Mass Surveillance Is The Handmaiden of Unending War

by Alex Marthews on September 17, 2014

endless-war

This week, I’m pleading with my legislators to not go to war, a process that lays bare the assumptions underlying both militarism and mass surveillance.

After trillions of dollars and millions of lives wasted in the Middle East, we are somehow politically no farther forward than we were in 2002.

Like back then, the leaders of both parties are banging the drums of war and raising the spectre of an unchastised enemy becoming a haven for terrorists to attack American soil.

Congress is united that Something Must Be Done.

The Something is apparently, again, bombing brown people to kingdom come.

Once again, a compliant media is concerned mostly with how much war they can push for how quickly, not with interrogating the powerful on why this is such a goddamn emergency that the only option is war. They are running solemn editorials asking whether President Obama is showing enough kneejerk belligerence (known in Washington as “leadership”) or not quite enough and the effect of said insufficient kneejerk belligerence on the goddamn midterms and the goddamn presidential election two years hence.

Yes, I get it. Who controls the US Senate is interesting. Who gets to sit in the Oval Office is also interesting. But you’d think that the thousands who will surely die from our bombs would also be interesting, and would have some weight in American decisions.

They do not; they count for nothing, or even less than nothing; they are “roaches“. And it is more or less taboo to talk about how “eradicating” them, in Rick Perry‘s phrase, might well come back to bite us, even when ISIS enjoys vigorous recruitment and funding precisely because we have been bombing in the Middle East for a decade now and have very little good to show for it.

A coldly rational assessment of the last decade of bombing suggests that US interests have not been advanced as a result; the US is no better loved; instead, we have put those we love in harm’s way, and have tortured and imprisoned and killed on an enormous scale, and for some reason it has only generated more hostility and suspicion. Why should we ever have expected it to be otherwise? Why expect it to be otherwise now?

How about this for a cheaper and more effective suggestion?

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War-Addicted US Military Now Arguing It Can Spy On All Computers In States With Military Bases

by Alex Marthews on September 15, 2014

ncis-allurbases

A new ruling from the Ninth Circuit (h/t Eugene Volokh) highlights a case where an NCIS agent:

“surveyed the entire state of Washington for computers sharing child pornography.” [their italics] It was Agent Logan’s “standard practice” to do so. There is “abundant evidence that the violation at issue has occurred repeatedly and frequently” [...] [Agent Logan] “appeared to believe that these overly broad investigations were permissible, because he was a U.S. federal agent and so could investigate violations of either the Uniform Code of Military Justice or federal law.” [...] Incredibly, “the government is arguing vehemently that the military may monitor for criminal activity all the computers anywhere in any state with a military base or installation, regardless of how likely or unlikely the computers are to be associated with a member of the military.”

In dissent, Justice Diarmuid O’Scannlain expresses his disgust that applying the exclusionary rule would “set a convicted child pornographer free”, and argues that “from the premise that the government believes it has a certain power, it does not follow that the government routinely exercises that power.”

This was the first time that a Posse Comitatus violation had been addressed by excluding the evidence, and legal blogs are abuzz with the question of whether that remedy was appropriate. To me, O’Scannlain’s visceral dissent naively ignores the government’s track record on surveillance and civil liberties, and the fact that this case effectively discloses a new form of mass government surveillance practice.

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Local Police May Be Hacking Your Phone: Piercing Secrecy Around Stingrays

by Alex Marthews on September 4, 2014

Without your knowledge or permission, your smartphone’s calls could be being intercepted right now by your local police department, and your taxes are definitely being misused to pay for unconstitutional police snooping.

stingray_wsj

We have reported before on “stingrays”, which started being used by local police departments in around 2006. These devices impersonate a cellphone tower and intercept the calls that would otherwise flow to other actual nearby towers. Initially bulky, stingrays can now be laptop-sized or smaller, and the most advanced models are light enough to be carried by drones. Police departments conceal their use of this technology when applying for warrants to conduct surveillance, so judges can’t distinguish between applying for a “regular” interception on an individual phone and a stingray interception which gathers all traffic from nearby cellphone towers. The devices’ main manufacturer, Harris Corporation, even obliges police departments contractually to conceal their use of stingrays. The Obama administration is so keen to preserve the cloak of secrecy around stingrays that they sent in the US Marshals to prevent the ACLU from obtaining documents relating to stingray use by a north Florida police department. The courts are beginning to recognize the intrusive nature of cellphone tower dump data, but have not yet grappled with the fact that using stingrays, law enforcement don’t have to ask a cellphone company for the data; they can just suck it up without permission.

