Trade unionists are demanding a full inquiry into ‘very troubling allegations’ of police spying on activists and blacklisted workers.
Home Secretary Theresa May has already set up an inquiry headed by Lord Justice Pitchford into allegations of police surveillance operations against activists, but its full remit is not yet known.
The inquiry has come about in response to allegations by police whistleblower Peter Francis, formerly of the Special Demonstration Squad, that during his four years working as an infiltrator of political groups he spied on member of five unions, including the Fire Brigades Union (FBU).
“Trade unions are the largest democratic, mass-membership organizations in the UK,” FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack told the Guardian.
“Trade unionists have legitimate concerns about police operations that may have undermined our decisions, interfered with industrial relations and led to the victimization of our elected officials.”
Wrack said an inquiry into allegations of police spying on causes such as environmentalism, the Stephen Lawrence murder case and trade unionism was “long overdue.”
Another group affected are those blacklisted by employers. Blacklist Support Group (BSG) secretary Dave Smith made an official submission to Pitchford last week regarding allegations of “collusion” between police and businesses.
“Trade unions are a perfectly legal part of civil society,” he told the Guardian.
“Why are we being infiltrated by undercover police units and why is the state sharing intelligence with big business?
“It is only because we were prepared to kick up a stink that the evidence about police collusion has slowly come to light.”
In March it was reported police spying had also been extended to Labour MPs. Francis revealed 10 Labour MPs were tailed and spied upon by British police. Those affected demanded the release of secret files kept on them.
The surveillance was carried out as recently as the 1990s when the politicians had been democratically elected to parliament.
Among the MPs targeted were prominent left-wingers and serving ministers Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott and Dennis Skinner. The late Tony Benn, a lifelong socialist and anti-war campaigner, was also tailed by British police.
The highest-ranking MP to have been surveilled was Labour’s deputy leader Harriet Harman. Speaking to Penning, she said: “I would like you to assure me that you, the government, will let me see a full copy of my file.
“I was campaigning for the rights of women, for the rights of workers and the right to demonstrate — none of that was against the law, none of that was undermining our democracy.”
What does an 86-year-old art photographer have in common with a young man with a video game habit?
Not just a proclivity for perfectly innocuous hobbies, unfortunately. These days, engaging in either activity can get the FBI on your case.
Today, the ACLU and our partners at Advancing Justice–Asian Law Caucus and Bingham McCutchen are taking the federal government to court over a surveillance program that targets people even if they are engaging in entirely innocent and constitutionally protected activity, and encourages religious profiling. As if that weren’t enough, the Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) program also violates the government’s own rules for the collection of criminal intelligence.
James Prigoff is one of our clients. He is 86 years old, and a renowned photographer of public art. He has lectured at universities and had his work exhibited at museums around the world. In 2004, he was stopped by security guards in Boston while attempting to take photos of a famous piece of public art called the Rainbow Swash, which is painted on a natural gas storage tank. Several months later, the FBI tracked him down at his house in Sacramento to question him about his activities in Boston.
Tariq Razak, a young scientist and Pakistani-American, is another plaintiff in our case. He became the subject of a SAR after a visit to a train depot in Santa Ana, California, where he had an appointment with the county employment resource center. He walked around the depot looking for the resource center, and his mother, who was wearing a hijab, accompanied him. He later discovered that this conduct led to a SAR describing him as “a male of Middle Eastern descent” who was suspicious because he was “constantly surveying all areas of the facility” and because he met up with a “female in a white burka head dress.”
Our other clients were also unfairly targeted, falling under government scrutiny for activities ranging from buying computers to playing video games. Several of them were profiled due to their perceived religious beliefs.
These “suspicious activities” may be absurd, but there’s nothing funny about the program. The Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Information Sharing Environment, a post-9/11 agency tasked with coordinating national security intelligence-sharing, have adopted lax standards for what constitutes “suspicious activity.” These standards violate a DOJ regulation from 1978 that prohibits law enforcement from sharing “intelligence” about individuals unless the information is supported by reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. The 1978 regulation was adopted in the wake of prior domestic surveillance abuses.
