Tag Archives: Surveillance

Go Smart, Not Broad: A Constitutional Response To Violent Attacks


A former Middle East advisor to President Obama, Steven Simon, suggested in Saturday’s New York Times that the administration’s response to the Paris attacks was likely to include “Tighter border controls, more intensive surveillance in the U.S. and more outreach to local communities in the hope that extremists will be fingered by their friends and family. And a tightening of already intimate cooperation with European intelligence agencies.”

These proposals, if adopted, would be immensely counterproductive, and here’s why.

First, tighter border controls are irrelevant to this attack. It appears that all of the attackers so far identified, were EU citizens; none were refugees from Syria.

Second, France already had a draconian mass surveillance law, which came into effect at the beginning of October. It didn’t work to thwart these attacks. The reason is the “false positives” problem. Any system employing demographics, metadata, or past behavior, inevitably sweeps up a vast majority of innocent people, and diverts police and intelligence resources towards ruling them out. This LA Times study of “pre-crime” efforts to prevent violent crimes by US Army soldiers added every variable they could, and still, for every 15 people who did in fact commit violence in a given year in their set of suspects, 985 did not. Similarly, before the Boston Marathon attacks, the FBI had flagged Tamarlen Tsarnaev for interview; but they interview hundreds of flagged people every week, and have no way of knowing which among them will actually commit an attack. So, it appears that six weeks before the attacks, France’s intelligence agencies snowed themselves under with an ocean of false positives, and weren’t able to detect among that traffic the communications that were suspicious. They can’t be faulted for not being able to do so; it’s mathematically impossible. All mass surveillance allows is what’s happening now, which is to be able to go back into the system and see what you missed.

Third, Muslim and black communities were already under very heavy pressure in France, and are already under very heavy pressure here from the FBI, through its “Countering Violent Extremism” program, to “finger friends and family”. CVE uses models of radicalization with no solid academic basis to identify people as potentially radical simply because they have changed their dietary habits or become more devout about their religion. To make their numbers, the FBI has even resorted, in case after case, to creating their own terrorists out of young, poor, and mentally unstable young men, using confidential informants to lead them through every stage of devising a plot till they do something the FBI can arrest them for. We don’t need more of that either.

Fourth, when it comes to “more intimate cooperation” with European intelligence agencies, the fact is that such cooperation is already “intimate” – so intimate that the British systematically tap Internet traffic and hand us the contents; so intimate that we share “raw take” intelligence with Israeli security services; so intimate that the German intelligence agency helped the NSA spy on Europe’s top politicians in exchange for access to the latest in surveillance wizardry. Short of actually being in bed with one another, there’s no more “intimacy” to be had – and it still isn’t working.

This kind of mass surveillance is not working to thwart attacks. But in four important ways, it does work. Mass surveillance intimidates citizens in their ordinary conversations and activities of life. It allows bigoted politicians to curry favor with their base, and coast on a wave of anti-Muslim suspicion. It brings great profits to the private security firms smart enough to fill their cup at the never-failing spigot of federal counterterrorism funding. And it makes the general public feel that Something Is Being Done, convincing them to trade more of their rights away for a little temporary safety.

Last, if we react in this particular way, it also serves the ends of the violent criminals who committed this attack. Lacking resources themselves to wage war, they seek to provoke a backlash that will garner them support among the peaceful Muslim majority. Back in the day, the IRA posed as the defenders of the rights of peaceful Northern Irish Catholics against foreign oppression; today, the Islamic State poses as the defenders of the rights of peaceful Muslims against foreign oppression. A governmental backlash against Muslims in general will merely bolster their propaganda: See? We told you they’re out to get you! Come join us!

Instead, we should use the Constitution to solve the false positives problem. The Fourth Amendment bars mass surveillance, requiring, before surveillance is conducted, a warrant based on individualized probable cause of involvement in actual criminal activity. Imagine that, instead of having a “TIDE” terrorist database with 750,000+ names on it, it were limited to a maximum of one thousand, but that the one thousand were each investigated thoroughly on the basis of actual evidence. The surveillance agencies would waste a lot less time chasing fruitless leads, building data centers, or shoveling money to software vendors to try to solve this insoluble problem.

Foreign policy and economic solutions are beyond our remit, but it should be obvious that in order to drain the Islamic State of support, we have to provide those fleeing its rule with a credible chance at a better life. At the bare minimum, we should let them know that if they come to our country, they will be treated justly, not kept constantly under watch even if innocent of any crime.

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.

