Archive for the ‘Surveillance State’ Category

Must we choose between the right to travel and the right to remain silent?

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

When US citizen Jonathan Corbett checked in at Heathrow Airport in London for an American Airlines flight to New York last December, he was questioned by an airline employee or contractor (it’s often impossible to tell which are which) about his travel outside the US:

When questions changed from, “Where are you flying?” to “Was your trip for personal or business purposes,” and “Where were you since you left America,” I asked if the questions were necessary, and was told yes.

Mr. Corbett was eventually allowed to board his flight without answering these questions. But he followed up first with the airline, which referred him to the TSA, and then with the TSA itself.

Both AA and the TSA said that the questioning is part of a TSA-mandated “security program”. While AA and the TSA both claimed that most details of this program are secret, the TSA “Office of Global Strategies Communications Desk” (OGSCommunications@tsa.dhs.gov) told Mr. Corbett that answering the questions is a condition of boarding a flight to the US:

As part of its Transportation Security Administration (TSA)-approved security program, American Airlines is required to conduct a security interview of passengers prior to departure to the United States… If a passenger declines the security inteview, American Airlines will deny the passenger boarding. The contents of the security program and the security interview are considered Sensitive Security Information (SSI) … and its contents are not for public disclosure. Any security procedure performed by the airline would be because of a requirement in their program.

Yesterday, Mr. Corbett filed suit against the TSA in both the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York (which has jurisdiction over Kennedy Airport in Queens, where his flight arrived in the US) and in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals (which has jurisdiction over Florida, where Mr. Corbett resides).  Perverse judicial precedents including those in Mr. Corbett’s own previous lawsuits require most lawsuits against TSA practices to be filed simultaneously in both District and Circuit Courts, to avoid a risk of being dismissed on jurisdictional grounds.

Mr. Corbett’s lawsuit directly challenges the requirement for a traveler to answer questions (i.e. to waive his or her Firth Amendment right to remain silent) as a condition of the exercise of the rifght to travel, specifically the right of a US citizen to return to the US.

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Feds aggregating license-plate scans to track vehicles and people in real time

Friday, February 6th, 2015

We’ve talked a lot about government surveillance and control of air travelers, and occasionally about its extension to bus and train travel.  (Our FOIA request about this to Amtrak remains unanswered and several months overdue for a response.)

But can you avoid being tracked and watched by the government if you travel by private car? No:

A year ago, when the Department of Homeland Security cancelled a request for bids from commercial vendors to supply vehicle location logs compiled from automated (optical character recognition) license-plate readers, we pointed out that the DHS didn’t need to buy this information from commercial data aggregators, since it already had it available from government sources.  In fact, as we noted then, the DHS had already given official notice of the inclusion of license-plate location logs in DHS databases about both US and foreign citizens (while claiming that a license plate number isn’t a “personal identifier”).

New documents released to the ACLU in response to FOIA requests and reported by the Wall Street Journal (paywalled article; NPR interview with the WSJ reporter on the story) confirm our suspicions: As early as 2009, a “National LPR Initiative” was compiling data from license-plate readers operated by the DHS and other Federal, state, and local government agencies to track both vehicles and their occupants in real time. (More background and additional documents from the ACLU’s previous FOIA requests regardign license-plate readers; related documents released to EPIC and to EFF.)

Many of the Federal government’s license-plate readers are operated by the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) division of the DHS, under its assertion of authority to conduct unlimited “border” searches anywhere within 100 miles of a US land border or seacoast. But the master database is being compiled and maintained by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and used primarily to intercept domestic commerce in drugs and to target vehicles, cash, and other property that can be seized under “civil forfeiture” laws.

This isn’t, of course, the first time we’ve seen CBP’s assertion of a “Constitution-free zone” in coastal and border regions where the majority of the US population lives misused as the basis for surveillance of, and interference with, domestic travel.  Sadly, we don’t expect that this will be the last such instance, either.

