Tag: surveillance

Cities Seek Police Surveillance Transparency and Oversight

Today, legislative efforts began in eleven cities (see right) aimed at requiring police departments to be more transparent about the surveillance technology they use. The bills will also reportedly propose increased community control over the use of surveillance tools. These efforts, spearheaded by the ACLU and other civil liberty organizations, are important at a time when surveillance technology is improving and is sometimes used without the knowledge or approval of local officials or the public.

Many readers will be familiar with CCTV cameras and wiretap technology, which police use to investigate crimes and gather evidence. Yet there is a wide range of surveillance tools that are less well-known and will become more intrusive as technology advances.

Facial recognition software is already used by some police departments. As this technology improves it will be easier for police to identify citizens, especially if it is used in conjunction with body cameras. But our faces are not our only biometric identifiers. Technology in the near future will make it easier to identify us by analyzing our gait, voice, irises, and ears.

Using Persistent Surveillance to Watch the Watchmen

Yesterday, police in Oklahoma released aerial and dash camera footage of an unarmed man named Terence Crutcher being shot by an officer as he stood beside his SUV. Tulsa Police Chief Chuck Jordan described the footage as “very difficult to watch,” and the officer who shot Crutcher is on administrative leave. The aerial footage of the shooting ought to remind us how important transparency policy is in the age of the “Pre-Search” and the role persistent aerial surveillance may come to play in police misconduct investigations.

Reporting from earlier this year revealed that police in Baltimore have been testing persistent aerial surveillance technology, described by its developer as “Google Earth with TiVo,” which allows users to keep around 30 square miles under surveillance. The technology, developed by Persistent Surveillance Systems (PSS), has helped Baltimore police investigate thefts and shootings. But the trial was conducted in secret, without the knowledge of key Baltimore city officials, and was financed by a billionaire couple.

Shortly after news of the persistent surveillance in Baltimore was reported I and others noted that it should cause concern. Citizens engaged in lawful behavior deserve to know if their movements are being filmed and tracked by police for hours at a time. Yet, as disturbing as the secretive persistent surveillance in Baltimore is, technology already exists that is far more intrusive.

Drones Are a Must For Trump’s Nativist Police State

Yesterday my colleague Alex Nowrasteh wrote an extensive list of reasons why Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican Party presidential nominee, is the nativist dream candidate. The list leaves little doubt that if Trump makes it to the White House he will seek to violate the Constitution, create a police state, put citizens’ privacy at risk, and build a border wall (despite its estimated $25 billion price tag) all in the name of reducing legal and illegal immigration to the United States.

Trump’s immigration plan ought to worry civil libertarians because, as Alex points out, he supports mandatory E-Verify, the ineffective employment eligibility verification program that puts privacy at risk. Trump’s disregard for effective policy and privacy rights can be seen not only in his views on E-Verify but also his support for 24/7 border drones.

Last month Trump told Syracuse.com that he would order the 24/7 surveillance of the U.S. borders, adding, “I want surveillance for our borders, and the drone has great capabilities for surveillance.”

What Trump might not know is that drones on the U.S. border don’t have a great track record. At the end of 2014 the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General released an audit of the Customs and Border Protection’s Unmanned Aircraft System Program. The program includes MQ -9 Predator B drones (also called “Reapers”), perhaps best known for its combat missions abroad, as well as the Guardian, the Predator B’s maritime variant. The program’s audit was unambiguous:

The program has also not achieved the expected results. Specifically, the unmanned aircraft are not meeting flight hour goals. Although CBP anticipated increased apprehensions of illegal border crossers, a reduction in border surveillance costs, and improvement in the U.S. Border Patrol’s efficiency, we found little or no evidence that CBP met those program expectations.

Unsurprisingly, cartels at the southern border are taking part in an arms race with CBP, using jamming devices on patrol drones. Almost a year after the inspector general’s audit Timothy Bennett, a science-and-technology program manager at the Department of Homeland Security, explained how the cartels hinder CBP operations:

DHS was unable to say just how often smugglers tried to jam or spoof border-watching UAVs. But Bennett said the attacks are hindering law enforcement abilities to map drug routes. “You’re out there looking, trying to find out this path [they’re] going through with drugs, and we can’t get good coordinate systems on it because we’re getting spoofed. That screws up the whole thing. We got to fix that problem,” he said.

