Belgian Police Overwhelmed By…Mass Surveillance?

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Buzzfeed’s Mitch Prothero reported on the day of the Brussels attacks that “Belgian Authorities [Are] Overwhelmed By Terror Investigations“. He quotes a “Belgian counterterrorism official”, talking prior to the attacks, as having told him that:

[D]ue to the small size of the Belgian government and the huge numbers of open investigations — into Belgian citizens suspected of either joining ISIS, being part of radical groups in Belgium, and the ongoing investigations into last November’s attacks in Paris, which appeared to be at least partially planned in Brussels and saw the participation of several Belgian citizens and residents — virtually every police detective and military intelligence officer in the country was focused on international jihadi investigations. “We just don’t have the people to watch anything else and, frankly, we don’t have the infrastructure to properly investigate or monitor hundreds of individuals suspected of terror links, as well as pursue the hundreds of open files and investigations we have,” the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said. “It’s literally an impossible situation and, honestly, it’s very grave.”

This icorroborates a major part of this blog – and our group’s – analysis of the surveillance state: That it generates so many false leads that it drowns law enforcement in data they can’t reasonably analyze or follow up on.

As a comparison, consider this comment from Michael Downing, deputy LAPD police chief and head of their counterterrorism unit, in 2012:


“[suspicious activity reporting has] flooded fusion centers, law enforcement, and other security entities with white noise; [the profusion of SAR reports] complicates the intelligence process and distorts resource allocation and deployment decisions.”

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Rein In The Warrior Cops: State House, Tuesday March 8, 10:30am

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Last year, across the country, over 1,100 people were shot by police.

In Massachusetts, we pride ourselves as being somehow different and more sophisticated than the rest of the country, but our police still shoot people at sixteen times the rate of people in Germany.

We have a situation so absurd that the police chief of the tiny town of Rehoboth can apply for, and receive, a $700,000 mine-resistant military assault vehicle, and the town doesn’t even bat an eye. They didn’t hold hearings, they didn’t take a vote, they just left it up to the police to decide how much to turn themselves into a military occupying force in that town.

Our police are trained, through initiatives like Urban Shield, to think of themselves as quasi-military, and the people as their enemies.

None of this is good enough.

This morning, Tuesday March 8, there will be a hearing at the State House on our bill to help deal with this, H. 2169. Come make your voice heard; head below the fold for the background.

H. 2169, “An Act assuring municipal control of military equipment procurement by local law enforcement”, sponsored by Rep. Denise Provost
Press Release
Digital Fourth’s Testimony to the Committee

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State House Police Reform Showdown 10am 2/4: Be There!

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Tomorrow (Thursday, February 4), at 10am, the Massachusetts legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Safety will be holding a public hearing on all of the bills for the 2015-16 session that deal with police accountability, including Digital Fourth’s bill mandating bodycams and data collection on police stops. Join our gallant volunteers Sam T., Shekia S., Chris L., Jason L. and Robert C., in trying to make a difference; if you can make it, let us know and we can help you with your testimony!

The bills under consideration mostly propose improved training for police officers in de-escalation techniques, “emotional CPR”, and dealing with people with autism and mental illness. These are good things, but police training in departmental procedure alone can’t be the answer. Most police stops and shootings occur with police officers acting within the guidelines set by their departments; the problem is that those guidelines themselves can be very broad, and there’s essentially no accountability even if those guidelines are violated. If we’re going to get to a point where police officers routinely respect the constitutional rights of the people they stop on the street, there’s going to have to be meaningful accountability. Some officers should be deprived of their badges; some should be deprived of their liberty; and until that happens much more than it does now, we’ll keep seeing the parade of horrifying police shootings that cost over 1,100 members of the public their lives last year in the US.

Sign up at the Facebook event page
Read our Press Release
See all of the bills up for consideration

UPDATE: Here’s our testimony for the hearing.

