Won’t Somebody Think of the Children!!!1!!!: Mass Law Enforcement Proposes Massive Expansion of Wiretapping Powers

Some folks might be ashamed to use the bodies of dead kids as cover for a power grab. That clearly doesn’t include Massachusetts Attorney-General and failed Democratic Senate candidate Martha Coakley.

The Globe reports that Coakley, along with state senator Gene O’Flaherty (D-Chelsea) and state rep John Keenan (D-Salem), have introduced a new bill to massively expand law enforcement’s power to conduct electronic wiretaps of our communications (S. 1726 / HD 1194).

In her press conference, Coakley cited the school shooting in Newtown, and a 2011 case where a murder conviction was overturned because it rested on evidence obtained under a wiretap that was not valid under current Massachusetts law. What the Globe doesn’t mention, but Waltham’s Daily News Transcript does, is that the murderer in question was convicted later anyway (good reporting, Andy Metzger!).

There is not one scrap of evidence that easier electronic wiretapping would have prevented the school shooting in Newtown, or would prevent school shootings here in Massachusetts. The Newtown shooter wasn’t on Facebook or Twitter, and nothing has emerged relating to his computer or cellphone use.

More importantly, if the best evidence Coakley and friends can come up with to justify expanding wiretapping powers is a case where they got a conviction in the end anyway, that changes their argument completely. Instead of “this will help us convict more criminals”, they’re really arguing “this will save us some time and expense”.

Sorry, guys. That won’t cut it. Any limit on government investigatory powers makes investigations longer and more expensive. That’s the point. If investigations are costless, everyone will be investigated, because why not?

Last, and most laughably of all, both Coakley and O’Flaherty breathlessly told the press that “criminals have the upper hand” here in Massachusetts. Here’s a graph showing crime rates per head in Massachusetts, using federal crime statistics:

crime

The facts show that crime has been steady at less than 3 reported crimes per 100 residents per year since around 2002, and that that level is the lowest since 1968. Criminals don’t have “the upper hand” here in Massachusetts. Crime is about as low as it’s ever likely to go.

Let’s not kid ourselves what this is about. This is not about reducing crime. Remember, they can’t think of a single case where there’s a criminal walking free today because electronic wiretapping is only allowed under narrow circumstances here in Massachusetts. This is about power. The AG’s office knows that it’s technologically possible for them to monitor more of our electronic communications, and it bugs them that it’s illegal to do, whether or not that monitoring will result in more convictions. So, they’re ginning up false fears of crime, calling this an “update”, and trying to get the people of Massachusetts to agree to join them in the brave new mass-monitored world – which they, not us, would control.

Guys, you’ve been rumbled. Your arguments don’t make sense. Find better ones or go home.

Why not let them know how you feel?

To contact the Attorney General’s office, try here.
To contact State Senator Eugene O’Flaherty, try here.
To contact State Representative John Keenan, try here.

Yay of the Day: In Ninth Circuit, Fusion Center Employee Not Completely Unaccountable for Infiltrating Peaceful Anti-War Group

The long-running case Panagacos v. Towery deals with the two-year-long infiltration by fusion center employee John Towery of peace groups including Students for a Democratic Society, the Olympia Movement for Justice and Peace, the Industrial Workers of the World, Iraq Veterans Against the War, and an anarchist bookstore in Tacoma (probably this one). Towery is technically a military employee, and courts are typically highly deferential to the military. However, the most recent ruling at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals allows the plaintiffs from these organizations to continue with their First and Fourth Amendment claims against the military. The National Lawyers Guild, which is involved in the case, believes this to be “the first time a court has affirmed people’s ability to sue the military for violating their First and Fourth Amendment rights”.

Good.

There are obvious analogies here to the Boston PD’s gross violations of protesters’ rights documented in the ACLU of Massachusetts’ Policing Dissent report this fall. Again, we see the fusion centers act as a nexus for the investigation and disruption, not of actual terrorist plots, but of peaceful opponents of the military-industrial complex here at home.

All my heroes have FBI files.
“All my heroes have FBI files”, by Jimi G.

By 2020, Cellphones Will Be Able To Track You Inside Buildings Too

Science Daily reports that one of the technological limitations on cellphones’ tracking capabilities is about to be lifted.

A research team led by Professor Dong-Soo Han of the Department of Computer Science at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology has developed a way of locating cellphones using their WiFi fingerprints to within 10 meters in indoor locations in cities.