The ineffectiveness of drones on the border is not the only concern. CBP drones also pose privacy concerns. Predator B drones carrying out combat missions abroad have been outfitted with Gorgon Stare, a wide-area surveillance technology that allows users to track objects within an area at least 10 square kilometers in size. Almost two years ago it was reported that once incorporated with Autonomous Real-Time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance Imaging System (ARGUS-IS), another wide-area surveillance tool, Gorgon Stare can monitor 100 square kilometers. A video outlining ARGUS-IS’ capabilities is below.

The Police Don’t Need More Power to Target Muslims

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Brussels this week, presidential candidate and senator Ted Cruz called for increased law enforcement activity in American Muslim communities:

 We must empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.

Pressed to clarify his remarks, Sen. Cruz called for the resurrection and nationalization of a now-defunct NYPD surveillance program directed at the Muslim community in and around New York City.  He argued that the “successful” program was shut down due to an excess of political correctness, leaving New Yorkers more vulnerable to the threat of terrorism.

The problem: even ignoring political correctness, the NYPD program was a failure by any reasonable standard.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the NYPD established a surveillance-based Demographics Unit.  The goal of this unit was to “map” certain (almost entirely Muslim) communities in and around New York City, placing them under expansive police surveillance in order to sniff out would-be terrorists before they could launch attacks.   

To achieve this mandate, the police infiltrated mosques, set up surveillance cameras around Muslim-owned businesses and residences, went undercover to monitor everyday conversations, and even infiltrated student groups at schools as far away as Yale and the University of Pennsylvania in order to monitor what students talked about, who they spoke to, and how often they prayed. 

The end result of years of Demographic Unit surveillance on American Muslims was… nothing. 

No convictions, no prosecutions, and, according to Assistant Chief Thomas Galati, not even a single legitimate lead. 

That’s not to say there were never any terrorist threats in New York during this time period, only that the expansive “patrolling and securing” of Muslim neighborhoods failed to produce any actionable intelligence about them.  A 2013 New York Magazine article contains an illustrative example: 

In September 2009, the National Security Agency intercepted an e-mail from a taxi driver named Najibullah Zazi to an e-mail address linked to one of Al Qaeda’s most senior leaders. The message contained the line “the marriage is ready.”

Marriage and wedding were among Al Qaeda’s favorite code words for attacks, referring to the day that a suicide bomber met his brides, the maidens of the hereafter.

Trying to ascertain the scope of the plot, the NYPD searched the files of the Demographics Unit. Even though the rakers had canvassed Zazi’s neighborhood daily, and had even visited the travel agent where he bought his tickets between New York and Colorado, there was not a single piece of useful information. “There was nothing,” said [NYPD Lt. Hector] Berdecia. 

In 2011, the Associated Press began publishing an in-depth exposé on the program, which spawned calls for reform and a wave of litigation against the city. By the time Bill de Blasio took office as mayor in 2014, the program had largely wound down, and the unit was eventually disbanded entirely.

There is little evidence that program made New Yorkers any safer. What the program undoubtedly did is cost millions of tax dollars and thousands of law enforcement man-hours that could have been spent investigating actual criminal behavior. 

Sen. Cruz’s campaign also claimed that the end of the program made it more difficult for the NYPD to work with the Muslim community: 

In New York City, Mayor de Blasio succumbed to unfounded criticisms and eliminated the efforts of law enforcement to work with Muslim communities to stop radical Islamic terrorism. 

According to the NYPD itself and advocates within the New York Muslim community, the opposite is true. The NYPD program understandably alienated the local Muslim community and generated immense distrust between Muslim Americans and law enforcement.

While there is scant evidence that the NYPD program generated much in the way of actionable intelligence, it did generate civil rights and constitutional litigation against New York City.  Several suits have been settled, with costs ranging in the millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, another suit in New Jersey remains on the docket. Last October, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals issued a strongly worded opinion reinstating a lawsuit against the NYPD surveillance program, invoking several of the darkest civil liberties violations in our history to explain why the suit should proceed:

No matter how tempting it might be to do otherwise, we must apply the same rigorous standards even where national security is at stake. We have learned from experience that it is often where the asserted interest appears most compelling that we must be most vigilant in protecting constitutional rights. “[H]istory teaches that grave threats to liberty often come in times of urgency, when constitutional rights seem too extravagant to endure.”

[…]

Today it is acknowledged, for instance, that the F.D.R. Administration and military authorities infringed the constitutional rights of Japanese-Americans during World War II by placing them under curfew and removing them from their West Coast homes and into internment camps. Yet when these citizens pleaded with the courts to uphold their constitutional rights, we passively accepted the Government’s representations that the use of such classifications was necessary to the national interest. […] In doing so, we failed to recognize that the discriminatory treatment of approximately 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry was fueled not by military necessity but unfounded fears.

