Article III limits the judicial power of the federal courts to certain “Cases” or “Controversies.”1 This, says the Supreme Court, burdens a plaintiff with proving, at the very least, that she has “(1) suffered an injury in fact, (2) that is fairly traceable to the challenged conduct of the defendant, and (3) that is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision.”2 These requirements often set an insurmountably high bar for would-be surveillance plaintiffs, who struggle to prove that they have suffered an “‘injury in fact’ that is ‘certainly impending’” when most of the evidence that would tend to prove that fact is classified.3
To understand why standing has proven to be especially thorny in the surveillance context, it may be useful to begin with a brief primer on the Fourth Amendment as it applies to foreign surveillance. The Fourth Amendment does not protect foreigners located abroad and lacking substantial ties to the United States.4 It does protect a category referred to doctrinally and in this Chapter as “U.S. persons”: American citizens located within U.S. borders, American citizens located abroad, and foreign nationals who are on U.S. soil and have “developed sufficient connection” to the United States.5 There would be no constitutional problem if U.S. persons, who are protected by the Fourth Amendment, never interacted with non-U.S. persons. After all, the government can constitutionally spy on foreigners located abroad without a warrant even when the collection occurs inside the United States and from domestic intermediaries. But the reality is that U.S. persons do interact with non-U.S. persons. This, as we’ll see, complicates the picture.
Consider this hypothetical. Viktor is a foreign national located in Russia. He is a highly placed administrator within the Russian Federal Security Service and has therefore been targeted by the U.S. government for surveillance. The government targets persons under section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act6 (FISA), perhaps the most important statutory authorization for government surveillance today, by “tasking,” or targeting for collection, a “selector,” or a specific phone number, email address, or other communications facility.7 This allows the government to intercept all communications “to” or “from” a selector.8 The government tasks Viktor’s Gmail address. Is this constitutional? So far, so good — Viktor is a foreigner, located abroad, and lacking U.S. ties, and thus may be constitutionally targeted even though Google is a domestic electronic service provider. Viktor has recently begun communicating with Jada, an American journalist, about information at his disposal regarding Russian interference in the U.S. election. They exchange highly sensitive information through emails, including information regarding Jada’s sources or methods. So what happens to Jada’s replies to Viktor?
This is so-called “incidental collection.” The government wouldn’t be able to target Jada directly under section 702 because Jada is an American citizen entitled to the Fourth Amendment’s protections from unreasonable searches and seizures. But the government nonetheless has access to her highly sensitive communications because it is constitutionally targeting her source. Jada strongly suspects, but does not have a way of proving, that her communications may be intercepted, given that Viktor’s position in the Russian government makes it highly likely that he is a section 702 target. What rights does Jada have to challenge the collection? This is the question that this Chapter sets out to answer.
And that answer has grave implications. Most obviously, it implicates the privacy rights of Americans who seek to communicate with foreigners in an increasingly connected world, and their ability to vindicate violations of those rights. And it also bears on the ability of civil society to hold the surveillance state accountable. That answer is not just hypothetical: as discussed later on in this Chapter, the government today incidentally collects the communications of a potentially significant number of U.S. persons, a number it refuses to disclose.9 But the implications don’t end there. As a European high court addressing similar issues of individual standing to challenge surveillance laws put it, “where the domestic system does not afford an effective remedy to the person who suspects that he or she was subjected to secret surveillance, widespread suspicion and concern among the general public that secret surveillance powers are being abused cannot be said to be unjustified.”10 It thus becomes important, for democratic legitimacy if nothing else, to understand precisely who may challenge surveillance laws.
A pair of recent decisions set up a dichotomy in the law of standing to bring constitutional challenges of surveillance. In Clapper v. Amnesty International USA,11 the Supreme Court refused to allow a group of human rights lawyers, journalists, and activists to bring a challenge to a surveillance law because they could not show an injury in fact — that is, they could not demonstrate that they suffered actual harm fairly traceable to the statute.12 But in In re Directives,13 a court allowed Yahoo to assert its users’ constitutional rights and found it had standing to challenge a surveillance law.14 This dichotomy raises the questions: Are technology companies the actors best suited to challenge surveillance laws? Can they always be trusted to do so?
This Chapter argues that the answer to those questions is “no.” After summarizing the law of surveillance and standing in section A, this Chapter in section B explains that technology companies are private businesses, and that while they sometimes may be financially incentivized to resist government surveillance, those same incentives might sometimes lead them to acquiesce to it. Even assuming that technology giants’ interests are always aligned with those of their users, there is no guarantee that companies will continue to have standing to challenge surveillance laws as technology evolves. Users, section C contends, should be allowed to be their own advocates; the law, argues section D, can and should be reformed to reflect that.
