Category Archives: Mission

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

theyhateusforourfreedom

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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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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Zen and the Art of Cybersecurity

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In the hothouse of Congress, members have been sweating over the need to do something – anything – about “cybersecurity.” They were under pressure from the administration, the intelligence services, and the tech industry. But the latest news is that the Republican majority will be turning, in the few days left before the recess, from the contentious highways bill to a bill to defund Planned Parenthood, likely shifting the previously-catastrophically-urgent cybersecurity crisis through to the fall. So Congress, like my seven-year-olds in school assembly, can take a few deep breaths and imagine that they can smell a flower.

The truth is, there never was a “cybersecurity crisis.” Companies are already legally allowed to share information on hacking attempts with the government, and they usually do. This debate is not really about making US companies or the US government more secure; it’s about putting more of your information, that you have voluntarily shared with US companies, into the government’s hands, without companies being liable for violating their privacy policies for sharing personally identifiable information. All proposals on the table in Congress would immunize companies from suit in this way. In this sense, it would be perfectly all right for Congress to do nothing.

Nevertheless, there is a cybersecurity problem that is worth trying to solve. The government is not a good custodian of our data. Its networks are often poorly secured and vulnerable to outside intrusion. In the surveillance arena, there are now over five million people with security clearances, who are in a position to leak sensitive information. Cultivating a more disciplined approach to network protection and data retention would seem to be a good idea. That’s where the principle above comes in.

In this spirit, let’s calmly reflect on what a bill dealing with this real problem would look like.

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Sharing Is Not Caring: Amtrak, DHS and Travelers’ Rights

Sample form for internal passport for prisoners of war, Geneva Conventions, 1956

Sample form for internal passport for prisoners of war, Geneva Conventions, 1956

Traveling in today’s America is becoming more and more constrained. Every year, there are more checks, more searches, and more guards. If you go by car, ALPR systems will track you. If you go by plane, you and your belongings can be legally searched, groped, mocked, impounded or vandalized. If you stay in a motel, your information may be shared up front with law enforcement. And now, even the trains are getting on the act.

The aptly-named PapersPlease.org filed a Freedom of Information Act request last October asking how Amtrak handled sharing of information with the Department of Homeland Security. While Amtrak is regularly subsidized, it is legally a private company, and as such should not share information on passengers unless the police provide them with a valid, individualized probable-cause warrant. You know, that old Fourth Amendment thing?

Ahem.

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We All Now Live In Walls Of Glass: Police peer into suspects’ homes without warrants

Over the last two years, at least 50 law enforcement agencies around the United States have used radar devices that allow them to peer through walls and into your home without a warrant, according to USA Today. The devices, each of which costs nearly $6,000, detect movement – even breathing – through walls and up to 50 feet away.

According to contracts obtained by USA Today, the US Marshals Service began buying the radars in 2012 and has since spent $180,000 on the equipment – enough for thirty Range-R radars manufactured by L-3 Communications. Disturbingly, the radars can even be mounted on a drone.

The devices were originally manufactured for use in Iraq and Afghanistan ,but have made their way onto domestic soil, providing yet another example of how the use of military gear by police results in an infringement of our fundamental right to be free of unreasonable and warrantless searches and seizures.

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Levitating the Pentagon Is Now A Terrorist Act

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Back in 1967, the much-missed Abbie Hoffman and several hundred of his friends hatched a plan to exorcise and levitate the Pentagon, so that they could end the war in Vietnam. They meticulously went through all the steps for requesting a permit (including negotiating the proposed levitation down to three feet, from the initially suggested 300 feet). Most amazingly of all, to our tired War-on-Terror eyes, they were allowed to go through with it, albeit with several thousand US troops and a couple hundred US Marshals standing ready in case of chaos.

Authoritarians of both major parties will be happy to hear that today’s law enforcement won’t stand for such peaceful acts of political theater. At a time when the newspapers are dutifully parroting the paramount need for a Democratic President to bomb ISIS so hard that it will make the rubble bounce, our domestic law enforcement agencies and private security companies are getting floods of easy money to deal with the devastating terroristic threats posed by people who drop glitter or take photos of factory farms or who hold hippy parties in the woods.

Pity, in this last context, the Rainbow Family of Living Light, who make the mistake of “stressing non-violence, peace and love.” We Are Change reports that Missoula’s police chief has applied for a grant from DHS (who else?) to purchase a mobile command unit to spy on the Rainbow Family as an “extremist” organization. One of its gatherings was described as “rowdy” and as “creat[ing] a mess that [needed] to be cleaned up”. If that makes you an extremist, then based on the appearance of our toy room I appear to have two domestic extremist seven-year-olds; maybe I should be applying for a quarter-million dollar grant from DHS myself?

My goodness gracious. Well, the last thing we Americans want is any rowdiness. Leave that to the Canadians, or possibly the British. We, unlike them, are sober and obedient people who dutifully obey orders from the powers that be. It’s the only safe thing to do in this post-9/11 world.

Our New Bill H. 2170 Mandates Police Bodycams, Protects Data

"Our police department in Lynn, MA likes both kinds of music - country AND western..."

“Our police department in Lynn, MA likes both kinds of music – country AND western…”

When Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, MO, there was no video of it. When Denis Reynoso was shot in Lynn, MA, there was no video of it. But what if there had been? And what if police bodycams could significantly reduce incidents of use of force by police?

Responding to this need, Digital Fourth took model legislation developed by the Harvard Black Law Students Association that mandates bodycams for police departments, modified it for Massachusetts, and got a bill filed on Beacon Hill. This session was the first time our gallant volunteers have tried anything like this, and we got a strong response. Sen. Jamie Eldridge filed the bill in the Senate; Rep. Denise Provost filed it in the House; and it has already attracted as cosponsors Rep. Benjamin Swan (D-Springfield), Rep. Mary Keefe (D-Worcester) and Rep. Byron Rushing (D-Boston).

The bill is a result of months of consultation with interested police departments and grapples with some difficult issues – how would bodycam data be used? When would officers be required to record? What about the consent of the people being filmed? It sets up a blue-ribbon committee to review traffic stops, pedestrian stops, and bodycam footage, requires police officers to carry bodycams in almost all circumstances, and sets strong controls on the use and dissemination of the footage.

As this appears to be the only bodycams bill that got filed in the 2015-16 session, we believe that our bill represents the best chance of fostering a discussion about reducing on-the-ground unreasonable searches and seizures – the bread and butter of the Fourth Amendment – and that it could substantially improve relations between the police and communities of color in particular. Community-police relations directly affects those working on policy initiatives: One of the people advising on our bill, Segun Idowu, chairman of the Boston Police Cameras Action Team, was arrested at a Black Lives Matter protest and is currently facing trial.

“Our research, inspired by current events, confirms that community/police relations may be improved with the use of this technology, as bodycams will provide a truth that has no color,” said McKenzie Morris, President of the Harvard Black Law Students Association. “This legislation, albeit a first step, is a necessary endeavor for the pursuit of transparency and accountability in policing.”

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