Category Archives: News

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

yesminpowertopeople

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

DilbertCorporateCulture2002

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

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

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”

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

"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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Mass Surveillance Is The Handmaiden of Unending War

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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