The Deep State Is Spying On Congress? You Don’t Say

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The Wall Street Journal, not having the benefit of a near-pathological obsession with all things surveillance-related, has done some goldfish reporting on how shocked, shocked they are that the NSA may have “inadvertently” and “incidentally” gathered up some communications of US elected representatives, during the course of closely scrutinizing the communications of Binyamin Netanyahu.

It’s goldfish reporting because it exhibits no long-term memory of the history of political surveillance; and more particularly, of recent domestic political surveillance stories.

In 2009, liberal Congresswoman Jane Harman was caught in an almost identical scandal, having likewise been a vehement defender of the NSA, and reacted in the same way, denouncing mass surveillance only when it was turned her way.

From 2009 to 2012, the CIA spied on staffers for Senator Dianne Feinstein and other Democratic Intelligence Committee senators, in order to monitor, and to attempt to discredit, their efforts to hold the CIA accountable for horrific and repeated acts of torture; leading Senator Rand Paul to describe the CIA as “drunk with power” and to talk about the “real fear in Senators’ eyes”.

After the Snowden revelations, speculation ran rampant that Supreme Court Justice John Roberts’s last-minute and unexpected change of his key vote on the constitutionality of Obamacare, had been influenced by the NSA’s possession of information on him derived from its mass surveillance systems.

In April 2015, Congressman Jason Chaffetz had personal information from his past leaked by the Secret Service in order to discredit his efforts to investigate the Secret Service for a series of scandals involving drunk driving, hiring sex workers, and failing to protect the White House from trespassers.

The testimony of NSA whistleblower Russell Tice suggests that these are not just isolated cases that happen to have come to light. Instead, they are likely to be the visible portions of an active practice of surveillance of elected officials and jurists with decision-making authority over the budgets and activities of the surveillance state. It’s not an accident that Congress keeps voting in favor of substantive NSA reforms in public, that then mysteriously get stripped in committee. Surveillance power is blackmail power; it’s been used before in the US, is being used now, and will be used in the future, until we stop it.

Saying this is not paranoia; it’s only to be expected. Set up a mass surveillance system, and it will inevitably be turned against its own overseers. That’s a major reason to adhere to the Fourth Amendment and refuse to set one up.

Of course the NSA will spy on their alleged political overseers. Who the hell would stop them? The FISC? Congress itself, which just gleefully expanded surveillance because somebody said “ISIS, ISIS, ISIS, Boo!”? The President?

I think not.

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Big Brother Is Not Fit To Hold My Data

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wonka
[By Tamarleigh Grenfell]

Let’s say my brother and I are out on the town. He insists on holding my purse for me while I use the restroom, but then leaves my purse sitting in plain sight right on the bar, and some creep steals it. Should I trust my brother with my purse, ever again?

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) sent me a letter this month informing me that my personal information was stolen in a “malicious cyber intrusion” earlier this year. My personal data (such as my SSN, name, address, date of birth, place of birth, residency history, employment history, educational history, personal foreign travel history, immediate family members, business acquaintances, personal acquaintances, medical history, criminal history, financial history, and more!) is all now somewhere out there in cyberspace, and like extinction and herpes, the Internet is forever.

This leak alone affected 21.5 million people, including 5.6 million people’s fingerprints,including mine. I provided that information, and my fingerprints, to the federal government long ago when I applied for a job as a research assistant at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. What started as an actual folder, somewhere along the line, got connected to Skynet – sorry, the Internet, and my fingerprints, which I can never change, were digitized and uploaded along with everything else.

What if I had found my brother two years ago photocopying my diary and circulating it to his friends for laughs, and that when confronted he just muttered something about it being to “keep me safe” because “there are dangerous people out there”? What if he then went out on the street with a bullhorn, telling everyone who will listen that we need to give him special keys to unlock all their stuff, because if we don’t, the Terrorists Will Win? What if he decided all on his own to break every lock in town, so he could access any document at any time? How much should I trust him then?

