Don’t Like It One Bit

Pushing back against a creeping police state.

If you’ve been listening to various police agencies and their supporters, then you know what the future holds: anarchy is coming — and it’s all the fault of activists.

In May, a Wall Street Journal op-ed warned of a “new nationwide crime wave” thanks to “intense agitation against American police departments” over the previous year. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie went further. Talking recently with the host of CBS’s Face the Nation, the Republican presidential hopeful asserted that the Black Lives Matter movement wasn’t about reform but something far more sinister. “They’ve been chanting in the streets for the murder of police officers,” he insisted. Even the nation’s top cop, FBI Director James Comey, weighed in at the University of Chicago Law School, speaking of “a chill wind that has blown through American law enforcement over the last year.”

According to these figures and others like them, lawlessness has been sweeping the nation as the so-called Ferguson effect spreads. Criminals have been emboldened as police officers are forced to think twice about doing their jobs for fear of the infamy of starring in the next viral video. The police have supposedly become the targets of assassins intoxicated by “anti-cop rhetoric,” just as departments are being stripped of the kind of high-powered equipment they need to protect officers and communities. Even their funding streams have, it’s claimed, come under attack as anti-cop bias has infected Washington, D.C. Senator Ted Cruz caught the spirit of that critique by convening a Senate subcommittee hearing to which he gave the title, “The War on Police: How the Federal Government Undermines State and Local Law Enforcement.” According to him, the federal government, including the president and attorney general, has been vilifying the police, who are now being treated as if they, not the criminals, were the enemy.

Beyond the storm of commentary and criticism, however, quite a different reality presents itself. In the simplest terms, there is no war on the police. Violent attacks against police officers remain at historic lows, even though approximately 1,000 people have been killed by the police this year nationwide. In just the past few weeks, videos have been released of problematic fatal police shootings in San Francisco and Chicago.

While it’s too soon to tell whether there has been an uptick in violent crime in the post-Ferguson period, no evidence connects any possible increase to the phenomenon of police violence being exposed to the nation. What is taking place and what the police and their supporters are largely reacting to is a modest push for sensible law enforcement reforms from groups as diverse as Campaign Zero, Koch Industries, the Cato Institute, The Leadership Conference, and the ACLU (my employer). Unfortunately, as the rhetoric ratchets up, many police agencies and organizations are increasingly resistant to any reforms, forgetting whom they serve and ignoring constitutional limits on what they can do.

 

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FULL: Edward Snowden and ACLU at SXSW

T Bert·

 

 

Published on Mar 10, 2014

Edward Snowden speaks about privacy and technology with the ACLU’s Ben Wizner and Christopher Soghoian at SXSW Interactive. -Links are below-

http://washingtonexaminer.com/edward-…

https://www.aclu.org/

https://www.aclu.org/time-rein-survei… – Main “Time to Rein in the Surveillance State
https://www.aclu.org/time-rein-survei… – Patriot Act Info
https://www.aclu.org/time-rein-survei… – FISA Amendments
https://www.aclu.org/time-rein-survei… – FISA Court Info

Edward Snowden warns of personal data vulnerability

The former NSA contractor takes part in a video conference at the South by Southwest tech event in Texas and answers questions via Twitter to an enthusiastic audience.

Edward Snowden

Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden speaks remotely to the South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Texas, superimposed over an image of the Constitution. (Spencer Bakalar / Los Angeles Times / March 10, 2014)

AUSTIN, Texas — Edward Snowden brought no bombshells when he arrived to an excited round of applause Monday, his stubbled face relaxed as it was beamed in from across the continents for a “virtual conversation” about the vulnerability of personal data. His presence was event enough.

Public appearances by the former National Security Agency contractor and U.S. exile are rare, and this one was beamed in from an undisclosed location in Russia via several online proxies for his own security, a bit of technological cloak-and-dagger that could only add to his mystique for the three roomfuls of international tech specialists struggling to hear his words in video that was choppy and often inaudible.

His message still got through: Personal information is vulnerable not only to government prying but to growing numbers of outside infiltrators because companies have failed to adequately protect the data of their customers. His own exile after leaking to reporters secret information he had gathered while an NSA consultant has made him a central figure in that conversation, and he says he has no regrets.

“Would I do it again? Absolutely,” Snowden said into the camera, in response to one of several questions submitted to him via Twitter (#AskSnowden) and screened backstage at the South by Southwest Interactive conference. “I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution. And I saw the Constitution was being violated on a massive scale.”

