One of the cases I came across when I was writing an article about Internet surveillance was Deal v. Spears, 980 F. 2d 1153 (8th Cir. 1992), a case involving the interception of phone calls that was arguably prohibited by the Wiretap Act (18 U.S.C. § 2511 et seq.). The Wiretap Act, for some context, is a 1968 statute that applied Fourth Amendment privacy values to telephones, and in a way that prohibited both the government and private parties from intercepting the contents of conversations taking place through the telephone network. That prohibition is fairly strong: while there are certain types of interceptions that are exempted from it, these exemptions have not necessarily been interpreted generously, and Deal v. Spears was one of those cases where the interception was found to have run afoul of the prohibition.
It’s an interesting case for several reasons, one being that it upheld the privacy rights of an apparent bad actor (of course, so does the Fourth Amendment generally). In this case the defendants owned a store that employed the plaintiff, whom the defendants strongly suspected – potentially correctly – was stealing from them. In order to catch the plaintiff in the act, the defendants availed themselves of the phone extension in their adjacent house to intercept the calls the plaintiff made on the store’s business line to further her crimes. Ostensibly such an interception could be exempted by the Wiretap Act: the business extension exemption generally allows for business proprietors to listen in to calls made in the ordinary course of business. (See 18 U.S.C. § 2510(5)(a)(i)). But here the defendants didn’t just listen in to business calls; they recorded *all* calls that the plaintiff made, regardless of whether they related to the business or not, and, by virtue of being automatically recorded, without the telltale “click” one hears when an actual phone extension is picked up, thereby putting the callers on notice that someone is listening in. This silent, pervasive monitoring of the contents of all communications put the monitoring well-beyond the statutory exception that might otherwise have permitted a more limited interception.
[T]he [defendants] recorded twenty-two hours of calls, and […] listened to all of them without regard to their relation to his business interests. Granted, [plaintiff] might have mentioned the burglary at any time during the conversations, but we do not believe that the [defendants'] suspicions justified the extent of the intrusion.
For a similar view, see US v. Jones, 542 F. 2d 661 (6th Cir. 1976):
[T]here is a vast difference between overhearing someone on an extension and installing an electronic listening device to monitor all incoming and outgoing telephone calls.
And so the defendants, hapless victims though they seemed to have been in their own right, were found to have violated the Wiretap Act.
But Deal v. Spears is a telephone case, and telephone cases are fairly straight forward. The statutory language clearly reaches the contents of those communications made with that technology, and all that’s really been left for courts to decide is how broad to construe the few exemptions the statute articulates. What has been much harder is figuring out how to extend the Wiretap Act’s prohibitions against surveillance to those communications made via other technologies (ie, the Internet), or to aspects of those communications that seem to apply more to how they should be routed than their underlying message. However privacy interests are privacy interests, and no amount of legal hairsplitting alleviates the harm that can result when any identifiable aspect of someone’s communications can be surveilled. There is a lot that the Wiretap Act, both in terms of its statutory history and subsequent case law, can teach us about surveillance policy, and we would be foolish not to heed those lessons.
More on them later.