Tag Archives: Second Amendment

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.

Why Would Anybody Distrust The Spies? Ben Wittes on the “Intelligence Legitimacy Paradox”

Ben Wittes of the Brookings Institute has a new article on the popular security blog Lawfare in which he worries that the intelligence project has lost legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

No kidding.

Wittes argues,

the threat environment America faces is growing ever more complicated and multifaceted, and the ability to meet it is growing ever-more-deeply dependent on first-rate intelligence. Yet at precisely the same time, the public has grown deeply anxious about our intelligence authorities and our intelligence community is facing a profound crisis of legitimacy over its basic authorities to collect.

He ascribes this to “technology”, but technology is not the reason for public skepticism here. The immortal Marcy Wheeler over at Emptywheel correctly points out that bringing the nation into war based on false intelligence may just have played a role in public skepticism. Trevor Timm would probably add that lying to get cases dismissed should create further public skepticism about intelligence agents’ claims. However, there’s a still larger question raised by the article.

Let’s talk about the “complicated and multifaceted threat environment”.

A realistic assessment of the threats to American national security today, relative to 25 years (1989), 50 years (1964) or 75 years ago (1939), would be as follows.

America faces today no major threats to its way of life.

Read More →

The new Coakley bill, “An Act Updating the Wire Interception Law”, under a microscope

Want to know the details of what the new Coakley bill, An Act Updating the Wire Interception Law, really includes? Wonderful. I can already tell we’re going to be friends.

Here’s an advance hint: What do marijuana possession, annoying telephone calls, burglary, neglecting to depart a public assembly on the orders of police, failing to display the correct posters relating to the illegality of firearms and explosives in your school, and the sale of arrowheads used for hunting, have in common?

If you guessed “It isn’t legal in Massachusetts right now to take out an electronic wiretapping warrant for offenses this minor, but it would be under this bill”, then congratulations, you win the Grand Prize.

On, to a more detailed discussion!

There are three main points of this legislation:

1) To remove the requirement that an electronic wiretapping warrant be connected with organized crime, or indeed with serious crimes more generally.

2) To legalize mass interception of communications at telecommunications switching stations, rather than through individual wiretaps on individual phone numbers.

3) To double the length of an authorized wiretap, from 15 to 30 days.

A long-standing frustration of law enforcement in Massachusetts has been that the electronic wiretapping statute was drafted in response to the problem of organized crime specifically, rather than being devised to cover a certain set of the most serious crimes. So, in order to take out an electronic wiretapping warrant, law enforcement has first had to demonstrate that there is an ongoing investigation connected to organized crime, of which the wiretap would be a part.

From Digital Fourth’s analysis of nine US states (CT, FL, NJ, NV, NY, PA, RI, VA, WA), it is not unusual for the list of offenses to only include offenses characteristic of organized crime; it is unusual to require a prior demonstration that the specific offense under investigation is connected to organized crime. However, neither the AG nor the bill’s sponsors have yet been able to point to any case where a criminal was not brought to justice because of the lack of connection of his crime to organized crime, suggesting that this limitation on police activity has little actual effect on convictions.

Going beyond this, the bill before us implements a much broader list of offenses for which electronic wiretapping with a warrant is legal than is currently the case. We’re no longer talking about arson, rape, murder and witness intimidation in connection with organized crime. We’re talking about a wide array of offenses, down to the very minor ones listed above. Coakley proposes expanding the designated offenses to cover every possible firearms and drug offense, down to simple marijuana possession, and also every kind of illegal threat, harassment and hazing, or conspiracy to commit such crimes. This could be read as a response not only to the Newtown massacre and associated calls for gun control, but also to the sad cases of cyberbullying that Massachusetts has seen in its schools.

The most worrying new element in this bill is the conscious inclusion of language allowing wiretaps to be placed at phone companies’ switching stations. Let me show you what I mean.

Old language:

1. The term “wire communication” means any transfer made in whole or in part through the use of facilities for the transmission of communications by the aid of wire, cable, or other like connection between the point of origin and the point of reception

New language:

1. The term “wire communication” means any transfer made in whole or in part through the use of facilities for the transmission of communications by the aid of wire, cable, or other like connection between the point of origin and the point of reception, including the use of such connection in a switching station, furnished or operated by any person engaged in providing or operating such facilities for the transmission of such communications and shall include: any transfer of signs, signals, writing, images, sounds, data or intelligence of any nature transmitted in whole or in part by a wire, radio, electromagnetic, photo-electronic or photo-optical system, but shall not include: (i) any communication made through a tone-only paging device; (ii) any communication from a tracking device, defined as an electronic or mechanical device which permits the tracking of the movement of a person or object; or (iii) electronic funds transfer information stored by a financial institution in a communications system used for the electronic storage and transfer of funds. 

Surveillance activists are well aware that one of the biggest surveillance-related cases of recent years has involved the activities uncovered by whistleblower Mark Klein, where the NSA installed an electronic intercept for all phone traffic at an AT&T switching station in San Francisco (Jewel v. NSA). The conscious inclusion of such language by Coakley here suggests that law enforcement in Massachusetts would like to be able to start doing such things under color of law. A ruling is still pending on this case, but it is hard to square such activities with the Fourth Amendment’s requirement that:

no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

This “particularity” requirement is a settled part of Fourth Amendment law, and there is no question that in trying to legalize this practice, Coakley is opening the AG’s office to being sued on constitutional grounds, which could cost the Commonwealth a bundle.

The provision to double the length of an authorized wiretap is unsurprising, and is pretty much a matter of convenience for law enforcement. Here at Digital Fourth, we have obtained through public records requests a complete list of the electronic wiretaps taken out in Massachusetts by the AG’s office and DAs’ offices during 2011 (information on 2012 is being collected). Of the total of 16 warrants issued, 9 had to be renewed, though none appear to have had to have been renewed twice. Presumably this fact is motivating the proposal to extend the date. However, neither the AG’s office nor the DAs’ offices report any denials of renewal applications. This implies that a renewal takes effort on the part of the prosecutor, but that there is no plausible doubt that an application to renew, once received, will be denied. Therefore, we are once again out of the zone of “reducing the ability of prosecutors to get convictions” and back into the zone of “increasing administrative convenience for prosecutors”.

Thankfully, relative to prior years, the AG appears so far to have dropped her previous suggestion to expand the list of “designated offenses” to an array of financial crimes, down to kiting checks and violating codes of ethics. For the moment, there’s also no sign of her previous unconstitutional proposal to substitute after-the-fact “certificates” for proper warrants signed before the fact by a judge. However, the bill still has serious defects as presented.

Here at Digital Fourth, we believe that if electronic wiretapping warrants are to be legal, they should be restricted to very serious crimes. While philosophically the organized crime requirement seems outdated, in practice it doesn’t seem to affect convictions. What it does do is to impose a high bar on launching an electronic wiretapping investigation, and that high bar is useful in itself. We feel that it would be a waste of police resources to mount electronic wiretaps of peaceful activists, conduct mass surveillance of traffic at phone switching stations, or turn every insulting comment on a schoolkid’s Facebook page into a criminal matter, all of which this bill would allow. Any surveillance that moves away from a particularized target towards generalized suspicion, or that chills people’s freedom of speech, is constitutionally suspect. The AG should accept, just as the federal government should accept, that there are activities that they and we may not like, that cannot realistically be suppressed by the government without violating the Constitution. Legislators thinking of cosponsoring this legislation should likewise be aware of the major problems it presents.

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