Legal Archetypes and Metadata Collection

Wisconsin International Law Review 34 (4):823-853 (2017)
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Abstract
In discussions of state surveillance, the values of privacy and security are often set against one another, and people often ask whether privacy is more important than national security.2 I will argue that in one sense privacy is more important than national security. Just what more important means is its own question, though, so I will be more precise. I will argue that national security rationales cannot by themselves justify some kinds of encroachments on individual privacy (including some kinds that the United States has conducted). Specifically, I turn my attention to a recent, well publicized, and recently amended statute (section 215 of the USA Patriot Act3), a surveillance program based on that statute (the National Security Agency’s bulk metadata collection program), and a recent change to that statute that addresses some of the public controversy surrounding the surveillance program (the USA Freedom Act).4 That process (a statute enabling surveillance, a program abiding by that statute, a public controversy, and a change in the law) looks like a paradigm case of law working as it should; but I am not so sure. While the program was plausibly legal, I will argue that it was morally and legally unjustifiable. Specifically, I will argue that the interpretations of section 215 that supported the program violate what Jeremy Waldron calls “legal archetypes,”5 and that changes to the law illustrate one of the central features of legal archetypes and violation of legal archetypes. The paper proceeds as follows: I begin in Part 1 by setting out what I call the “basic argument” in favor of surveillance programs. This is strictly a moral argument about the conditions under which surveillance in the service of national security can be justified. In Part 2, I turn to section 215 and the bulk metadata surveillance program based on that section. I will argue that the program was plausibly legal, though based on an aggressive, envelope-pushing interpretation of the statute. I conclude Part 2 by describing the USA Freedom Act, which amends section 215 in important ways. In Part 3, I change tack. Rather than offering an argument for the conditions under which surveillance is justified (as in Part 1), I use the discussion of the legal interpretations underlying the metadata program to describe a key ambiguity in the basic argument, and to explain a distinct concern in the program. Specifically that it undermines a legal archetype. Moreover, while the USA Freedom Act does not violate legal archetypes, and hence meets a condition for justifiability, it helps illustrate why the bulk metadata program did violate archetypes.
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