(by Mikael Thalen, IW) -- The Navy’s primary law enforcement agency has been conducting illegal surveillance operations against countless civilian computers for the past several years, a federal appeals court found last week.
Documents obtained by the Courthouse News Service reveal a 2010 case in which a Naval Criminal Investigative Service Agent in Georgia used an advanced surveillance software program known as “RoundUp” to scan every civilian computer in Washington state for child pornography.
NCIS Agent Steve Logan was able to locate one suspect, Washington-resident Michael Dreyer, and immediately turned the information over to police, who subpoenaed Dreyer’s internet service provider with the FBI. Dreyer was charged in federal court after the officers, and Homeland Security at a later date, used the illegally-obtained data to acquire a search warrant for his house.
After Dreyer’s lawyers questioned the search warrant’s legitimacy, Navy representatives claimed that the initial surveillance operation was justified due to Washington state’s heavy “saturation” of Navy personnel and Dreyer’s prior military service.
A panel of the Ninth District Court of Appeals in San Francisco disagreed, stating that the search never targeted specific military bases or personnel but instead searched millions of computers not associated with the military.
“To accept that position would mean that NCIS agents could, for example, routinely stop suspected drunk drivers in downtown Seattle on the off-chance that a driver is a member of the military, and then turn over all information collected about civilians to the Seattle Police Department for prosecution,” wrote Judge Marsha Berzon.
While possession of child pornography is undoubtedly the most vile of offenses, the government’s use of dragnet surveillance against millions of Americans not suspected of a crime still remains unconstitutional.
“This is, literally, the militarization of the police,” defense attorney Erik Levin told the San Francisco Chronicle. “They have enough funding that they can go out and stray from the core mission of national security and get into local law enforcement.”
Unsurprisingly, the case also revealed the illegal surveillance practice to be a regular occurrence inside the Navy.
“So far as we can tell from the record, it has become a routine practice for the Navy to conduct surveillance of all the civilian computers in an entire state to see whether any child pornography can be found on them, and then to turn over the information to civilian law enforcement when no military connection exists,” the ruling states.
“We have here abundant evidence that the violation at issue has occurred repeatedly and frequently, and that the government believes that its conduct is permissible, despite prior cautions by our court and others that military personnel, including NCIS agents, may not enforce the civilian laws.”
The Navy, like countless other government agencies, may also be engaged in “parallel construction,” a technique used by law enforcement to conceal when data is provided illegally by federal agencies.