Predictably, eschewing those protections has turned back the clock. The government is ignoring sensible limits on criminal intelligence collection and actively encouraging not just law enforcement, but also private security guards, shopkeepers, hotel owners, and even neighbors, to collect and share information about innocent conduct.
- Hotels are advised to be on the lookout for guests who “request specific room assignments or locations” or use “payphones for outgoing calls.”
- Rental car companies are instructed that “providing multiple names” on rental paperwork is to be “considered suspicious.”
- Hobby shops should be wary of customers with an “unusual interest” in remote-controlled aircraft and those who pay in cash.
- The general public is cautioned to report “unusual activity,” including “people acting suspiciously” and “people in places where they do not belong.”
If “acting suspiciously” or being somewhere someone thinks you don’t “belong” is enough to put people into federal counter-terrorism databases, it’s no wonder the databases are full of irrelevant information and reports targeting Muslims, South Asians, and Arab Americans. As you may remember from last year, actual SARs we obtained through Public Records Act requests include reports with subjects like “Suspicious ME [Middle Eastern] Males Buy Several Large Pallets of Water.” It’s also no wonder law enforcement experts criticize the SAR program for “flooding” law enforcement with “white noise.”
Today our clients are challenging a program through which innocuous and even constitutionally protected activity is being reported as “suspicious” and leading to federal law enforcement scrutiny. This program not only violates federal privacy protections for “intelligence” sharing. It encourages a culture of fear and distrust, undermining our freedom with no known benefit to our safety.
The cameras, built by Persistent Surveillance Systems, can spot people up to 25 miles away, The Washington Post reports.
The cameras, mounted on a fixed wing aircraft, can track every vehicle and person, enabling police, businesses and even private individuals to identify people and track their movements, the report says.
Ross McNutt, the president of Persistent Surveillance Systems, said the cameras have already been flown above major public events such as the Ohio political rally where Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) named Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008.
He said they have also been flown above Baltimore; Philadelphia; Compton, Calif.; and Dayton in demonstrations for police.
McNutt, a former Air Force officer who helped design a similar surveillance system for use in wartime Iraq, said he hopes to deploy the systems around the country to help solve and deter crime.
However, the use of cameras in US cities is raising civil liberties concerns, though courts have put stricter limits on technology that can see things not visible to the naked eye, ruling that they can amount to unconstitutional searches when conducted without a warrant.
“If you turn your country into a totalitarian surveillance state, there’s always some wrongdoing you can prevent,” said Jay Stanley, a privacy expert with the American Civil Liberties Union. “The balance struck in our Constitution tilts toward liberty, and I think we should keep that value.”
By Richard Hugus | Aletho News | December 31, 2013
Drone aircraft, which we first heard of as weapons of war used by the United States in foreign lands, are now poised for a full-scale invasion of the skies above the US itself. On December 30, 2013 the US Federal Aviation Administration announced its choices for drone testing in six states around the country — Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia. These six states may in turn do their testing in more than one location, For example, according to the Anchorage Daily News, drone testing centered in Alaska at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks will be called “the ‘Pan-Pacific Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Range Complex.’ It includes six flight ranges in Alaska, four in Hawaii and three in Oregon.” According to the Honolulu Star Advertiser “the Pohakuloa Training Area on Hawaii island, the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai and even the island of Niihau have been included in discussions of places where the testing could occur.” According to the East Oregonian, drone testing is likely to involve a former military base in Pendleton, Port of Tillamook, and Warm Springs. Likewise, the New York operation will be run from the former Griffiss Air Force base in Rome, NY and, according to the Cape Cod Times, will also include the former Otis Air Base on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The Times reports that “the Cape site had the support of the state’s congressional delegation, a statewide military asset commission and business leaders” and that “among the institutions involved in the bid are Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Rochester Institute of Technology.”
What this story reveals is the creation of a huge web of DOD-connected Universities, businesses, corporations, defense contractors, and former and current Pentagon facilities spread all over the country. Included in this web are the many and various chambers of commerce, their boosters in the press, and numerous comprador “officials” anxious to bring federal money into their districts, at the expense of all the other people who live in them. Almost no news coverage has appeared that would imply the FAA decision was anything but a boon for the economy and the advent of a wonderful and inevitable new technology.