Now there is a new way to rip that cloak. Popular Science quotes the CEO of ESD America, which manufactures the $3,500 “CryptoPhone 500″, eagerly describing how his phones could detect when stingrays were being used in their vicinity. While testing the CryptoPhone 500 in August, users found 17 sites around the country where stingrays appeared to be being used on passersby. They could detect the use of stingrays because stingrays downgrade your connection from 4G to the less secure 2G and then turn off your phone’s encryption. Normal Android smartphones or IPhones are oblivious to this process.

Twitter users have been speculating whether these 17 sites map onto the sites of fusion centers around the country. Since we’re familiar with both stingrays and fusion centers, we can say conclusively that they don’t. Most sites seem to be in commercial areas, not around fusion center or military locations. ESD is not providing the precise site locations, and stingrays’ mobility further complicates the process of detecting them. We think that CryptoPhone users have captured what is likely to be only a small subset of stingray usage not by fusion centers, or by the NSA, but by regular local police departments around the nation. We’re supporting the efforts of researchers like Muckrock who want to get more transparency about stingray use by police departments, and to keep an eye out for proposals in your community to “upgrade” police department technology.

So, do we all have to go out and upgrade to the CryptoPhone 500 in order to feel safe in our communications? Well, no; there’s another, cheaper way to find out whether the government is using stingrays in your community.

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White Flags On The Brooklyn Bridge: Massive Surveillance Can’t Even Stop Minor Crimes

by Alex Marthews on August 8, 2014

On July 22, at 3:30am, in place of the Stars and Stripes that usually fly over the Brooklyn Bridge, bleached-out American flags appeared instead. Despite three surveillance cameras and allegedly round-the-clock police surveillance, four or five people, their identities still unknown, were able to cover up the lights trained on the flags, take them down, and hoist up their own.

Credit: James Keivom/New York Daily News

Credit: James Keivom/New York Daily News

What interests us here is not so much the action itself, as the police reaction.

“If they had brought a bomb up there, it would have been over,” said a high-ranking police source. “If they were able to bring something large enough to cover the lights, then they would have been able to bring some kind of explosive up there.” [...] A police helicopter on Wednesday made repeated passes around the Brooklyn Bridge. NYPD radio cars patrolled the spans’ roadways, and police boats scoured the span from the water. New security cameras were also installed, and numerous officers – some from the Intelligence Division and Counterterrorism Bureau – were assigned to foot patrols, walking back and forth between Manhattan and Brooklyn. [CBS]

New York police are so determined to catch the vandals who replaced the American flags atop the Brooklyn Bridge that they’re using an investigative technique known as “tower dumping” to examine all of the cell phone calls made near the bridge around the time the flags were replaced. [...] The NYPD is also using social media data, video, facial recognition technology and approximately 18,000 license plate pictures in trying to solve the case. [IBT]

Horrified at the exposure of a security lapse, the NYPD turned its immense resources toward finding the people who had embarrassed them. The local press described them as “vandals” and quoted local residents as wanting them to be “punished to the fullest extent of the law.”

What law?

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CIA Chief John Brennan Is Getting A Little Bored, People

by Alex Marthews on August 1, 2014

BrennanCodePink

Whoa, for a moment there I was worried. Our own Inspector-General here at the CIA has verified that we tortured people and then lied about it and then illegally surveilled the Intelligence Committee that’s supposed to oversee us, to intimidate them into not publishing the report that documents the torture and lying and covering up. All of which was illegal, like you even care. Even Lawfare is calling for “repercussions”.

What, repercussions like refusing to confirm me as the actual head of the actual CIA? Too late, suckers. Repercussions? Ahaahahaaahaha! Are you kidding me?

Listen, the only person who’s ever gone to jail as a result of CIA torture was the guy who blew the whistle on it. Hell, the lickspittle media is still putting “torture” in air quotes and talking about “enhanced interrogation techniques” (when we do it, naturally, not when “dictatorial regimes” do it.) It’s beautiful. Talk about catapulting the propaganda!

Us senior intelligence agency folks do wonder sometimes though –

What’s it gonna take?