Is the attack on Charlie Hebdo a reason for air travel surveillance?

Tuesday, January 13th, 2015

In a speech today in Strasbourg opening the current session of the European Parliament, the President of the European Council (the executive branch of the European Union, comprised of national governments) invoked the attack on the satirical cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo as a reason for popularly-elected EU legislators to put aside their previous objections and enact a comprehensive EU-wide mandate for surveillance and profiling of airline passengers on the basis of Passenger Name Record (PNR) data from airline reservations.

Today’s speech by Council President Donald Tusk of Poland echoed similar statements by “security” (policing and surveillance) officials of other EU governments in conjunction with a summit meeting of EU ministers. The summit is also being attended by senior US officials from the DHS and other agencies that have been lobbying the EU for years to set up a PNR-based surveillance and profiling scheme modeled on the one used by the US.

Tusk and other EU officials have made PNR-based profiling of air travelers a priority as a “response” to the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, claiming that it “can help in detecting the travel of dangerous people.”

Is this true? And does the attack on Charlie Hebdo provide any reason for Members of the European Parliament, or the European Court of Justice, to change their opinion that mandatory root access by governments to airline reservation databases is unjustified and violates fundamental rights?

No, and no.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo was an act of domestic terrorism carried out within France by French citizens.  They didn’t travel by air or cross international borders.  Their means of transportation to and from the scene of the crime in Paris was a car stolen elsewhere in the Paris metropolitan area. Airline reservations or border controls would have given no indication of the impending attack, and could not have been used to prevent it.

After the fact, police pursuing the perpetrators could have obtained search warrants, including warrants for PNR data or other airline records if there was a likelihood that they would be relevant, through normal judicial procedures.

(And as Wikileaks recently revealed, European governments are already obtaining PNR data “informally” from airlines, and using it to profile travelers, without legal authority.)

Nothing about the attack on Charlie Hebdo provides any reason to give governments more power to engage in warrantless surveillance or profiling of travelers who aren’t suspected of any crime.

Comprehensive PNR surveillance is like the NSA’s dragnet interception and mining of Internet and telephone records — except that metadata about the movements of our physical bodies (PNR data) can be far more intimate that metadata about the movement of our messages. Which is more intrusive: For the NSA to know that  you talked on the telephone or exchanged email messages or were in the same mobile phone “cell” with someone, or for the DHS or a European “Passenger Analysis Unit” to know from a hotel reservation passed on to the government as part of your PNR data that you slept in the same bed with that person?

The purpose of PNR-based surveillance is neither to investigate past crimes nor to track people who are already suspected of crimes.  Those activities require neither new procedures nor new police powers.  The only reason for governments to obtain the entire rich and intimately revealing PNR dataset for all air travelers is to identify new potential suspects, based on profiles and associations. Profiling and suspicion-by-association are the central purposes of a PNR system, not side effects or aberrations.

We’ll be in Brussels next week to discuss these issues with our European colleagues at a Privacy Camp on “Big Data & Ever Increasing State Surveillance“, and at the Computers, Privacy & Data Protection (CPDP) conference.

Wikileaks publishes CIA reports on travel ID checks

Monday, January 12th, 2015

Wikileaks has published two internal briefing documents produced for the use of CIA undercover agents, describing the methods used by airlines and governments to identify international travelers.

Both of these reports were produced as part of the CIA’S previously-unknown CHECKPOINT program of travel ID-related activities:

This product has been prepared by CIA’s CHECKPOINT Identity and Travel Intelligence Program. Located in the Identity Intelligence Center (i2c) within the Directorate of Science and Technology, CHECKPOINT serves the Intelligence Community by providing tailored identity and travel intelligence products. CHECKPOINT collects, analyzes, and disseminates information to help US intelligence personnel protect their identities and operational activities while abroad.

One of the reports, “Surviving Secondary“, describes ID-related “secondary screening” procedures at international airports, with examples from the US, EU, and other countries around the world.  The other report is an overview of, “The European Union’s Schengen biometric-based border-management systems.”