There is little news about the down side to hosting drones in all these areas of the country, each with a populace that has simply not been consulted. Drones first came to our attention at the beginning of “the war on terror.” We learned of them first as weapons for highly illegal, cowardly, and indiscriminate “targeted killings” in foreign lands. These weapons have murdered countless innocent people in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia pursuant to “kill lists” drawn up every week by the CIA and Pentagon, and approved by the White House. These weapons fulfill the US Air Force’s fantasy of “death from above,” carried out by pilots working in the security and comfort of US bases who, acting as judge, jury, and executioner, destroy supposed enemies from computer consoles as if it were a video game. The cowardliness of wars of aggression being conducted against innocent people in dirt-poor lands by unseen “UAV pilots” in air-conditioned offices thousands of miles away cannot be over-emphasized. This is what unmanned aircraft have brought so far to the reputation of the United States – a new low in the entire universe of human ethics; murder abroad is but the advance of capitalism at home. Wedding parties in Afghanistan have been decimated so that Amazon can deliver CDs and smart phones to our door by drone.
Nor is there news about the introduction of drones domestically as yet another assault on privacy and the human right to be free from surveillance. Domestic law enforcement agencies are just as anxious to spy on the US population and target people they call criminals as the Pentagon and CIA have been to spy on the rest of the world and kill people they call terrorists. It isn’t enough that our phones and computers have been turned by the NSA into astounding instruments of surveillance, that everything we say and do on these instruments is being harvested and stored, and that surveillance cameras are mounted at almost every business and public space. Now the national security state wants to have remote-controlled cameras videotaping us full-time from the sky. The police hope to have drones able to fire “non-lethal weapons” at people they deem to be involved in criminal activity so that they too can play God. Without question, non-lethal weapons will soon become lethal weapons and the US will be trying and executing citizens at home as it has done elsewhere without even a hint of due process.
The domestic military bases which are being revived by this brave new technology originally went out of business because there was nothing for them to do in the fulfillment of their original purpose – defending the country. Otis Air Base, now called “Joint Base Cape Cod”, is a case in point. It used to patrol the skies for Russian aircraft along the northeast coast and ended up being a disaster for the community in which it was situated because it polluted the local groundwater and sole-source drinking water aquifer with untold gallons of dumped jet fuel and cleaning solvents. It sent fighter jets to intercept the two planes hijacked to New York on September 11, 2001, but ended up being part of a ploy to let those planes actually reach the twin towers before they got there. This base and many others have been parasites on the communities around them. They will continue in that role in their new incarnation as hosts to drone spying and drone warfare. The war has come home. The people orchestrating this war – the global elite — have no particular allegiance to the United States. From their point of view, its land and its people must also be brought under control, just like everywhere else. How sad it is to see the scramble to welcome them.
- Drone research funds to fly into Bay State (bostonherald.com)
- Drone Testing Starts Toward Bezos Vision as States See Jobs Gold – Businessweek (businessweek.com)
By Fiona de Londras, Durham University | November 6, 2013
Next month the advocate general of the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU), Yves Bot, will publish an opinion on the extent to which the Data Retention Directive, one of the most controversial security measures introduced by the EU in the past decade, is compatible with human rights law. Although not a binding judgement (this will come later), the CJEU’s opinion is a significant intervention in the ongoing debate over how to balance human rights with states’ perceived surveillance needs.
The security-related retention of communications by telecoms firms was on the European agenda well before 9/11, but privacy concerns had led to a limited approach. Telecoms companies in the EU were obliged to delete communications data as soon as all business needs had been met; the data could not be retained for security or criminal investigation purposes. Some states had attempted to adjust this and introduce a retention system in 2000, but this failed – again, largely because of privacy concerns. All this changed, however, after 9/11.
