Category Archives: Mission

Midterms & Mass Surveillance, Part III: Congress & Obama At Daggers Drawn…Except Where It Counts

yesminpowertopeople

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.

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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.

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Toymaker GoldieBlox’s New Ad Channels 1984

Worth watching for the pink surveillance cameras alone.

Shame that the doll that is supposed to break down the beauty myth is blonde; but hey, one step at a time.

Security Grifting At Work: Million-Dollar ALPR System In Vermont Solves Four (4) Crimes in 2013

one-hundred-dollar-bills-falling-through-air-loop

Vermont Public Radio does the spadework to find out whether automated license plate surveillance systems offer a reasonable return on investment:

“…Even with the millions of scans, the system has not led to many arrests or breakthroughs in major criminal investigations. […] They were helpful in solving fewer than five crimes in 2013. [Officer] Cram [of Winooski PD] says the federally-funded ALPR is a valuable tool, even though he doesn’t think the city would have put up $25,000 of its own money to buy one.

At a cost of “over $1 million” over five years, that works out at around $50,000 per crime solved. [Note: Initial calculations of $40,000 per crime solved were based on an inaccurate figure of five crimes solved.]

At a rate of $50,000 per crime, you could hire one part-time police officer, and I suspect that that part-time police officer would solve more than one crime per year. So what gives?

This is what gives, for ALPR, for surveillance cameras, and for military surplus equipment. Police departments count the cost of new surveillance equipment at zero, even when it’s not (taxpayers ultimately pay). It’s hard for police chiefs to turn down free, even if free offers only the most marginal prospect of reducing crime. But it says everything about the utility of this technology that, had the City of Winooski been asked to put up its own money, Officer Cram thought that they wouldn’t have done it. Oh – and I almost forgot to mention – as the article mentions, the entity charged with managing the data from this boondoggle is, naturally, the Vermont fusion center.

Meanwhile, only half of American roads are in good repair, and our public transportation is an international laughingstock. Americans’ median incomes are falling, and more and more of us are just a paycheck or two from disaster. We scrutinize every milligram of social spending to uncover with great fanfare a rate of fraud of $0.0073 per dollar spent, because we can’t abide any of them Cadillac-driving fur-coat-clad welfare queens. And yet somehow, funding for more surveillance, more militarization, and more war, is never-ending and never requires proper accounting or justification.

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Suffolk County DA Conley logging parents’ keystrokes, for “safety”

We think our version captures the spirit of this initiative better than the original.

We think our version captures the spirit of this initiative better than the original.

Well, well. This “school safety” stuff keeps getting more interesting.

I didn’t focus on the elements of the school safety task force’s report that dealt with teaching children to “be safe” on the Internet, because, well, they sounded pretty innocuous. Turns out I wasn’t paranoid enough.

EFF reports that DAs and police departments across the country have been distributing elderly spyware called “ComputerCop” to parents as part of feel-good “Internet Safety” events at schools. This apparently includes a “service” called “KeyAlert”, which allows parents to track their children’s keystrokes. When it collects those keystrokes, it also stores them unencrypted on your hard drive (on Windows machines) and transmits them, unencrypted, to a third-party server so that the parents can be emailed when chosen keywords are typed. And, as readers of this blog will know, law enforcement can then request that keylogged data from the third party without a warrant.

Well, that’s fabulous. Sounds pretty useful. For law enforcement. Why not, then, promote keyloggers on as many computers as possible? And as with social media, it looks like offering something for free really helps members of the public surveil themselves. EFF notes:

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State Report Tells Schoolkids: Inform, Conform, and Trust the Police

"La Cucaracha", August 26, 2013, by Lalo Alcaraz

“La Cucaracha”, August 26, 2013, by Lalo Alcaraz

Following on from the Sandy Hook school shooting, the “Massachusetts Task Force on School Safety and Security” released a report in July. As you’d expect from a report written with plenty of police input and none from the civil liberties community, it recommends changes that are highly intrusive, probably ineffective, definitely expensive, and likely to benefit police more than they benefit students.

Of course, that’s not how it’s being reported. Local papers, including my own, are portentously explaining how this is all “for the kids” and will “keep them safe” (I’d link to the Belmont Citizen-Herald’s exhaustive coverage, but it’s not up yet).

The most important thing to understand regarding school shootings is that school districts can’t prevent them. I wish they could, but they can’t. School shootings happen far too much in the US, largely because we spend too little on mental health services and allow, as a matter of constitutional principle, broad access to guns. School shootings also tend to happen more in rural and suburban districts where the schools are pretty much the only place that will grab the attention of the whole community.

Nothing school districts can do will change these things. However, in fear that they ought to be doing something, it’s very possible for school districts to misdirect funds better spent on education, and impose inappropriate systems of surveillance and control.

Let’s look anew, with a critical eye, at what’s being suggested.

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Digital Fourth’s Fall Meetings

By this sign shall ye know us.

