Midterms & Mass Surveillance, Part V: And I Have Seen Blue Skies

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There is a story by sci-fi author Greg Bear called Strength of Stones. In the far future, humankind has built Cities that are beautiful feats of engineering, that can move themselves to where they are most needed, governed by artificial intelligences seeking to maintain order and peace. The Cities monitor everything about their people, and mildly and consistently punish infractions of the city codes with exile. Within two generations, the Cities have exiled the whole human race. Actual human beings, in their messiness and irrationality and wilful sense of mischief, will never be able to be rationalized into a system of uniformly enforced algorithmic regulation, and without human beings to sustain them, the Cities themselves eventually began to die.

It can look, from this side of it, as if surveillance, criminalization and punishment will only increase; that there is an unstoppable drive toward a union of oppressors – corporations, police, intelligence services and the bureaucracy – that really deserves the name of fascism. On the morning after the Ferguson non-indictment, it seems especially legitimate to question whether we can achieve anything that looks like justice.

But looking ahead, I don’t imagine a boot stamping on a human face, forever. I view our 17 surveillance agencies, like the Cities, as containing the seeds of their own destruction. They depend on us; we don’t depend on them, but on each other.

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Not-Methuen-High-School Installs “Guardian Shooter Detection System”

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In Methuen, MA, security contractor Shooter Detection Systems (“1-844-SHOT911″) has convinced school administrators to install a “Guardian” system that “constantly monitors” school hallways and classrooms for sounds of gunfire. As an extra, they got local Congresswoman Niki Tsongas to intone pieties about making schools “safe sanctuaries for learning.” Apparently, that means “lending my credibility to a sales campaign that will funnel school tax money away from teachers and supplies and into the pockets of contractors, in the name of thwarting random low-probability events.”

Raw Story picked up the press release, and indulged in their own little bit of security theater, noting soberly that the PR firm for Shooter Detection Systems had asked them not to reveal the name of the school even while they had named the relevant town in its own press release.

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Midterms & Mass Surveillance, Part IV: Surveillance Doesn’t Pay in MA

Martha Coakley and Maura Healey

Martha Coakley and Maura Healey

Poor Martha Coakley. Oceans of ink have now been spilled on why outgoing Massachusetts Attorney-General Martha Coakley lost her bid for Governor. Arguments have included that she’s a poor campaigner, that many Democrats resented bitterly her loss to Scott Brown back in 2010, that she was a female candidate facing a somewhat sexist electorate.

I’m not going to argue that surveillance issues alone swung the race against Coakley. However, I would like to draw attention to a broader reason, to which her support for expanding wiretapping contributed, that fueled Democratic base disaffection with her.

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Midterms & Mass Surveillance, Part III: Congress & Obama At Daggers Drawn…Except Where It Counts

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There are people who will tell you that the fact that the Republicans now control 53 Senate seats as well as a large majority in the House, will lead to actual and meaningful legislative action, whether on immigration, tax reform, or infrastructure spending. Oh, those people are going to be so frustrated by the next two years.

Both Congress and the President have strong incentives to play to their bases so that the bases turn out in 2016, so they will still highlight hot-button issues that will activate them. The mysterious thing is that there is plenty of bipartisan consensus in Washington; it’s just that it applies only to certain issues, and doesn’t get reported on much because neither party wants to highlight it. Specifically, there is genuine, friendly, unstated bipartisan consensus on the set of policies that buttresses the party elites’ authority and prosperity.

What supports the elites? War; monopoly; a crisis-hungry unity between corporations and the state, in the name of “national security.” A revolving door between the two. Corrupt, no-bid contracts. Open bankrolling of political campaigns. And underpinning it all, mass, suspicionless surveillance to monitor any discontent with this state of affairs. It’s not a coincidence that new authority for a war of extirpation against ISIS is likely to be high on the new Congress’s agenda; without an external enemy, without war, looting the state gets much harder.

These matters will not fill the TV news, however – not when the much juicier stories of repeated efforts to repeal Obamacare and impeachment of the President are available as narratives. These narratives, at least, don’t require news outlets to examine their own complicity in in supporting the elites.

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Midterms & Mass Surveillance, Part II: CIA and Elite Torturers Win, The Rule of Law Loses

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We lack in this country a major party that offers wholehearted and universal support for the protections embodied in the Bill of Rights, and the choices offered are often highly constrained. To take the last two presidential elections as an example, the more pro-civil-liberties of the major-party candidates has launched more Espionage Act prosecutions than all previous presidents combined; indefinitely detains legally innocent people, for fear of what they might do if released; allows agencies to gin up fake terror plots; calls the idea of actually prosecuting torturers “sanctimonious“; and would prefer a cosmetic surveillance reform that legitimates most of what the deep state is doing and that, of course, wouldn’t punish anyone. The less pro-civil-liberties candidates argued for unending war in the Middle East, invited warmongers and torturers to introduce them at campaign stops, and argued that affording due process to prisoners of war would be a kind of treason.

There’s a reason for this constrained choice set: The elites of both parties no longer, if they ever did, believe that laws apply to them, their colleagues, their funders, or the intelligence agencies. As a result of this culture of lawlessness, no candidate that genuinely seeks to have laws apply universally will garner the insider support needed to advance their candidacies.

We will see the effects of this constrained choice set in the new Congress most clearly in the field of prosecutions for US government acts of torture.

Let’s review the history.

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Toymaker GoldieBlox’s New Ad Channels 1984

Worth watching for the pink surveillance cameras alone.

Shame that the doll that is supposed to break down the beauty myth is blonde; but hey, one step at a time.

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

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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

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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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