As early as May 2002, a “data retention amendment” had been made to existing EU privacy laws to allow for security-related data retention, and drafts of a provision that would require retention began to circulate. Those proposals attracted so much rights-based criticism that they were apparently abandoned; however, they quickly reappeared in the wake of the London and Madrid bombings, and in 2006, the Data Retention Directive was adopted.
It obliges all member states to introduce national data retention regimes, even where -— as in the UK —- there had already been significant resistance to such regimes when they were previously proposed at national level. The directive requires telecommunications providers to retain data on the source, destination, time, date, duration and type of all communications by fixed and mobile telephone, fax and internet, and on the location and type of equipment used.
The data is to be retained for between six month and two years, with national law deciding on the duration, and can be accessed by state agencies investigating “serious crime” —- a term that has different definitions across the member states.
The volume and extent of information retained under the directive is stunning; in effect, it has introduced a system of blanket surveillance across the entire EU. Although access to the information is regulated by law, state agencies can nonetheless access an enormous amount of information about our communications patterns and activities. This naturally raises serious human rights concerns, especially about privacy.
Security services insist that data retention is an indispensable tool for investigating serious crimes, such as terrorism and the production and distribution of child pornography. Yet different states make use of the Directive to wildly varying extents: in 2012, for example, Cyprus made 22 requests for access to data, while the UK made 725,467.
The question for the advocate general, the CJEU and the EU more broadly is whether or not the approach taken by the directive privileges perceived security needs over human rights. Data retention unquestionably constitutes a prima facie infringement on privacy; the real issue is whether this infringement is justified because it is necessary, effective, and limited. This question is at the core of all debates about “balance” in the security context: how far are we prepared to allow state power into our individual, family, social and democratic lives in order to “secure” us?
Answering this question requires us to decide on what we think “effectiveness” means in the context of security. If the directive helps to resolve a handful of serious crimes per year, or to prevent one terrorist attack, is it effective? Could a more limited approach -— such as requiring telecoms companies to collect data related to certain investigations but not to retain all data -— achieve the same security objectives while better protecting rights?
These are difficult questions, but they are ones we must resolve if we are to have a balanced security system. The advocate general’s opinion will be an important contribution to the debate, but it will not be the final word. Achieving a balanced approach to security requires critical scrutiny at practical, political, social and legal levels. This is all the more true given that, as the Data Retention Directive illustrates, security measures operate upon and have implications for the rights of all of us, all of the time.
Fiona de Londras is the Project Co-Ordinator of SECILE (Securing Europe through Counter-Terrorism: Impact, Legitimacy and Effectiveness), a project that has received funding from the European Union Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement n° 313195.
- Are YOU content for the EU & UK politicos to be party to every detail of your life? (ironiestoo.blogspot.com)
- Corporate interests dominate group working on EU data law (computerworld.co.nz)
- Dutch Telcos Used Customer Metadata, Retained To Fight Terrorism, For Everyday Marketing Purposes (techdirt.com)
- How to choose a VPN that actually protects your privacy – Abine (uwnthesis.wordpress.com)
Ed Snowden has briefly stepped up to the mic to rebut Dianne Feinstein’s claims that the NSA’s bulk phone records collections are “not surveillance.” While he didn’t specifically name Feinstein, it’s pretty clear who his comments are directed towards, what with the senator putting in overtime over the past few weeks defending the agency’s cherished but useless Section 215 collections haystacks that are definitely not collections (according to the Intelligence Dictionary.)
“Today, no telephone in America makes a call without leaving a record with the NSA. Today, no Internet transaction enters or leaves America without passing through the NSA’s hands,” Snowden said in a statement Thursday.
“Our representatives in Congress tell us this is not surveillance. They’re wrong.”
Her op-ed for the USA Today stated the following:
The call-records program is not surveillance.
Why is it not surveillance? Feinstein claimed, in direct contradiction to someone who’s seen most of the inner workings of the agency’s programs, that because it doesn’t sweep up communications or names, it isn’t surveillance. Also, she pointed out that surveillance or not, it’s legal. So there.
Maybe Feinstein considers the term “surveillance” to mean something closer to the old school interpretation — shadowy figures in unmarked vans wearing headphones and peering through binoculars.