He warned, “If we allow the NSA to continue unrestrained, every other government will accept that as a green light to do the same.”

The chosen Twitter questions were notably nonconfrontational for a figure often the subject of heated debate even among supporters. One asked whether the mass surveillance was driven by privatization. Another wondered about the potential for society to “reap benefits” from the “big data.” None asked about his life in Russia, or what further revelations might be coming.

The first question came from Timothy John Berners-Lee, a British scientist known as the inventor of the World Wide Web, who asked Snowden how he would create an accountability system for governance.

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Edward Snowden discusses NSA leaks at SXSW: ‘I would do it again’

• Whistleblower patches in to Texas conference from Russia
• Snowden insists leaks have strengthened national security

Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower whose unprecedented leak of top-secret documents led to a worldwide debate about the nature of surveillance, insisted on Monday that his actions had improved the national security of the United States rather than undermined it, and declared that he would do it all again despite the personal sacrifices he had endured.

In remarks to the SXSW culture and technology conference in Texas, delivered by video link from his exile in Russia, Snowden took issue with claims by senior officials that he had placed the US in danger. He also rejected as demonstrably false the suggestions by some members of Congress that his files had found their way into the hands of the intelligence agencies of China or Russia.

Snowden spoke against the backdrop of an image of the US constitution, which he said he had taken an oath to protect but had seen “violated on a mass scale” while working for the US government. He accepted praise from Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, accorded the first question via Twitter, who described him as “acting profoundly in the public interest”.

The session provided a rare and extensive glimpse into the thoughts of Snowden, granted temporary asylum by Russia after the US revoked his passport. He struck back strongly against claims made again last week by the NSA director, General Keith Alexander, that his release of secret documents to the Guardian and other outlets last year had weakened American cyber-defences.

“These things are improving national security, these are improving the communications not just of Americans, but everyone in the world,” Snowden said. “Because we rely on the same standard, we rely on the ability to trust our communications, and without that, we don’t have anything.”

He added later that thanks to the more secure communication activity that had been encouraged by his disclosures, “the public has benefited, the government has benefited, and every society in the world has benefited”.

 

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Video: The Army says the aerostats being deployed near D.C., will not be equipped with cameras like the ones in Afghanistan. The Post’s Craig Timberg, explains how aerostats work and how powerful their radar and camera sensors can be.

 

 

They will look like two giant white blimps floating high above I-95 in Maryland, perhaps en route to a football game somewhere along the bustling Eastern Seaboard. But their mission will have nothing to do with sports and everything to do with war.

The aerostats — that is the term for lighter-than-air craft that are tethered to the ground — are to be set aloft on Army-owned land about 45 miles northeast of Washington, near Aberdeen Proving Ground, for a three-year test slated to start in October. From a vantage of 10,000 feet, they will cast a vast radar net from Raleigh, N.C., to Boston and out to Lake Erie, with the goal of detecting cruise missiles or enemy aircraft so they could be intercepted before reaching the capital.

 

Graphic

Surveillance aircraft floating high above Maryland

Click Here to View Full Graphic Story

Surveillance aircraft floating high above Maryland

 

GRAPHIC: How the aerostats work

Aerostats deployed by the military at U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan typically carried powerful surveillance cameras as well, to track the movements of suspected insurgents and even U.S. soldiers. When Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales murdered 16 civilians in Kandahar in March 2012, an aerostat above his base captured video of him returning from the slaughter in the early-morning darkness with a rifle in his hand and a shawl over his shoulders.

Defense contractor Raytheon last year touted an exercise in which it outfitted the aerostats planned for deployment in suburban Baltimore with one of the company’s most powerful high-altitude surveillance systems, capable of spotting individual people and vehicles from a distance of many miles.

The Army said it has “no current plans” to mount such cameras or infrared sensors on the aerostats or to share information with federal, state or local law enforcement, but it declined to rule out either possibility. The radar system that is planned for the aerostats will be capable of monitoring the movement of trains, boats and cars, the Army said.

The prospect of military-grade tracking technology floating above suburban Baltimore — along one of the East Coast’s busiest travel corridors — has sparked privacy concerns at a time of rising worry about the growth of government eavesdropping in the dozen years since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“That’s the kind of massive persistent surveillance we’ve always been concerned about with drones,” said Jay Stanley, a privacy expert for the American Civil Liberties Union. “It’s part of this trend we’ve seen since 9/11, which is the turning inward of all of these surveillance technologies.”