The most important statutory authority under which the government conducts surveillance today is section 702 of FISA.15 Section 702, passed in 2008 as part of the FISA Amendments Act,16 significantly expands traditional FISA to allow surveillance of foreigners located abroad and using domestic electronic service providers.17 Though this Chapter focuses on section 702, given the importance of the statute today, it is highly likely that other statutes that present similar questions will come along as technology evolves.
But though most of the examples in this Chapter concern standing to challenge section 702, the standing question is perhaps even more important for a statute that has not yet been passed or actions the government has yet to take. What happens if Congress passes a statute allowing for surveillance of U.S. persons under a constitutionally dubious rationale in a way that ensures the U.S. person never finds out? Who ensures that this law receives review in an adversarial court proceeding? As the following discussion shows, under current law, a technology company may well be the only actor positioned to do so.
1. The Current Statutory Framework. — Congress passed FISA in 1978 in reaction to a congressional investigation that uncovered a history of presidential abuse of warrantless surveillance going back to at least the time of President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration and continuing into the Watergate era.18 Instead of requiring a warrant supported by probable cause to believe the target had committed a crime, FISA allowed the government to get a court order to spy on people located in the United States when it had probable cause to believe they were agents of a foreign power.19 This framework is known as “traditional FISA.” FISA also created the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to review the government’s surveillance applications, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review (FISCR) to review the FISC’s decisions.20
Section 702 grew out of a series of programs that followed the post-9/11 explosion of the surveillance state, which often operated under a patchwork of legal authorities that required the government to “redefin[e]” parts of the traditional FISA statute21 to continue operating. To solve this problem, Congress passed the Protect America Act22 (PAA) in 2007.23 The PAA was the statute at issue in In re Directives.24 When the PAA expired in 2008, Congress passed the FISA Amendments Act, codified in relevant part as section 702, to act as a more permanent fix.25
The PAA, and section 702 after it, differed from traditional FISA in several crucial respects. Instead of requiring the government to seek an individualized court order supported by probable cause that the target was an agent of a foreign power, the statute allowed the government to authorize surveillance on its own so long as the right procedures were in place.26 The statute also changed the substance of what the government was required to prove — instead of showing that a proposed target was the agent of a foreign power, it now had to show that it had reason to believe the target was located abroad.27
Under section 702, the government “adopt[s] targeting and minimization procedures consistent with the statutory requirements.”28 The government then submits to the FISC certifications detailing these procedures and making statutorily required attestations, such as that “a significant purpose of the acquisition is to obtain foreign intelligence information.”29 FISC’s role in reviewing these certifications is limited: FISC must approve them if the statute’s requirements are met.30 Though the statute prohibits the intentional targeting of U.S. persons except as consistent with traditional FISA,31 the NSA has interpreted section 702 to allow collection of communications “to” or “from” a target.32 As described in this Chapter’s introduction, that means that when U.S. persons communicate with section 702 targets, the government incidentally collects their communications, leaving them vulnerable to government abuse. In 2009, the FISA court allowed “the FBI to keep and use its own copy of certain raw messages collected under” section 702.33 “Agents gained the power to search the database using the names of Americans whom they were scrutinizing, including for unrelated criminal investigations, and read any messages by those Americans that were swept up incidentally and without a warrant.”34 In 2011, the FISC also allowed the NSA and CIA to search the incidental collections database, though those agencies needed to have a foreign intelligence purpose when searching.35
Though section 702 also directs the government to follow minimization procedures, there’s a loophole: when the NSA determines that these incidentally collected communications may contain evidence of an ordinary crime, it may retain and share them with the relevant law enforcement agencies.36 So to return to our journalist and source: suppose Jada emailed Viktor information about recently leaked, highly classified documents detailing a meeting between a U.S. government official and a Russian spy — Jada is hoping that Viktor will know the identity of the Russian spy. Jada’s actions in receiving the leaked documents and transmitting them to a foreigner may constitute a crime.37 An NSA analyst reviewing these communications may legally decide to retain Jada’s emails and transmit them to the relevant law enforcement agency.