Of course, this kind of surveillance contained many elements completely eliminated by the combination of the PATRIOT Act, the FISA Amendments Act, and a very charitable reading of the Third Party Doctrine. You know, the sort of stuff those shadowy men used to utilize: warrants, targeted investigations, reasonable suspicion, a grudging working relationship with the Fourth Amendment…
That’s all gone now. The courts have declared that sweeping up business records on millions of Americans is no more a violation of the Fourth Amendment than gathering metadata on a single person. The NSA has warped the definition of “surveillance” just as surely as they’ve warped the definition of “relevant.” The wholesale, untargeted gathering of millions of “transactions” from internet and phone activity doesn’t seem to resemble what anyone might historically think of as “surveillance,” but it’s surveillance nonetheless.
Sure, the NSA may not look at everything it gathers, but it has the capability to do so and it shows no interest in letting any of its dragnets be taken out of commission. The NSA’s defenders downplay the agency’s many intrusions by first playing the “legal” and “oversight” cards and, when those fail to impress, belittle their critics by trotting out condescending statements like, “The NSA isn’t interested in Grandma’s birthday phone call or the cat videos you email to your friends.”
Well, no shit. We’re hardly interested in that, either. We’re not worried about the NSA looking through tons of inane interactions. We know it doesn’t have the time or inclination to do so. We’re more concerned it’s looking at the stuff it finds interesting and amassing databases full of “suspicious” persons by relying on algorithms and keywords — a fallible process that robs everything of context and turns slightly pointed hay into the needles it so desperately needs to justify its existence.
What makes this even more frightening is that the agency then hands this unfiltered, untargeted, massive collection of data off to other agencies, not only in the US but in other countries, subjecting innocent Americans’ data to new algorithms, keywords and mentalities, increasing the possibility of false positives.
But what we’re mainly concerned about is the fact that an agency that claims its doing this to combat terrorism can’t seem to come up with much evidence that its programs are working. The NSA has deprived us of civil liberties while delivering next to nothing in terms of security. Americans have been sold out to a data-hungry beast, and even if it’s not officially “surveillance,” it’s still completely unacceptable.
The former top lawyer at the FBI deeply implicated in surveillance abuses revealed before and by Edward Snowden’s leaks was confirmed as a federal judge in a top court for terrorism cases this week.
The US Senate voted 73-24 on Monday in approving Valerie Caproni, Federal Bureau of Investigation general counsel from 2003 to 2011, to the Southern District of New York, one of the country’s most important federal courts for terrorism cases.
Caproni has received bipartisan criticism for allowing and defending surveillance abuses both found to be overbroad during her tenure and those not disclosed when she was counsel but later revealed to be inappropriate or illegal. For example, the Snowden leaks showed Caproni mischaracterized the limits of the Patriot Act during her term.
A 2010 report by the Department of Justice revealed the FBI inappropriately used non-judicial subpoenas called “exigent letters” to gather phone numbers of over 5,550 Americans until 2006.
“The FBI broke the law on telephone records privacy and the general counsel’s office, headed by Valerie Caproni, sanctioned it and must face consequences,” said John Conyers in April 2010 as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Conyers called for Caproni’s firing at the time over the use of the non-judicial subpoenas, according to the Guardian.
“It’s not in the Patriot Act. It never has been. And its use, perhaps coincidentally, began in the same month that Ms Valerie Caproni began her work as general counsel,” Conyers said in 2010.
Caproni told House lawmakers in 2008 if phone numbers — acquired from telephone companies by the FBI via the non-judicial subpoenas evidently sanctioned in the Patriot Act — were not related to a “currently open investigation, and there was no emergency at the time we received the records, the records are removed from our files and destroyed.”
Yet revelations found in documents supplied by Snowden outlined how the National Security Agency stores phone records on all Americans for up five years no matter if they are associated with an open investigation or not. In addition, it’s been found that the NSA has the capability to feed the FBI phone records if there is a “reasonable articulable suspicion” they are related to terrorism.