The Army played down such concerns in written responses to questions posed by The Washington Post, saying its goal is to test the ability of the aerostats to bolster the region’s missile-defense capability, especially against low-flying cruise missiles that can be hard for ground-based systems to detect in time to intercept them.

The Army determined it did not need to conduct a Privacy Impact Assessment, required for some government programs, because it was not going to collect any personally identifiable information, officials said in their written responses to The Post.

“The primary mission . . . is to track airborne objects,” the Army said. “Its secondary mission is to track surface moving objects such as vehicles or boats. The capability to track surface objects does not extend to individual people.”

Even the most powerful overhead surveillance systems, experts say, struggle to make out individual faces or other identifying features such as license plates because of the extreme angles when viewing an area from above.

But privacy advocates say location information can easily lead to the identification of individuals if collected on a mass scale and analyzed over time.

Researchers have found that people vary their movements little day to day, typically traveling from home to work and back while also regularly visiting a small number of other locations, such as stores, gyms or the homes of friends.

 

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The Washington Times

 

Photo by: Ted S. Warren

This photo taken Oct. 16, 2013 shows marijuana clone plants that are used to grow medical marijuana displayed under a light, at The Joint, a medical marijuana cooperative in Seattle. It took nearly 15 years after voters approved it for medical marijuana to become available in the District of Columbia, but the next major change to the district’s pot laws is on the fast track. The D.C. Council is poised to approve a bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of pot, and Democratic Mayor Vincent Gray supports it. He could sign the bill into law as early as January. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

WASHINGTON — It took nearly 15 years after voters approved medical marijuana for it to become available in the District of Columbia, but the next major change to pot laws in the nation’s capital is on the fast track.

The D.C. Council is poised to approve a bill that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of pot, and Democratic Mayor Vincent Gray announced last month that he supports it. He could sign the bill into law as early as January.


SEE ALSO: D.C. mayor, AG support bill decriminalizing marijuana


Some activists want the city to go further by legalizing, taxing and regulating marijuana as Colorado and Washington state do, and they’re considering a ballot initiative if the council doesn’t take that step.

It’s a big change from a year ago, when there was no medical marijuana in the capital and elected officials weren’t talking about relaxing recreational pot laws. Now, there are three tightly regulated marijuana dispensaries in the city, although there aren’t many patients yet.

City leaders have long been cautious about pot, in part because Congress has the final say on what’s legal in the district. But with 17 states having some form of decriminalization and the Justice Department taking a hands-off approach to legalization in Colorado and Washington state, city leaders think Congress won’t be interested in fighting that battle.

“What the states do would not matter if there were serious interest in the subject” on Capitol Hill, said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who represents the district in Congress. “I don’t think there’s a serious interest in the subject.”

The new sense of urgency has been fueled in part by two studies released this year that found large racial disparities in marijuana arrests in the city. Blacks were eight times more likely to be arrested than whites in the district in 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union found, and 91 percent of those arrested that year were black. About half of the city’s 632,000 residents are African-American.

“We have hundreds of young black men, black boys, being locked up, for simple possession of a couple bags of marijuana,” said Democratic Councilmember Marion Barry, one of the bill’s sponsors. “We don’t want to be proud of the wrong kind of thing here. We need to stop that kind of injustice from happening.”

Democrat Paul Zukerberg, a defense attorney who represents people charged with marijuana offenses and who campaigned for the council this spring on liberalization of marijuana laws, said he’s pleased members have embraced the issue.

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ReasonTV·

Published on Aug 22, 2013

Ocean City, Maryland is known for a bustling boardwalk that’s packed with the sights, smells, and sounds of summer.

The city’s leaders, however, felt the noise was becoming too much to bear and approved an ordinance prohibiting anyone from being audible from more than 30 feet away while on the boardwalk.

Mayor Rick Meehan tells Reason that the goal was “to ensure that everybody had an opportunity to enjoy Ocean City.”

But that wasn’t how William Hassay saw it after being hassled by cops. Hassay has been entertaining passersby for almost 20 years by playing his violin for tips. “I was told I would be cited and that I would be subjected to face jail time,” he says.

So Hassay reached out to the ACLU of Maryland to defend his right to play music.

