Archive for the ‘Current Events’ Category

PCLOB flops on Internet spying

Wednesday, July 2, 2014 at 2:43 pm by

Today, the Privacy & Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) released a major report on the National Security Agency’s Internet surveillance programs. Earlier this year, the PCLOB took a strong stance against telephony spying under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, correctly describing it as both illegal and unnecessary.

Unfortunately, the PCLOB’s latest report is a vast disappointment, failing to reflect the same independence apparent in its first report and deferring to the government despite stronger calls for reform from Congress, as well as a recent Supreme Court decision, that should have emboldened the PCLOB.

BORDC is hardly alone in expressing disappointment in the PCLOB’s findings. The American Library Association’s Adam Eisgrau noted that “despite the dictates of the Fourth Amendment, the Board essentially endorses the use of general warrants to search through the content of unimaginable numbers of communications of millions of Americans….”

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The Court finally shows up for work (Part II)

Monday, June 30, 2014 at 8:12 am by

Part I of this series explained the Supreme Court’s decision in Riley v. California, and why it represents so dramatic an evolution from prior cases where the Court failed to grasp the implications of digital technology for the privacy values pervading the Bill of Rights. This follow-up post explains the social forces animating the decision, with crucial implications for any number of social issues going forward.

Where it came from: is the Court “in front,” or behind?

It remains important to recognize how a broader social debate made possible last week’s decision in Riley v. California. Only in examining the influence of mass debate on elite legal discourse can we understand how digital privacy — or other contested rights — will evolve in the future.

A long-running debate among legal theorists questions whether, and how, courts are influenced by broader public debates beyond the courtroom. On the one hand, courts are inherently reactive institutions.

On the other hand, courts have occasionally advanced justice while the political branches remain mired in majoritarian prejudice: in Brown vs Board, the Court — not Congress — forced desegregation on the South, just as Goodridge v. Dep’t of Public Health placed a Massachusetts court near the front of the marriage equality movement (disclosure: I was part of the legal team representing the mayor of new Paltz, NY in a 2004 marriage equality case).

Brown vs. Board is relevant not only in demonstrating an example of the Court’s occasional proactivity, but also in rejecting “separate but equal” systems for people of different races. Lost in most commentary about the Riley decision has been an awareness of its serious implications for race, which in turn help reveal whether Riley reflects a Court “out in front,” or instead, one lagging behind American society.

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Government spying on the peace movement (Part I)

Saturday, June 28, 2014 at 12:23 pm by

The fight against government repression of free speech suffered a setback in Washington State this month, as a judicial ruling in the Panagacos vs. Towery case turned a blind eye to government infiltration of peaceful activist groups. The decision reflects not only the latest failure by the federal judiciary to do its job, but also a disturbing history dating back decades, and over five years in this particular case of constitutional abuses by intelligence and police agencies, as well as the US military.

In July 2009, activists in Olympia, WA went public with the shocking revelation that an intelligence contractor hired by the U.S. Army named John Towery had infiltrated the antiwar group Olympia Port Militarization resistance.

For almost two years, Towery — known to activists by a false name, “John Jacob” — had administered the group’s email listserv, attended meetings and demonstrations and unsuccessfully attempted to coerce young college students to commit acts of violence. Towery’s true identity was discovered by several members of the group after cop-watcher Drew Hendricks combed through thousands of pages of public records using a technique known as “cataloging”.

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The Court finally shows up for work (Part I)

Thursday, June 26, 2014 at 6:11 pm by

The Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling in Riley v. California and US v Wurie has been hailed as a breakthrough for digital privacy, and it is. Lost in most celebration of the Court finally joining the 20th century, however, is an understanding of how it got there. Why this ruling came down in 2014 is crucial to understand for future debates over any number of issues.

A watershed case: the Court acknowledges digital privacy

Riley represents the first time the Supreme Court has even attempted to meaningfully embrace the privacy issues presented by the digital age.

A recent prior case, US vs Jones, addressed GPS tracking by local police. Jones vindicated checks on runaway executive power, though not on privacy grounds. While the Jones ruling rejected extended police GPS surveillance without a warrant, it did so on property grounds, protecting for landowners interests denied to others (namely, anyone who parks a car on a street, rather than behind a fence).

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“The fault line is shifting”

Wednesday, June 25, 2014 at 5:12 pm by

Earlier this week, BORDC’s Shahid Buttar appeared on The Big Picture with host Thom Hartmann to explain what he described as a “game changer” on congressional NSA reform, and to relate how members of Congress found “an alternative outlet for their outrage” about NSA spying.

Shahid explained that:

The last thing that had happened in Congress was a very meager version of the USA Freedom Act passing the House, and that could ultimately [do] more harm than good. The amendments to the House Defense Appropriations bill last week…reflected essentially a response by members of Congress who were frustrated by the White House and the Republican leadership of the House gutting the USA Freedom Act, and finding an alternative outlet for their outrage….

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The House should slow down on a flawed intelligence authorization bill

Tuesday, June 24, 2014 at 12:33 pm by

This post was originally published by Daniel Schuman from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington on June 23, 2014 and is shared with permission.