“Caproni knew that the Bush administration could use or was using the Section 215 provision in the Patriot Act to obtain Americans’ phone records on a broad scale, an issue that has recently been documented by the whistleblower material first printed in the Guardian,” Lisa Graves, a former deputy assistant attorney general who dealt with Caproni while working on national security issues for the ACLU, told the Guardian.
In 2007, DOJ’s Inspector General Glenn Fine found the FBI was serially abusing National Security Letters — a demand regarding national security independent of legal subpoenas– to obtain business records, including “unauthorized collection of telephone or internet email transactional records.” While the larger collection of phone records was still not exposed at the time, Caproni called the inappropriate collection a “colossal failure on our part.”
“Government officials that secretly approved of overbroad surveillance programs the public is only seeing now because of leaks, and whose testimony on the issue obscured rather than revealed these abuses, should be held to account for their actions in a public forum,” former FBI agent Mike German told the Guardian.
Caproni’s nomination to the federal bench had some bipartisan opposition, but not enough to block her appointment.
“She is a woman with impeccable credentials,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said on the Senate floor Monday. “This country needs more women like her.”
We’ve discussed a few times how the pervasive surveillance efforts of the NSA and others have tremendous chilling effects on how people communicate and how they act. We’ve discussed how this is a “cost” to the program that not many, especially those who are backing these programs, seem interested in measuring or even thinking about. Of course, implicit in our assumption is that these “costs” are things that are negatives of the program. Others would point out that for those in power, that’s not so much a cost as a benefit. It’s not a bug or an unintended consequence, but a feature. Chilling speech and clamping down on communications? Why that’s a good thing for those in power.
Josh Levy, from Free Press, has a great guest post over at Boing Boing where he discusses how the NSA’s surveillance regime is a huge attack on free speech, and how this is both inevitable, and for some, the intent of the program:
The chilling of free speech isn’t just a consequence of surveillance. It’s also a motive. We adopt the art of self-censorship, closing down blogs, watching what we say on Facebook, forgoing “private” email for fear that any errant word may come back to haunt us in one, five or fifteen 15 years. “The mind’s tendency to still feel observed when alone… can be inhibiting,” writes Janna Malamud Smith. Indeed.
Peggy Noonan, describing a conversation with longtime civil liberties advocate Nat Hentoff, writes that “the inevitable end of surveillance is self-censorship.”
Hentoff stressed that privacy invasions of this magnitude are “attempts to try to change who we are as Americans.” In fact, they are attempts to define who we are as human beings.
Meanwhile, over at the Atlantic, Bruce Schneier has a post discussing the detainment of David Miranda, where he comes to similar conclusions, that these authoritarian police states clearly have no practical benefit, except to enable a powerful government to show off its power to invade your lives:
This leaves one last possible explanation — those in power were angry and impulsively acted on that anger. They’re lashing out: sending a message and demonstrating that they’re not to be messed with — that the normal rules of polite conduct don’t apply to people who screw with them. That’s probably the scariest explanation of all. Both the U.S. and U.K. intelligence apparatuses have enormous money and power, and they have already demonstrated that they are willing to ignore their own laws. Once they start wielding that power unthinkingly, it could get really bad for everyone.
Of course, Schneier sees some upside to this in the long run — which is that such blatantly ridiculous activity seems to only embolden others to push back on this trampling of our rights. Hopefully, that pushback works, because the alternative is horrifying to those who believe in a free and open society.
- Nat Hentoff on the NSA and Privacy (cato.org)
Congressional Oversight? Dianne Feinstein Says She’s ‘Not A High-Tech Techie’ But Knows NSA Can’t Abuse Surveillance
As the NSA and defenders of NSA surveillance are trying to minimize the damage from the latest leak, which revealed the details of the XKeyscore program, they’re bending over backwards to insist that this program is both limited and immune from abuse. We’ve already mentioned that the claims that it can’t be abused are laughable since there’s already a well-documented history of abuse. However, even more bizarre is the following quote from Senate Intelligence Committee boss, Senator Dianne Feinstein (a staunch defender of the surveillance programs):
Feinstein said, “I am not a high-tech techie, but I have been told that is not possible.”
