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.”

NEMLEC-mapcompress

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.

Has the CIA Revived Operation CHAOS?

one-nation-under-surveillance

A local activist came to Digital Fourth with a strange story to tell.

She was stopped early in the morning at a Canadian border crossing. During the stop, she was interviewed inside. During that interview, the border guard who initially stopped her walked in, to by the desk where she was, and handed the interviewer a Post-It note. On the note was her name, with “Operation Chaos” written on it in Magic Marker.

Says our volunteer:

“It was huge and right in my face and they were all perfectly casual about it, so I asked, “What is Operation Chaos? ” and I was told it was a random search program where they pulled people out of line to check for whatever they check for. I had to answer some questions about how long I was in Canada and Boston and what I was doing there. also how long I had lived in Boston in the past and this last round (about a year). They asked if the moving van was locked, it was not, and said they were searching it. They searched it with dogs and did not find anything other than liquor purchased at the duty free shop in New York. It all took about ten minutes once they started searching. I did not have anything illegal with me. […] They were surfing the web, and to be honest, I don’t think any of them were really engaged; it was about 2:30 in the morning. I mean the desk officer was busy looking at his screen when the note was handed to him and he just stuck it to the counter. […] They did not ask me anything about political activities, but they looked over my record for a while I filled out the paperwork. I do not have an arrest record.”

When she got home, she looked up “Operation Chaos” on the Internet, and found that there was an Operation Chaos run by the CIA, which started under Johnson, continued under Nixon, was exposed, and then supposedly ended in 1974. Operation Chaos aimed to identify foreign influence over student protest movements.

Our volunteer has been involved in various peaceful digital activism and social justice movements, and her parents were SNCC and SDS members who were under continuous surveillance in the 1960s and 1970s. Both of these organizations are named as having been targets of Operation CHAOS, which implemented an early form of the phone metadata dragnet made famous by Edward Snowden. She says, “J. Edgar Hoover wrote a letter to the local FBI office asking them to harass my father indefinitely.”

This is all one hell of a coincidence.

Let’s consider carefully what this means.

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We Just Denied Boston’s Spy Center $1.45m In Extra Funding

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It’s common to assume nothing can be done to roll back mass surveillance. Truth is, every technology operates within a set of political assumptions about what can and cannot be done with it. Little by little, we can change those assumptions.

Three weeks ago, we caught the Boston Regional Intelligence Center trying to sneak $2.25m for “technology upgrades and integration” into the state budget. Our members started calling Ways and Means legislators, arguing that this would be throwing good money after bad. BRIC uses technology to repress peaceful journalists and protesters; why should they get a cent?

A little surprised at this pushback, legislators reduced the $2.25m to $792,669.

Here’s the exact language from H. 3829, the budget that just passed:

“8000-1001 For the Boston Regional Intelligence Center to upgrade, expand, and integrate technology and protocols related to anti-terrorism, anti-crime, anti-gang, and emergency response; provided that intelligence developed shall be shared with the BRIC communities and other State municipal and federal agencies as necessary; provided further, that BRIC shall provide technology required to access the intelligence with its municipal partners, the State police, the MBTA, the Mass Port Authority, and appropriate federal agencies to assure maximum interagency collaboration for public safety and homeland security…………………………………..…………………………..$792,669”

With this reduction, we just saved MA taxpayers $1.45m. And BRIC is, from now on, on notice that their funding requests will not be smooth sailing.

If you like that we did this, consider donating to Digital Fourth / Restore The Fourth Boston, joining our listserv, coming to our Wednesday 12pm meetings at Voltage Coffee & Art, or attending our monthly evening group (next meeting Sunday, November 1, at Summer Shack).

Don’t Worry: Area Counter-Terrorism Center Laser-Focused on Bicycling Cellphone Thief

Cellphone_Theft

If you like your mass surveillance steak sauced in a Keystone Kops level of organizational dysfunction, the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, or BRIC, could be your dream meal.

This story comes via a former Emmanuel College student, who received a BRIC “intelligence bulletin” to all students regarding a man stealing cell phones on his bicycle in the Fenway area (see below). Is it upsetting to have your cellphone stolen by an environmentally conscious thief? Yes. Is it at a level of criminality that warrants shoveling tens of millions of our dollars towards a gee-whiz high-tech surveillance center to gather information on all Massachusetts residents? Uh, probably not. Tell me again when we signed up for that?