The article is pretty gung-ho about the capabilities of this new technology, though they also report Professor Han as suggesting that “There seems to be many issues like privacy protection that has [sic] to be cleared away before commercializing this technology.”

Yes, Professor Han. That may be something of a concern.

In particular, may I ask, pretty please, that legislators considering bills to protect the privacy of cellphone users’ location data, bear in mind that this kind of indoor location detection has been shown to be possible? I give law enforcement oh, about five minutes after the commercial release of this technology before they start using it in investigations.

H/T to the ACLU for this graphic
H/T to the ACLU for this graphic

The obvious Fourth Amendment issue here is that the current rulings allowing law enforcement use of cellphone data tend to rely heavily on the fact that when you are outdoors, you are not generally held to have a reasonable expectation of privacy, and that your location is reasonably observable to members of the public. If cellphones become capable of tracking you indoors, where you do typically have a reasonable expectation of privacy, then judges will have to choose whether to weaken the Fourth Amendment further by not requiring a warrant for the seizure of cellphone data, even though it contains data that would be considered private, or to strengthen the Fourth Amendment in the light of cellphones’ increased capabilities by barring its use without a warrant. These are rough waters for any jurist, which is part of why we strongly support cellphone location privacy laws that unambiguously require law enforcement to obtain a warrant before being allowed to collect cellphone location data.

The research is reported as Hyunil Yang, Giwan Yoon, and Dongsoo Han, “Floor Accuracy Improvement of Wireless LAN based Large Scale Indoor Positioning”, IEEE MTT-S IMWS-IRFPT 2011, KAIST, Daejeon Korea, p.89-90 (2011).

Joined-Up Government Can Be A Bad Thing

The National Counterterrorism Center is now being allowed access to all governmental databases to trawl for suspicious activity. The Wall Street Journal (“U.S. Terrorism Agency to Tap a Vast Database of Citizens”) and the Volokh Conspiracy (“DHS Dresses Up A Turf Fight as a Privacy Issue While Ignoring the Lessons of 9/11”) both report on this development, from opposing perspectives.

Just because one part of the government has a certain set of data, doesn’t mean that all other parts of the government should have it. Your tax return is kept privately within the IRS; records of your immigration applications stay with USCIS; Medicare keeps your health records private; and so on. This kind of data confidentiality used to be routine; but once again, in the service of terrorism, the normal limitations on government power are considered expendable.

This is what happened.

NCTC asked the Department of Homeland Security for access to a database on terror suspects. DHS gave NCTC the disks, on the condition that NCTC, within 30 days, remove information regarding “innocent US persons” (innocent non-US persons are apparently fair game).

Possibly terroristic non-US person Malala Yousafzai.

NCTC couldn’t do it. In fact, after 30 days they had barely been able to download the database from the disks. Even with another 30-day extension, they couldn’t do it, and in response to this failure, they have demanded, and gotten, even broader access to even more government databases. The only constraint is that any time they access a new database, they have to publish that fact in the Federal Register.

Their problems in removing “innocent US persons”‘ data are completely understandable, because NCTC was anxious that today’s innocent person may not turn out to have been innocent tomorrow. How do you remove innocent people, when nobody is provably innocent?

Your government, protecting you. With science!

From a resource standpoint, how could NCTC possibly deploy enough skilled analysts to prove the innocence of the (at minimum) hundreds of thousands of people this one database contained? And that’s just one of the many databases to which they will now have access!

This is an example of what, over at EFF when I was interning there in 2000, we used to call “Data Valdez”. The amount of data being created is enormous and essentially impossible to thoroughly analyze. The federal government has, in its various parts, access to data on every part of our lives, but no matter how fast its computers, it will never, ever have the human resources necessary to process it properly. Demanding access to ever greater oceans of data is not going to help. It’s a processing problem, not a data problem.

That’s why, at Digital Fourth, we recognize the wisdom for law enforcement of aggressively applying the constraints identified in the Fourth Amendment. Even if you have the ability to collect more data, it works better to consciously commit to collecting less. Law enforcement should, for its own sanity and ours, collect, retain and use in investigations only data that is related to investigations of actual, well-defined crimes committed by previously identified people. Only then will the volume of data collected be low enough that law enforcement will be able to process it thoughtfully and intelligently. Yes, that means that connections will be missed that will only become apparent after the fact of an attack. But we cannot insure perfectly against the probability of future attacks. We have to invest our resources rationally, and we have vastly over-invested in preventing terrorist attacks relative to other things that kill many more Americans.

Meanwhile, Here in Massachusetts: Legislation Limiting Surveillance Proposed

Many people don’t realize that there’s plenty of activity in US state legislatures around warrants, surveillance and privacy.

