On Tuesday, Judge Richard Leon held that the National Security Agency’s controversial phone records program likely violates the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” But when the inevitable appeal comes, far more than a single surveillance program will be at stake. Whether far higher courts are prepared to embrace Leon’s logic could determine if Americans enjoy any meaningful constitutional protection against government monitoring in the information age.
The NSA program—a massive database that logs, and stores for five years, the time, date, duration, and number dialed for nearly every call placed in the United States—is based on Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which authorizes the government to obtain any records it reasonably believes are “relevant” to a foreign intelligence investigation. But that authority itself depends on the so-called “third party doctrine,” which says that business records held by a “third party” like a phone company aren’t protected by the Fourth Amendment.
If not for the third party doctrine, “relevance” would not be enough: The government would have to satisfy the Fourth Amendment’s far stricter demand to show “probable cause” that records it had “particularly described” would yield evidence of wrongdoing. Under Fourth Amendment standards, a program that involved vacuuming up billions of records in order to fish through them later for suspicious calls would be out of the question—the kind of unlimited “general warrant” the framers of the Constitution were especially concerned to prohibit.
The roots of this cramped reading stretch back to 1979, when the Supreme Court unwittingly dealt a profound blow to American privacy in the case of Smith v. Maryland. With the cooperation of the phone company, police had traced a series of obscene phone calls from Michael Lee Smith to a woman he had earlier robbed. Because they had not first obtained a warrant from a judge, Smith argued that the police had conducted an illegal search, akin to a wiretap.
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