Note that among Feinstein’s jobs is oversight of this program. Yet, what kind of “oversight” is it when she admits that she’s not qualified to understand the technology but “has been told” that such abuses are not possible? That doesn’t seem like oversight. That seems like asking the NSA “can this system be abused?” and the NSA saying “oh, no no no, not at all.” That’s not exactly oversight, now is it?
Earlier this week, the Oakland City Council voted to approve the second phase of a $10.9 million surveillance center that would enable the City to engage in widespread warrantless surveillance of Oakland residents who have engaged in no wrongdoing whatsoever. This is a terrible blow to privacy.
The so-called Domain Awareness Center (DAC) would consolidate a vast network of surveillance data. The project was initially supposed to be about port security. But in a classic illustration of mission creep, the project as proposed would have pulled in over 1,000 cameras and sensors pointed at Oakland residents, including 700 cameras in Oakland schools. While surveilling schoolchildren is not going to secure the Port of Oakland, it would allow for the comprehensive tracking of innocent Oakland residents. The DAC would enable the city to track individuals when they visit the abortion clinic, the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, or the union hall, or engage in other private activities. Although proponents of the project claimed that it did nothing more than consolidate existing surveillance systems, the mere combination of surveillance data is extremely intrusive. A mosaic depicts far more information than any individual tile.
Shockingly, the City Council was poised to approve the project even though there was no privacy framework in place whatsoever. Although the City’s proposed contract with a vendor to build the DAC took pains to prescribe in minute detail the precise manner in which, for example, metal framing systems are to be installed (studs are to be placed not more than 2 inches from abutting walls), there were no privacy provisions addressing key issues such as data retention and dissemination.
Disappointingly, and in the face of enormous opposition, the City Council voted on Tuesday to approve the DAC. The resolution it ultimately adopted requires the City Council to approve privacy policies and specifies which surveillance systems can be included in the DAC (the cameras in Oakland schools are no longer included). While the resolution contains a few nods to privacy, the City Council still put the cart before the horse. The City Council would never have approved a construction project, only to say that they’d review financial costs after the project is built. But it did just that with privacy costs.
You can follow Linda Lye on Twitter at @linda_lye.
- Oakland accepts federal funds for controversial, vast surveillance setup (arstechnica.com)
Automatic license plate readers are the most widespread location tracking technology you’ve probably never heard of. Mounted on patrol cars or stationary objects like bridges, they snap photos of every passing car, recording their plate numbers, times, and locations. At first the captured plate data was used just to check against lists of cars law enforcement hoped to locate for various reasons (to act on arrest warrants, find stolen cars, etc.). But increasingly, all of this data is being fed into massive databases that contain the location information of many millions of innocent Americans stretching back for months or even years.
This is what we have found after analyzing more than 26,000 pages of documents from police departments in cities and towns across the country, obtained through freedom of information requests by ACLU affiliates in 38 states and Washington, D.C. As it becomes increasingly clear that ours is an era of mass surveillance facilitated by ever cheaper and more powerful computing technology (think about the NSA’s call logging program), it is critical we learn how this technology is being used. License plate readers are just one example of a disturbing phenomenon: the government is increasingly using new technology to collect information about all of us, all the time, and to store it forever – providing a complete record of our lives for it to access at will.
Today, we are releasing all of the documents we have received (accessible through this interactive map and this issue page) and are publishing a report, “You Are Being Tracked,” which explains what these documents say about license plate readers: what they are capable of, how they are being used, and what privacy harms they can cause if protections aren’t put in place. We’re also offering more than a dozen recommendations we think local police departments and state legislatures should follow when they pass laws about this technology.
As is often the case with surveillance technology, there are unobjectionable – even beneficial – uses of license plate readers. We don’t object when they’re used to identify people who are driving stolen cars or are subject to an arrest warrant. But they should not become tools for tracking where each of us has driven.
License plate readers capture vast amounts of data on innocent people
Because of the way the technology works – these devices snap photos of every passing car, not just those registered to people suspected of crimes – virtually all of the data license plate readers gather is about people who are completely innocent. Data that we obtained through our records requests illustrates this point vividly.
