April 01, 2014

FISA Authority and Blanket Surveillance A Gatekeeper Without Opposition

Electronic communications providers are facing increased legal process from the government—often in secret, with little case law to guide their response.

Jacob Sommer

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Surveillance and espionage were once practices ordinary Americans only read about in novels or saw in movie theaters. That is no longer true. America is at the center of a worldwide communications network. It is home to the world’s most popular telecommunications, email, instant message, and video chat providers. Because of America’s unique role, hundreds of millions of users send communications through American soil. At the same time, America’s enemies have grown from nation-states, like the Soviet Union, to small cells of terrorists that use ordinary communications networks. Taken together, it is not surprising that signals intelligence agencies like the National Security Agency (NSA), which intercept and analyze these signals, would seek and use surveillance powers to conduct more surveillance at home.

Part of this new regime means that more legal process to gather intelligence is being served on companies in the United States. Recent revelations have declassified documents describing the NSA’s broad “collect now, search later” approach to surveillance. This means that some electronic communications providers, and their in-house and outside counsel, are faced with new forms of legal process. But unlike criminal process, which is rooted in a large body of publicly available case law and which often comes to light in the course of criminal trials, this new process comes to these providers in secret. As documents recently declassified by the director of national intelligence demonstrate, the government has served a number of different kinds of orders on providers—each of whom must assess when and how they might comply with or challenge those orders.

My firm and I represented one such provider in In re Directives [Redacted] Pursuant to Section 105B of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act [Redacted], 551 F.3d 1004 (FISA Ct. Rev. 2008). That case presented a challenge that more providers may face as the NSA explores its surveillance capabilities. The provider received process known as a 105B directive (which is now called a 702 directive) starting in 2007. In contrast with typical criminal process, there was no prior court review or approval of particular surveillance targets. Instead, a 702 directive, like the one served on that provider, approved of the government’s procedure for conducting surveillance—not its targets.

 

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