The journalism world has been rightly outraged by the Justice Department dragging the Associated Press (and now a Fox News reporter) into one of its sprawling leak investigations. As we wrote last week, by obtaining the call records of twenty AP phone lines, “the Justice Department has struck a terrible blow against the freedom of the press and the ability of reporters to investigate and report the news.”
But there are several other important lessons that this scandal can teach us besides how important free and uninhibited newsgathering is to the public’s right to know.
1. Weak Privacy Laws That Doomed AP Affect Everyone
The AP detailed in its letter to the Justice Department how its privacy was grossly invaded even though the government accessed only the call records of its reporters and not the content of their conversations. We completely agree. Unfortunately, this isn’t just a problem in the AP investigation. Law enforcement agencies routinely demand and receive this information about ordinary Americans over long periods of time without any court involvement whatsoever, much less a full warrant.
For example, according to information released by the phone companies to Rep. Ed Markey, Sprint alone received a staggering 500,000 subpoenas for call records data last year.
The DOJ’s decision to dive into these call records shows the growing need to update our privacy laws to eliminate the outmoded Third Party Doctrine—which holds that anything you give to a service provider, or that a service provider collects as part of providing you a service—can retain no reasonable expectation of privacy. In an era where email is stored by our providers, cellphone companies keep records that track our location and cloud services hold our documents, it’s long past time to bring our interpretation of the Fourth Amendment and statutory electronic privacy laws in compliance with the 21st Century.
In response to the AP scandal, a bipartisan coalition in Congress just introduced a bill to partially fix this problem called The Telephone Records Protection Act. The bill would require the Justice Department to get a judge’s approval before seeking these records. At EFF, we think the government should have to go even further than a court order: a judicial warrant showing the kind of probable cause required by the Fourth Amendment should be the standard. But this bill is certainly an improvement over administrative subpoenas, which don’t need a sign-off from a judge at all and allow the Executive branch to seek information without any external check.
2. Phone Companies May Give Up Your Information Without Telling You
As the New York Times reported, the AP is still examining if and when any telephone companies tried to push back on the overbroad requests for its call records. “But at least two of the journalists’ personal cellphone records were provided to the government by Verizon Wireless without any attempt to obtain permission to tell them so the reporters could ask a court to quash the subpoena,” the Times said. And it also seems clear that the AP itself wasn’t given notice before their phone company turned over the records.
In EFF’s 2013 “Who Has Your Back” report, which tracks several ways in which communications companies can help protect user privacy, we give a star for promising to notify users about government demands for data whenever whenever the company is not legally prevented from doing so. Notably, Verizon does not have such a notification policy and did not receive a star. In fact, Verizon was the only company to receive zero stars.
This isn’t a small problem or just a problem for journalists. Verizon received 260,000 similar subpoenas for call records last year. The government requests this information with regularity, and given the phone companies control the data, communications company policies are all that stand between you and governmental overreach.
Users should demand that their communications companies notify them when the government comes seeking information, unless they are legally barred by a court order.