There are no available statistics for how many Americans have had their communications incidentally collected under section 702 — the NSA has consistently refused to disclose that number.38 But we do know that the government targets over 100,000 people for surveillance — meaning that there are 100,000 “Viktors” out there for the “Jadas” of the world to be talking to.39 And in 2014, the Washington Post analyzed a “cache of intercepted conversations [provided by] former NSA contractor Edward Snowden” and found that nine out of ten account holders involved in the conversations were not the intended targets.40
So while we don’t know the extent of the problem, we do know this: it is real, and the mass of incidentally collected data on U.S. persons lies about like a loaded gun just waiting for the wrong actor to shoot it, resulting in serious government abuse of Americans’ privacy rights. Congress recently reauthorized section 702 for another six years.41 The new bill has been heavily criticized by civil liberties activists for failing to protect Americans whose information has been incidentally collected, and it does not address any of the standing challenges involved in bringing section 702 litigation.42 In fact, civil liberties advocates have slammed the reauthorization bill for potentially increasing the amount of incidental collections of Americans’ communications.43 It therefore becomes more important to know just who can challenge section 702.
2. Standing and Technology Companies. — In a recent article, Professor Alan Rozenshtein points out an important dichotomy: due to the FISCR’s decision in In re Directives and the Supreme Court’s decision in Clapper, technology companies have standing to challenge surveillance laws that individual plaintiffs do not.44 The reason for this, this section explains, is the difference in the nature of the harms asserted: because the company could assert its burden of compliance as cognizable injury, it attained Article III standing where the users could not.
(a) In re Directives to Yahoo! Inc., Pursuant to Section 105B of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. — The first case concerned a challenge by Yahoo to directives issued under the PAA targeting foreigners located abroad to gather foreign intelligence.45 Yahoo refused to comply with the directives.46 After the FISC ruled against it,47 Yahoo challenged its decision in front of the FISCR. Yahoo did not argue that the directives violated any of its own rights as an entity; rather, it challenged the directives as illegally violating its users’ Fourth Amendment rights.48 Despite the general rule “that litigants ordinarily cannot bring suit to vindicate the rights of third parties,”49 the FISCR explained, it is also commonly accepted that Congress, so long as other constitutional standing requirements (injury, causation, and redressability) are satisfied, may allow a party to bring a lawsuit asserting the rights of others.50
Writing for the FISCR, Judge Selya51 wrote that Yahoo “easily exceeds the constitutional threshold for standing.”52 Yahoo was injured because the government’s directives burdened it with “facilitat[ing] the government’s surveillances of its customers.”53 That injury was “obviously and indisputably caused by the government’s directives,” and the FISCR is able to redress that injury54 — presumably through invalidating the directives. Thus, the remaining question was whether the PAA authorized the challenge. The PAA specified that a company could challenge a directive’s legality in the FISC and appeal to the FISCR.55 The court found the statute’s language to be “broad enough” to permit service provider challenges “regardless of whether the provider or one of its customers suffers the infringement that makes the directive unlawful.”56 Thus, it found, Yahoo had standing to challenge the PAA.57
The court then turned to the merits question: whether the PAA violated the Fourth Amendment. Because the PAA has been “applied to [Yahoo] in a specific setting,”58 the FISCR declined to consider Yahoo’s suit as a facial challenge, opting instead to determine whether the PAA was “unconstitutional as implemented here.”59 It found that it was not. The FISCR recognized a “foreign intelligence exception” to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement: so long as the surveillance was “undertaken for national security purposes and directed at a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power reasonably believed to be located outside the United States,” the government did not need a search warrant.60
But the directives still needed to clear the Fourth Amendment’s reasonableness standard to be constitutional. The court balanced the government’s interests against those of “targeted persons.”61 The court found that the targeting procedures were sufficiently narrowly tailored to minimize accidental targeting of unauthorized targets.62 It then turned to the question of whether the PAA could violate the rights of nontargeted U.S. persons through incidental collection.63 The FISCR found the concern over incidental collection “overblown.”64 The government, the FISCR wrote, assured the court that “it does not maintain a database of incidentally collected information from nontargeted U.S. persons, and there is no evidence to the contrary.”65 Following a largely redacted portion of the opinion, the court rejected one argument of the petitioner as premature, since “petitioner has not yet experienced the type of harm about which it complains.”66 The “bare possibility” of the redacted unlawful acquisition was not enough for the court to grant relief.67 The court therefore upheld the PAA.
