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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Three Bills To Protect Privacy: We Need Calls. Now.

by Alex Marthews on July 16, 2014

You pulled me over? But, why?

You pulled me over? But, why?

The powerful MA Senate Ways and Means Committee is voting on whether to approve three privacy-protecting bills. The ACLU is asking Massachusetts residents to call their legislators; do it today if you can!

The License Plate Privacy Act would limit the ability of law enforcement to track your movements around the state, by keeping an enormous database of time-stamped photos taken by automated license plate readers.

The Electronic Privacy Act would require a warrant, instead of a lowly administrative subpoena, in order for law enforcement to access your electronic files, giving them the same level of protection as paper files.

The Password Protection Act would prevent your boss or administrators at your school from snooping around your social media accounts.

The legislative session ends July 31. Now is the time to make your voices heard!

The NSA Aims For There To Be No “U. S. Persons”: Traffic Shaping and the Legacy of Verdugo-Urquidez

by Alex Marthews on July 15, 2014

Credit: theyliewedie.org

Credit: theyliewedie.org

In 1990, the Supreme Court fatefully ruled 6-3 in Verdugo-Urquidez that the Fourth Amendment did not exist for foreign nationals who had not established a sufficient nexus with the United States to be part of its “people.” In a blistering dissent, Justices Brennan and Marshall (peace be upon them) argued that “If we expect aliens to obey our laws, aliens should be able to expect that we will obey our Constitution when we investigate, prosecute, and punish them.” Brennan and Marshall argued that Constitutional rights apply whenever the U. S. government seeks to exert its authority; it is not possible for it to be legal for the U. S. government to act outside the boundaries of the very Constitution that created it.

Time has shown us all how right Brennan and Marshall were.

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Change Is In The Air: Alleged Pot Smell No Longer Constitutes Reasonable Suspicion in Massachusetts

by Alex Marthews on July 15, 2014

marihuana-syringe

It was clear from the moment that Massachusetts decriminalized the ownership of small amounts of pot, that it would create a problem for the police. Specifically, it would create a problem for their ability to continue to make the 6.5% of arrests nationwide, as of 2010, that related to pot specifically [source: FBI Uniform Crime Reports].

Let’s say that you’re a police officer, and you see a “gang member” or other darn no-goodnik driving down the block like they own the place, and maybe, as they’re driving, expressing a less than full appreciation of the patriotic protection you are providing to the community. If you pull them over, and claim to smell pot, then, whether or not there is actually pot in the car, the officer’s “good faith” belief that there might have been pot, renders a search of the car valid and allows into evidence the fruits of any such search.

Now, reports the Globe, that’s no longer true in Massachusetts. The Supreme Judicial Court has ruled unanimously that, as it is no longer actually criminal to possess small amounts of pot, police can no longer use the smell of burning or unburned marijuana to justify a warrantless stop and search of a car. The Justices explicitly rejected the argument that it was still a valid pretext for a stop because pot remains illegal under federal law.

In this instance, the SJC has substantially strengthened the liberties of everyone, including non-pot-smokers like myself. This was a case where the War on Drugs had effectively allowed an officer’s mere word (sometimes supplemented by the highly questionable evidence of an alerting dog) to open up anybody’s car contents to a warrantless search.

It is a sign that as a society we are moving beyond that kind of madness, that we can recognize that there are better things for the police to be doing, and that therefore fewer drivers will be stopped based on a hunch or on prejudice. In turn, this means that fewer young people, especially people of color, will be shunted into the criminal justice system based on violations of the Fourth Amendment. Last, we can hope, there will also be an increase in people driving rather more slowly, and therefore possibly more safely, than average.