On Friday, House leaders placed the Senate’s Intelligence Authorization bill on a fast track that would avoid substantive consideration by the full House, including the ability of representatives to offer amendments. The bill, introduced by Senate Intelligence Committee Chair and surveillance-enthusiast Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), was passed by the Senate on June 11 and does not reflect the deep concerns many have regarding the behavior of the intelligence community. A floor vote should be deferred until the House has a full opportunity to work its will, including a rigorous debate on the legislation and the opportunity to consider amendments on the House floor.

Friday afternoon’s Whip Notice contained a notice by the Office of the Majority Leader that the Intelligence Authorization bill would be considered for “suspension” as early as Tuesday. Generally speaking, only non-controversial bills are put on suspension. For suspension bills, just 40 minutes of debate is allowed, with no opportunity for amendment unless an amendment is included in the motion to suspend. Because of these limits on debate, motions to suspend require a two-thirds affirmative vote to pass. The Intelligence Authorization bill should not be considered under suspension; the usual process likely was bypassed after House leaders grew alarmed by successful votes to put limits on the NSA through floor amendments to the Defense Appropriations Act.

What is there to hide?

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NSA? The Postal Service is watching you, too

Monday, June 23, 2014 at 2:05 pm by

With the ongoing debate about mass spying by the NSA, many Americans are reconsidering their reliance on telephone and electronic communications. But is it safe to trust the US Postal Service (USPS)? You may not want to know….

In 2013, the Postal Inspection Service processed tens of thousands of mail covers, and also “photograph[ed] the exterior of every piece of paper mail” processed by the USPS through the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program revealed last year.

Last July, the New York Times explained that “Snail mail is subject to the same kind of scrutiny that the National Security Agency has given to telephone calls and e-mail.”

A Postal Service Inspector General report released last month suggests that even the more restrained mail cover program should raise concerns.

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House moves to rein in NSA Internet surveillance

Friday, June 20, 2014 at 11:13 am by

A year after whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed pervasive dragnet spying by the National Security Agency, Congress has finally begun to take action. Last night, the House “unexpectedly and overwhelmingly” voted in favor of a measure imposing two major limits on the NSA’s domestic dragnet.

By a wide and revealing margin, 293 Representatives came together across party lines to approve an amendment to a military spending bill that — if ultimately signed into law after agreement in the Senate – could deny funding to two particular NSA abuses.

First, the amendment aims to effectively prohibit NSA queries taking advantage of a “backdoor search loophole” (in which the NSA collects information about Americans by designating a foreigner with whom they communicate as the ”target” of their search). It would also prohibit the NSA from building security vulnerabilities into tech products made in the US, as it has for “computers, hard drives, routers, and other devices from companies such as Cisco, Dell, Western Digital, Seagate, Maxtor, Samsung and Huawei.”

Members of Congress from both major parties expressed the widespread popular outrage underlying the vote. According to a joint statement by Representatives Sensenbrenner (R-WI), Lofgren (D-CA), and Massie (R-KY), “Americans have become increasingly alarmed with the breadth of unwarranted government surveillance programs.” Rep. Massie also put it more colorfully, explaining that ”The American people are sick of being spied on,” evoking the words of Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), who sharply criticized “this dragnet spying on millions of Americans.”

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Court forces disclosure of police camera footage in Seattle

Wednesday, June 18, 2014 at 10:17 am by

On June 12, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled against the Seattle Police Department (SPD) and in favor of public access to dashboard cameras installed in Seattle police officer’s squad cars. The ruling represents a significant victory for transparency and the police accountability movement.

A local news syndicate, KOMO, had requested access to the footage from police dashcams, but they were continually denied even though the Public Records Act (PRA) mandated that, if requested, the police would release the footage recorded. SPD maintained their stance of not releasing video until three years after the recording, and also failed to mention that video older than three years old was deleted. According to Dominic Holden, writing in the Stranger:

KOMO sought the records as part of a series about SPD using excessive force and biased policing, which were the subject of a federal investigation and subsequent settlement to reform the police department. SPD refused to cough them up, making a series of bizarre, implausible claims about being unable to locate the records and having “no documents.” The SPD eventually claimed they had a three-year window in which to withhold the video footage (but then, the SPD automatically erased dash-cam footage after three years). In the meantime, the SPD released the videos to a citizen, belying claims the records were nonexistent or impossible to find.

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Retired Air Force officer exhorts Americans to challenge “Fortress America”

Tuesday, June 17, 2014 at 11:06 am by

Reflecting on his 20 years of military service as a US Air Force officer, and noting the dramatic changes in both law & culture over the past decade, Lt. Colonel (ret.) William J. Astore wrote last week about the acquiescence of Americans to what he describes as “Fortress America.” In Uncle Sam Doesn’t Want You—He Already Has You, Astore exhorts Americans to challenge the national security state in order to preserve basic liberty principles.

Referencing young people who may not recall an era in which privacy was ever respected, he explains:

Many of the college students I’ve taught recently take such a loss of privacy for granted. They have no idea what’s gone missing from their lives and so don’t value what they’ve lost or, if they fret about it at all, console themselves with magical thinking—incantations like “I’ve done nothing wrong, so I’ve got nothing to hide.” They have little sense of how capricious governments can be about the definition of “wrong.”

Astore goes on to note the sycophancy of Hollywood, reflected in movies repeatedly glorifying US intelligence agencies despite their serial crimes, in sharp contrast to the films of the 1970s and 1980s that offered storylines and narratives more reflective of the agencies actual behavior.

He also takes on border security and police militarization:

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