Trust me. I’m from the government.

One good bill that has been proposed this session here in Massachusetts is S. 1194 / H. 1336, “An Act to protect privacy and personal data”

These identical bills were brought forward by Senate Majority Whip Harriette Chandler (D-Worcester) and Rep. Jason Lewis (D-Winchester and Stoneham) and strongly advocated for by the ACLU of Massachusetts in the last two legislative sessions.

The bills are mainly concerned with limiting the activities of the Commonwealth Fusion Center and Boston Regional Intelligence Center, and restricting the surveillance of peaceful activists. There’s a lot of reason to suppose that the main effect of the work of these centers is to chill peaceful efforts to petition the government for redress of grievances (as the First Amendment puts it).

If the bills pass, CFC and BRIC will be required to not retain criminal intelligence information or personal data if there is no reasonable suspicion that the individual is involved in criminal conduct or activity. They must adopt information security practices that minimize retransmission of such information, provide an annual report to the secretary of state, and conduct an annual audit of their information collection, which will be a public record. No state or local law enforcement agency, prosecutorial office, criminal intelligence system, police or peace officer, or agent thereof shall track, collect or maintain information about the political, religious or social views, associations or activities of any individual, group, association, organization, corporation, business or partnership or other entity unless such information directly relates to an investigation of criminal activities, and there are reasonable grounds to suspect the subject of the information is involved in criminal conduct. There are further rules specified to limit the dissemination of such “protected information” and to require individuals to sign off on such dissemination so that they can be held accountable for violations.

You can find out here who your state senator and state representative are. Please call them to let them know that you support these bills. This is the list of current supporters:

SENATE: Harriette L. Chandler, Cynthia S. Creem, Kenneth J. Donnelly, James B. Eldridge, Susan C. Fargo, Thomas M. McGee, Karen E. Spilka, Jennifer E. Benson, Steven L. Levy, Martha M. Walz
HOUSE: Frank I. Smizik, William N. Brownsberger, Peter V. Kocot, John P. Fresolo, Kay Khan, Denise Andrews, James Arciero, Cory Atkins, Ruth B. Balser, Jennifer E. Benson, Linda Campbell, Gailanne M. Cariddi, Thomas P. Conroy, Carolyn C. Dykema, James B. Eldridge, Christopher G. Fallon, Linda D. Forry, Sean Garballey, Jonathan Hecht, Bradley H. Jones, Jay R. Kaufman, Stephen Kulik, Steven L. Levy, Elizabeth A. Malia, James J. O’Day, George N. Peterson, Byron Rushing, Jeffrey Sánchez, John W. Scibak, Carl M. Sciortino, Theodore C. Speliotis, William M. Straus, Benjamin Swan, Chris Walsh, Martha M. Walz, Thomas M. Petrolati, Paul Adams, Alice K. Wolf

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.

DHS: All Your Blogs Are Belong To Us

Who is the Department of Homeland Security tracking online? EPIC brings the results of a Freedom of Information Act request that discloses a Department of Homeland Security contract with General Dynamics to monitor comments on websites.

DHSblogsmonitored

Thanks for the tips, DHS snooping guys! If I hadn’t been reading some of these before, I certainly will now!

Aside from the regular sites here that monitor and translate foreign news sources relating to threats to national security, there is a heavy emphasis on sites that take a critical view of the surveillance state (especially Wikileaks, Cryptome and Wired). Amusingly for my pedantic soul, Homeland Security Watch is listed twice.

Back in the days of J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO, government agents often had to physically impersonate civil rights activists if they wanted to be privy to their communistic conspiracies. Indeed, Occupy shows that they still do. But if J. Edgar Hoover had had the technological tools available to today’s FBI/DHS, there might have been no civil rights movement at all. The ability to plan dissent in secret, without fear of arbitrary imprisonment, torture and trial, was much on the mind of the insurgents we now call the Founders, and underlies the protections of the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Amendments. The Founders, in fact, were keen in principle to safeguard the right to behave in ways the government of the day emphatically disapproves of.

I’m not saying that we can’t expect the government to snoop on people online. Comments on websites are in public view, and those who make them have no reasonable expectation of privacy in what they say. However, I am letting you know that (a) they are doing it, (b) that they provably have a priority focus on undermining opposition to the surveillance state, and that (c) if you’re interested enough in these issues to be reading this stuff, you’re probably right to be feeling watched.

Happy surfing!

obey-eye-poster-fnl

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