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The Year In Mass Surveillance

(Crossposted at The Dig)

SURVEILLANCE TOP

I run a sturdy volunteer group of cypherpunks, Democrats, libertarians, Republicans, and anarchists that meets weekly in Cambridge to plot ways to undermine the surveillance state. You’d be better off using divination sticks than relying on TV to find out what’s going on regarding these matters, so we keep track of it all. Here’s a brief overview of this year’s surveillance-related news in the Commonwealth.

In Massachusetts, we now have no fewer than 65 agencies focusing on homeland security and terrorism. Our local surveillance center (BRIC) operates out of Boston Police Department headquarters, and keeps tabs on Black Lives Matter, peace activists, local Muslim groups, and journalists and activists who oppose their tactics. Along with the FBI, BRIC monitors social media, especially around public events, for inappropriate content. Generally, these technologies and practices are focused sharply on poor and high-minority communities, leaving wealthier and whiter communities to enjoy a less intrusive style of surveillance. One exception to that would be Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs), which DigBoston discovered are still being used by BPD despite the department claiming years ago that they stopped tracking drivers en masse. Furthermore, until said Dig discovery, troves of the data collected via ALPR—more than a million license plate numbers tied to location and other information including home addresses in some cases—were left exposed online by the third-party company contracted to store plate information.

Knowing these facts, we advocated for bills this year on Beacon Hill to undermine police militarization (H. 2169) and mandate data collection on police stops and bodycams for all police statewide. along with strong privacy controls (H. 2170), and for Senate Majority Leader Harriette Chandler’s fusion center reform bill (S.734) which, among other things, would make it so “no state or local law enforcement agency, prosecutorial office, criminal intelligence system, police or peace officer, or agent thereof [could] track, collect or maintain information about the political, religious or social views, associations or activities of any individual, group, association, organization, corporation, business or partnership or other entity unless such information directly relates to an investigation of criminal activities.”

On the ground, activists Segun Idowu, Shekia Scott, and Muska Nassery worked throughout the year to bring bodycams to Boston, an idea which Commissioner William Evans greeted with all the enthusiasm of a vegetarian asked to model Lady Gaga’s meat dress. This while activists pried loose proof that BPD lied about not having a “stingray,” a device that spoofs cellphone towers and sucks up call data, likely mostly used in drug investigations. BRIC tarred journalists from the Bay State Examiner as security threats, lied when asked whether they had files on those journalists, steadily refused to meet with civil liberties groups, and awarded themselves an A+ for “Privacy, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties” in their annual DHS report. Of course, we’d know none of this without the Commonwealth’s battered old public records law, which the legislature is currently trying to update so that agencies like BRIC have longer to respond to requests.

At year’s end, the Paris attacks, the San Bernardino mass shooting, and GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump’s call for unreasonable immigration restrictions have everyone on edge, but especially the Muslim community. There are swastikas on mosques and hit pieces in the press on local Muslims and those who defend their rights. The pressure of surveillance makes everything worse, accentuating suspicion across classes, religions, and races—all without doing anything to actually thwart attacks.

In consequence of all this, black, Jewish, LGBT, anarchist, progressive, and Somali groups came together with the ACLU to hold a standing-room-only session in Roxbury on surveillance, race, and policing. Meanwhile, BPD officials, including a representative from BRIC, hold meetings with local Muslim leaders at their headquarters, and wonder why attendance is below expectations.

If you’d like to join our efforts in 2016, we recommend you use Tor, Signal, and Protonmail to protect your communications, and join our listserv at d4-discuss-subscribe@lists.riseup.net.