In re Directives “ma[de] new law” when it recognized the foreign intelligence surveillance exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.68 But although it ruled against the company on the merits, it also, as Rozenshtein notes, was an early case that found a technology company had standing to assert its users’ rights.69
(b) Clapper v. Amnesty International USA. — In Clapper, the plaintiffs were “attorneys and human rights, labor, legal, and media organizations” who believed that their sources, clients, or colleagues were likely targets of section 702 surveillance.70 Because of the threat of government surveillance, the plaintiffs claimed, they had to take costly measures to maintain their privacy — including adopting technological evasion measures, traveling abroad to have the conversations in person, or just ending certain kinds of communications altogether.71 In an opinion by Justice Alito,72 the Supreme Court held that this harm was too speculative to constitute an injury in fact for the purposes of the standing doctrine.73 An injury must be imminent to be cognizable, Justice Alito said, and that meant it had to be “certainly impending.”74
The plaintiffs could not establish standing to challenge the law because their theory of standing “relie[d] on a highly attenuated chain of possibilities” which did not “satisfy the requirement that threatened injury must be certainly impending.”75 For one, the plaintiffs couldn’t prove the government had or would ever target someone with whom the plaintiffs regularly communicated.76 At most, they could show that section 702 authorized that surveillance, but not that it “mandate[d] or direct[ed] it.”77 Another problem was that multiple laws authorized the government to target the foreigners located abroad whom plaintiffs were communicating with: even if the plaintiffs could show that those communications were intercepted, they could “only speculate” as to which law the government would use when doing so.78 Justice Alito noted that the plaintiffs’ theory of standing required the Court to assume that the FISA court would allow the government to target plaintiffs’ foreign contacts.79 The Court has been “reluctan[t] to endorse standing theories that rest on speculation about the decisions of independent actors.”80
The Court also declined to find standing based on the measures plaintiffs had taken to avoid detection: costs did not change the fact that “the harm that they s[ought] to avoid [wa]s not certainly impending.”81 To hold otherwise, Justice Alito said, would allow plaintiffs to meet the “actual or imminent” burden with a showing of a subjective fear that is not entirely far-fetched for the mere “price of a plane ticket.”82 Plaintiffs also “had a similar incentive to engage in . . . countermeasures” before section 702 was enacted, leading the Court to conclude that their costs were “simply the product of their fear of surveillance” in general.83 The Court also rejected the plaintiffs’ reliance on cases that found a “chilling effect” on a regulated party to be a sufficiently cognizable injury; the plaintiffs mischaracterized the cases, it said, and they also could not assert a “chilling effect” when the chill was subjective and not substantiated by concrete facts about the government’s actions.84
Finally, the Court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that declining to find standing in a case like Clapper would leave section 702, and laws like it, effectively unchallengeable.85 Justice Alito explained that even if that were true, that wouldn’t be a reason to find standing.86 And section 702 was also reviewable in other ways through processes specified in the statute.87 But even outside those mechanisms, other parties still had standing to challenge the statute: citing In re Directives, Justice Alito noted that “electronic communications service provider[s] that the Government directs to assist in [section 702] surveillance may challenge the lawfulness of that directive before the FISC.”88 Thus, the Court held, the plaintiffs had no standing to challenge the suit.
Justice Breyer dissented.89 He found that there was a “very high likelihood” that the government, acting under section 702, would “intercept at least some of [plaintiffs’] communications.”90 “[T]hat degree of certainty,” he said, was sufficient for standing purposes.91 The Constitution requires only a standard of “reasonable” or “high probability” of an actual injury: Justice Breyer would have applied that standard to find that the plaintiffs had standing.92
These two decisions have set up a dichotomy. In Clapper, the Court refused to allow members of civil society whose communications were likely to be intercepted by government surveillance to challenge the law, because the harm (interception) was too speculative without specific facts showing that the government (1) actually intercepted their communications, and (2) did so under the surveillance law being challenged. At the same time, the court in In re Directives found that a technology company had standing to assert those very same users’ rights in challenging a surveillance law. The Supreme Court’s decision in Clapper reaffirmed that holding in dicta.93 In fact, it seemingly relied on technology companies’ ability to challenge the law as an effective substitute for direct challenge by consumers when it said that declining to find standing in Clapper did not leave the law effectively unchallengeable.94
That is important. The two other avenues offered by the Court as alternative paths to judicial review will, in many cases, be inadequate to ensure real judicial oversight over the constitutionality of surveillance law. The first one, FISCR review, while more robust now than it has been, is deeply flawed. The USA FREEDOM Act of 201595 (Freedom Act) created an “amicus curiae,” or a court-appointed advocate to make arguments to the FISC when it considers novel questions of law.96 But aside from the amici, proceedings in front of the FISC remain ex parte; the amicus’s role is limited to the questions certified to it by the FISC or FISCR, and they are not required to give input on questions of whether FISCR review is necessary.97 And while the FISC’s certification processes are not exactly “rubber stamping” applications, few applications are denied or even modified.98 The second avenue — the government’s notice obligations in criminal prosecutions — also leaves much to be desired. To begin, the government has not always complied with its notice obligations.99 Though the Solicitor General in Clapper cited the government’s disclosure obligations in criminal prosecutions as a potential avenue for standing, the government, at the time, had “never given . . . notice to any criminal defendant” even though the law had been operating for six years.100 Some also worry that the nature of foreign intelligence information leaves the door open to parallel construction, or reconstructing FISA-obtained information through conventional investigative tools, thus allowing the government to avoid having to give notice of its use of FISA-obtained information (and preventing that defendant from having standing to challenge its constitutionality).101
That leaves the third avenue offered by Justice Alito: challenges by technology companies. If technology companies are the only actors who have standing to challenge some surveillance laws, the question must be asked: should they be? That is, can technology companies be trusted to zealously advocate for consumers’ Fourth Amendment rights, and are they the actors best suited to shoulder that responsibility?
