The third grade and third-party doctrine

January 22

Randy Barnett argues that NSA’s metadata program is bad because the government will use the information to target people for their political views and to embrace mission creep.

His solution is to leave the metadata in the hands of the phone company. But really, what good would that do? Suppose that, as Randy fears, Congress wakes up one day and decides to use phone metadata to suppress dissent and gun ownership across America. The fact that the data is stored in four or five phone companies’ databases rather than NSA’s will forestall the Dark Night of Fascism for, oh, about 90 minutes. For the sake of that speedbump, we should give up our ability to identify cross-border terror plots?

Randy’s solution to that problem is to overrule a line of Supreme Court cases (Smith v. Maryland) holding that no one has a reasonable expectation of privacy in information they’ve disclosed to a third party. With Smith v. Maryland set aside, the government would need a search warrant to see the metadata.

Overruling Supreme Court precedent is a law professor’s prerogative, but the rest of us don’t have to go along. And in fact the Smith v. Maryland doctrine makes sense, especially compared to Randy’s solution. We all learned no later than the third grade that secrets shared with another are not really secrets. They can be revealed at times and in ways we never expected. It hurts, but it’s a fact of life.

Randy’s solution is a fiction; he wants the courts to deny the facts of life and pretend that we still control information we willingly gave away. And considering how many slippery slopes Randy has to invoke to make metadata collection scary, he hasn’t given much thought to the slipperiness of the doctrine he wants to create. Data gets cheaper to collect and to share all the time. Exactly which kinds of data would he leave under our fictional control after we have given it up, and for how long?

After the fictionalizing and overruling is done, though, all Randy achieves is to require a warrant before the government can get phone metadata. That rule would break the NSA program, for sure, and it would recreate the gap that existed on September 10. It would also take away an investigative tool that has been used by law enforcement more than a million times a year, and for nearly a century, without as yet producing a totalitarian American state.

And what benefits do we get for incurring that high cost? After all, courts too are government agencies staffed by human beings; the ex parte process of obtaining warrants is hardly a certain guarantee against the Dark Night of Fascism. It’s just a bigger speedbump – and probably a less effective protection than we now have. The NSA metadata program, unlike a warrant, is reviewed by members of both parties, both houses of Congress, and the judiciary.  It includes audits and oversight that search warrants never get.

It seems to me that Randy’s approach is the equivalent of knocking down a house because the roof may leak some day and erecting in its place a lean-to made of sticks.

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Will Baude | January 22