Tag Archives: Waste

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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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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Black, Brown & Targeted: ACLU Report Reveals Massive 4th Amendment Violations by Boston PD

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Finally, after many years of effort, the ACLU of MA has been able to secure release and analysis (by a third party) of data on police stops in Boston. What was found should grossly offend anyone with a belief that people ought to be equal before the law.

Their data spans 2007-2010, covering reported stops that did not result in arrest. During that time, for fully three-quarters of such stops, the reason the police stated for the stop was not suspicion of any identifiable crime, but simply “Investigate Person.”

Investigate Person?

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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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White Flags On The Brooklyn Bridge: Massive Surveillance Can’t Even Stop Minor Crimes

On July 22, at 3:30am, in place of the Stars and Stripes that usually fly over the Brooklyn Bridge, bleached-out American flags appeared instead. Despite three surveillance cameras and allegedly round-the-clock police surveillance, four or five people, their identities still unknown, were able to cover up the lights trained on the flags, take them down, and hoist up their own.

Credit: James Keivom/New York Daily News

Credit: James Keivom/New York Daily News

What interests us here is not so much the action itself, as the police reaction.

“If they had brought a bomb up there, it would have been over,” said a high-ranking police source. “If they were able to bring something large enough to cover the lights, then they would have been able to bring some kind of explosive up there.” […] A police helicopter on Wednesday made repeated passes around the Brooklyn Bridge. NYPD radio cars patrolled the spans’ roadways, and police boats scoured the span from the water. New security cameras were also installed, and numerous officers – some from the Intelligence Division and Counterterrorism Bureau – were assigned to foot patrols, walking back and forth between Manhattan and Brooklyn. [CBS]

New York police are so determined to catch the vandals who replaced the American flags atop the Brooklyn Bridge that they’re using an investigative technique known as “tower dumping” to examine all of the cell phone calls made near the bridge around the time the flags were replaced. […] The NYPD is also using social media data, video, facial recognition technology and approximately 18,000 license plate pictures in trying to solve the case. [IBT]

Horrified at the exposure of a security lapse, the NYPD turned its immense resources toward finding the people who had embarrassed them. The local press described them as “vandals” and quoted local residents as wanting them to be “punished to the fullest extent of the law.”

What law?

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Racial profiling, Muslim surveillance, and the NYPD

NYPDOn Tuesday, April 15 the New York City Police Department (NYPD) announced it was disbanding a controversial unit that had been spying on Muslims since its inception in 2003. The NYPD’s “Demographics Unit” specifically gathered intelligence on Muslims living in New York City, New Jersey, and even as far away as Philadelphia. It sent plain clothed detectives to cafes, restaurants, and other community centers frequented by Muslims with the stated purpose of identifying potential centers of terrorist activity. Detectives were told to speak with the employees at such establishments about political issues in attempt to identify anti American sentiment. The NYPD also sent informants to Muslim student groups on various college campuses. Despite the wide breadth of surveillance, even the NYPD acknowledged that the program has failed to create a single lead.

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High Over Compton: “Wide Area Surveillance” Surveils Entire Town

The Atlantic picks up on a story from the Center for Investigative Reporting that in 2012, the LA County Sheriff’s Department secretly tested a civilian surveillance aircraft by flying it over a town in their jurisdiction and taking high-resolution footage of everything visibly happening there, over a period of up to six hours (highlights are ours):

If it’s adopted, Americans can be policed like Iraqis and Afghanis under occupation – and at bargain prices:

McNutt, who holds a doctorate in rapid product development, helped build wide-area surveillance to hunt down bombing suspects in Iraq and Afghanistan. He decided that clusters of high-powered surveillance cameras attached to the belly of small civilian aircraft could be a game-changer in U.S. law enforcement.

“Our whole system costs less than the price of a single police helicopter and costs less for an hour to operate than a police helicopter,” McNutt said. “But at the same time, it watches 10,000 times the area that a police helicopter could watch.”

A sergeant in the L.A. County Sheriff’s office compared the technology to Big Brother, which didn’t stop him from deploying it over a string of necklace snatchings.

The town they chose? Compton. Yes, that Compton, but it’s not the same Compton as yesteryear. Its boosters are now touting it as the hip, countercultural Brooklyn of the LA area. It has an inspirational new Millennial mayor, Aja Brown, who has garnered comparisons to Cory Booker. Its crime rate is down sixty percent, and it’s now majority-Latino. But it still has a median household income of $42,335, and still, even after all its struggles, somehow found itself the first city selected for mass surveillance, over, say, majority-white, tony Santa Clarita (median household income $91,450). Well, blow me down with a post-racial colorblind goddamn feather.

In related news, the NSA, under its MYSTIC and RETRO programs, was revealed last month to have been collecting the contents of the phone communications of an entire country (unnamed, but probably Iraq).

Believe it or not, this is the program's actual logo.

Believe it or not, this is the program’s actual logo.