1. Technology Companies’ Incentives. — Rozenshtein argues that technology companies “have powerful incentives to resist government surveillance” in the wake of the Snowden revelations.102 He lays out two types of incentives. The first is cost: aside from lowering companies’ costs of compliance with government surveillance, “resistance [is] an opportunity for product differentiation.”103 A foreign company competing with American service providers might “lobby for old-fashioned protectionism” in its home country by presenting American companies as tools of the U.S. surveillance state, and resisting surveillance at home is one way to counter that perception.104 U.S. companies might also be financially required to resist surveillance because of foreign regulators. Indeed, as Rozenshtein writes, these incentives are “not merely theoretical”: the European Court of Justice’s (ECJ) decision in Schrems v. Data Protection Commissioner,105 invalidating a European-American agreement on cross-border data flows based on privacy concerns, threatened to cost American companies billions.106
The second set of incentives put forth by Rozenshtein is ideological. Many in Silicon Valley, Rozenshtein argues, subscribe to the “Californian Ideology,” or a “countercultural,” “laissez-faire,” and “libertarian” approach to life and work that is fundamentally incompatible with the surveillance state.107 Though individual engineers and managers might not have the Californian ideology, managers still have the incentive to maintain the façade for “recruiting and morale purposes.”108
Rozenshtein does acknowledge that Silicon Valley’s incentives to resist surveillance are not unshakable. Companies in the past have been complicit with extensive government surveillance, shown willingness to trade in user data, and enabled government surveillance through creating the infrastructure.109 Rozenshtein acknowledges the possibility that resistance to surveillance is a “pendulum [that] may well swing back,” but he argues that companies present resistance to government surveillance that makes them worth studying as intermediaries.110
That might be true, but it doesn’t answer the normative questions: When the avenues of challenging surveillance directly are so limited for members of American civil society, is the fact that technology companies are able to challenge surveillance enough? Will the incentives that brought Yahoo to challenge the directives it received under the PAA hold, or will the “pendulum swing back” and leave companies with the ability but without the will to challenge surveillance laws? It well may. While technology companies have financial incentives to challenge surveillance, they also have powerful financial incentives not to. They are rational actors: when it is worth their while to resist surveillance, they will. But especially in the standing arena, it is easy to see instances in which it will not be worth their while.
Above all, “technology companies want to create and sell products and services in order to make as much profit as possible and increase market share, and eventually attain market dominance in core and new markets.”116 Sometimes, those activities will be better served by complying with the law; at other times, those activities will require some resistance and effort to change existing law. “Pre-Snowden, these companies arguably benefited from a closer degree of complicity with the U.S. government, which promoted their products and services as tools to further U.S. foreign policy democracy.”117 But after the Snowden revelations, companies had to convince their customers both domestically and abroad “of their independence from the U.S. government” — because it was financially beneficial for them to do so.118
That doesn’t mean that technology companies haven’t, on the whole, done more to protect privacy in the post-Snowden landscape than they have to hinder it. That is only to say that they might not always do so. It is to say that technology companies are large, complex entities that are subject to government regulation and that have contractual relationships with the federal government, and that might therefore make decisions on whether to align with government interests with their regulatory interests and contractual relationships in mind.119 Indeed, most American technology giants do not interface with the government only over surveillance battles. Rather, these companies are repeat players. They spend millions lobbying the government on a whole range of issues — for instance, one analysis found that major tech players lobby the government on as many as a hundred issues a year.120 To take a snapshot in time, at least one observer noted that technology companies were “largely absent” from the debate over section 702 renewal taking place in Washington in mid-2017.121 But Washington in late 2017 was also debating possible tax reforms — tax reforms from which technology giants stand to see massive gains.122 It is impossible to say whether Silicon Valley’s silence over section 702 reform can be attributed directly to its interests in currying favor with lawmakers who were reforming the tax code. But it is enough, perhaps, to note that we would not be asking this question of individual consumers, who are not repeat players and therefore do not have longstanding and unrelated regulatory interests they must consider in challenging surveillance policies or bringing a lawsuit. Sometimes, then, it will be more financially beneficial for companies to challenge government surveillance. Sometimes it will not. And when the doors to the federal courts are open only to the technology companies, “usually but not always” isn’t good enough.