Most of the airline and government profiling and “screening” activities described in the reports, are already well-known.  These include many of the ways that governments obtain and use Passenger Name Record (PNR) and Advance Passenger Information (API or APIS) data derived form airline reservations.

But these newly-released reports also confirm that the CIA (and the other agencies with which the reports have been shared within the US government) are aware of some airline and government activities and some vulnerabilities for travelers which we and others have complained about, but which the US government has not previously acknowledged.

One problem confirmed by the CIA report on secondary screening is that government agencies can, and routinely do, obtain and use PNR, API, and other airline data, without legal authority or due process:

Security services lacking APIS or PNR information may have other arrangements to receive passenger manifests ahead of time. For example, the Airport Police Intelligence Brigade (BIPA) of the Chilean Investigative Police does not routinely obtain advance passenger manifests but can request the information from airlines on an ad hoc basis to search for targets of interest. Strict privacy laws covering Danish citizens extend to all passengers traveling through Copenhagen airport such that the Danish Police Intelligence Service (PET) cannot legally obtain routine access to flight manifests. However, if one of PET’s four cooperative airline contacts is on duty, the service can unofficially request a search on a specific name, according to August 2007 liaison reporting.

Airline data obtained by government agencies through these extrajudicial channels is used for profiling and targeting of searches, questioning, and other adverse actions against travelers.

This practice is illegal in many of the countries where it is routine, but typically occurs without leaving a trace.  Many airline staff are willing to betray their customers’ privacy to government agencies. And because no records are kept of who accesses PNR data, both government agents and their airline collaborators know that they are unlikely to be held accountable unless they confess or are caught in the act.

The persistence of routine “informal”, often illegal, and almost always unrecorded government access to airline data about travelers highlights a crucial issue we’ve been talking about for years: the complete absence of access logging in the architecture of the computerized reservation systems (CRSs) which host airlines’ PNR databases.  CRSs have PNR change logs, but no PNR access logs.

Governments and travelers must demand that CRSs add comprehensive access logging to their core functionality for PNR hosting. That won’t stop the problem. Airline staff will still be able to show government agents printouts or let them look at displays, with only the airline personnel’s  access being logged. But access logs will help, and are an essential first step toward control of PNR data “leakage”.

The CIA report on secondary screening also confirmed that the CIA is aware of the sensitivity and use by European governments (and presumably other governments) of associational information contained in fare basis codes, ticket designators, and travel agency IDs:

April 2007 reporting resulting from a liaison exchange with the Hungarian Special Service for National Security (SSNS) provides insights into factors considered by officers at Ferihegy airport in Budapest, Hungary when examining tickets. Officers check … whether the ticket fare code represents a government or military discount, or whether a government travel agency booked the ticket. Hotel and car reservations are similarly examined for unusual discounts or government affiliation.

Of course, the same PNR data elements and pricing and ticket designators can reveal other, non-governmental, affiliations between travelers and with other individuals and groups. If an airline gives a discount to members of a political organization, trade union, or other group attending a convention or meeting, for example, each PNR and ticket for a member who receives the discount typically includes some unique code.

Despite complaints, including ours, both US and European officials have denied that ticket designators and similar codes in PNRs can reveal sensitive associational data.  Now we know that this information is already being used by European governments, and that the CIA is aware of these uses.  There’s no more excuse for pretending that these data elements are innocuous or that they can be “shared” without risk to travelers.

“CAPPS IV”: TSA expands profiling of domestic US airline passengers

Friday, January 9th, 2015

Under color of a vestigial provision of Federal law related to an airline passenger profiling program that was discontinued more than four years ago, and applying the name of that program (and attempting to apply the same legal mandate) to an entirely new scheme, the TSA is adding a new, additional layer of passenger profiling to its pre-crime system for domestic airline flights within the United States.

