Feeds

Wiretapping, FISA, and the NSA

I always feel like somebody's watching me..

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA)

Nevertheless, the executive branch has another mechanism for obtaining court orders to intercept communications (including email) if the government doesn't believe that it has evidence of a crime. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act allows the government to get an interception or seizure order (or a secret search warrant) by proving to a special super-secret court that the purpose of the surveillance is to obtain foreign intelligence, including (as amended by the USA Patriot Act) intelligence about terrorism.

FISA orders are directed at interceptions of "US Persons", meaning US citizens or permanent resident aliens, or US corporations. Thus, if a US person is the target of the surveillance, FISA, by its terms, applies. If the US person is not the target, but is otherwise intercepted, the surveillance is OK as long as there are appropriate minimizations procedures in place.

Prior to the enactment of FISA, domestic wiretaps were routinely done for "national security purposes" under nothing more than Presidential authority. Presidents from Roosevelt to Nixon ordered domestic wiretaps to protect national security. Indeed, prior to the enactment of the FISA statute, there used to be an exception in the wiretap criminal statute that provided, "[n]othing contained in this [statute] shall limit the constitutional power of the President to take such measures as he deems necessary to protect the Nation against actual or potential attack or other hostile acts of a foreign power, to obtain foreign intelligence information deemed essential to the security of the United States, or to protect national security information against foreign intelligence activities..." The Nixon administration used this exception to conduct surveillance and interception without warrants on a host of domestic "subversive" groups. When this was revealed, Congress stepped in to limit the abuses by giving the President a mechanism for conducting foreign intelligence (and now terrorism) investigations by passing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

FISA and Presidential power

With the enactment of the FISA statute, this provision was changed to essentially read that FISA now "shall be the exclusive means by which electronic surveillance and the interception of domestic wire, oral, and electronic communications may be conducted." Thirty-three years ago, the US Government tried to rely on pure Presidential power to engage in domestic surveillance of domestic subversive groups without a warrant. US Supreme Court rejected the government's contention that the courts were not prepared to deal with the sensitive classified information, could not make informed decisions about the threats to national security, and that the President had independent authority to order these wiretaps without the Courts. Even if the wiretaps were "reasonable" the Supreme court opined, they violated the Fourth Amendment. Shortly thereafter, the same court found that even the Attorney General could be held liable for authorizing these "national security" wiretaps in that case against a group planning to bomb bridges and tunnels. It was this precedent - establishing that a government official's immunity for ordering such illegal wiretaps is only limited - that Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito sought to reverse when he was advising the Reagan Administration's Justice Department.

The essential guide to IT transformation

More from The Register

next story
Kate Bush: Don't make me HAVE CONTACT with your iPHONE
Can't face sea of wobbling fondle implements. What happened to lighters, eh?
Assange™: Hey world, I'M STILL HERE, ignore that Snowden guy
Press conference: ME ME ME ME ME ME ME (cont'd pg 94)
Caught red-handed: UK cops, PCSOs, specials behaving badly… on social media
No Mr Fuzz, don't ask a crime victim to be your pal on Facebook
Ballmer leaves Microsoft board to spend more time with his b-balls
From Clippy to Clippers: Hi, I see you're running an NBA team now ...
Online tat bazaar eBay coughs to YET ANOTHER outage
Web-based flea market struck dumb by size and scale of fail
Amazon takes swipe at PayPal, Square with card reader for mobes
Etailer plans to undercut rivals with low transaction fee offer
Call of Duty daddy considers launching own movie studio
Activision Blizzard might like quality control of a CoD film
US regulators OK sale of IBM's x86 server biz to Lenovo
Now all that remains is for gov't offices to ban the boxes
XBOX One will learn to play media from USB and DLNA sources
Hang on? Aren't those file formats you hardly ever see outside torrents?
prev story

Whitepapers

5 things you didn’t know about cloud backup
IT departments are embracing cloud backup, but there’s a lot you need to know before choosing a service provider. Learn all the critical things you need to know.
Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Build a business case: developing custom apps
Learn how to maximize the value of custom applications by accelerating and simplifying their development.
Rethinking backup and recovery in the modern data center
Combining intelligence, operational analytics, and automation to enable efficient, data-driven IT organizations using the HP ABR approach.
Next gen security for virtualised datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.