The News Without Transparency – Mobile Phone Surveillance by Police Targets Millions Annually

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Earlier this year, Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) released information that his Congressional Privacy Caucus received from mobile carriers indicating that they had responded to 1.3 million requests from law enforcement for subscriber data in 2011. Wired Magazine’s Threat Level blog covered the release in detail, relying on information that may have never come to light without Markey’s efforts.

In addition to what it revealed about the state of mobile privacy in America, the release was a notable illustration of the power that members of Congress have to promote transparency when they make valuable information about government operations available to the public by conducting oversight activities.

When Markey asked the mobile carriers for their data he embraced Congress’ long history of investigating the activities and operations of the federal government, dating back to the founding documents of the United States. Oversight is not limited to American democracy. According to the CRS, oversight is considered a “key feature of [any] meaningful representative body” by scholars and philosophers like John Stuart Mill and Woodrow Wilson.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) has produced multiple reports over the past decade detailing the origins and evolution of Congress’s oversight powers. According to these reports, the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 marked the first explicit statutory recognition of the power of legislative oversight in the United States. The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 made these powers even more clear.

However, its origins as a legislative check on the executive branch extend to the early days of the Republic. According to CRS specialist Frederick Kaiser, the enumerated powers granted to Congress in the Constitution provide the basis for oversight. This view is supported by a 1927 Supreme Court decision that “legitimated Congress’s investigative power.”

A 2010 report written by CRS senior specialist Walter J. Oleszek identifies 10 ways that Congress conducts oversight. These include conducting hearings and investigations, the authorizing process, the appropriations process, Inspectors General, the GAO, instituting and enforcing reporting requirements, program evaluation, conducting casework, the Senate confirmation process, and the impeachment and removal process.

Representative Markey pursued his act of oversight in a clever way, using his Congressional Privacy Caucus to request information from mobile carriers about the way that they interact with the government.  He then used that information to encourage the Republican congressional majority to hold hearings into the practice, showing that his end goal was to uncover and publicize important information about the way that the government works and interacts with the American people, a common purpose of congressional oversight.

The Sunlight Foundation has explored the concept of congressional oversight in the past. Most recently, we have suggested numerous ways that Congress can improve their oversight activities and more fully realize this important function.

“The News Without Transparency” shows you what the news would look like without public access to information. Laws and regulations that force the government to make the data it has publicly available are absolutely vital, along with services that take that raw data and make it easy for reporters to write sentences like the ones we’ve redacted in the piece above. View the entire series here! If you have an article you’d like us to put through the redaction machine, please send us an email at rsibley@sunlightfoundation.com.

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