Probable Cause ConundrumI call it the "probable cause conundrum," because (1) the Fourth Amendment expressly states that "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," yet (2) a warrant to spy on Americans these days, at least with respect to probable cause and the requirement that a warrant to spy must be limited in scope according to specific information, has been hugely expanded. At least one of the Supremes has interpreted "probable cause" to mean "reasonable." For some reason, I really don't think that point of view was ever the way the Framers considered it, based on the law extant at the time the Constitution was actually drafted. But I digress.
As a result of Tennessee v. Garner [471 U.S. 1 (1985)], inter alia, we all learned that the "reasonableness requirement" applies not just to a search in combination with a seizure, but also to a search without a seizure, as well as to a seizure without a search. But, again, I digress. So not to go too far afield, let us return to that Bloomberg article which, by the way, was published back in April of this year.
To quote the very first paragraph of the article, its author, Carter Dougherty, writes that "the new U.S. consumer finance watchdog is gearing up to monitor how millions of Americans use credit cards, take out mortgages and overdraw their checking accounts. Their bankers aren’t happy about it." And Mr. Dougherty later on states that "Director Richard Cordray has said that the consumer bureau needs raw material to make 'data-driven', decisions based on how financial products and services are used or abused. Research will improve regulation as well as the marketplace."
We don't like to think that our federal agencies are spying on us, watching our communications, perhaps especially our financial habits, determining therefrom how best to "serve" the public interest. Sure, we know that Google and other web giants are constantly monitoring our financial habits - presumably with our permission to do so. Somehow, it's acceptable if private corporations do it, but when the government does it - not so much!
It all becomes rather weird when the NSA (backed by, say, the DOJ) orders private corporations to spy on us, but the latter are not permitted to admit that the former ordered them to do so - with or without our permission - on the basis of what appears to be a new meaning of "probable cause."
What I find interesting is the similarity between the NSA's and the CFPB's reasons for the need to collect, respectively, virtually all communication data on American citizens and also the financial data on millions of American consumers. It seems that spying has an underlying positive cause, one that apparently we citizens simply don't fully appreciate. For if we did appreciate the workings of these agencies that are just trying to protect us, watch over us to make sure we are safe, and do what they can to mitigate our worst fears, we would overwhelmingly and clearly express our gratitude to the NSA and CFPB for their commitment to our protection - and some Americans certainly seem very grateful.
The Fourth Amendment - how quaint it has become!
NSA and CFPB – Two Peas in a PodBut let's look at some of these justifications that both the NSA and the CFPB have in common for spying on us. Or, if you find that phrase to be nettlesome, perhaps the phrase ‘conducting surveillance on us’ is easier to accept.
First Justification: We need a bogeyman, whom we shall call El Coco, its Spanish version, as when a Spanish-speaking parent tells a child 'si no te portas bien vendrá el coco' ("if you're not good the bogeyman will come and get you"). Almost every civilization has had some version of the bogeyman, that amorphous, unpredictable, malevolent being whose primary role is to scare the living daylights out of us and make us willingly compliant and malleable victims.
So, in the case of the NSA, El Coco comes in the form of terrorists and other malcontents; and, in the case of the CFPB, El Coco seems to be residential mortgage lenders and originators (RMLOs) and other members of the financial markets and sometimes even consumers themselves. In both instances, we can thank the government for protecting us from the mischievous schemes of El Coco.
Fortunately, these federal agencies keep guard against El Coco and make sure that nothing physically or financially bad will happen to Americans. If you take the position, as did President Franklin Roosevelt, that "there is nothing to fear but fear itself," then you're really not showing much appreciation for the many protective efforts being done on your behalf, to protect you from the wrathful and heinous acts of El Coco.
Second Justification: The euphemisms "data collection" and "data mining" have become virtually the same meaning, one giving way to the other, as surely as night follows the day. After all, what good is getting all that data about us if you can't mine it for something practical? And what could be more practical than mining data on Americans to catch terrorists hiding among them or non-Americans trying to harm Americans or demolishing supposedly deceptive RMLOs preying on the financial well-being of Americans?
But there are those who resist such sound reasoning, using case law and the Constitution to argue that putting everybody into one massive group lacks the very specificity that the Fourth Amendment requires, with the hope of finding a few bad actors - like casting out large metal nets dragged along by trawling ships, hauling for a large plunder of fish, hoping for a big catch.
As it has been recently reported, the NSA's perception of probable cause - excuse me, 'reasonable' cause - is that 51% passes, but 49% fails, when determining which ‘fish’ shall live and which 'fish' shall die; or, put otherwise, which Americans are bad, deserving of full-court press investigations and the impoverishment caused by litigation defending themselves, and which Americans are good, spared the invasiveness and poverty, but deserving to remain permanently ensconced in the Pool (that is, the deep and dark pool of collected data).