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.
It’s been widely reported that the NSA, under the constitutionally suspect authority of Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, collects all Americans’ phone metadata. Congress has not yet passed any reforms to this law, but there have been many proposals for changes and the national debate is still raging. Yet Americans’ data is also being collected under a different program that’s entirely hidden from public oversight, and that was authorized under the Reagan-era Executive Order 12333.
That’s the topic of a TEDx-Charlottesville talk by whistleblower John Napier Tye, entitled “Why I spoke out against the NSA.” Tye objected to NSA surveillance while working in the US State Department. He explains that EO 12333 governs data collected overseas, as opposed to domestic surveillance which is authorized by statute. However, because Americans’ emails and other communications are stored in servers all over the globe, the distinction between domestic and international surveillance is much less salient than when the order was originally given by President Reagan in 1981.
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.
For who-knows-how-many years, the Drug Enforcement Administration has been using Automatic License Plate Recognition software to create a national database of the driving habits of ordinary citizens not suspected of a crime, according to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union through the Freedom of Information Act. The documents describe the state of the surveillance effort as of 2009, leaving us wondering just how vast it could be today.
This vehicle tracking program originated near border crossings in the southwestern United States but has grown into a nation-wide project. It is a joint effort between the DEA and local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies throughout the United States. The surveillance program has been alluded to in Congressional testimony every once in a while through the years, but has yet to be fully understood. The documents released by the ACLU, despite being heavily redacted, shine some much-needed light on the interests and priorities of the DEA and federal law enforcement agencies in general. As of 2009, at least 100 license plate readers had been deployed in states like California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Florida, Georgia, Nevada and New Jersey.
And we should be concerned. According to the ACLU:
These records . . . offer documentation that this program is a major DEA initiative that has the potential to track our movements around the country. With its jurisdiction and its finances, the federal government is uniquely positioned to create a centralized repository of all drivers’ movements across the country — and the DEA seems to be moving toward doing just that. If license plate readers continue to proliferate without restriction and the DEA holds license plate reader data for extended periods of time, the agency will soon possess a detailed and invasive depiction of our lives.
Last month, we broke the news that even small towns in Massachusetts, like Rehoboth and Norfolk, were getting mine-resistant armored vehicles for free from the federal government, and had no good answer for why they needed them.
Last Friday was the deadline for filing bills for the Massachusetts legislature’s 2015-16 session, and we took the opportunity to draft a solution to the state’s police militarization problem.
Sponsored by Rep. Denise Provost (D-Somerville), our bill doesn’t ban police departments altogether from getting military-style equipment. What it does is forbid them from getting them for free, either from the federal government or as a gift from any third party. If they want to get military equipment (including stingrays or drones), the mayor and city council (in a city) or the selectmembers (in a town) have to vote publicly to approve that purchase, in effect forcing the purchase to come out of municipal funds.
Right now, the process is not democratic. The federal surplus programs are a remote corner of the federal budget, and their costs are a rounding error in DC. But to the taxpayers of a town like Rehoboth, it makes a big difference whether it’s them or the feds paying for a $700,000 MRAP.
The United States has a well-developed jurisprudence for dealing with people who make threats. The default presumption, thanks to the First Amendment, is that any speech, even speech that is frightening, prejudiced or factually wrong, is legal. Even a generic desire for the President to die has First Amendment protection. The key precedents here are Watts v. United States and Brandenburg v. Ohio, both from 1969. In Watts, an 18-year-old remarked during a rally against the draft that:
“They always holler at us to get an education. And now I have already received my draft classification as 1-A and I have got to report for my physical this Monday coming. I am not going. If they ever make me carry a rifle the first man I want to get in my sights is L. B. J.”
The ruling suggested that this was protected as merely ‘a kind of very crude offensive method of stating a political opposition to the President’, of a kind still very familiar to us today. Those prosecuted for threatening the President over the last few years have typically had additional evidence of actual conspiracy to commit murder.
In Brandenburg, a KKK leader’s advocacy of ethnic violence was ruled to be protected by the First Amendment, because it was not “directed to inciting” or “likely to incite, imminent lawless action.” There must be some specificity as to the time that the lawless action is to occur; it cannot simply be a generalized articulation of the need for violence at some future time. It must be, in other words, a so-called “true threat.”
These rulings have stood essentially unmodified for nearly half a century. They are also a lot more protective of threatening speech than most people, including surveillance state employees, casually assume. One result of that assumption is that surveillance agencies pro-actively monitor social media, and open investigations on the basis of First Amendment-protected threats they encounter, when the constitutionality of doing so is at best highly suspect.
Here’s a question: How much of a national security threat are people protesting the non-indictment of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown?
If you answered, There’s no national security threat; they’re exercising their First Amendment rights, which should be celebrated, then you’re obviously a pre-9/11-American, which is enough to get you disinvited from the major TV propaganda shows.
In Methuen, MA, security contractor Shooter Detection Systems (“1-844-SHOT911″) has convinced school administrators to install a “Guardian” system that “constantly monitors” school hallways and classrooms for sounds of gunfire. As an extra, they got local Congresswoman Niki Tsongas to intone pieties about making schools “safe sanctuaries for learning.” Apparently, that means “lending my credibility to a sales campaign that will funnel school tax money away from teachers and supplies and into the pockets of contractors, in the name of thwarting random low-probability events.”
Raw Story picked up the press release, and indulged in their own little bit of security theater, noting soberly that the PR firm for Shooter Detection Systems had asked them not to reveal the name of the school even while they had named the relevant town in its own press release.
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.
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.
MIT Media Lab: Mushon Zer-Aviv speaking on "How Interfaces Demand Obedience" - discusses NSA and algorithmic regulation. RSVP at https://civic.mit.edu/event/civic-media-lunch-mushon-zer-aviv-how-interfaces-demand-obedience
Starts: 12:00 pm
Ends: April 23, 2015 - 1:30 pm
Location: MIT Media Lab, 3rd floor, 75 Amherst Street, Cambridge