Taming Big Brother
It's been two years since former government contractor Edward Snowden revealed the National Security Agency's expansive surveillance programs to the public. This year, for the first time in forty years, Congress passed a law to reform government surveillance. The USA FREEDOM Act, passed in June, ended the "bulk collection" of Americans' telephone records, instead requiring that the government obtain a court order for phone records of terrorism suspects. The Electronic Frontier Foundation explained the limitations of the new law, while noting that it represents "an overdue course correction."
This year brought increased attention to email privacy as well. Congress is considering reforms to the Electronics Communication Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986 that would require agencies to obtain warrants before reading emails. California passed its own version of the law, the CalECPA, requiring a warrant for law enforcement to access emails, texts, or a technology user's location. The law was sponsored by the EFF and other privacy rights groups, and was supported by many major technology companies. Those same groups opposed the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA), which Congress included in the omnibus budget bill it passed in mid-December. CISA allows the sharing of digital user information "notwithstanding any other provision of law," and critics worry that it will be used to facilitate warrantless searches.
The Department of Justice announced in September that it would reform its use of "cell site simulators," often known as "stingrays." DOJ must now obtain a search warrant before using a cell site simulator to collect information during a criminal investigation. The Department of Homeland Security announced a similar policy in October.
The Supreme Court decided two important cases in 2015 that limited police officers' power to perform warrantless searches. Rodriguez v. United States held that police cannot prolong a traffic stop to wait for a drug-sniffing dog to arrive, and Los Angeles v. Patel overturned a law requiring "innkeepers" to allow police to inspect their guest books upon request. Patel has implications for digital privacy as well: just as the hotel owners resisted showing their guest records to law enforcement, many technology companies have attempted to protect user privacy in the face of requests for information.
At the year's end, the Supreme Court announced that it would decide two cases addressing the constitutionality of state laws requiring drivers to take blood tests after being arrested for driving under the influence. Next year promises to bring even more news about the evolving balance between privacy and (possible) security, both in the Court and in Congress. As Edward Snowden said in this year's interview with John Oliver:
If we sacrifice our values because we're afraid, we don't care about those values very much.