This month two judges issued two different opinions about the NSA’s controversial bulk metadata collection program. Judge Richard Leon ruled in Washington, D.C., that the program likely violated the law. Judge William Pauley ruled in New York that the program did not violate the law. Judge Pauley’s opinion is both correct legally and more sensible than Judge Leon’s, but it’s not hard to imagine that even our conservative Supreme Court could go the other way.
Under the metadata program, the NSA vacuums up certain data associated with telephone calls—including the number called from, the number called to, and the time of the call—and stores them on its servers. Under the loose supervision of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the NSA can search the data for evidence of terrorist connections. For example, if the NSA learns the cellphone number of a suspected terrorist, it can query the metadata for the phone numbers dialed on the terrorist’s phone, the phone numbers of the phones that called that phone, and other phone numbers associated with those phone numbers. The NSA turns over suspicious phone numbers to the FBI for further investigation.
Judge Pauley argued that under the Supreme Court case of Smith v. Maryland, which was decided in 1979, the metadata program does not violate the Fourth Amendment because the NSA collects the metadata from the telephone companies of the targets; the NSA does not monitor the phone itself. In Smith, the court held that the defendant did not have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” (the standard for a Fourth Amendment claim) in the phone numbers he had dialed, because by dialing them he communicated them to the phone company. So the police could install a device called a pen register at the telephone company’s premises to record those phone numbers.
The court reasoned that when people voluntarily divulge personal information to third parties, they “assume the risk” that those third parties will turn over the information to the police, and thus can’t complain when that happens, even if at the government’s request. Many commentators object that people do expect phone companies, banks, hospitals, and other trusted institutions to keep personal information secret. But the reason for the rule is that we do not expect many of our communications with other people to be kept secret, a simple rule is better than a case-by-case inquiry into how strong your privacy interest is every time you speak to a colleague or stranger, and law enforcement would be too difficult if police could not gather such information before obtaining a warrant. After all, police can’t obtain a warrant unless they already have reason to believe that someone has committed a crime, and that reason to believe has to come from somewhere.
Judge Leon argues that Smith v. Maryland is an analog case and we live in a digital age. At the time Smith was decided, there was no bulk metadata collection. The court’s bright-line rule distinguishing information we retain and information we turn over to third parties is no longer sustainable, Leon argues, because nowadays no one can go about one’s everyday business and personal life without turning over to third parties a Borges library of personal information that, thanks to search algorithms, can disclose far more about a person than in 1979. Leon cites a recent Supreme Court case, U.S. v. Jones, where a number of justices expressed skepticism about the continuing validity of Smith. That case involved the placement of a GPS device on a car, and the justices worried that even though tailing a car does not violate the Fourth Amendment because the car operates in plain view, digital monitoring of the location of a car might give the government too much power over our lives.
However, until the Supreme Court overrules Smith v. Maryland, Judge Pauley has the better legal argument. Judge Leon correctly notes that the government can more easily learn information about you from third parties today than in the past. But it can’t learn much more about you using the metadata program than it could learn using the pen register in Smith. The difference between then and now lies in the number of people whose data can be searched at reasonable cost to the government, not the amount of information obtained about any individual.