Secretive “JTTF” Group Inspires Terror Plot In Western MA


Imagine this story. “A shadowy group referred to in the press as “the JTTF” has claimed responsibility for a planned attack on a college cafeteria. Aspiring martyr Alex Ciccolo, 23, of North Adams, MA, apparently fell under the influence of this group over a year ago. The JTTF has over one hundred cells located all over the country.

This is not the first time the JTTF has claimed responsibility for fomenting fear in our nation’s cities. It has a pattern of recruiting vulnerable, mentally ill young men, often playing on their religious feelings to incite them into criminal attacks on their fellow Americans.”

This reads like an absurd fiction, but it’s actually a fairly accurate description of the work done by the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force on the recently announced Ciccolo case and in many other similar cases over the years.

First, to the facts. On July 14, it was announced that Alexander Ciccolo, 23, of North Adams, MA, had been arrested on July 4 for felony possession of four firearms previously used in interstate commerce. It was a felony because he had previously been convicted of a DUI in February of this year. The firearms had been delivered to him by a confidential FBI informant being paid by the FBI’s Western Massachusetts JTTF.

A supporting affidavit alleges, based on the testimony of a paid confidential informant, that Ciccolo intended to attack targets such as “college cafeterias”, maybe in Massachusetts and maybe elsewhere, and had expressed support for ISIS; and that Molotov cocktails, jihadist materials, and terror attack planning materials were found at his home. The FBI says they were tipped off by Ciccolo’s father, a police captain, that Ciccolo has had a history of mental illness and had been interested in Islam for about a year. The Western Mass Joint Terrorism Task Force took on the task of surveilling Ciccolo, and found a Facebook profile associated with him, which expressed an interest in martyrdom. It appears that the JTTF then arranged for a confidential informant to meet with Ciccolo and gain his trust. Wiretapped conversations then suggest that Ciccolo “spoke about his plans to travel to another state to conduct terrorist attacks on civilians, members of the U.S. military and law enforcement personnel”, a plan which later developed into a desire to attack an unspecified college cafeteria. Ciccolo bought a pressure cooker on July 3, and then was furnished with the guns by the confidential informant on July 4.

This case is worth probing because, horrifying as Ciccolo’s intentions may have been – we can all be glad that no such attack took place – it raises important questions about how counter-terrorism work is done in America today.

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Wikileaks Hacking Team Emails Implicate NJ Fusion Center


This week, Wikileaks released a searchable database of over a million internal emails from an Italian outfit called HackingTeam, which sells surveillance and hacking tools to dubious dictatorships around the world. Their software offerings include simple keyloggers all the way up to dragnet internet surveillance software.

I was willing to lay money that our friendly neighborhood fusion centers, the state-and-DHS-funded arms of the surveillance state, would be mixed up with HackingTeam somewhere. Looks like I win that bet.

Email #2640 shows the setup of a presentation from HackingTeam to the New Jersey fusion center’s most senior people, which apparently went ahead on November 1, 2013. The meeting was a success; by January, email #255362 shows that the fusion center was “interested in deploying” HackingTeam’s product. The subject line “DaVinci” shows what software is involved; “DaVinci” is the brand name for HackingTeam’s “remote control system” that promises to “break encryption and allow law enforcement agencies to monitor encrypted files and emails, Skype and other Voice over IP or chat communication […] It allows identification of the target’s location and relationships. It can also remotely activate microphones and cameras on a computer and works worldwide.” DaVinci has infamously been used by Middle Eastern governments to spy on Arab Spring activists.

It appears that the senior NJROIC figures were “excited about its capabilities.” I’ll bet they were.

The emails don’t go on to show whether NJROIC actually implemented DaVinci. Whether or not they did, it’s reasonable to deduce that NJROIC has a strong interest in being able to subvert NJ residents’ communications privacy. Reached for comment, an NJROIC spokesman was at pains to state that everything they do is under the guidance of the Attorney-General, conforms to applicable laws, and involves obtaining court orders and warrants as appropriate, but would not be drawn on the hypothetical question of whether encryption-subversion software would be treated as requiring a warrant.

Subverting encryption is, to an extent, a natural part of the arms race between users on one side, and the government and criminal hackers on the other. But if it’s done without the procedural safeguards embodied in the Fourth Amendment – safeguards that third-party firms like HackingTeam appear willing gleefully to ignore in pursuit of juicy contracts – it opens all of our communications to the government’s unsleeping eye, whether we try to encrypt them or not. The government should steer well away from this kind of “offensive cybersecurity”, and focus on keeping its elderly, hole-filled networks secure instead of exploring new ways to weaken yours and mine.

