Tag Archives: Surveillance

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

Worldwide Anti-Surveillance Protests Tomorrow

Protests worldwide tomorrow against the surveillance state.

As Joseph Heller once put it, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you.”

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!

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