BONUS: For months, the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, along with many of their followers on social media, have been documenting surveillance around Greater Boston to make up for the fact that there is no master list of all camera locations. We need your help! All you have to do is snap a picture of a camera on your cell phone and post it on Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #BINJbrother. If you’re a surveillance skeptic and don’t want to use your GPS for location, please just tag the city (e.g., #Boston) and building (e.g., #MGH) or intersection (e.g., #MassAve and #Boylston). Try not to mess up, you’re being watched. -Chris Faraone

REAL ID and Islamophobia: Resisting Our Legibility To The State

kafka-metamorphosis

In most parts of Europe, since the totalitarian governments of the inter-war period, pressure from governments to make their citizens legible has been hard to resist. Germany now has universal biometric ID cards for all adults, which police have a right to demand to see, irrespective of whether they have probable cause of your involvement in a crime; 24 of the 27 EU states have mandatory national ID cards.

Biometrics matter, because outside of science fiction, they can’t be changed. During refugee crises, deep anxieties – Who are these people? Why are they coming here? – induce governments to pin people down to an unchanging identity, like bugs in a biologist’s cabinet.

This is a fundamental difference between mainly-autochthonous and mainly-settler societies. Ideologically, the United States came to be out of westward conquest, by people eager to refashion themselves away from the religious and social strictures of more settled societies. At Ellis Island, you could change your name; on the frontier, a white man could be whoever he declared himself to be. As Walt Whitman wrote, “Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion, / A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker, / Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest. / I resist any thing better than my own diversity, Breathe the air but leave plenty after me.” Settler societies are supposed to “leave plenty” of air to breathe for those who come to settle after them; they’re supposed to leave room to self-refashion. Anonymity, pseudonymity and the ability to erase your tracks bolster your power versus the state.

Which brings us to Donald Trump, and his calls for registration of suspiciously Muslim people; and which also brings us to efforts here in Massachusetts to increase our legibility by implementing the REAL ID Act.

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Penny-Ante State-Based Spies Want To Force Big Kids To Let Them Play With All The Data

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The U. S. House just passed two bills under suspension, HR. 3503 and HR. 3598, sponsored by Rep. McCaul (R-TX-10) and Rep. Peter King (R-NY-2). For some reason, McCaul and King are fans of the inept and wasteful “fusion centers”, a network of 78 state-based centers funded partly through DHS.

The idea back in 2006 was that fusion centers would provide “joined-up intelligence”, coordinating federal and state information that would then thwart terrorist attacks in advance.

It didn’t quite work out that way. In fact, there’s good reason why fusion centers are not now the focus of intelligence sharing efforts: They turned out to be a waste of time and resources better spent elsewhere.

A bipartisan 2012 US Senate report blasted the fusion centers for failing to thwart any attacks, for wasting public funds on things like widescreen TVs (for “open source intelligence collection”), and for articulating absurd rationales for surveilling peaceful domestic activists. One fusion center labeled supporters of Ron Paul and the Campaign for Liberty as potential domestic terrorists; in Boston and around the country, veterans’ groups, the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter have come under sustained scrutiny. Fusion centers don’t thwart terrorism; they offer states a bureaucratic mechanism to funnel DHS grants to, say, northeastern Ohio (which has its own fusion center), distributing them away from areas more likely to be targeted by terrorists. They collect and sit on mounds of unverified gossip about “suspicious” people, gossip that often appears motivated by racial or religious bias. These threats are nonsensical; there is no reason to lend them credence.

These bills should be seen clearly for what they are. They’re not efforts to actually thwart terrorist attacks better; they’re salvos in a turf war between intelligence agencies. Fusion centers are often left out of data sharing by other surveillance agencies, such as the FBI, TSA, CBP and other DHS agencies. Instead of allowing discretionary sharing with individual fusion centers, H. 3598 requires support for the National Fusion Center Network specifically, and aims to “ensur[e] that fusion centers in the Network are the primary focal points for the sharing of homeland security information, terrorism information, and weapons of mass destruction information with state and local entities.” HR. 3503 seeks to integrate fusion centers more closely with border security, in the form of CBP, TSA and the Coast Guard, forcing those agencies to analyze whether it would be beneficial to station CBP, TSA and CG personnel at fusion centers, in lieu of simply sharing data electronically. The bill gives the Under-Secretary of Intelligence and Analysis at DHS an ultimatum to agree within one year with all 78 fusion centers how DHS and the fusion centers will share and disclose data. Of course, the bills take no steps to make fusion centers effective in the future, so there’s no way to test whether the bills will actually do good if they pass. All they offer Congress is reports on whether fusion centers have particular policies, not whether the policies work; whether they are sharing information, not whether the sharing actually results in less terrorism or less crime.