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Bullying on the Buses: Boston School Department Says More Surveillance Is The Solution

by Alex Marthews on July 31, 2014

Bullying-pic

The Boston Globe reports that the Boston School Department, worried about bullying on yellow buses, is buying audio-enabled camera systems to install on them. MBTA buses have already added camera systems that are not enabled for audio. As ever, the justification is “safety”: driver safety, student safety, whatever kind of safety. Mention the word “safety”, and it shuts down reasonable questions like: Well, how much safety and at what cost?

I was bullied as a kid – bullied on buses, in stairwells, in restrooms, in parks. I’d be the last person on earth to trivialize bullying or pretend that it isn’t awful. I appreciate that the Boston schools are taking bullying seriously and want to encourage students to treat one another with decency. But cameras on buses don’t internalize decency in kids; they internalize compliance when being watched. I was never bullied when authority figures were watching; that doesn’t mean that the solution would have been, in pre-digital days, to station a concerned adult everywhere a kid might get bullied. Nor are cameras and microphones the solution here.

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The Executive’s Humpty-Dumpty Terrorism Watchlisting Policy: Lessons from People v. Morales

by Alex Marthews on July 25, 2014

humpty-dumpty

The Intercept’s publication of the criteria for the terrorism watchlists throws some light at least on what the government tells itself a terrorist is. This is a matter of keen interest to many of us, since a close reading of the following text tells you a lot about the values and priorities of our new-minted surveillance state overlords.

terrorism_definition

Not to go all mise en abyme about it, but this definition is, well, abysmal. Let’s take it a step at a time.

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During 2013, Exactly Zero MA Wiretaps Resulted In Arrests Or Convictions

by Alex Marthews on July 22, 2014

garthvolbeck

The official system of electronic wiretaps in the US predates and is separate from the unconstitutional mass surveillance conducted by the NSA and other surveillance agencies. Typically, electronic wiretaps comply fully with the Fourth Amendment by requiring an individualized warrant based on probable cause before the wiretap begins. But it’s still interesting to look at how they operate and what they target, and this week’s Wiretap Report 2013 from the Administrative Office of the U. S. Federal Courts allows us to do exactly that.

The first thing that jumps out from the data is how much the electronic wiretaps system is an instrument of the War on Drugs. Though the report’s categories allow for many types of crime (“Conspiracy”, “Corruption”, “Gambling”, “Homicide and Assault”, “Kidnapping”, “Larceny, Theft and Robbery”, “Narcotics”, “Racketeering” and “Other”), fully 87% of the 3.576 wiretaps across the country were for drug investigations.

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86-Year-Old Man Took Photo of “Rainbow Swash” in Dorchester; Agents Track Him Down to Sacramento, Quiz His Neighbors, Put Him On A Watch List

by Alex Marthews on July 18, 2014

This is James Prigoff. He is 86 years old.

Credit: Huffington Post

Credit: Huffington Post

Mr. Prigoff was president of a division of all-American jeans maker Levi Strauss and a VP at tasty bread maker Sara Lee. In his retirement, he apparently likes taking photos of public art, which of course, because WE HAVE FREEDOM HERE DAMMIT, he can pursue happily unmolested by law enforcement.

The Joint Terrorism Task Force takes, let’s say, a different perspective on Mr. Prigoff’s innocent retirement hobby. To JTTF, this skulking-around-taking-photographs-of-things behavior is SUSPICIOUS ACTIVITY. Consequently, after he had taken photos of the Rainbow Swash in Dorchester and had gotten home to Sacramento…

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At HOPE X: Artist Essam Attia, cool research, and Restore The Fourth!

by Alex Marthews on July 18, 2014

The tenth biennial Hackers on Planet Earth Conference starts today and runs through Sunday at the Hotel Pennsylvania in NYC.

We’ll be there as part of the Restore The Fourth delegation (I’m the national chair of Restore The Fourth). I and Zaki Manian will be hosting a radio show 10am-11am on Radio Statler, the HOPE community radio station. We’re honored to have on our show controversial Maine-born artist Essam Attia. If you can’t be at the conference, check out the stream on radio.hope.net!

You can also check out the Restore The Fourth booth (I’ll be covering it Saturday afternoon), sign up as a member here ($60 individual/$20 student), or come hear a talk on our research into the effects of the Snowden revelations on search engine behavior.

See below the fold for more on the Attia case!

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