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.

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

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.

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

At HOPE X: Artist Essam Attia, cool research, and Restore The Fourth!

The tenth biennial Hackers on Planet Earth Conference starts today and runs through Sunday at the Hotel Pennsylvania in NYC.

We’ll be there as part of the Restore The Fourth delegation (I’m the national chair of Restore The Fourth). I and Zaki Manian will be hosting a radio show 10am-11am on Radio Statler, the HOPE community radio station. We’re honored to have on our show controversial Maine-born artist Essam Attia. If you can’t be at the conference, check out the stream on radio.hope.net!

You can also check out the Restore The Fourth booth (I’ll be covering it Saturday afternoon), sign up as a member here ($60 individual/$20 student), or come hear a talk on our research into the effects of the Snowden revelations on search engine behavior.

See below the fold for more on the Attia case!

Continue reading “At HOPE X: Artist Essam Attia, cool research, and Restore The Fourth!”

How Did Snowden Change Search Behavior? New Research Shows, More Than You Might Think

A new empirical research paper I have coauthored with Catherine Tucker of MIT-Sloan examines the question of how Edward Snowden’s surveillance revelations have shifted the way people search for information on the Internet. We look at Google searches in the US and its top ten trading partners during 2013. We identify a roughly 5% drop in search volume on privacy-sensitive terms. In the US, UK and Canada, the countries in our data who were most involved with the surveillance controversy, search volume fell for search terms likely to get you in trouble with the government (“pipe bomb”, “anthrax” etc.), and for searches that were personally sensitive (“viagra”, “gender reassignment”, etc.). In France and Saudi Arabia, search volume fell only for the government-sensitive search terms. This paper, though at an early stage, provides the first systematic empirical evidence of a chilling effect on people’s search behaviors that is attributable to increased awareness of government surveillance. I will be presenting this paper at the Privacy Law Scholars’ Conference in DC in June, 2014. I would welcome comments at alex@warrantless.org.

Google’s “Zeitgeist” List of Top 100 Search Terms of 2013 Includes Snowden; WP Writes Whole Article About How It Didn’t

Brian Fung, on the Washington Post’s “The Switch” blog, “reported” recently on Google’s “Zeitgeist” list of the top 100 search terms for 2013. His main interest in it, it appears, was to make the point that “Edward Snowden” wasn’t one of them, and therefore that the public really doesn’t care that much about the surveillance abuses uncovered by his whistleblowing.

A picture of Snowden courtesy of a Kerala, India newspaper - because the world don't care, right?
A picture of Snowden courtesy of a newspaper in south India – because the world doesn’t care, right?

You know what’s funny? Snowden is on the list. True, he’s at #97. But you’d think that if you were going to write a whole article about how unimportant this silly little man is, and if you were going to use presence on Google’s list as the sole determinant of what people care about, then you’d actually bother to find out whether he was on it first.

Not, clearly, if you’re Brian Fung of the Washington Post. Facts are for the little people. So if you actually want to know what’s on the list – you won’t find the full list anywhere else on the Internet – keep reading.

Continue reading “Google’s “Zeitgeist” List of Top 100 Search Terms of 2013 Includes Snowden; WP Writes Whole Article About How It Didn’t”