The existence and TSA-mandated implementation of the new so-called “Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS)” was first disclosed publicly in an obscure posting this Monday on the DHS website and an equally obscure notice published the same day in the Federal Register.   According to both documents, the new CAPPS scheme has been under development since at least 2013, in secret collaboration between the TSA, the inter-departmental National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), airlines, and private contractors.

What was the old CAPPS? What is the new CAPPS? And what does this mean for the rights of travelers?

Answering these simple-seeming questions requires understanding the history of government-mandated airline passenger profiling in the US and the shell game of labels that the government has applied to profiling schemes, as well as careful parsing of this week’s abstruse and uninformative (to the uninitiated) official notices.

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DHS proposes ID and search rules for passengers on ocean-going ships

Thursday, December 11th, 2014

In a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) published yesterday in the Federal Register, the Coast Guard has proposed that all so-called “cruise ship” ports be required to carry out airport-style searches (”screening) and check identity credentials of all embarking and disembarking passengers and any other visitors entering the port.

Entities responsible for the operations of large passenger vessels and ports are already required to submit “security” plans to the Coast Guard. Because those current plans are filed in secret, it’s not entirely clear how the  proposed requirements differ from current practices.

According to the NPRM, the Coast Guard’s guidelines for complying with the current regulations, in addition to various other supporting documents, were included in the rulemaking docket. We’ve confirmed with the docket office, however, that the Coast Guard never provided any of the supporting documents for posting on Regulations.gov or over-the-counter availability at the docket office. Presumably, a corrected notice with a new due date for comments will be published in the Federal Register once these documents are made publicly available.

From the summary in the NPRM, it appears that the main proposed changes are new requirements for port operators to:

(a) Screen all persons, baggage, and personal effects for dangerous substances and devices in accordance with the requirements in subpart E of this part;

(b) Check the identification of all persons seeking to enter the facility in accordance with §§ 101.514, 101.515, and 105.255 of this subchapter….

The difference in “screening” practices contemplated by the proposed rules seems to be that they would be more standardized than at present, more like those at airports, and would be required to enforce a Coast Guard “prohibited items” list.  Although the list of items prohibited from aircraft is designated as “Sensitive Security Information”, the Coast Guard has included a tentative list of items proposed to be prohibited from cruise ship cabin baggage in the proposed rules. At the same time, the proposed rules would provide that:

The Prohibited Items List does not contain all possible items that may be prohibited from being brought on a cruise ship by passengers. The Coast Guard and the cruise ship terminal reserve the right to confiscate (and destroy) any articles that in our discretion are considered dangerous or pose a risk to the safety and security of the ship, or our guests, and no compensation will be provided.

Cruise ship passengers are already required to “present personal identification in order to gian entry to a vessel [or port] facility,”  but it isn’t clear how or by whom this is supposed to be enforced. The propsoed rules would create a new obligation for port operators to check passengers’ ID credentials.

As with the definition of “prohibited items”, the definition of acceptable ID credentials is defined for air travel only in secret (SSI) TSA Security Directives and/or Standard Operating Procedures, but is defined publicly in Federal regulations for cruise ships.

The NPRM would leave the definition of acceptable ID unchanged. In addition to government-issued ID credentials, the regulations specifically provide for the acceptance of ID issued under thre authority of, “The individual’s employer, union, or trade association”, as long as it is laminated, includes a current photo, and baears the name of the issuing authority.

By its plain language, this regulation allows any self-employed person to issue their own self-signed personal ID credentials for access to port facilities.

That’s not inappropriate, since many self-employed contractors need to enter ports for business reasons.

In practice, most cruise lines enforce (with or without legal authority) ID requirements more stringent than those in Federal regulations. But we’d be interested in hearing from anyone who has presented self-signed ID credentials, in accordance with these regulations, for purposes of entry to a port or to board a cruise ship.  Some cruise lines alloow guests onboard while ships are in port, such as friends seeing off passengers. So you might be able to experiment without being a passenger yourself.

