Have you ever attended a presentation at the CATO Institute when the "other side" was not represented?
Until this past week.
After the fourth of July, it was the Fourth Amendment* to the U.S. Constitution and "digital privacy" which drew attention from about 100 who came to hear four panelists, one keynote speaker, and a moderator discuss government snooping on its citizens, and the critical need to update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.
The way the U.S. government interprets the law, without a warrant it can sneak, peek, and keep private communications which are stored "in the cloud."
The law remained current about a nanosecond after it passed Congress and was signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.
Although 220 members of Congress endorse reform of the ECPA, proposals languish on Capitol Hill because..."the government wants to read your email without you knowing it, and that's why legislation is stalled. That's it," said Katie McAuliffe, the executive director of Digital Liberty, Americans for Tax Reform, and a panel member.
"It's gotten to the point of absurdity," Greg Nojeim, another panelist and senior counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, said. Ms. McAuliffe echoed: "It's absurd."
The right of government to track citizens by "location information" on cell phones and towers will be decided by "the Supremes" quicker than Congress will act, Mr. Nojeim predicted, noting that the courts have issued different opinions on the matter. Digital searches are many times more pervasive than wiretaps, he said.
Before the panelists discussed, Congressman Ted Poe (R-TX) gave a short presentation and history of the Fourth Amendment, and brought along a placard with the amendment spelled out, which stood on an easel nearby.
If vision was blocked, but probably to emphasize the content, Mr. Poe read the amendment out loud and frequently cited the wording in his talk which the panelists did, also.
Mr. Poe, a former prosecutor and criminal court judge in Houston, said that based on his experience, government spying is government oppression: "Law enforcement will always push the envelope to get their way," he said.
The National Security Agency violates the Patriot Act with its snooping. "We don't know what they have, and they won't tell us....Government seizure of information on citizens" violates the Fourth Amendment, and he read again some of the amendment to the audience.
Americans are weary of hearing that old, tired refrain: Rights must be relinquished to protect national safety and security, Mr. Poe said.
Mr. Nojeim has "lived in Washington a long time, and I have never seen" an issue which has produced as much consensus among disparate groups (he named the ACLU and Americans for Tax Reform).
"It is really amazing," he said and mentioned a website devoted to citizens' privacy protections: Digital Due Process.org.
Responding to a question from an audience member, no members of the panel knew of any challenges in the courts to the government's claim of "ownership" of letters mailed in the U.S. Postal System. In other words, because a sender "gives" her letter to the U.S. Postal Service to mail, the government then "owns" it and can track it, which it does.
Julian Sanchez, senior fellow at CATO and the event's moderator, said the CIA routinely tracks and analyzes snail mail.
Earlier, Mr. Poe said he was working to pass this year new legislation on citizen privacy. Email should receive stronger privacy protection than a letter snail mailed since the government does not have legitimate possession of email, he said.
Mr. Sanchez reported that in a recent six-month period the government sent Google almost 8,000 requests for user data for more than 16,000 accounts.
If anyone in the audience disagreed with the tone of the discussion, if anyone meant to defend the government, or to endorse government snooping, if anyone favored the idea, that person(s) remained silent. Perhaps, the NSA was too busy taking notes.
Edward Snowden's name never came up during the 90-minute presentation.
Also on the panel were attorneys David Lieber from Google and Nate Jones from Microsoft.
*The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.