This is especially true because technology companies’ incentives to assert standing in the kind of challenge brought in Clapper aren’t always the same as they are to challenge other forms of surveillance overreach. For instance, some commentators point to the scale of loss companies suffered when the ECJ invalidated the U.S.-E.U. Safe Harbor framework for data sharing, and the companies’ resulting advocacy for Privacy Shield, as an example of financial incentives causing technology companies to advocate for increased privacy protections.123 But the ECJ’s decision wasn’t motivated by concern for Americans’ rights — it was motivated by concern for Europeans, whom the American government can constitutionally spy on.124 There is no ECJ to put its thumb on the scale for Americans at home — and since an American technology company is likely to lose a challenge trying to vindicate the Fourth Amendment rights of foreigners located abroad (as Yahoo lost in In re Directives), it might not have the same incentive to bring a challenge to vindicate Americans’ rights as it would to appease European regulators.
As for the view that American consumers will drive technology companies to stand up to improper government surveillance, the fact is that the scale of market penetration by major technology companies makes it difficult for the market to punish companies for not adequately resisting government surveillance. Sixty-nine percent of American internet users are active on Facebook.125 While users may say they care about privacy, they’re ultimately more likely to prize convenience in their choice of online platforms.126 What seems more likely to happen is market fractionalization: a minority of users who prioritize privacy move to privacy-friendly platforms like Signal, with those that don’t staying on the major platforms. Economic incentives, therefore, seem insufficient to ensure that companies zealously advocate for users’ rights.
(b) The Shield of Secrecy. — The secrecy with which intelligence work is conducted impacts the extent to which companies have financial incentives to advocate for more privacy, insulating them from market consequences for compliance. Proceedings before the FISC are classified and largely ex parte, meaning that the work of constructing and interpreting surveillance law takes place largely out of the public eye and without public input.127 The Freedom Act reformed some of that through requiring the FISC to declassify significant opinions.128 However, the government has been reluctant to retroactively declassify pre–Freedom Act opinions,129 and the law leaves the FISC with discretion on whether to declassify an entire opinion or only a redacted or summarized version of it.130 That discretion is a shield. For instance, the FISC issued its first post–Freedom Act ruling allowing the NSA to collect telephone records on December 31, 2015. The order, declassified in April 2016, was redacted of a key piece of information: the names of the telecommunications providers who were the target of it.131
Classified proceedings are only the beginning of the problem. Most surveillance orders to companies, including, for instance, National Security Letters (NSLs) — a kind of administrative subpoena under which the government can elicit very revealing records — are often accompanied by gag orders.132 The constitutionality of collecting electronic communications transactional records (ECTRs), or the kind of revealing noncontent information that the government gets through NSLs, is outside the scope of this Chapter. For our purposes, the important fact is that there is a debate over their constitutionality, and they thus implicate the same problem as section 702 — the inability of users who don’t know about surveillance to challenge its constitutionality. Though companies sometimes challenge these gag orders — as Facebook recently did133 — the decision to challenge a gag order and reveal to the users that their communications are being monitored is at the company’s own discretion. As such, the company has the option of insulating itself from the kind of financial incentive structure Rozenshtein describes, or from any public pressure. The Department of Justice (DOJ) recently settled a lawsuit by Microsoft about the constitutionality of gag orders.134 As part of the settlement, DOJ agreed to adopt guidelines on the use of gag orders, vowing to end their routine use.135 But the policy does not apply to FISC orders or NSLs, leaving the door open to continued abuse of the gag order process in the national security arena to insulate companies from disclosure.136
That secrecy is why companies, for decades, complied with surveillance orders with few consequences.137 Of course, given the frequency of surveillance leaks, companies run the risk that their acquiescence with surveillance will be leaked — as Rozenshtein points out, a key legacy of the Snowden disclosures is breaking the veil of secrecy behind technology company compliance with secret surveillance orders.138 But not every instance of compliance will leak, if only because of the law of large numbers. In the last six months of 2016, Google received between 0 and 499 NSLs implicating between 1000 and 1499 users or accounts.139 In the same reporting period, Google received between 500 and 999 FISA requests for content implicating between 35,000 and 35,499 users or accounts.140 The sheer number of requests makes accountability through public shaming and leaks impractical on a macro scale. And indeed, as discussed above, it is doubtful there is much consumer elasticity even in response to major leaks (due to technology giants’ market penetration).141 Secrecy thus serves, at least partially, to insulate companies from the consequences of complying with the surveillance state.
