Security Grifting At Work: Million-Dollar ALPR System In Vermont Solves Four (4) Crimes in 2013

by Alex Marthews on October 20, 2014

one-hundred-dollar-bills-falling-through-air-loop

Vermont Public Radio does the spadework to find out whether automated license plate surveillance systems offer a reasonable return on investment:

“…Even with the millions of scans, the system has not led to many arrests or breakthroughs in major criminal investigations. [...] They were helpful in solving fewer than five crimes in 2013. [Officer] Cram [of Winooski PD] says the federally-funded ALPR is a valuable tool, even though he doesn’t think the city would have put up $25,000 of its own money to buy one.

At a cost of “over $1 million” over five years, that works out at around $50,000 per crime solved. [Note: Initial calculations of $40,000 per crime solved were based on an inaccurate figure of five crimes solved.]

At a rate of $50,000 per crime, you could hire one part-time police officer, and I suspect that that part-time police officer would solve more than one crime per year. So what gives?

This is what gives, for ALPR, for surveillance cameras, and for military surplus equipment. Police departments count the cost of new surveillance equipment at zero, even when it’s not (taxpayers ultimately pay). It’s hard for police chiefs to turn down free, even if free offers only the most marginal prospect of reducing crime. But it says everything about the utility of this technology that, had the City of Winooski been asked to put up its own money, Officer Cram thought that they wouldn’t have done it. Oh – and I almost forgot to mention – as the article mentions, the entity charged with managing the data from this boondoggle is, naturally, the Vermont fusion center.

Meanwhile, only half of American roads are in good repair, and our public transportation is an international laughingstock. Americans’ median incomes are falling, and more and more of us are just a paycheck or two from disaster. We scrutinize every milligram of social spending to uncover with great fanfare a rate of fraud of $0.0073 per dollar spent, because we can’t abide any of them Cadillac-driving fur-coat-clad welfare queens. And yet somehow, funding for more surveillance, more militarization, and more war, is never-ending and never requires proper accounting or justification.

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Black, Brown & Targeted: ACLU Report Reveals Massive 4th Amendment Violations by Boston PD

by Alex Marthews on October 9, 2014

1008_aclu-chart

Finally, after many years of effort, the ACLU of MA has been able to secure release and analysis (by a third party) of data on police stops in Boston. What was found should grossly offend anyone with a belief that people ought to be equal before the law.

Their data spans 2007-2010, covering reported stops that did not result in arrest. During that time, for fully three-quarters of such stops, the reason the police stated for the stop was not suspicion of any identifiable crime, but simply “Investigate Person.”

Investigate Person?

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Suffolk County DA Conley logging parents’ keystrokes, for “safety”

by Alex Marthews on October 2, 2014

We think our version captures the spirit of this initiative better than the original.

We think our version captures the spirit of this initiative better than the original.

Well, well. This “school safety” stuff keeps getting more interesting.

I didn’t focus on the elements of the school safety task force’s report that dealt with teaching children to “be safe” on the Internet, because, well, they sounded pretty innocuous. Turns out I wasn’t paranoid enough.

EFF reports that DAs and police departments across the country have been distributing elderly spyware called “ComputerCop” to parents as part of feel-good “Internet Safety” events at schools. This apparently includes a “service” called “KeyAlert”, which allows parents to track their children’s keystrokes. When it collects those keystrokes, it also stores them unencrypted on your hard drive (on Windows machines) and transmits them, unencrypted, to a third-party server so that the parents can be emailed when chosen keywords are typed. And, as readers of this blog will know, law enforcement can then request that keylogged data from the third party without a warrant.

Well, that’s fabulous. Sounds pretty useful. For law enforcement. Why not, then, promote keyloggers on as many computers as possible? And as with social media, it looks like offering something for free really helps members of the public surveil themselves. EFF notes:

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State Report Tells Schoolkids: Inform, Conform, and Trust the Police

by Alex Marthews on September 26, 2014

"La Cucaracha", August 26, 2013, by Lalo Alcaraz

“La Cucaracha”, August 26, 2013, by Lalo Alcaraz

Following on from the Sandy Hook school shooting, the “Massachusetts Task Force on School Safety and Security” released a report in July. As you’d expect from a report written with plenty of police input and none from the civil liberties community, it recommends changes that are highly intrusive, probably ineffective, definitely expensive, and likely to benefit police more than they benefit students.

Of course, that’s not how it’s being reported. Local papers, including my own, are portentously explaining how this is all “for the kids” and will “keep them safe” (I’d link to the Belmont Citizen-Herald’s exhaustive coverage, but it’s not up yet).

The most important thing to understand regarding school shootings is that school districts can’t prevent them. I wish they could, but they can’t. School shootings happen far too much in the US, largely because we spend too little on mental health services and allow, as a matter of constitutional principle, broad access to guns. School shootings also tend to happen more in rural and suburban districts where the schools are pretty much the only place that will grab the attention of the whole community.

Nothing school districts can do will change these things. However, in fear that they ought to be doing something, it’s very possible for school districts to misdirect funds better spent on education, and impose inappropriate systems of surveillance and control.

Let’s look anew, with a critical eye, at what’s being suggested.

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Digital Fourth’s Fall Meetings

by Alex Marthews on September 23, 2014

By this sign shall ye know us.

By this sign shall ye know us.

Coming fresh this fall off our shoestring operation’s success in nixing MA attorney-general Martha Coakley‘s top legislative priority – a massive proposed expansion of electronic wiretapping – we’re holding weekly lunchtime meetings and monthly evening meetings in Cambridge, MA to plan our work for the 2015-6 legislative session.

Come join us on Thursdays at 11:30am-12:30pm at the Voltage Cafe at Kendall Square, as we drink coffee and plot the subversion of the surveillance state. Or, if you prefer, this Sunday at 6:30pm is the first monthly evening meeting, at the Summer Shack by Alewife station (for easy parking).

Thursday 9/25: Transpartisan Grassroots Organizing Against Surveillance, featuring speakers from StopWatchingUs, TechFreedom and Occupy Boston.

Sunday 9/27: Police Surveillance, Militarization and the Freedom of Information Act, featuring proposals from the new MA Law Enforcement Coalition on police oversight and fusion center transparency.

See you there!

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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