Far from focusing on intelligence related to terrorism, in practice, the BRIC concentrates almost exclusively on criminal activity unrelated to any conceivable notion of what “terrorism” actually is. The truth is that the risk we face from terrorism is extremely low, but the continued existence of the BRIC, of 77 other “fusion centers” around the country, of the Department of Homeland Security itself, and of a whole ecosystem of security grifting companies, depends on taxpayers not working that out. So, to keep themselves going, BRIC has to use surveillance to disrupt a broad array of minimally criminal or even entirely non-criminal activity, and redefine that activity as much as possible as being terrorism. We have to be told, repeatedly, that the wolf is at the door, that things are getting worse, and that mass surveillance will actually help make things better. Here at Digital Fourth, we call this the “Bureaucratic Counterterrorism Imperative.”

With that in mind, here are the results of our latest Public Records Act request to the BRIC, which documents for the first time that BRIC does get data from intelligence agency sources.

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MA, Feds Behind The Curve on Warrants for Email Searches

Back in the days of DEC and Wang Computer, there was serious doubt whether California’s Route 101 or Massachusetts’ Route 128 would be at the forefront of the digital economy. My aunt immigrated to Massachusetts to stake out her part of the new digital frontier. And round about that time, when I was seven years old, is also the last time Congress passed an email privacy bill. Called the “Electronic Communications Privacy Act“, by now it might as well be called the “Ordinance Describing Rules Regarding the Transportation of Speedy Telegrams Via Means Faster Than The Horse” for all the good it does. Among other ridiculously outdated provisions, it treated holding onto your emails for more than six months as a crazy-expensive thing only crazy people would ever do, so emails older than that are considered “abandoned” like your curbside trash. Law enforcement therefore don’t need to get a warrant to search it.

Fast-forward to now, and a federal bill to solve this, the Email Privacy Act, now has more than 300 sponsors in the House. That would be more than enough to pass it if it got to the floor, and is more cosponsors than any other bill still being held up in committee. It’s being held up essentially because the SEC and FTC want a free hand to not get warrants:

In a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, representatives of the SEC and FTC claimed that other other types of court orders provide a comparable standard to a warrant based on probable cause. Nothing could be further from the truth. A search warrant – the standard in the constitution – allows access to information only when there is a strong likelihood it will show evidence of criminal violations of the law. That is a high standard that applies only in a narrow class of cases. By contrast the SEC and FTC are seeking access to email whenever it is relevant to civil violations of the law – such as mistakenly filling out a tax form. That is a low standard which applies in many cases. This rule would then apply to every agency – from the IRS to the local health inspector. Agencies shouldn’t be able to highjack reform to seek a digital power grab,” said Chris Calabrese, Vice President for Policy at the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT)

In reaction to these roadblocks, organizers at the state level, including our fellow chapters of Restore The 4th – SF Bay Area and Restore The 4th- LA, have advocated for stronger state privacy laws, and in California, they just succeeded in passing Cal-ECPA, the strongest email privacy law in the nation.

In Massachusetts, our path to Warrant Protection for Email City has resembled so far, far more the federal path than the one California just chose. Last session, a bill was reported out favorably from committee, and got dropped only on the last day of the session, amid the usual flurry of the close of business. It just came up again at this week’s Judiciary Hearing, the ACLU testified on it, and we support it too. But California has now lit the path for us to follow, and it will matter greatly whether we follow it. Massachusetts residents should not enjoy lesser protections for their emails than California residents, any more than the Sox deserve to lose to the Giants.

MA Senate Maj. Leader Strongly Opposes Fusion Centers. So Do We.

In its October 7 hearing on “Protected Classes. Privacy, and Data Collection Legislation”, the Massachusetts legislature heard impassioned testimony on the fusion centers from Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harriette Chandler. She argued that they represent an illegitimate intrusion of federal surveillance into our everyday lives.

The fusion centers gather a vast array of data on law-abiding Massachusetts residents whom they believe to have been behaving “suspiciously” in some lawful way. This violates the Fourth Amendment, and is also bad policy. Right now, as far as we have been able to determine, no external body ever evaluates the accuracy or appropriateness of the data the fusion centers hold. DHS evaluates them every five years to certify their adherence to DHS procedures for fusion centers; the fusion centers self-certify annually that they are ramping up according to plan, and that they respect privacy and civil liberties. (They give themselves full marks, naturally). That’s it.

We too dislike the fusion centers, and also see them as sinisterly ensnaring Massachusetts residents in a web of surveillance. To us, the question is not so much whether we as a state should regulate the fusion centers, but whether we should fire all their employees, blow up their buildings, and then salt the earth beneath them as a mark of horror for future generations. Still, still, we love that there is a fusion center reform bill, and we warmly support it.

Our five-year vision for the Massachusetts fusion centers differs sharply from theirs.

