The End of Probable Cause

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This is excellent news for FBI agents who might want to misuse Bureau resources to see if their wife is having an affair:

The Obama administration is seeking to make it easier for the FBI to compel companies to turn over records of an individual’s Internet activity without a court order if agents deem the information relevant to a terrorism or intelligence investigation.

The administration wants to add just four words — “electronic communication transactional records” — to a list of items that the law says the FBI may demand without a judge’s approval. Government lawyers say this category of information includes the addresses to which an Internet user sends e-mail; the times and dates e-mail was sent and received; and possibly a user’s browser history. It does not include, the lawyers hasten to point out, the “content” of e-mail or other Internet communication.

Of course, checking out someone’s browser history could be very useful in a terrorism investigation. But if I had some kind of cause—probable cause, let’s say—to suspect someone of involvement in terrorism, I could just get a warrant. If I want to see whether my wife has a secret Match.com account, by contrast, I’m going to need some kind of authority to compel private companies to divulge this information without me needing to explain myself to a judge.

FBI personnel are, I’m sure, overwhelmingly decent and honorable people whose subjective understanding is that they want to use these enhanced powers for legitimate purposes. But who among us, when being honest, has never misused work resources a bit for personal purposes? Everyone slacks off on the job. Everyone has moments of prurient interest in the lives of other people. Taking the gloves off, surveillance-wise, is much more likely to lead to abusive behavior than to super-awesome counterterrorism operations.