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Dept. of Justice guidance against profiling exempts borders and “screening”

Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

The US Department of Justice has issued new Guidance for Federal Law Enforcement Agencies Regarding the Use of Race, Ethnicity, Gender, National Origin, Religion, Sexual Orientation, or Gender Identity.

“This Guidance … reaffirms the Federal government’s deep commitment to ensuring that its law enforcement agencies conduct their activities in an unbiased manner” — except at and near borders and coastlines and during any activity labelled “screening”.

According to a footnote, “This Guidance… does not, create any right … enforceable … against the United States, its departments, agencies, instrumentalities, entities, officers, employees, or agents, or any person, nor does it create any right of review in an administrative, judicial, or any other proceeding.”

And in a huge exception hidden in the same footnote:

[T]his Guidance does not apply to interdiction activities in the vicinity of the border, or to protective, inspection, or screening activities.

Most of the US population lives “near” (within 100 miles of) a border or seacoast, and the ACLU’s “Blog of Rights” has a good analysis of the what’s wrong allowing racial and other profiling at and near US borders.

On a daily basis, however, more people are stopped and subjected to “administrative” searches as part of TSA and other Federal “screening activities” than are stopped at border and near-border checkpoints. These are the searches that are labelled as “screening”, rather than searches, by the TSA and other agencies that don’t want to admit that these searches are subject to the 4th Amendment.

The DOJ guidance is applicable to all Federal law enforcement officers, not just DOJ personnel.  It includes TSA and other DHS officers everywhere except when they are in the vicinity of the border or carrying out “screening activities.” (Most TSA checkpoint staff aren’t law enforcement officers, despite their badges and their job title of “officer”, but some other TSA employees are.)  So this exception isn’t about the DOJ not having jurisdiction over employees or contractors of the DHS or other agencies. The job of the DOJ includes interpreting Federal law for all executive agencies.

The only reason these activities were exempted from the DOJ guidelines is because the DHS argued successfully, to the DOJ and in whatever White House or other inter-agency process led to the issuance of the guidelines, that racial and other profiling was a proper element of its border, near-border, and “screening” activities — not an accident, oversight, or something DHS is trying to reduce or eliminate.

That should be no surprise, since the DHS has made explicit that it now profiles all air travelers as a part of so-called “screening”, and has added questions about profiling critieria such as national origin to its forms for would-be border crossers.  But it’s yet another indication of the belief by the DHS that it is above the law and exempt from the norms of justice that apply to the rest of the government.

US Supreme Court asked to clarify limits of TSA searches

Friday, December 5th, 2014

Are the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) administrative checkpoint searches limited to those “no more extensive nor intensive than necessary, in the light of current technology, to detect the presence of weapons or explosives” as required by the Ninth Circuit, or may the TSA conduct more extensive searches as allowed in this case by the Eleventh Circuit?

This is the first and perhaps most significant of the questions presented to the US Supreme Court by a petition for certiorari in the case of Jonathan Corbett v. TSA, et al. The petition as filed last month was rejected on trivial procedural grounds, but is being resubmitted and should appear shortly on the Supreme Court’s voluminous docket of pending petitions.

This is an important case because almost the only limit on TSA searches which the courts have recognized has been the requirement that they be limited to searches for weapons and explosives, and that TSA checkpoints not be used as pretexts for general law enforcement dragnets.

In press releases and blog posts, the TSA has claimed that it has broader authority to detain, search, and interrogate travelers about matters unrelated to weapons, explosives, or transportation security. In practice, TSA checkpoint staff and contractors routinely rifle through wallets, read and copy books and papers, and search for any evidence that might create a suspicion of any criminality. But even while upholding the legality of these searches in specific cases, courts have continued to uphold, at least in theory and rhetoric, the principle that searches at TSA checkpoints are “limited”.

So far as we can tell, the decision by the 11th Circuit in Corbett v. TSA is the first appellate opinion explicitly to approve the use of TSA checkpoints for a broader general (warrentless and suspicionless) search of all travelers for evidence of any sort of potential crime.

