The IRS and your email

Did you know the IRS has asserted, and apparently exercised, a right to read your emails without a warrant? I didn’t, until now. [ACLU; more from ProPublica]

Regarding yesterday’s revelation that the National Security Agency has been collecting the phone records of millions of Americans, Glenn Greenwald at the U.K. Guardian has the original scoop, quoting my Cato colleague Julian Sanchez about one of the most salient aspects of the program: it scoops up everyone’s phone data in a dragnet, rather than proceeding against some narrower category of phone records for which there is individualized suspicion. More coverage: Guardian sidebar on what telephone metadata can reveal; Timothy Lee/Washington Post; Orin Kerr/Volokh (“This is potentially a huge story. If the NSA is getting all call records from every domestic call from Verizon, then that’s a very big deal”); Adam Serwer/MSNBC; Electronic Frontier Foundation (“There is no indication that this order to Verizon was unique or novel. It is very likely that business records orders like this exist for every major American telecommunication company, meaning that, if you make calls in the United States, the NSA has those records. And this has been going on for at least 7 years, and probably longer.”) And from a slightly different perspective, Joshua Foust, who cites Congress for having repeatedly voted to give the Executive ultra-broad surveillance powers, and writes: “The information the NSA is collecting is metadata, not content (like a wiretap), and not account names. Uncovering personally identifiable information would require separate warrants to do so. This was a pattern analysis, not really mass surveillance as we traditionally understand it.”

P.S. On the IRS’s claims of a right to read email without a warrant, Justin Horton: “Not limited to IRS; this is basically government’s position and only 6th Circuit seems to disagree.”


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  • “This was a pattern analysis, not really mass surveillance as we traditionally understand it.”

    Two things about that sentence…

    1) “Was” is the wrong term, as it implies past-tense. “Is” would be the more honest word to use.

    2) It is not “mass surveillance as we traditionally understand it” because our understanding has been – for quite some time – rather limited and narrow. I do hope this helps society re-index the phrase for a new baseline.

  • Beware the big brother problem.

    George Orwell’s brilliant novel 1984 shows the government (big brother) watching every action of Winston Smith’s life. The problem is that such surveillance would be resource intensive. More than half of the population would be spying on people as a living if the surveillance was extensive. Sure, the government could match your phone number to an escort service. But how would they pick out you? They would start with the escort service probably. But something like that is done now, and I find that practice obnoxious. I don’t see any real problem with the program.

    It would be interesting if such a program could have picked up Mohammed Atta of 9/11 infamy.

  • Traffic analysis and link info are often more useful than content data.