Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Hate Crime Legislation

I testified before a congressional committee yesterday on the subject of hate crimes. Since all violent acts in the proposed legislation are already against the law, proponents of hate crimes legislation have to come up with reasons as to why such laws are necessary. One argument is that hate crimes are different because they not only impact the victim, but a broader community. For some so-called hate crime incidents, that is true. But the same thing can be said for other crimes that fall outside of the hate crime definition. The tragedy at Virginia Tech is a prime example. Reporters have repeatedly noted that it’s not just the victims and their families that have been impacted–but the entire university community.

Cato associate policy analyst David Kopel has an article in today’s Wall Street Journal (subscription required) about “gun-free zones” and the slayings at Virginia Tech.

The Border … Is You

Tomorrow, the House Homeland Security Committee is hosting a “Border Security Tech Fair.”

Vendors scheduled to participate include: Sightlogix, Scantech, Wattre, Hirsch, Bioscrypt, Cogent Systems, Cross Match, L1 Identity, Sagem Morpho, Motorola, L3 Communication, Authentec, Privaris, Mobilisa, and Lumidigm.

I don’t know all of these companies, so I made some educated guesses about the links (and I may have gotten the wrong division of Motorola), but it appears that fully 11 of the 15 participants are in the biometrics industry.

If you think for a minute that this is about the boundary line dividing the United States from its neighbors, I have a bridge to sell you. No wait - I have a “biometric solution” to sell you.  Mobilisa, for example, is being used to run background checks on the citizens of Clermont County, Ohio.

Participants in the Homeland Security Committee’s lunch briefing are all in the biometrics industry.  One of them, James Ziglar, wrote an op-ed in favor of a national ID in Monday’s New York Times. He claims it’s not a national ID, but then, he’s got a biometric solution to sell you.

If It’s Not a National ID, Then What is It?

Former IRS Commissioners Doris Meissner and James Zigler editorialize in today’s New York Times about their support for “secure, biometric Social Security cards” as an essential part of immigration law reform.

The give-away line?: “To insist on secure documents with biometric identifiers is not a call for a national ID.” They provide no logical support for this naked assertion. Because it’s false.

Strengthened “internal enforcement” of immigration law means federal surveillance and tracking of all workers. All of them. Including you.

False Suspicion and Cold Comfort

A post on the Washington DC/Metro Area Flickr users group has touched a nerve with readers of DCist, who are sharing stories of similar experiences in the comments.

D.C. area photographer “Yonas,” taking pictures in the Gallery Place Metro station, caught the eye of Metro Police who found it suspicious. They demanded identification and subjected the photographer to questioning.

This offends me about five different ways, but it provides a good opportunity to illustrate how suspicion is properly generated — and, in this case, how it is not properly generated — using patterns. The same concepts apply to the cop on the beat and the high-tech search through data.

I testified to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on data mining earlier this year regarding searches for terrorists and terrorism planning:

Pattern analysis is looking for a pattern in data that has two characteristics: (1) It is consistent with bad behavior, such as terrorism planning or crime; and (2) it is inconsistent with innocent behavior.

In … the classic Fourth Amendment case, Terry v. Ohio, …  a police officer saw Terry walking past a store multiple times, looking in furtively. This was (1) consistent with criminal planning (“casing” the store for robbery), and (2) inconsistent with innocent behavior — it didn’t look like shopping, curiosity, or unrequited love of a store clerk. The officer’s “hunch” in Terry can be described as a successful use of pattern analysis before the age of databases.

Recall that after 9/11 people were questioned and even arrested for taking pictures of bridges, monuments, and buildings. To common knowledge, photographing landmarks fits a pattern of terrorism planning. After all, terrorists need to case their targets. But photographing landmarks fits many patterns of innocent behavior also, such as tourism, photography as a hobby, architecture, and so on. This clumsy, improvised [pattern analysis] failed the second test of pattern development.

Photography on public property will almost never be suspicious enough to justify even the briefest interrogation. Photography is a serendipitous activity so it appropriately gets wide latitude. (Other facts could combine with public-location photography to create a suspicious circumstance on rare occasions, of course.)

It bears mentioning that regulations allow photography in Metro stations, but I don’t find regulation of this kind terribly comforting. It reminds me of Prague shortly after the Velvet Revolution, where I observed that people were consciously coming to grips with the revolutionary idea: “All that is not forbidden is allowed.” The prior state of affairs had been the opposite, “All that is not allowed is forbidden.” I hope this latter rule is not in force on our subways or anywhere else in this country.

If You’re in North Carolina …

I’ll be speaking tomorrow at the Security and Liberty Forum hosted by the Privacy and Technology Committee of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina and the Department of Computer Science, UNC-Chapel Hill.

That’s Saturday, April 14, 2007 from 1-5 p.m., Chapman Hall on the UNC Campus.

Abracadabra! County Pulls a Subsidy Out of a Hat

Jacob Grier, the blogger-barista-magician with a highly coveted Vanderbilt degree, has been writing about Montgomery County’s plans to evict Barry’s Magic Shop from the site in Wheaton, Md., where it has survived for 31 years. As he wrote last June:

The real story is that simply because a few county planners have decided that the land could be better used to attract developers than as a magic store, the man who owns the building has had his property forcibly taken from him and a small business that has thrived for decades is being evicted years before its lease is up.

The county used eminent domain to take the building in order to build a walkway as part of a grand plan for Wheaton. The plan has been in the works for years, and there are no immediate plans for actually building the walkway, but the building has been seized.

But today there’s good news! For Barry’s and its customers, anyway, if not for Maryland taxpayers and property owners. In addition to spending over $2 million to take the building and build the walkway, taxpayers – in the person of Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett – are also going to spend $260,000 to relocate the magic shop.

So first the county spends taxpayers’ money to seize private property in the name of its own vision of what that corner of Wheaton should look like. Then it spends more taxpayers’ money to subsidize a small business.

Here’s an idea: Why not let the market decide where businesses locate, without subsidizing the businesses and without seizing their property? As Jacob says,

This is a story that should make people angry. Angry that George Chaconas had his land taken from him. Angry that Barry Taylor and Suzie Kang are being evicted years before their lease is up. Angry that this is all being done with taxpayers’ money to subsidize the developers who will eventually move into the area, just because some guy named Joseph Davis thinks that’s the way things ought to be.

Montgomery County, Maryland: Where everything goes according to plan. Or else.