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European court to rule on legality of air travel surveillance

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

The European Parliament has voted to refer a proposed agreement between the European Union and Canada concerning transfers from the EU to Canada of Passenger Name Record (PNR) data about air travelers to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for the court’s opinion on whether the agreement is consistent with EU treaties and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

This action might easily — and correctly — be dismissed as narrow, technical, evasive of legislators’ responsibility to consider the propriety and legality of their own actions (and to reject proposals outright if they think they would violate treaties or fundamental rights), and of no direct relevance to the US.

But this could, nevertheless, prove to be a significant setback to the efforts of the US “homeland-security” and surveillance establishment, and its allies in Europe and Canada, to globalize the PNR-based system of surveillance and control of travelers that has been put in place in the USA since 9/11.

Canada requires all international airlines to hand over passenger data to the Canadian government, and passengers on flights to, from, within, or overflying Canada are “vetted” against both Canada’s own no-fly list and the US government’s no-fly list.  Canadian data privacy law has been amended twice since 9/11 to allow cross-border transfers of data about airline passengers.  But while those requirements have some domestic support in Canada, they have been enacted somewhat reluctantly by the Canadian Parliament, mainly in order to avoid interference by the US with the large fraction of flights to, from, and within Canada that routinely pass through US airspace.  There has been opposition by some Members of the Canadian Parliament, by the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, and by Canadian NGOs such as the International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group / Coalition pour la surveillance internationale des libertés civiles.

There’s been extensive discussion of the issue of government access to airline PNR data in Europe as well, including by the European Parliament and by NGOs such as EDRi and NoPNR.

In April of 2012, the European Parliament approved — over objections from a  substantial minority of MEPs — an “agreement” to permit transfers of PNR data to the US.  But European opinion on this issue has shifted significantly since between then and this month’s debate on the EU-Canada PNR agreement, as a result of (1) Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA spying, (2) growing recognition of the parallels between surveillance of communications metadata and surveillance of travel metadata, and (3) the ruling in April of 2014 by the ECJ that an EU directive mandating retention and government access to  communications, internet, and transaction metadata violates European law and fundamental rights.

The ruling by the ECJ has voided the EU data retention directive. The hope is that the EU-Canada PNR agreement will be the second domino to fall, with the EU-USA PNR agreement next in line.

“What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014

The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that under U.S. law, once you have paid for a hotel room, your room is your home and your castle. You are entitled to the same protection against unwanted intrusions in a hotel room as you would be in the same room if you owned it outright as a condo.

As is often the case, however, the law is one thing and business norms are another. The difference is made clear in a fascinating and widely-misreported legal case involving a gambler arrested earlier this year in Las Vegas.

Paul Phua is a Malaysian businessman well known as a high-roller at casinos in Macau and in Las Vegas, where he has played in million-dollar-ante (U.S. dollars) televised poker games.

(Like nearby Hong Kong, Macau is an enclave that was formerly a foreign colony and is a now a “Special Administrative Region” of China.  Macau uses its special status to provide a haven for legal casino gambling, which is generally illegal elsewhere in China. Most Chinese citizens can’t get visas to travel to the US or other countries, but can more easily get permission to travel to Macau from the rest of China. As a result, Macau has become the world’s largest legal casino gambling center: Significantly more money is bet and lost to casinos in Macau than in Las Vegas.)

Paul Phua and his son Darren Phua were arrested in July of this year, during the soccer World Cup, in a residential villa (a 10,000-square-foot hotel suite) at the Caesar’s Palace casino-hotel complex in Las Vegas. Gambling, including betting on the World Cup, is of course legal in Las Vegas. That’s how Caesar’s Palace makes its money, and that’s why the Phuas were there. They have been charged with US Federal crimes, however, for allegedly using the Internet connection from their hotel villa in Las Vegas to send messages to unlicensed sports betting businesses in Macau and elsewhere.