“The distance limitation that Ocean City choose was so restrictive,” James Burke, a lawyer on Hassay’s case explains. “All sorts of sounds are audible at 30 feet.” A judge granted a preliminary injunction against the noise ban, though Meehan says the city will rewrite the law.

Hassay hopes the preliminary injunction will keep other cities from considering ultra-restrictive noise ordinances that will not only rob citizens of sweet music but other forms of free expression. “If I do lose,” he says, “the meaning of [it goes] far beyond playing on the boardwalk.”

About 3 minutes.

Produced by Joshua Swain. Additional camera by Amanda Winkler.

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Story Leak.com

Anthony Gucciardi

DHS ‘Constitution Free’ Zones Inside US Ignored By Media

by
August 5th, 2013
Updated 08/05/2013 at 12:00 pm

In what should be front page news blasted out nationwide as a breaking news alert, the DHS has openly established extensive ‘Constitution free zones’ in which your Fourth Amendment does not exist. 

It’s not ‘conspiracy’ and it’s not fraud, the DHS has literally created an imaginary ‘border’ within the United States that engulfs 100 miles from every single end of the nation. Within this fabricated ‘border’, the DHS can search your electronic belongings for no reason. We’re talking about no suspicion, no reasonable cause, nothing. No reason whatsoever is required under their own regulations. The DHS is now above the Constitution under their own rules, and even Wired magazine authors were amazed at the level of pure tyranny going on here.

This ‘border’ even includes where the US land meets oceans in addition to legitimate borders with Mexico and Canada. As a result, you have over 197 million citizens suffocated in these 100 mile ‘border zones’ that include major cities like New York City, Houston, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. Checkout the graphic below for a visual representation, with the orange area representing the Constitution free zone as designated by the DHS:

An ACLU image showing 'Constitution free border zones'.

What’s even more amazing, is that this has been going on since 2008. That’s about 5 years of absolute unconstitutional abuse of power by the Department of Homeland Security that the media fails to even document. That’s 197 million citizens living without a Constitution as far as the DHS is concerned, and apparently the Department of Justice (DOJ) must be pretty content too. Amazingly, no one has challenged this besides the ACLU, which was contacted following the case of a man who was actually detained within the 100 mile ‘border’ area.

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 Wired

NSA Phone Snooping Cannot Be Challenged in Court, Feds Say

National Security Agency headquarters, Fort Meade, Maryland. Photo: Wikipedia

The Obama administration for the first time responded to a Spygate lawsuit, telling a federal judge the wholesale vacuuming up of all phone-call metadata in the United States is in the “public interest,” does not breach the constitutional rights of Americans and cannot be challenged in a court of law.

Thursday’s response marks the first time the administration has officially answered one of at least four lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of a secret U.S. snooping program the Guardian newspaper disclosed last month. The administration’s filing sets the stage for what is to be a lengthy legal odyssey — one likely to outlive the Obama presidency — that will define the privacy rights of Americans for years to come.

The New York federal district court lawsuit, brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, demands a federal judge immediately halt the spy program the civil rights group labeled as “one of the largest surveillance efforts ever launched by a democratic government.”

The Guardian last month posted a leaked copy of a top secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court opinion requiring Verizon Business to provide the National Security Agency the phone numbers of both parties involved in all calls, the International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number for mobile callers, calling card numbers used in the call, and the time and duration of the calls.

The suit, brought on behalf of the ACLU’s employees, alleges breaches of the First Amendment and the Fourth Amendment and names Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, NSA Director Keith Alexander and FBI Director Robert Mueller, among others.

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  • Article by: ANNE FLAHERTY , Associated Press
  • Updated: July 17, 2013 – 8:24 PM

 

 

WASHINGTON — You can drive, but you can’t hide.

 

A rapidly growing network of police cameras is capturing, storing and sharing data on license plates, making it possible to stitch together people’s movements whether they are stuck in a commute, making tracks to the beach or up to no good.

 

For the first time, the number of license tag captures has reached the millions, according to a study published Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union based on information from hundreds of law enforcement agencies. Departments keep the records for weeks or years, sometimes indefinitely, saying they can be crucial in tracking suspicious cars, aiding drug busts, finding abducted children and more.

 

Attached to police cars, bridges or buildings — and sometimes merely as an app on a police officer’s smartphone — scanners capture images of passing or parked vehicles and pinpoint their locations, uploading that information into police databases.