Why we should worry
Should the government be logging for months, years, or indefinitely the movements of the other 99 percent of people, who are innocent?
The answer to this question is no. License plate reader information can be very revealing. While one snapshot at one point might not seem sensitive, as blankets of plate readers cover our streets, and as the government stores data for longer and longer, the technology quickly morphs into a powerful tracking tool.
As computer technology and storage capacity get cheaper every year, we need to prepare for a future not just where there are a few license plate reader cameras in every town, but one in which there are multiple cameras on every block.
What can location data reveal about people? Trips to places of worship, political protests, or gun ranges can be powerful indicators of people’s beliefs. Is it really the government’s business how often you go to the drug store or liquor store, what doctors you visit, and the identities of your friends? I’m sure all of us can remember something from our past that could embarrass us. If the government comes to suspect you of something in 2020, should it have access to databases stretching back years that could dig up facts about you that previously went unnoticed?
What’s happening now
Law enforcement data-retention policies today are all over the map. While some police departments store data briefly, others keep it for a long time, or indefinitely.
The government doesn’t have a great track record of using this kind of information responsibly. As our report details, the data can be abused for official purposes, like spying on protesters merely because they are exercising their constitutionally protected right to petition the government, or unofficial ones, like tracking an ex-spouse.
Prior to the rise of powerful surveillance technology, it simply wasn’t possible to watch all of the people all of the time. But as these natural limits erode and the impossible becomes possible, we have to make conscious choices about how technology should be used.
What’s the right line with license plate readers?
There is a reasonable way to regulate this technology. The primary law enforcement use of these systems is to take pictures of plates to make it possible to check them against “hot lists” of cars of interest to law enforcement. This can be done virtually instantaneously. While plates that generate a “hit” may need to be stored for investigative purposes, there is no need to store plates for months or years to achieve this purpose.
That is to say, the answer to regulating license plate readers is to have strict limits on how long plate data can be retained. While we don’t recommend a specific cutoff date, we think it should be measured in days and weeks, not months and certainly not years.
To their credit, some law enforcement agencies already comply with this principle. For example, the Minnesota State Patrol deletes all data after 48 hours.
Others keep data for longer, and the rationale given is always the same: Although you can’t tell immediately that someone is committing a crime, some of those people may well be doing something wrong, goes the argument. But in our society, the government doesn’t watch all of us all the time just in case we commit a crime.
This is not just an issue we’ll have to decide in the context of license plate readers, but the most important surveillance issue of our time. Should the NSA collect all data about everyone’s calls, just in case it’s useful to identify a terrorist? Why stop there? Why not store all of the contents of the calls we make as well? And emails? This is not just about communications or public movements. It’s also about what happens inside the home. As electric companies convert to “smart grids” that provide them data about the patterns of your electricity usage, it could well become apparent when you take a shower and whether you run your dishwasher more frequently than others in your demographic profile. … Full article
Former Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul appeared on CNN tonight to tell Piers Morgan why he objects to the NSA surveillance program. Morgan directly asked Paul if he would have actually ended surveillance programs if he were president. Paul said he would still want intelligence gathering, but it would be done in a more transparent way, maintaining that the current surveillance program are unquestionably unconstitutional. He directly told NSA defenders that they are simply “justifying dictatorship.”
Paul dismissed the use of a FISA court as a significant enough of a check on the executive branch. He said this program is undeniably “destroying the Constitution,”, and posed a question to anyone who defends the widespread surveillance.
“What should the penalty be for the people who destroy the Constitution? They’re always worrying about how they’re going to destroy the American citizens who tell the truth, to let us know what’s going on, but we ask the question: what is the penalty for people who deliberately destroy the Constitution and rationalize and say, ‘Oh, we have to do it for security.’ Well, frankly, you end up losing–you lose your security and you lose your freedoms too.”
He told NSA defenders that the nation is on a “very dangerous course,” and when they try to say there’s nothing wrong with such massive intelligence gathering, “you’re justifying dictatorship!”
Courtesy of CNN: Video