Whatever incentives technology companies might have to protect users’ rights, no one is more suited to assert the violation of a right than the person whose right has been violated. Facebook itself admitted this in a recent case. In Facebook v. United States,142 Facebook challenged a nondisclosure order that prevented it from telling users that the government was seeking access to their private Facebook accounts.143 Facebook fought the order, leading the D.C. Court of Appeals to allow it to solicit public input from civil society advocates.144 Notably, Facebook did not contest the underlying constitutionality of the warrants,145 although it would have had standing to do so under In re Directives. Rather, it sought to “vacate the NDO so that it could provide its users with notice of the Warrants and an opportunity to object to them before Facebook produced responsive records to the government.”146 In its amicus brief, the ACLU argued that here, “[a]s in many cases, the users are the people best positioned to show why execution of the warrants would infringe their constitutional rights before the fact of production has effectuated the very harms the First and Fourth Amendments are meant to prevent.”147 But they cannot do so without notice.
Nor should companies necessarily have to shoulder the burden. In its brief in Facebook, the ACLU observed that “[i]t would be unreasonable to expect Facebook, with more than 150 million users in the United States, and other companies, most of which have far fewer resources, to challenge every overbroad warrant served for user information.”148 That is true. Companies are not civil liberties organizations. They do not exist to advance their users’ civil rights. When users’ rights happen to intersect with a company’s financial interests, the company should certainly assert those rights for the mutual benefit of the company and users. But when they don’t, there is no reason to think a technology company can and should be responsible for its users’ rights.
1. A World Without Intermediaries. — There is no guarantee that a user asserting a constitutional claim would find a more favorable outcome than a company asserting that user’s claim under the same set of facts. Some suspect that standing decisions “in close cases may be guided more by the courts’ instincts toward the merits than by an independent determination of the parties’ eligibility to invoke jurisdiction.”149 Thus, it might be argued that it is irrelevant who brings the challenge once it is brought: the outcome will be the same regardless. But even if the outcome would be the same on the merits, or even if a technology company would be more likely to succeed,150 there may be cases where only an individual could bring the suit in the first place.
It is a point worth making that it is, essentially, a coincidence of technology that companies can even serve as intermediaries in this space. That is, the only reason that companies have standing to challenge the law is that the government is technologically incapable of collecting the foreign intelligence information it seeks without issuing directives to companies. Consider this hypothetical: Pursuant to a law passed by Congress, the government selects a U.S. person at random once a week and collects her information, using technology that is not reliant on any company’s cooperation, without probable cause. This person never finds out. Is this a clearly unconstitutional action? Yes. But who can challenge it? Like in Clapper, we would know to a virtual certainty that there is a class of people who are being harmed as a result of a constitutionally questionable government action. But also like in Clapper, we have no way of knowing who these people are. Even people who, based on press leaks or the hypothetical lottery’s targeting practices, believe that they are being targeted by the program could not prove a “threatened injury” that is “certainly impending” — like the Clapper plaintiffs, they would have no actual knowledge of any specific facts in support of their constitutional claim of harm.151
As the Clapper Court noted, doctrinally, the fact that if “respondents have no standing to sue, no one would have standing to sue, is not a reason to find standing.”152 But as a matter of policy, it should perhaps trouble us that one of the few mechanisms for judicial review of programmatic government surveillance turns on the technological exigencies of a particular mode of surveillance in a world of rapidly evolving technology.153 The world in which intermediaries are not necessary for government surveillance may be far off; given the omnipresence of technology in facilitating our communications, it might never exist. But it may just as easily be closer than we think. Indeed, there’s some evidence that the government is already developing surveillance capabilities that allow it to intercept communications without the aid of service providers, though the process is expensive and time-consuming.154 If the government develops that capability and deploys it in a way that infringes on U.S. persons’ constitutional rights, our system is not equipped to ensure this practice is reviewed for its constitutionality in an adversarial court.