 

Over time, it’s unlikely many vehicles in a covered area escape notice. And with some of the information going into regional databases encompassing multiple jurisdictions, it’s becoming easier to build a record of where someone has been and when, over a large area.

 

While the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that a judge’s approval is needed to use GPS to track a car, networks of plate scanners allow police effectively to track a driver’s location, sometimes several times every day, with few legal restrictions. The ACLU says the scanners are assembling a “single, high-resolution image of our lives.”

 

“There’s just a fundamental question of whether we’re going to live in a society where these dragnet surveillance systems become routine,” said Catherine Crump, a staff attorney with the organization. The group is proposing that police departments immediately delete any records of cars not linked to any crime.

 

Although less thorough than GPS tracking, plate readers can produce some of the same information, the group says, revealing whether someone is frequenting a bar, joining a protest, getting medical or mental help, being unfaithful to a spouse and much more.

 

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Published on Tuesday, June 11, 2013 by Common Dreams

NSA phone surveillance will have ‘chilling effect’ on ACLU’s ability to protect civil liberties

– Jacob Chamberlain, staff writer

Following this past week’s groundbreaking NSA leaks, the ACLU has now filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the agency’s vast phone spying practices—a move that could pose an eventual Supreme Court challenge to the NSA’s now exposed “dragnet” surveillance network.

(ACLU) As a Verizon customer, the ACLU—who is known as an active critic and opponent of U.S. government secrecy and overreach—was targeted by the NSA, and has thus had their ability to “engage in legitimate communications with clients, journalists, advocacy partners, and others,” undermined, the ACLU argues.

The ACLU says the unprecedented ‘metadata’ now known to be collected by the NSA, “gives the government a comprehensive record of our associations and public movements, revealing a wealth of detail about our familial, political, professional, religious and intimate associations,” adding that it “is likely to have a chilling effect on whistle-blowers and others who would otherwise contact” the ACLU.

ACLU’s Brett Kaufman writes Tuesday:

As an organization that advocates for and litigates to defend the civil liberties of society’s most vulnerable, the staff at the ACLU naturally use the phone—a lot—to talk about sensitive and confidential topics with clients, legislators, whistleblowers, and ACLU members. And since the ACLU is a VBNS customer, we were immediately confronted with the harmful impact that such broad surveillance would have on our legal and advocacy work. So we’re acting quickly to get into court to challenge the government’s abuse of [the Patriot Act’s] Section 215.

The lawsuit maintains that given recent revelations, the NSA has violated the First Amendment rights of free speech and association as well as the right of privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment, and that the NSA has surpassed even the vast authority awarded to them by Congress through the Patriot Act.

“This dragnet program is surely one of the largest surveillance efforts ever launched by a democratic government against its own citizens,” said Jameel Jaffer, ACLU deputy legal director. “It is the equivalent of requiring every American to file a daily report with the government of every location they visited, every person they talked to on the phone, the time of each call, and the length of every conversation.”

“The program,” Jaffer adds, “goes far beyond even the permissive limits set by the Patriot Act and represents a gross infringement of the freedom of association and the right to privacy.”

The lawsuit comes a day after the ACLU and Yale Law School’s Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic filed a motion with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), requesting that it publish its secret court opinions on the “meaning, scope, and constitutionality of Patriot Act Section 215″—the section of the Patriot Act that authorized the NSA to collect cell data at will (via the FISA court) from phone companies such as Verizon.

“There needs to be a bright line on where intelligence gathering stops,” said NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman, in light of the revelations leaked by former NSA employee turned whistleblower Edward Snowden and published by the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald. “If we don’t say this is too far, when is too far?”

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ACLU Files Lawsuit Challenging Constitutionality of NSA Phone Spying Program

 

Activist Post

The American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Civil Liberties Union today filed a constitutional challenge to a surveillance program under which the National Security Agency vacuums up information about every phone call placed within, from, or to the United States. The lawsuit argues that the program violates the First Amendment rights of free speech and association as well as the right of privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment. The complaint also charges that the dragnet program exceeds the authority that Congress provided through the Patriot Act.

“This dragnet program is surely one of the largest surveillance efforts ever launched by a democratic government against its own citizens,” said Jameel Jaffer, ACLU deputy legal director. “It is the equivalent of requiring every American to file a daily report with the government of every location they visited, every person they talked to on the phone, the time of each call, and the length of every conversation. The program goes far beyond even the permissive limits set by the Patriot Act and represents a gross infringement of the freedom of association and the right to privacy.”

