How Massachusetts’ Congressmembers Stack Up On Mass Surveillance

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At this point in the election cycle, 99% of the oxygen in the room is taken up by the presidential campaigns. But Massachusetts has nine House members and two Senators, and their views on mass surveillance matter. Next year, the main authority for the government’s mass surveillance programs, Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, expires, and Congress will crucially shape what comes next. This pair of articles from Just Security give you an idea of what’s at stake:

Unprecedented and Unlawful: The NSA’s “Upstream” Surveillance
Correcting the Record on Section 702: A Prerequisite for Meaningful Surveillance Reform

The Democrats have a lock on the congressional delegation, but this is an issue where elected officials within the same party often differ sharply; so without further ado, here’s where they stand: (For the full list for all states, check out Decide The Future, our scorecard site.)

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State Surveillance Cannot Save Us From Mass Violence

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After the appalling deaths of 49 people, and injuries to another 53, at a gay nightclub in Orlando this week, the presidential candidates leapt to push their own agendas. For Trump, it was about immigration; he magically transformed the US-born shooter into an Afghan, in order to emphasize that he was right about banning Muslim immigration. For Clinton, it was about gun control; she called for better background checks and limits on obtaining assault weapons. But when it came to surveillance, they might as well have been singing from the same hymn-sheet.

Clinton called for an “intelligence surge,” for increased internet surveillance and suppression of First Amendment-protected speech, to prevent “radicalization”; for propaganda promoting a US-government-seal-of-approval version of Islam; praised a “Countering Violent Extremism” (CVE) program that marks for intervention Muslims whose politics deviate from what the FBI thinks acceptable; and suggested that people on due-process-free terrorism watchlists should not be allowed to buy guns. Then, she wrapped her actual policy proposals in a cotton-wool language of diversity and inclusion, and claimed that this is not “special surveillance on our fellow Americans because of their religion.” She talked about “Islamism” rather than “Islam”, in order to claim to not be against Islam in itself—but in her world, the government gets to define who is a good and who is a bad Muslim. Perhaps the “bad Muslims” in her mind include citizens like Ayyub Abdul-Alim, imprisoned for refusing to inform on other Muslims for the FBI, who seems only have wanted to help strengthen his community; or Tarek Mehanna, imprisoned for translating al-Qaeda documents and posting them online, who held atrocious opinions but never planned or participated in a violent attack.

Trump, with a little less cotton-wool, actually says much the same about surveillance. Domestically, the “Muslim community” will “have to cooperate with law enforcement and turn in the people who they know are bad”, which is what CVE is intended to achieve, and what Mr. Abdul-Alim is in prison for resisting. Trump proposes an “intelligence gathering system second to none” that “includes better cooperation between state, local and federal officials,” and says that intelligence and law enforcement are “not being allowed to do their job.” And he wraps this up with vehement expressions of solidarity with the LGBT community.

There’s no evidence that mass surveillance, conducted and promoted by the government, works. In every country that is hit with any attack, large or small, there are calls for more surveillance, then more attacks, then more surveillance, then more attacks. It’s a vicious ratchet that we can only step off by becoming aware of it. France implemented its mass surveillance law before the Paris attacks: The law didn’t prevent them. France now lives under a state of near-martial law, where what we would call ordinary First and Fourth Amendment rights have been suspended. Britain is in the process of passing a new surveillance law that will enable the government to view your browsing history without a warrant, and already outlawed “glorifying terrorism.” They have gone farther along this ratchet than we have, but they are not reducing their chance of being attacked; instead, the purpose is to reduce the chance that a given politician will be blamed for “not doing enough” against terrorism. In truth, there is no perfect safety, and there is a small proportion of violent criminals in every country that the State is ultimately powerless to eliminate.

Our own mass surveillance systems led this “lone wolf” to be found and interviewed by the FBI, twice. But neither Clinton nor Trump articulate clearly what they thought the FBI should have done next, perhaps because there’s nothing more the FBI could lawfully have done regarding allegations of terrorist affiliation. If the aim of surveillance is for the FBI to interview suspected “radicals,” what should they do then to prevent an entirely hypothetical attack? Preventively detain them, without charge or trial, as happened to Jose Padilla? Preventively shoot them before they kill anyone else, as happened with Usaama Rahim? Do we want a State that, claiming to keep us safe, claims the right to do that to any of us? We are already part-way down that road; has it helped us so far?

State surveillance cannot save us from mass violence. It’s a poor guarantor of LGBT people’s safety. The sad truth is that there is a tendency to violence in every human being’s heart, irrespective of religion. Guns help violent people carry out their violent fantasies on a larger scale, and while comprehensive background checks wouldn’t have helped with this attack, the evidence suggests that they would probably help to prevent others. Mass surveillance doesn’t even enjoy that evidentiary advantage; last time the surveillance agencies were actually confronted on their assertion that mass surveillance had helped to prevent terrorist attacks, during the debate over the renewal of Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, the agencies’ claims shriveled under scrutiny like an ice-cream in the sun.

More than that, the State perpetrates mass violence on a scale much vaster than a single violent, conflicted misogynist. On a daily basis, the lives the State takes in the name of the War on Terror far exceed the number of lives taken by terrorists. We’re busy implementing a cure that causes more pain than the disease, because the State does not value enough or see enough glory in a more peaceful path. Why, then, should we trust the State with more power over the lives of Muslims and other “extremists,” here or abroad?

Instead of the State, we should look to each other. We should consider how we can build bonds of friendship and support that will encourage kindness, courtesy, and an appreciation of our mutual humanity. As we volunteer together, worship together, take care of loved ones together, work on good causes and reach out across lines of race and religion to those in distress, we step by step build the thriving “beloved community” of which Martin Luther King spoke long ago, so that even when attacks happen, they cannot break our bonds to one another. And so long as we work to trust one another, we can guard safely our thoughts, our opinions, and our liberties, even against a State that urges us constantly, for the sake of “safety,” to abandon them.

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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[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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