If technology companies cannot always be trusted (or might not always be able) to bring suits on behalf of consumers, then what is required to make sure that the constitutionality of surveillance laws has its day in court? One answer may be “more information.” The problem in Clapper was, in a sense, evidentiary: someone, somewhere might be experiencing the kind of harm that would have led the Court to find an injury in fact, but the plaintiffs could not prove that this someone was in fact them. More rigorous disclosure requirements might make it easier for plaintiffs to bridge that evidentiary gap, thus allowing them to bring their own challenges. This solution will, understandably, likely prove quite unpopular with the intelligence community — while the government undoubtedly keeps many more secrets than it needs to,155 a lot of surveillance is highly classified for a good reason, and it would likely be too tall an order to ask for individual surveillance decisions (of the kind that would be needed to confer standing on any one plaintiff) to be more regularly disclosed.156 A middle ground may be found in procedural rights cases. In a number of contexts, Congress has essentially relaxed the normal Article III requirement of an injury in fact by creating a procedural right that may be vindicated in court.157 One might imagine a statute granting a right to constitutional review of surveillance decisions, or a right to know whether one was unconstitutionally surveilled, that could be asserted by anyone and vindicated in court.
Another, similar option would be to adopt a legal fiction used in other legal contexts to vindicate other kinds of unknowable harms. The standing problem in surveillance cases boils down to the information gap: who has standing to challenge a law when the person who is truly harmed by it does not know it, nor has the capacity to know it?158 But courts have come up with an answer to that question in other contexts. Think of what happens when the rights of children end up in court. An infant does not have the ability to truly know whether she is being harmed. But in that situation, courts often appoint a “guardian ad litem” to argue for the best interests of the child. The idea that there is a meeting of the minds between the child and the attorney is, at best, a legal fiction: the advocate makes an argument for the best interests of the child not based on any of the child’s stated desires but rather on the advocate’s assessment of the law and the facts before him. A court could do the same in the surveillance context — that is, appoint an advocate for the person whose rights are being violated but who doesn’t have access to the necessary information.159 This, admittedly, doesn’t solve the problem that section B identifies: there is still an information gap that could lead to a different outcome on the merits. But it still, at the very least, ensures that an advocate whose interests (unlike a technology company’s) are always aligned with that of the harmed party is available to bring a facial challenge to the court’s attention.160
A final possibility may involve the courts themselves. The Second Circuit below as well as the dissenters in Clapper both offered an alternate formulation of a standard for standing: whether there is a reasonable probability of harm.161 The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), for instance, has said that a plaintiff may establish victim status even if he has not shown that he was in fact impacted by the challenged law and even if domestic remedies are available if he is able to show that “due to his personal situation, he is potentially at risk of being subjected to” the challenged measure.162 If the Supreme Court were to move away from the Clapper majority’s approach and adopt a similar standard, individual plaintiffs would have a far easier time establishing standing in surveillance cases. Though this would require overruling or distinguishing Clapper, the Court showed willingness to do so in the opinion itself: in a footnote, Justice Alito noted that precedent does “not uniformly require plaintiffs to demonstrate that it is literally certain that the harms they identify will come about,” but that the Clapper plaintiffs failed to meet even that “substantial risk” standard.163 Were the Court willing, this footnote could be a pathway toward “soft[ening] the impact” of Clapper’s seemingly strict test.164
Let’s return to our journalist and her source. The government has lawfully targeted communications to or from Viktor, a highly placed Russian intelligence official with knowledge on Russia’s effort to hack the U.S. election — unbeknownst to Journalist Jada, who often communicates with Viktor. As section A of this Chapter explains, Jada can’t challenge the collection under the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence in Clapper. But her service provider, Google, might be able to do so under the FISCR’s decision in In re Directives. Can Jada trust Google to challenge the government’s actions on her behalf? Section B of this Chapter argues that she cannot. Because technology giants like Google are companies, and thus have incentives that are much different than Jada’s own, they may choose not to challenge the surveillance state when it suits them. And as technology develops, service providers like Google, section C notes, may be dealt out of the equation altogether — leaving Jada with no recourse to challenge the government’s actions. As section D argues, some reforms could remedy the situation. For instance, if the court were to adopt a probabilistic definition of “injury,” as has the ECHR, Jada could bring a suit and assert her rights.
Technology companies are not angels, nor are they demons. They are just that — companies. Though an accident of technology and standing doctrine has put them in a place where they can vindicate rights not available to their users, they cannot, nor should they be expected to, act as faithful stewards of their users’ rights in all places and at all times. The incentives are too misaligned, the burdens too great, and the risks of underenforcement too high for the courthouse’s doors to be open exclusively to a company when its users are left outside. And that is precisely where the current jurisprudence of standing has left the courthouse doors: closed to users, who instead are dependent on technology companies to advocate for them in an age of ever-growing surveillance. Whatever shape reform takes, it ought to be cognizant of that.
Developments in the Law — More Data, More Problems, 131 Harv. L. Rev. 1715, 1722 (2018).