Most Reps Voting for USA FREEDOM Were Opponents of Surveillance Reform


The House just voted to pass the USA FREEDOM Act, which reauthorizes and alters Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, with a vote of 338 to 88. It’s being depicted as a landslide in favor of reform. It is, sadly, anything but. This is why.

Last week’s ruling by the 2nd Circuit fundamentally changed the Congressional debate. Senator McConnell, the Majority Leader, had been pushing for a straight reauthorization of Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. But the 2nd Circuit ruling said, among much else, that if Congress did a straight reauthorization of the same language, then their ruling that mass metadata surveillance was unlawful would still stand. In other words, straight reauthorization will no longer get surveillance defenders what they want. So, as the next best thing, the administration and the intelligence committees swung behind the USA FREEDOM Act. This Act would impose token limits on how much they can collect with a single request, but would modernize intelligence collection for a world where much communication is not an actual phone call. As a compromise between moderate surveillance reformers and the intelligence community, it actually offers a lot that the intelligence community likes. So it looks much better to them at this point than straight reauthorization (=no mass metadata surveillance under Section 215) or straight sunset (=no mass metadata surveillance under Section 215).

How do we know this happened? We can measure it.

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If You Don’t Call Your Congressmember After Reading This, You’ll Regret It


We’re asking everybody to call their Congressmember (Massachusetts numbers below the fold) to support HR1466, the Surveillance State Repeal Act, a bipartisan bill we helped introduce that would truly end mass surveillance. This is why it matters.

On June 1, the part of the PATRIOT Act that has been used to legitimate the mass collection of all of our phone call information, and much else besides, will lapse, It’s a terrible provision known as “Section 215.” Section 215 allows the FBI – and, it appears, other intelligence agencies too – to collect “any tangible things” that are “relevant” to a terrorism investigation. As it turns out, the intelligence community has argued explicitly that every single call in the United States is “relevant”. So, it appears, if we don’t let the NSA know exactly when I called the Danish Pastry House in Watertown about my one-year-old daughter’s first birthday cake, then ISIS will destroy us all.

There has been no legislation proposed yet from either chamber of Congress to renew Section 215. The intelligence community is panicking, and is apparently literally waving pictures of the burning Twin Towers at our elected officials, and telling them that if Section 215 lapses and there’s another attack, it’ll be the lawmakers’ fault and ISIS will destroy us all.

There may be a bill launched next week that would renew it, called the USA FREEDOM Act. Many civil liberties groups plan to support it, because it would also include reforms to Section 215, and may also reform (not repeal) the government’s other mass surveillance programs. We haven’t seen that bill yet, but it would have to be very strong to make it a better deal than simply letting the government’s Section 215 authority die.

There’s actually no evidence that Section 215’s mass surveillance programs have ever stopped a terrorist attack, and the government’s own reports have repeatedly shown that it has never stopped one. Follow me below the fold for the explanation why, and for the numbers to call!

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NSA Whistleblower Russ Tice Explains NSA Targeting of US Politicians


Mass surveillance is damaging enough; but the capabilities we have handed to the surveillance agencies create a different kind of opportunity for the empire-building surveillance bureaucrat.

The constant claim is that Americans are not “wittingly” “targeted” under the dragnet; it’s just that their communications are vacuumed up “incidentally” because they are one, two, or three “hops” from a given “target”, a category that includes a shifting set of millions of people at a time. But even that face-saving statement is a lie. American citizens are “targets” themselves, and there’s an obvious category of people it would make strategic sense for the surveillance agencies to target: Namely, the set of people with authority over the budgets and remits of the surveillance agencies themselves.

NSA whistleblower Russell Tice is much less well known than Edward Snowden, but his testimony is just as explosive. Here’s an interview he gave in 2013, with a partial transcript:

Okay. They [the NSA] went after members of Congress, both Senate and the House, especially on the intelligence committees and on the armed services committees and judicial. But they went after other ones, too. They went after heaps of lawyers and law firms. They went after judges. One of the judges [Samuel Alito] is now sitting on the Supreme Court that I had his wiretap information in my hand. Two are former FISA court judges. They went after State Department officials. They went after people in the White House–their own people. They went after antiwar groups. They went after U.S. companies that that do business around the world. They went after U.S. banking firms and financial firms that do international business. They went after NGOs like the Red Cross that that go overseas and do humanitarian work. They went after a few antiwar civil rights groups. So, you know, don’t tell me that there’s no abuse, because I’ve had this stuff in my hand and looked at it.

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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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