Microscope Monday: Analysis of Massachusetts’ proposed Free Speech Act, S. 642 / H. 1357

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Have you ever wondered why your Mondays have become an unending bliss of delight, falling upon you like Zeus visiting Danae in a shower of gold? It must surely be because of Microscope Monday, your weekly look at notable surveillance-related bills on Beacon Hill.

This week’s bill, tying in with our new Campaign to Close the Fusion Centers, is “An Act to protect freedom of speech and association”, more conveniently referred to as the “Free Speech Act”. The bill updates last legislative session’s “Act to protect privacy and personal data”, covered in October 2012 on this blog here. It was proposed by Assistant Majority Leader Sen. Harriette Chandler (D-Worcester) and Rep. Jason Lewis (D-Winchester). Its basic purpose is to deal with the fallout from the Policing Dissent scandal, where the Boston Police Department, in concert with the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, was found to have been spying on peaceful groups like Veterans for Peace and defining them as “extremists.” Protesters, including one person I knew, were hauled in and interrogated about their associates, without any actual crime having been committed.

We’re glad to see some action being taken to deal with these problems. But, what does the bill actually say?

[Previous Microscope Mondays covered: the Electronic Privacy Bill; the Drone Privacy Bill; and the infamous Act Updating the Wire Interception Law.]

Continue reading Microscope Monday: Analysis of Massachusetts’ proposed Free Speech Act, S. 642 / H. 1357

Close the Fusion Centers, Free the American People

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[Artwork adapted slightly from Leo Reynolds on Flickr]

After the 9/11 attacks, a traumatized nation considered whether the attacks could have been thwarted by coordinating intelligence-gathering better between the FBI and CIA. From that impulse grew the fusion centers, of which there are now at least 72 77 86 across the country. Us lucky SOBs here in Massachusetts get two, the Boston Regional Intelligence Center at One Schroeder Plaza, Roxbury, MA 02120 and the Commonwealth Fusion Center at 124 Acton Street, Maynard, MA 01754. The idea was that they would be able to thwart terrorist attacks before they occur, by gathering representatives from different agencies, and in some cases the military and the private sector, together to report on “suspicious activity”. In practice, it has not worked.

Thing is, actual terrorists are relatively thin on the ground. A network of 72 77 86 fusion centers might handle three genuine cases of terrorism between them in any given year. That’s not enough to enable each fusion center to show that it’s doing anything at all. What’s a good bureaucrat to do?

Continue reading Close the Fusion Centers, Free the American People

Microscope Monday: Massachusetts’ proposed Electronic Privacy Act (S. 796 / HD 1014)

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Howdy and good morning, lovers of the Internet freedoms!

It’s time for another in our “Microscope Mondays” series, where we take a good hard look at pending legislation here in Massachusetts relevant to surveillance. Previously, we’ve covered a praiseworthy effort to restrict the use of drones for law enforcement purposes and Martha Coakley’s should-be-better-known “Let’s Wiretap All Of The Things Even Though Crime Is Down” bill. This week, it’s the turn of S. 796 / H. 1684, “An Act Updating Privacy Protections for Personal Electronic Information”, sponsored by Senator Karen Spilka and departing Representative Marty Walz.

Continue reading Microscope Monday: Massachusetts’ proposed Electronic Privacy Act (S. 796 / HD 1014)

Symbolic Spending to Combat Terror: Or, Let’s Spend Your Tax Dollars on Snooping rather than on Anything Useful

The new US Senate report on the uselessness of fusion centers reminds me irresistibly of an old episode of “Yes Prime Minister”:

Nobody’s interested in the Social Science Research Council. Or the Milk Marketing Board. Or the Advisory Committee on Dental Establishments. Or the Dumping At Sea Representation Panel. But Government still pays money to support them.
– Don’t they do a lot of good?
– Of course they don’t. They hardly do anything at all.
– Then let’s abolish them.
– No, no, Prime Minister. They are symbols. You don’t fund them for doing work. You fund them to show what you approve of. Most government expenditure is symbolic.

The fusion centers are the signature initiative of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. They were supposed to collate and report quickly on terror threats. The report makes clear that whatever amount – maybe as much as one billion dollars – has been spent on them, has been wasted. Investigators were unable to find a single case where a fusion center had supplied information that thwarted a terrorist threat. Instead, our money has been spent on collecting a heterogeneous mass of partially reliable information on the activities of peaceful activists.

At the same time, the ACLU of Massachusetts’ new report on the Boston Police Department’s Boston Regional Intelligence Center paints a very similar picture, with more casual person-to-person oppression thrown in (video here).

It’s no surprise if ordinary people who oppose the increased power of government to scrutinize our lives, feel anxious about putting their heads above the parapet. I was anxious myself till I became an American citizen this year. Who wouldn’t feel angry at their taxes being wasted investigating groups like Veterans for Peace?

This isn’t about any rational threat assessment. This is about symbolism and fear. The US government has spent roughly one trillion dollars on anti-terrorism efforts since September 11, 2001. That trillion dollars could have saved any number of lives if deployed on useful things. Our roads and bridges are falling apart, our public school have to scrape for money for sports, arts and field trips, and tens of thousands of Americans die each year for lack of basic preventative health care. Rather than helping with those things, our politicians wrap themselves in the flag and pour tax dollars into a black hole labeled “Anti-Terrorism”, without bothering to find out whether we’re spending too much or too little, or what’s working and what’s not. What’s it to them? It’s not their money. It’s your money and mine, and the party has got to stop.

If the fusion centers can’t demonstrate that they are providing a useful service, they should be closed. The entire intelligence, counter-terrorism and defense budget should be audited every year. We should reimpose Constitutional limits on the deep state, requiring government officials to actually justify what they are doing to neutral third parties in the judiciary. No-one gets a get-out clause, in the name of “terrorism” or anything else.

This isn’t a “far-left” thing or a “far-right” thing. Seems like any issue on which the main parties agree gets ruled out of bounds for discussion. The Sunday talk shows are all about the horse race, who’s up and who’s down and who gaffed and who didn’t. But the sad fact that most Republicans and most Democrats agree on wasting our money on stuff like this, doesn’t make it right.

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