We support the sharing of important, verified leads, based on probable cause of actual criminal plots. But these bills make us less, not more, safe, by encouraging the kind of information sharing that will overwhelm agencies like FBI and other parts of DHS with useless false positives. They will waste the time of FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force personnel, forcing them to spend time dealing with an extra agency when time is of the essence. There is no language that would involve actual evaluation of whether the information they hold is accurate, useful or constitutionally appropriate to hold. As constitutional activists, we’re no fans of the FBI’s efforts to convert themselves into a federal counterterrorism and domestic surveillance agency, and there’s plenty of overlap already among federal agencies fighting for a piece of the seemingly unending stream of counterterrorism tax dollars; but extending sharing further by forcing everything to go via the fusion centers seems even more counterproductive.

Call your Senator, and urge them to vote against these bills!

Go Smart, Not Broad: A Constitutional Response To Violent Attacks

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A former Middle East advisor to President Obama, Steven Simon, suggested in Saturday’s New York Times that the administration’s response to the Paris attacks was likely to include “Tighter border controls, more intensive surveillance in the U.S. and more outreach to local communities in the hope that extremists will be fingered by their friends and family. And a tightening of already intimate cooperation with European intelligence agencies.”

These proposals, if adopted, would be immensely counterproductive, and here’s why.

First, tighter border controls are irrelevant to this attack. It appears that all of the attackers so far identified, were EU citizens; none were refugees from Syria.

Second, France already had a draconian mass surveillance law, which came into effect at the beginning of October. It didn’t work to thwart these attacks. The reason is the “false positives” problem. Any system employing demographics, metadata, or past behavior, inevitably sweeps up a vast majority of innocent people, and diverts police and intelligence resources towards ruling them out. This LA Times study of “pre-crime” efforts to prevent violent crimes by US Army soldiers added every variable they could, and still, for every 15 people who did in fact commit violence in a given year in their set of suspects, 985 did not. Similarly, before the Boston Marathon attacks, the FBI had flagged Tamarlen Tsarnaev for interview; but they interview hundreds of flagged people every week, and have no way of knowing which among them will actually commit an attack. So, it appears that six weeks before the attacks, France’s intelligence agencies snowed themselves under with an ocean of false positives, and weren’t able to detect among that traffic the communications that were suspicious. They can’t be faulted for not being able to do so; it’s mathematically impossible. All mass surveillance allows is what’s happening now, which is to be able to go back into the system and see what you missed.

Third, Muslim and black communities were already under very heavy pressure in France, and are already under very heavy pressure here from the FBI, through its “Countering Violent Extremism” program, to “finger friends and family”. CVE uses models of radicalization with no solid academic basis to identify people as potentially radical simply because they have changed their dietary habits or become more devout about their religion. To make their numbers, the FBI has even resorted, in case after case, to creating their own terrorists out of young, poor, and mentally unstable young men, using confidential informants to lead them through every stage of devising a plot till they do something the FBI can arrest them for. We don’t need more of that either.

Fourth, when it comes to “more intimate cooperation” with European intelligence agencies, the fact is that such cooperation is already “intimate” – so intimate that the British systematically tap Internet traffic and hand us the contents; so intimate that we share “raw take” intelligence with Israeli security services; so intimate that the German intelligence agency helped the NSA spy on Europe’s top politicians in exchange for access to the latest in surveillance wizardry. Short of actually being in bed with one another, there’s no more “intimacy” to be had – and it still isn’t working.