By this sign shall ye know us.

Coming fresh this fall off our shoestring operation’s success in nixing MA attorney-general Martha Coakley‘s top legislative priority – a massive proposed expansion of electronic wiretapping – we’re holding weekly lunchtime meetings and monthly evening meetings in Cambridge, MA to plan our work for the 2015-6 legislative session.

Come join us on Thursdays at 11:30am-12:30pm at the Voltage Cafe at Kendall Square, as we drink coffee and plot the subversion of the surveillance state. Or, if you prefer, this Sunday at 6:30pm is the first monthly evening meeting, at the Summer Shack by Alewife station (for easy parking).

Thursday 9/25: Transpartisan Grassroots Organizing Against Surveillance, featuring speakers from StopWatchingUs, TechFreedom and Occupy Boston.

Sunday 9/27: Police Surveillance, Militarization and the Freedom of Information Act, featuring proposals from the new MA Law Enforcement Coalition on police oversight and fusion center transparency.

See you there!

War-Addicted US Military Now Arguing It Can Spy On All Computers In States With Military Bases

ncis-allurbases

A new ruling from the Ninth Circuit (h/t Eugene Volokh) highlights a case where an NCIS agent:

“surveyed the entire state of Washington for computers sharing child pornography.” [their italics] It was Agent Logan’s “standard practice” to do so. There is “abundant evidence that the violation at issue has occurred repeatedly and frequently” […] [Agent Logan] “appeared to believe that these overly broad investigations were permissible, because he was a U.S. federal agent and so could investigate violations of either the Uniform Code of Military Justice or federal law.” […] Incredibly, “the government is arguing vehemently that the military may monitor for criminal activity all the computers anywhere in any state with a military base or installation, regardless of how likely or unlikely the computers are to be associated with a member of the military.”

In dissent, Justice Diarmuid O’Scannlain expresses his disgust that applying the exclusionary rule would “set a convicted child pornographer free”, and argues that “from the premise that the government believes it has a certain power, it does not follow that the government routinely exercises that power.”

This was the first time that a Posse Comitatus violation had been addressed by excluding the evidence, and legal blogs are abuzz with the question of whether that remedy was appropriate. To me, O’Scannlain’s visceral dissent naively ignores the government’s track record on surveillance and civil liberties, and the fact that this case effectively discloses a new form of mass government surveillance practice.

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Local Police May Be Hacking Your Phone: Piercing Secrecy Around Stingrays

Without your knowledge or permission, your smartphone’s calls could be being intercepted right now by your local police department, and your taxes are definitely being misused to pay for unconstitutional police snooping.

stingray_wsj

We have reported before on “stingrays”, which started being used by local police departments in around 2006. These devices impersonate a cellphone tower and intercept the calls that would otherwise flow to other actual nearby towers. Initially bulky, stingrays can now be laptop-sized or smaller, and the most advanced models are light enough to be carried by drones. Police departments conceal their use of this technology when applying for warrants to conduct surveillance, so judges can’t distinguish between applying for a “regular” interception on an individual phone and a stingray interception which gathers all traffic from nearby cellphone towers. The devices’ main manufacturer, Harris Corporation, even obliges police departments contractually to conceal their use of stingrays. The Obama administration is so keen to preserve the cloak of secrecy around stingrays that they sent in the US Marshals to prevent the ACLU from obtaining documents relating to stingray use by a north Florida police department. The courts are beginning to recognize the intrusive nature of cellphone tower dump data, but have not yet grappled with the fact that using stingrays, law enforcement don’t have to ask a cellphone company for the data; they can just suck it up without permission.

Now there is a new way to rip that cloak. Popular Science quotes the CEO of ESD America, which manufactures the $3,500 “CryptoPhone 500”, eagerly describing how his phones could detect when stingrays were being used in their vicinity. While testing the CryptoPhone 500 in August, users found 17 sites around the country where stingrays appeared to be being used on passersby. They could detect the use of stingrays because stingrays downgrade your connection from 4G to the less secure 2G and then turn off your phone’s encryption. Normal Android smartphones or IPhones are oblivious to this process.

Twitter users have been speculating whether these 17 sites map onto the sites of fusion centers around the country. Since we’re familiar with both stingrays and fusion centers, we can say conclusively that they don’t. Most sites seem to be in commercial areas, not around fusion center or military locations. ESD is not providing the precise site locations, and stingrays’ mobility further complicates the process of detecting them. We think that CryptoPhone users have captured what is likely to be only a small subset of stingray usage not by fusion centers, or by the NSA, but by regular local police departments around the nation. We’re supporting the efforts of researchers like Muckrock who want to get more transparency about stingray use by police departments, and to keep an eye out for proposals in your community to “upgrade” police department technology.

So, do we all have to go out and upgrade to the CryptoPhone 500 in order to feel safe in our communications? Well, no; there’s another, cheaper way to find out whether the government is using stingrays in your community.

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