Thursday, January 21, 2010

Study Reveals Privacy Violations by FBI

A study released yesterday documents the use of nonexistent emergencies by the FBI to improperly obtain telephone toll information. Between 2002 and 2006, it is reported that more than 700 such demands for information were made.

Part of the issue with such violations appears to be connected to the fact that the FBI and employees for three telecommunications companies actually shared office space. With the sharing of this office space, many of these telecommunications employees were seen as serving as members of the FBI.

Such emergency letters stopped being used in 2006 after some of these issues were discovered. Still, some see this as proof that the Patriot Act requires changes. The Patriot Act, set to expire next month, authorizes the FBI to send letters to phone companies and banks requesting information. However, with evidence of these improprieties, some are uncertain about whether such procedures as they currently exist are proper.

Over the past several years, issues of privacy have risen to the forefront of public concern. With the institution of the Patriot Act, many of these fears were heightened even further. With reports such as this one released Friday, many of these fears are now being justified causing many to further worry about how private their lives really are.

Unfortunately, this is not a unique case of improper privacy intrusions by the U.S. government. The government justifies their practices with the even greater fear of terrorism; they claim that their procedures are in place to weed out potential acts of terrorism. Such safety requires some intrusions, but these intrusions seem to be growing and becoming more egregious as time passes.

With this instance, it is perhaps even more troublesome as the FBI actually had procedures in place that they willfully violated. According to the article, these violations occurred at several levels of the FBI, not just the lowest level. Granted, these violations have apparently now been reigned in, but the fact they happened in the first place is worrisome.

For the complete article, click here.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Supreme Court Disallows Broadcast of Proposition 8 Hearings

In a follow up to last week’s entry, the United States Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the Federal Court in San Francisco cannot broadcast the Hearing regarding the constitutionality of Proposition 8. “The court issued an unsigned opinion that said lower courts had not followed proper procedure in approving plans for the broadcast.”

The court cited to arguments of those who claim such a broadcast would intimidate, and possibly lead to physical harm of, witnesses, stating that “While applicants have demonstrated the threat of harm they face if the trial is broadcast, respondents have not alleged any harm if the trial is not broadcast." However, in the end the majority denied the right to broadcast on procedural grounds. In doing so, the majority states that they are not ruling on the propriety of broadcasting such Hearings if the proper procedures are followed.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Breyer, joined by Justices Sotomayor, Stevens and Ginsburg, writes that the majority identifies “no real harm” that would result from this broadcast. Furthermore, the dissent argues that the potentially at-risk witnesses have not asked for any type of Court intervention. All the witnesses set to testify, “are all experts or advocates who have either already appeared on television or Internet broadcasts, already toured the state advocating a 'yes' vote on Proposition 8, or already engaged in extensive public commentary far more likely to make them well known than a closed-circuit broadcast to another federal courthouse." As such, the dissenters opine that the majority’s ruling is “unjustified”.

As I stated last week, I believe that the postings of these Hearings on YouTube (or any other video sharing site) have benefits that outweigh any negatives. As the dissenters state, the information regarding witnesses is already available through other sources, and none of them seem as worried about potential harassment as the arguments seem to set forth.

If there truly are procedures that were in place and not followed regarding the broadcast of this Hearing, than the Supreme Court’s ruling is easier to understand. It is no less proper to allow special circumstances to permit the broadcasting of this Hearing than it is to allow special circumstances to prevent the broadcast. It is no less proper to allow the broadcasting of a controversial Hearing through “special procedures” than it is to allow unfounded potential outcomes to disallow the broadcast. It is unfortunate that this Hearing will not be made available for viewing, but it would be improper for an exception to be made based purely on the subject matter and public interest in the case.

For the full article from the Washington Post, click here.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Proposition 8 Trial to be Made Available on YouTube

In California, Courts continue to hear challenges to Proposition 8. Next week, the U.S. District Court in San Francisco is scheduled to hear this latest challenge; however, a new twist has been added to this hearing. The trial will not be broadcast on television, but Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker ordered that the hearing be recorded and made available on YouTube.

This is the first time a federal court in California has issued such an order, and this order has given rise to further controversy. Primarily, attorneys for the sponsors of Proposition 8 fear that allowing people outside the courtroom to view the trial will intimidate witnesses. It is already alleged that some supporters of Proposition 8 are being subjected to harassment, and it is feared that any witness that testifies in favor of the measure will be forced to endure the same. Even with the Judge’s discretion to hide witness faces or alter voices on the YouTube posting, attorneys for these supporters fear their witnesses will be subject to intimidation.

However, the Judge reasoned that this issue is of such wide interest to be ideal for the Court’s pilot program of posting such trials. Additionally, most of the witnesses will be campaign officials or academic experts accustomed to speaking in public. Attorneys for the couple challenging the measure feel that court records and proceedings should be public property, and as such support the videotaping of the trial.

The idea of providing video coverage, either live streaming or later posting to a site such as YouTube, is exciting in that people who are interested can actually see what is happening instead of just having to read accounts from people on hand. While television coverage has been available for other courts in the past, it is rare for a federal court to allow viewing of the proceedings. With programs such as this in San Francisco, the mystery surrounding these proceedings can now be exposed, allowing the public to truly understand what is happening in cases of interest such as this.

However, when broadcasting these trials, there is always the interests of the witnesses that need to be protected. It is of no surprise that witnesses supporting Proposition 8 are fearful of harassment based on their testimony. With the use of video broadcasting, even more people will be aware of who these supporters are, leading to greater potential for harassment. Blurring faces or distorting voices will not solve the problem 100% either; viewers will still be able to associate witness names with their actual testimony. As such, it is necessary that issues such as these be considered when deciding whether to allow outside viewing of a trial.

In the end though, the benefits of posting video of this trial seem to outweigh the negatives. There is no doubt that this is an issue of great public interest. Also, with the majority of witnesses being accustomed to public speaking, the addition of video cameras in the courtroom should not be as distracting to them. While there may be some additional harassment of witnesses supporting Proposition 8, it is presumed that much of this trial and the proceedings will be made public record, with or without video of the trial; the addition of video will merely facilitate access to this information that will already be available in the court records.

For the full article from the San Francisco Chronicle, click here.

The trial will commence Monday; once video of the trial is available, it will be found here.