America's 11-judge Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) has made more than a dozen classified rulings that vastly expanded the powers of America's spy agencies, operating under an obscure legal doctrine called "special needs." Under this doctrine, established in 1989 in a Supreme Court case over drug testing railway workers, a "minimal intrusion on privacy" is allowed in order to help the state mitigate "overriding public danger." FISC's rulings have widened this ruling to allow for wholesale spying in the name of preventing "nuclear proliferation," as well as terrorism. The NYT calls this a "shadow Supreme Court" but notes that FISC proceedings only hear from the government — no one presents alternatives to the government's arguments. Much of the expansion of surveillance turns on whether metadata collection is intrusive (I think it is):
The officials said one central concept connects a number of the court's opinions. The judges have concluded that the mere collection of enormous volumes of "metadata" — facts like the time of phone calls and the numbers dialed, but not the content of conversations — does not violate the Fourth Amendment, as long as the government establishes a valid reason under national security regulations before taking the next step of actually examining the contents of an American's communications.
This concept is rooted partly in the "special needs" provision the court has embraced. "The basic idea is that it's O.K. to create this huge pond of data," a third official said, "but you have to establish a reason to stick your pole in the water and start fishing."
Under the new procedures passed by Congress in 2008 in the FISA Amendments Act, even the collection of metadata must be considered "relevant" to a terrorism investigation or other intelligence activities.
The court has indicated that while individual pieces of data may not appear "relevant" to a terrorism investigation, the total picture that the bits of data create may in fact be relevant, according to the officials with knowledge of the decisions.
In Secret, Court Vastly Broadens Powers of N.S.A. [Eric Lichtblau/NYT]
(via Hacker News)