Archive for June, 2015

A person under surveillance is no longer free; a society under surveillance is no longer a democracy.”—Writers Against Mass Surveillance

THE GOOD NEWS: Americans have a right to freely express themselves on the Internet, including making threatening—even violent—statements on Facebook, provided that they don’t intend to actually inflict harm.

The Supreme Court’s ruling in Elonis v. United States threw out the conviction of a Pennsylvania man who was charged with making unlawful threats (it was never proven that he intended to threaten anyone) and sentenced to 44 months in jail after he posted allusions to popular rap lyrics and comedy routines on his Facebook page. It’s a ruling that has First Amendment implications for where the government can draw the line when it comes to provocative and controversial speech that is protected and permissible versus speech that could be interpreted as connoting a criminal intent.

That same day, Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, the legal justification allowing the National Security Agency (NSA) to carry out warrantless surveillance on Americans, officially expired. Over the course of nearly a decade, if not more, the NSA had covertly spied on millions of Americans, many of whom were guilty of nothing more than using a telephone, and stored their records in government databases. For those who have been fighting the uphill battle against the NSA’s domestic spying program, it was a small but symbolic victory.

THE BAD NEWS: Congress’ legislative “fix,” intended to mollify critics of the NSA, will ensure that the agency is not in any way hindered in its ability to keep spying on Americans’ communications.

The USA FREEDOM Act could do more damage than good by creating a false impression that Congress has taken steps to prevent the government from spying on the telephone calls of citizens, while in fact ensuring the NSA’s ability to continue invading the privacy and security of Americans.

For instance, the USA FREEDOM Act not only reauthorizes Section 215 of the Patriot Act for a period of time, but it also delegates to telecommunications companies the responsibility of carrying out phone surveillance on American citizens.

AND NOW FOR THE DOWNRIGHT UGLY NEWS: Nothing is going to change.

As journalist Conor Friedersdorf warns, “Americans concerned by mass surveillance and the national security state’s combination of power and secrecy should keep worrying.”

In other words, telephone surveillance by the NSA is the least of our worries.

Even with restrictions on its ability to collect mass quantities of telephone metadata, the government and its various spy agencies, from the NSA to the FBI, can still employ an endless number of methods for carrying out warrantless surveillance on Americans, all of which are far more invasive than the bulk collection program.

As I point out in my new book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, just about every branch of the government—from the Postal Service to the Treasury Department and every agency in between—now has its own surveillance sector, authorized to spy on the American people. Just recently, for example, it was revealed that the FBI has been employing a small fleet of low-flying planes to carry out video and cell phone surveillance over American cities.

Then there are the fusion and counterterrorism centers that gather all of the data from the smaller government spies—the police, public health officials, transportation, etc.—and make it accessible for all those in power.

And of course that doesn’t even begin to touch on the complicity of the corporate sector, which buys and sells us from cradle to grave, until we have no more data left to mine. Indeed, Facebook, Amazon and Google are among the government’s closest competitors when it comes to carrying out surveillance on Americans, monitoring the content of your emails, tracking your purchases and exploiting your social media posts.

“Few consumers understand what data are being shared, with whom, or how the information is being used,” reports the Los Angeles Times. “Most Americans emit a stream of personal digital exhaust — what they search for, what they buy, who they communicate with, where they are — that is captured and exploited in a largely unregulated fashion.”

It’s not just what we say, where we go and what we buy that is being tracked. We’re being surveilled right down to our genes, thanks to a potent combination of hardware, software and data collection that scans our biometrics—our faces, irises, voices, genetics, even our gait—runs them through computer programs that can break the data down into unique “identifiers,” and then offers them up to the government and its corporate allies for their respective uses.

All of those internet-connected gadgets we just have to have (Forbes refers to them as “(data) pipelines to our intimate bodily processes”)—the smart watches that can monitor our blood pressure and the smart phones that let us pay for purchases with our fingerprints and iris scans—are setting us up for a brave new world where there is nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.

For instance, imagine what the NSA could do (and is likely already doing) with voiceprint technology, which has been likened to a fingerprint. Described as “the next frontline in the battle against overweening public surveillance,” the collection of voiceprints is a booming industry for governments and businesses alike. As The Guardian reports, “voice biometrics could be used to pinpoint the location of individuals. There is already discussion about placing voice sensors in public spaces, and [Lee Tien, senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation] said that multiple sensors could be triangulated to identify individuals and specify their location within very small areas.”

Suddenly the NSA’s telephone metadata program seems like child’s play compared to what’s coming down the pike.

That, of course, is the point.

Whatever recent victories we’ve enjoyed—the Second Circuit ruling declaring the NSA’s metadata program to be illegal, Congress’ inability to reauthorize Section 215 of the Patriot Act, even the Supreme Court’s recognition that free speech on the internet may be protected—amount to little in the face of the government’s willful disregard of every constitutional safeguard put in place to protect us from abusive, intrusive government agencies out to control the populace.

Already the American people are starting to lose interest in the spectacle of Congress wrangling, debating and negotiating over the NSA and the Patriot Act.

Already the media outlets are being seduced by other, more titillating news: Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover, Kim Kardashian’s pregnancy announcement, and the new Fifty Shades of Grey book told from Christian’s perspective.

What remains to be seen is whether, when all is said and done, the powers-that-be succeed in distracting us from the fact that the government’s unauthorized and unwarranted surveillance powers go far beyond anything thus far debated by Congress or the courts.