This kind of mass surveillance is not working to thwart attacks. But in four important ways, it does work. Mass surveillance intimidates citizens in their ordinary conversations and activities of life. It allows bigoted politicians to curry favor with their base, and coast on a wave of anti-Muslim suspicion. It brings great profits to the private security firms smart enough to fill their cup at the never-failing spigot of federal counterterrorism funding. And it makes the general public feel that Something Is Being Done, convincing them to trade more of their rights away for a little temporary safety.

Last, if we react in this particular way, it also serves the ends of the violent criminals who committed this attack. Lacking resources themselves to wage war, they seek to provoke a backlash that will garner them support among the peaceful Muslim majority. Back in the day, the IRA posed as the defenders of the rights of peaceful Northern Irish Catholics against foreign oppression; today, the Islamic State poses as the defenders of the rights of peaceful Muslims against foreign oppression. A governmental backlash against Muslims in general will merely bolster their propaganda: See? We told you they’re out to get you! Come join us!

Instead, we should use the Constitution to solve the false positives problem. The Fourth Amendment bars mass surveillance, requiring, before surveillance is conducted, a warrant based on individualized probable cause of involvement in actual criminal activity. Imagine that, instead of having a “TIDE” terrorist database with 750,000+ names on it, it were limited to a maximum of one thousand, but that the one thousand were each investigated thoroughly on the basis of actual evidence. The surveillance agencies would waste a lot less time chasing fruitless leads, building data centers, or shoveling money to software vendors to try to solve this insoluble problem.

Foreign policy and economic solutions are beyond our remit, but it should be obvious that in order to drain the Islamic State of support, we have to provide those fleeing its rule with a credible chance at a better life. At the bare minimum, we should let them know that if they come to our country, they will be treated justly, not kept constantly under watch even if innocent of any crime.

Massachusetts’ Law Enforcement Councils: Born In Infamy, Sustained By Fear

NEMLEC BACK

The reporters at the Bay State Examiner, Maya Shaffer and Andrew Quemere, do real journalism – the kind that chases stories of misdeeds in high places, instead of breathlessly reproducing press releases on celebrities in rehab. They’re in it for truth, not for big paydays and access to power.

Their latest piece, produced in collaboration with BINJ and DigBoston, sheds light on the operation of NEMLEC. NEMLEC is one of Massachusetts’ “Law Enforcement Councils”, shadowy 501(c)(3) entities that outwardly exist to coordinate the activities and equipment of police departments.

In reality, NEMLEC was founded in the 1960s, as its own mission stated – till people noticed in 2014 that this was, well, hellaciously racist, among other things – to address “disorder associated with suburban sprawl as people migrated from larger cities, the development of the interstate highway system, the civil rights movement and the growing resistance to the Vietnam War [all of which] threatened to overwhelm the serenity of the quaint, idyllic New England towns north and west of Boston.”

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Yep, those darned hippy peaceniks and black radicals wanting outrageous things like peace and justice were a threat to the “serenity” of founding departments in Wakefield, Wilmington, Woburn and five other jurisdictions north of Boston; and 43 other police departments, including my own town of Belmont, found this `urban threat’ message so urgent and compelling that they signed up too. Law enforcement, then and now, is deeply suspicious of people who argue that the status quo should change.

In service of that mission, the LECs’ job nowadays is to coordinate SWAT raids, mostly on minor drug warrants; to foster the militarization of member police departments by pooling high-grade equipment; and to provide military-style training, like “Urban Shield“, that encourages well-meaning law enforcement officers to regard members of the public as the enemy.

NEMLEC and the other law enforcement councils recently settled a lawsuit with the ACLU where they conceded that they were in fact subject to the public records law. Shaffer and Quemere decided to test this out. It took “nearly two months, seven in-person visits, numerous phone calls and emails, and a run-in with the Wilmington police” to get (some of) the records they were seeking. Their story details an agency that is really hoping that nobody finds out what they’re doing, and points up the significant flaws in Massachusetts’ public records laws.

We’re looking forward eagerly to the next installment in this series to see what these hard-won records reveal.

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