The ACLU is a customer of Verizon Business Network Services, which was the recipient of a secret FISA Court order published by The Guardian last week. The order required the company to “turn over on ‘an ongoing daily basis’ phone call details” such as who calls are placed to and from, and when those calls are made. The lawsuit argues that the government’s blanket seizure of and ability to search the ACLU’s phone records compromises sensitive information about its work, undermining the organization’s ability to engage in legitimate communications with clients, journalists, advocacy partners, and others.

“The crux of the government’s justification for the program is the chilling logic that it can collect everyone’s data now and ask questions later,” said Alex Abdo, a staff attorney for the ACLU’s National Security Project. “The Constitution does not permit the suspicionless surveillance of every person in the country.”

 

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Crossroads News : Changes In The World Around Us And Our Place In It

IT  :  Security – Collection of Personal Data – Social Networks – Invasion Of Privacy

Feds snooping on email activity and social networks, without warrants – and it’s on the rise

 

Private investigator, courtesy of ShutterstockCrime-fighting authorities in the United States can snoop upon your email activity, who you are instant messaging, and what you are up to on Facebook, Google Plus and other social networks in real-time, not only without your permission – but without even requiring a warrant.

And, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), this real-time access by federal investigators to your online activity is on the rise.

Documents released by the ACLU on Thursday show that law enforcement agencies in the United States have greatly increased surveillance of Americans’ electronic communications, and often the surveillance happens without a warrant or judicial oversight.

The documents were released by the U.S. Department of Justice in response to a February 2012 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request (PDF) by the ACLU.

They show a sharp rise in the use of two types of surveillance in the last five years: “trap and trace” and “pen register”.

Orders for pen registers and trap and trace devices used to spy on phones increased by 60% between 2009 and 2011, from 23,535 to 37,616. The number of individuals whose communications were the subject of surveillance more than tripled in the same period, from approximately 15,000 to 45,000, ACLU said.

Requests to eavesdrop on electronic communications such as email and network data jumped during the same period, also. Trap and Trace requests for electronic data, for example, increased from just over 100 in 2009 to 800 in 2011, the ACLU found.

Graph from ACLU

Pen registers capture outgoing data from a subject over telecommunications lines. Trap and trace surveillance tools capture incoming data.

Historically, the tools were physical devices attached to telephone lines in order to covertly record the incoming and outgoing numbers dialed. Today, no special equipment is required to record this information, as interception capabilities are built into the call-routing hardware of telecoms firms.

According to the ACLU, the surveillance requests do not require a warrant, because American courts consider the data in question – phone numbers, the “to” and “from” addresses in an email, records about IM conversations, etc – to be “non-content” information, which is not covered by the Constitution’s 4th Amendment protection against unlawful search and seizure.

Man with magnifying glass, courtesy of ShutterstockTo initiate pen register or trap and trace surveillance under the act, therefore, law enforcement can simply request approval from a judge by saying that the information they are likely to obtain is “relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation”.

Judges don’t get to weigh the merits of that claim.

The ACLU took the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) to court in May to force the government to release the data about its electronic surveillance activities. The ACLU said that the DOJ is required to release the surveillance statistics to Congress each year, but rarely does so.

Past FOIA requests by the ACLU also document the sharp increase in surveillance requests. A 2010 request covering 2006 to 2009 showed that original requests for pen register and trap and trace doubled in that period, as well, from 11,000 to 24,000.

Together with the data released this week, the evidence suggests that law enforcement surveillance requests have more than tripled between 2006 and 2012.

The ACLU said that legislation is needed to toughen the requirement for the government to regularly update the public about its surveillance activities.

The civil liberties group also said that courts should reconsider the 1979 ruling (Smith v. Maryland) that set a lower standard for pen register and trap and trace monitoring than for traditional wire taps.

ACLU wrote:

The distinction from which these starkly different legal requirements arise is based on an erroneous factual premise, specifically that individuals’ lack a privacy interest in non-content information... Non-content information can still be extremely invasive, revealing who you communicate with in real time and painting a vivid picture of the private details of your life... The low legal standard currently applied to pen register and trap and trace devices allows the government to use these powerful surveillance tools with very little oversight in place to safeguard Americans’ privacy.

You can view the Pen Register and Trap and Trace documents online here.