WASHINGTON, D.C. — Calling the expiration of Section 215 of the Patriot Act, cited as the legal authority for the National Security Agency’s (NSA) domestic surveillance program, an historic opportunity to not only end the government’s unconstitutional practice but rein in the NSA, The Rutherford Institute is cautioning the United States Senate against adopting the proposed USA FREEDOM Act as a legislative solution because it could do more damage than good.

In a letter urging members of the U.S. Senate to take action to stop the pervasive surveillance of citizens by the government, Rutherford Institute president John W. Whitehead points out that the USA FREEDOM Act would actually reauthorize Section 215 of the Patriot Act while failing to end other programs the government is using to collect information about individuals without a warrant. Moreover, Whitehead points out that the USA FREEDOM Act does not prevent government surveillance; it merely delegates it to communication services providers.

Battlefield_Cover_300“While the USA FREEDOM Act has been hailed as a step in the right direction, it amounts to little more than a paper tiger: threatening in appearance, but lacking any real bite. Indeed, the Act endangers the cause of citizen privacy by creating a false impression that Congress has taken steps to prevent the government from spying on the telephone calls of citizens, while in fact ensuring the NSA’s ability to continue invading the privacy and security of Americans,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “As long as government agencies are allowed to make a mockery of the law—be it the Constitution, the FISA Act or any other law intended to limit their reach and curtail their activities—and are permitted to operate behind closed doors, relaying on secret courts, secret budgets and secret interpretations of the laws of the land, there can be no true reform.”

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States government sought to enhance security by adopting the Patriot Act, which included authorization for indefinite detention of immigrants, the use of National Security Letters to conduct searches without court orders, and other intrusions into the liberty and privacy of citizens. Section 215 of the Patriot Act expanded the authority of the government to seek orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for the production of any “tangible thing” related to a person suspected of being agents of foreign governments. Subsequent amendments to Section 215 further expanded the government’s authority to seek the production of tangible things “relevant to an authorized investigation,” and the government seized on these provisions as authorizing court orders allowing the collection of data about virtually all telephone calls made to or from the United States.

Although Section 215 contained provisions for its expiration, it was continually reauthorized by Congress through June 1, 2015. After the collection of data was revealed by Edward Snowden in June 2013, some in Congress sought to limit the government’s spying on telephone calls under Section 215. Legislative action increased after a federal appeals court ruled in May 2015 that the bulk collection of data exceeded the authority for spying granted by Section 215. In mid-May, the House of Representatives passed the USA FREEDOM Act, which was initially defeated in the Senate but is pending reconsideration in light of the expiration of Section 215.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Ruling in a case that will significantly impact expression on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks, a near-unanimous U.S. Supreme Court declared in Anthony D. Elonis v. United States of America that threats made over the Internet are protected unless they are malevolent or reckless. In weighing in on the case, The Rutherford Institute had argued that the First Amendment protects even inflammatory statements that may give offense or cause concern to others unless the statements were a credible threat to engage in violence against another and made by the defendant with the intent to cause fear in the alleged victim.

The case arises out of Facebook postings made by Anthony Elonis expressing his anger about events in his life, and which were based upon rap lyrics of artists such as Eminem and a comedy sketch of the group The Whitest Kids U’ Know. The Court’s ruling throws out the conviction of Elonis, who was charged with making unlawful threats (it was never proven that he intended to threaten anyone) and sentenced to 44 months in jail after he posted allusions to popular song lyrics and comedy routines on his Facebook page. In a related case, The Rutherford Institute is representing Marine Brandon Raub, who was arrested, detained in a psychiatric ward, and forced to undergo psychological evaluations based solely on the controversial nature of lines from song lyrics, political messages and virtual card games which he posted to his private Facebook page.

The Rutherford Institute’s amicus brief in Elonis v. United States is available at

Battlefield_Cover_300“Whether it’s a Marine arrested for criticizing the government on Facebook or an ex-husband jailed for expressing his frustrations through rap lyrics on Facebook, the end result is the same—the criminalization of free speech,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “While social media and the Internet have become critical forums for individuals to freely share information and express their ideas, they have unfortunately also become tools for the government to monitor, control and punish the populace for behavior and speech that may be controversial but are far from criminal.”

Anthony Elonis was an active poster on Facebook who often used references to popular culture to express his views, feelings and frustration about events in his life. In May 2010, after Elonis’ wife left him and took his two children, he began listening to rap music and alluding to the sometimes violent lyrics of rap songs on his Facebook page.  Elonis would couple these postings with statements acknowledging that the lyrics were fictitious and that he was simply exercising his First Amendment right of expression. After his estranged wife obtained a protection order against him, Elonis posted a reference to a comedy sketch of The Whitest Kids U’ Know about threatening language that Elonis changed to include a reference about harming his wife. In another post, Elonis used the lyrics of Eminem in which the rap artist included fantasized thoughts about shooting up a school. After federal agents were alerted to some of his postings, an investigator was sent to speak with Elonis. In response, Elonis posted rap lyrics he wrote containing fantasized language about having a bomb strapped to his body and doing violence to the agent. In response to these postings, the federal government charged Elonis under a statute making it a crime to transmit in interstate commerce any communication containing a threat to injure another. Elonis was convicted on four counts of violating this statute but appealed his conviction, arguing that the government should have been required to prove that he intended to threaten the alleged victims, not simply that the victims could reasonably have believed the words were “true threats.”

In weighing in on the case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Rutherford Institute attorneys argue that “(i)n order to protect the First Amendment rights of speakers, courts must ensure that they are criminalizing more than just the unrealized and unrealizable fears of particularly sensitive listeners.”