These two stories are essentially the same. Developments in technology allow law enforcement surveillance to sweep past legal constraints intended for an era where collecting, storing and analyzing so much data was inconceivable. In luckless Compton, the Supreme Court’s 1989 decision in Florida v. Riley renders “wide area surveillance” presumptively constitutional. In luckless Iraq, the expansive powers of Executive Order 12333 and the FISA Amendments Act impose effectively no constraints on the NSA in intercepting the communications of foreign nations.

May I draw your attention to three salient points?

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No Way To Complain = No Complaints = No Problem!

Boston’s fusion center, the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, no longer hosts their privacy policy on their website – I was told that it was “under review” and that the new policy will be posted when it’s ready – so it’s lucky for all of us that the ACLU of Massachusetts has a copy of the policy. And it’s a doozy.

If you’re worried about the fusion center’s privacy practices, and that it may have gathered information on you that it shouldn’t, then you’re essentially out of luck. Sure, you can write to them (the address is Boston Regional Intelligence Center, Boston Police Department, Privacy Committee, One Schroeder Plaza, Boston, MA 02120, (617) 343-4328), but the Privacy Policy specifies that the only complaints they will accept or review are those where:

… an individual has a complaint with regard to the accuracy or completeness of terrorism-related protected information that:
(a) Is exempt from disclosure,
(b) Has been or may be shared through the ISE [Information Sharing Environment], or
(c) (1) Is held by the BRIC and
(2) Allegedly has resulted in demonstrable harm to the complainant

So, in essence, before a complaint can even be reviewed about a given piece of information, the complainant has to know what information the fusion center holds on them, and has to be able to make an allegation of “demonstrable harm” – harm, that is, in the eyes of the BRIC. And there’s no procedure for complaining about the collection of monstrous quantities of data in the first place – only for circumstances where they have collected, and acted upon, something provably false about you personally.

That’s some catch, that catch-22.

Wonder how many people have successfully complained?

And by definition, if nobody’s complaining, they must be respecting our privacy, right?

In fact, they’re respecting our privacy so much, that they are aggregating data from the following sources (this is just the ones they’re acknowledging, summarized from the list in the appendix of their privacy policy):

“Telephone analysis software”, state crime information systems, national crime information systems, the state drivers’ license database, the Lexis-Nexis “Accurint” database, Thomson-Reuters’ “CLEAR” database [now integrated with Palantir!], “intelligence data” [up to and possibly including unminimized data collected via FISA], the Regional Information Sharing Systems (RISS) System, the Law Enforcement Online system, the Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN) System, jail management databases, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) System, state sex offender registries, “crime-specific listservs”, RSS readers, the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) Program database, EPIC hospital records, the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) database, state corrections/probation databases systems, and juvenile justice databases.

Based on information provided by BRIC employees on their LinkedIn profiles (thanks, guys!), we can also determine that the BRIC has access to gang databases, information from the Department of Youth Services, and “medical intelligence”, defined by the Department of Defense as “That category of intelligence resulting from collection, evaluation, analysis, and interpretation of foreign medical, bio-scientific, and environmental information that is of interest to strategic planning and to military medical planning and operations for the conservation of the fighting strength of friendly forces and the formation of assessments of foreign medical capabilities in both military and civilian sectors.”

So if you’ve never made an electronic financial transaction, never used the phone, never had a drivers’ license, never communicated with somebody abroad, never been in trouble with the law, never used drugs, and never been to a hospital abroad for treatment, then congratulations: you’re probably not in the fusion center’s database, and you still have a Fourth Amendment. And for the rest of us, they have records on you, that they aren’t going to allow you to review, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Why should you be concerned?

In related news, the BRIC is changing its slogan to “Share and Enjoy.”

Commonwealth Fusion Center Violates Constitution, New Report Says

minorityreport

Massachusetts has two “fusion centers”, mostly state-funded, which aggregate enormous amounts of data on innocent Massachusetts residents, with the notion of preventing terrorist attacks. When you call the “See Something, Say Something” line, the information goes into “Suspicious Activity Reports.” The ACLU of Massachusetts documented that the Boston fusion center (“BRIC”) had actually spent its time harassing peaceful activists rather than thwarting terrorism, which is one of the reasons why there will be nationwide protests against fusion centers on April 10, including in Boston.

In response to the ACLU revelations, Rep. Jason Lewis (now the newly elected Sen. Jason Lewis) filed a fusion center reform bill on Beacon Hill. Disconcerted at the prospect of more sunshine on their work, the Commonwealth Fusion Center, the fusion center in Maynard, offered him and other legislators a courtesy tour of their facility, to try to explain what good work they were doing. As an example of that work, they cited their First Amendment-violating harassment of an Arlington man who was not actually planning any violent crime, but who had tweeted about it being a good idea to shoot statists. They also provided to Rep. Lewis copies of various policies that they follow, including their Privacy Policy (updated 06.13.2013) and their policy on First Amendment investigations. Rep. Lewis then asked Digital Fourth to evaluate the policies they had provided, to assess whether they were constitutional. We enthusiastically agreed, and the resulting report is here.

Here are our main recommendations:

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