The bill’s provisions make good, if incremental, sense. They require the fusion centers to audit themselves annually to determine whether they have investigations open that shouldn’t be, and make the report of that a public record; they empower an inspector-general to conduct outside audits; and they specify some metrics whereby the fusion centers can determine how well they are respecting people’s privacy. These are important first steps toward establishing whether anything that the fusion centers do, actually does the rest of us any good; and will prepare the ground better for us to have discussions in future years about closing them entirely.

How Much Does The Press Care About Race and Policing?

racial-profiling

On October 7, the Joint Committee on the Judiciary of the Massachusetts legislature held a marathon hearing on “Protected Classes. Privacy, and Data Collection Legislation”.

To be fair, Boston.com and the Boston Herald both reproduced an AP wire report from Steven LeBlanc that there was a hearing. But the AP mentioned only the part of the agenda dealing with a bill to ban transgender discrimination in places of public accommodation.

I’m not going to argue that transgender rights aren’t important. They matter a lot. But it’s astounding that, in a year when race and policing have been, you know, kind of in the news, only the Bay State Banner gave decent coverage to the fact that the vast majority of the bills considered at the hearing were about police, profiling, warrants and race. In the Boston Globe’s “Politics” section, they had room for two fawning profiles of elected Democrats (Attorney-General Maura Healey has “indefatigable drive and charisma“, and House Speaker Bob DeLeo has a “slimmed-down and healthier” look), but race and policing didn’t get a look in this time.

So this is what happened regarding racial profiling.

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Boston Fusion Center Trying to Sneak Millions of $ More Into House Budget

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Those sneaky folks over at the Boston Regional Intelligence Center decided that we weren’t shoveling enough tax dollars towards their hard work of spying on protesters, harassing Twitter bloviators, and serving as a praetorian guard for major corporate interests. To remedy this injustice, they got the House to approve over two million dollars in extra funding for “technology and protocol upgrades” as part of H. 3773.

8000-1001 For the Boston Regional Intelligence Center to upgrade, expand, and integrate technology and protocols related to anti-terrorism, anti-crime, anti-gang, and emergency response; provided that intelligence developed shall be shared with the BRIC communities and other State municipal and federal agencies as necessary; provided further, that BRIC shall provide technology required to access the intelligence with its municipal partners, the State police, the MBTA, the Mass Port Authority, and appropriate federal agencies to assure maximum interagency collaboration for public safety and homeland security………………………………………………………………………..$2,250,000

It should be clear to everyone that there should not be an endless spigot of tax dollars going to fund counter-terrorism when we already vastly overspend on counter-terrorism, or to fund vaguely-worded “anti-crime and anti-gang” initiatives when crime is approaching historic lows. The Senate hasn’t passed its supplemental budget yet, so we’re asking Senators not to include this language.

If you, like us, feel uneasy about no-strings-attached funding going to your local spy center, please consider giving your state Senator a call; there’s a tool here for finding out who they are.

No Secret Laws: Ninth Circuit Weakens Secrecy Surrounding “National Security Letters”

Parts of the opinion were particularly pithy.

Parts of the opinion were particularly pithy.

When the USA FREEDOM Act passed on June 2, we criticized it as weak-tea reform that codified rather than changing surveillance agency practices. It’s still weak-tea reform that codified agency practices, but it has also now led to a new and valuable ruling on the infamous practice of “national security letters” (NSLs).

NSLs are issued by the FBI, mostly to companies, and ask them for information on their users. They originated in the late 1970s, but at that time the FBI couldn’t require compliance; enforcement mechanisms were added only in the late 1990s, after the Aldrich Ames spy scandal. The PATRIOT Act of 2001 loosened the rules, allowing, among other changes, NSLs to be issued without the specific approval of the FBI Director or Assistant Director. NSL use exploded from 8,500 in 2000 to 56,504 in 2004 and still runs at a rate of above 21,000 per year. NSL recipients are barred from discussing whether they have received them or what the NSL asks for. Companies aren’t even allowed under law to state that they have not received any NSLs. The argument the government has repeatedly made is that allowing companies to say this, would encourage terrorists to use those companies and not others; but this attitude also leaves the average privacy-conscious consumer in the same soup as the “terrorist.”

Until now, with a new ruling from the Ninth Circuit.

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Bodycams Delay Will Cost About Four Lives In Boston Per Year

Another kid’s DNA for our database!

Commissioner Evans of the Boston PD came before the Boston City Council last week to counter activists’ arguments that adopting an ordinance mandating police body-worn cameras would decrease police uses of force and complaints. His favored alternative solutions were (1) more ice-cream socials, because Boston is a “model” city for community policing; (2) delay, because more research is needed on whether they would work in Boston; and (3) in a sit-down interview with the Boston Herald, calling for laws requiring citizens filming police to keep their distance and for them to help police subdue suspects.

We’ll get to the ice-cream socials in a minute, shall we?

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