What made the headlines earlier this month, and led to an editorial in the New York Times, was a motion filed by the Phuas’ lawyers arguing that the searches of the Phuas’ villas were unconstitutional.

One of the lawyers on the brief for the Phuas is Tom Goldstein, founder of SCOTUSblog and, among many other cases on his resume, co-counsel for John Gilmore in his petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court in Gilmore v. Gonzales. The brief for the suppression of illegally obtained evidence against the Phuas is one of the best-written piece of legal story-telling we’ve come across in a long time, even down to the legally irrelevant asides. (”Once they left the villas, the first comment of [agents] Lopez and Kung was to agree that the female butler was “pretty hot.” Ex. F., Trans. Disc 3, p. 39, lines 24-25. Turning back to the case, they…”)

The essence of the Phuas’ lawyers’ argument is that FBI agents and Nevada state law enforcement officers repeatedly cut off the Internet service to the Phuas’ villas, waited until the residents of the villas reported the outages, then came into the villas with hidden cameras and recorders but disguised as, and falsely claiming to be, repair technicians working for the hotel.

The police then used the information from these warrantless entries to apply for a search warrant for the Phuas’ villas as well as a another villa occupied by some alleged associates of the Phuas, claiming that the residents of the villas had “consented” to their coming inside.

The legal issue is whether you can be deemed to have “consented” to a search by the police if you let a person into your home who claims to be a repair technician, especially when the only reason you called for service is that the police had turned off your service.

This sounds like something out a comic-book story of surveillance in a tin-pot dictatorship, where the phone in your hotel room stops working (because the secret police have disconnected the line), and then the secret police show up at your door, pretending to be from the telephone company, and pretend to “fix” the phone while installing wiretapping devices.

There’s more to the malfeasance of the FBI and Nevada police in this case. They tried to hide from the judge the fact that they were the ones who had disconnected the DSL lines to the villas, prompting the residents’ service request to the hotel. They also claimed to the judge that the Phuas had been “free to leave” while they were being kept in handcuffs for more than five hours. Since the Phuas weren’t being detained, it wasn’t necessary to read them their rights or allow them to talk to their lawyer, who had shown up outside the villa and was turned away by police.

But what also interests us is the role of the hotel-casino management and staff.

The New York Times editorial, like much of the of the other news analysis, got this backwards:

During the 2014 World Cup, the agents suspected that an illegal gambling ring was operating out of several hotel rooms at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, but they apparently did not have enough evidence to get a court-issued warrant. So they enlisted the hotel’s assistance in shutting off the Internet to those rooms, prompting the rooms’ occupants to call for help. Undercover agents disguised as repairmen appeared at the door, and the occupants let them in. While pretending to fix the service, the agents saw men watching soccer matches and looking at betting odds on their computers. There is nothing illegal about visiting sports-betting websites, but the agents relied primarily on that evidence to get their search warrant. What they failed to tell the judge was that they had turned off the Internet service themselves.

The voluminous court filings (those that are available without charge through RECAP are linked from this copy of the docket sheet) and other news reports about the underlying facts make clear that the actual chain of suspicion and illegal snooping went in the other direction:

Contrary to what the Times suggested, the police didn’t “enlist” the hotel in their investigation. Nor is it true that, as the government implausibly claims in its response to the Phuas’ motion, that the hotel’s “contractor engaged in a private frolic outside of any … relationship with the agents.”  The initiative to invade guests’ rooms came not from the police (as the Times misreported) or the contractor (as the government now claims) but from the hotel.

The hotel initiated the investigation, enlisted the police to spy on its guests, gave the police full access to all the data it had already collected about these guests and all the surveillance tools it had already installed, and provided support without which the police wouldn’t have been able to trick the guests into letting in the cops disguised as Internet repairmen.

Reprehensible (and unconstitutional) as the cops’ actions were in this case, anyone who spends time in hotel rooms ought to be at least as outraged at the hotel’s role in spying on its guests.

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