[…]

What occurs here in one guise is not new. We have been down similar roads before. Jewish-Americans during the Red Scare, African-Americans during the Civil Rights Movement, and Japanese-Americans during World War II are examples that readily spring to mind. We are left to wonder why we cannot see with foresight what we see so clearly with hindsight – that “[l]oyalty is a matter of the heart and mind[,] not race, creed or color.” 

Recycling failed, constitutionally-dubious policies is not a solution to terrorism, nor is singling out a largely law-abiding minority community for even more invasive government surveillance than it already endures.  Police are already empowered to investigate criminal activity, and to patrol any neighborhood they like. But the power to select entire neighborhoods or communities for intense police surveillance based solely on the ethnicity or religion is a power the police don’t need and shouldn’t have. 

For its part, the NYPD now seems to agree

“This Process Stinks”

Those are the words of Paul Ryan (R-WI) in October, ahead of his elevation to Speaker of the House. He was objecting to a budget deal being rammed through the House, and he went on to say, “This is not the way to do the people’s business, and under new management we are not going to do the people’s business this way.”

Today, the House is scheduled to debate an omnibus spending bill that has highly controversial cybersecurity surveillance legislation slipped into it.

Well. That didn’t take long.

Snowden, Surveillance, and Democrats: Debate Observations

The first debate among Democratic presidential contenders was more than half over before moderator Anderson Cooper of CNN got around to asking a question about the biggest intelligence scandal in more than 40 years. You can read the full transcript here but the exchanges between Cooper and the candidates on Edward Snowden (via Ars Technica) is what’s worth the read:

COOPER: Governor Chafee, Edward Snowden, is he a traitor or a hero?

CHAFEE: No, I would bring him home. The courts have ruled that what he did—what he did was say the American…

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: Bring him home, no jail time?

CHAFEE: … the American government was acting illegally. That’s what the federal courts have said; what Snowden did showed that the American government was acting illegally for the Fourth Amendment. So I would bring him home.

COOPER: Secretary Clinton, hero or traitor?

CLINTON: He broke the laws of the United States. He could have been a whistleblower. He could have gotten all of the protections of being a whistleblower. He could have raised all the issues that he has raised. And I think there would have been a positive response to that.

COOPER: Should he do jail time?

ClINTON: In addition—in addition, he stole very important information that has unfortunately fallen into a lot of the wrong hands. So I don’t think he should be brought home without facing the music.

COOPER: Governor [Martin] O’Malley, Snowden?

(APPLAUSE)

O’MALLEY: Anderson, Snowden put a lot of Americans’ lives at risk. Snowden broke the law. Whistleblowers do not run to Russia and try to get protection from Putin. If he really believes that, he should be back here.

COOPER: Senator Sanders, Edward Snowden?

SANDERS: I think Snowden played a very important role in educating the American people to the degree in which our civil liberties and our constitutional rights are being undermined.

COOPER: Is he a hero?

SANDERS: He did—he did break the law, and I think there should be a penalty to that. But I think what he did in educating us should be taken into consideration before he is (inaudible).

The Selectivity of American “Countering Violent Extremism” Policies

This week, the Obama administration and Congress continued their public duel over whether the U.S. government is doing enough to “counter violent extremism” (CVE). The White House press release on the “Leader’s Summit to Counter ISIL and Violent Extremism” lauded the administration’s efforts to prevent the radicalization of Muslim-American youth at the hands of ISIS. A 66-page report released by the House Homeland Security Committee (HSC) condemned the administration’s actions as inadequate on multiple levels. Both documents avoided a re-airing of unpleasant truths about why ISIS has managed to grow regionally and even find a tiny number of would-be fellow travelers here.

The first unpleasant truth is that by invading Iraq in 2003, the United States helped to give new life to Salafist-oriented groups like al Qaeda. Indeed, there was no AQ element in Iraq until after the U.S. invasion. The same was true in Libya until the ill-fated U.S.-sponsored toppling of the Qaddafi regime in 2011. Neither the administration’s press release nor the HSC report acknowledged those facts.

Mindless American interventionism has been one of the greatest recruiting tools for Salafist groups like ISIS.

Indeed, every Western hostage killed by ISIS was wearing an orange-colored prison jump suit-like garment, just like the ones worn by Iraqi prisoners tortured by U.S. forces at Abu Ghraib prison or those held still at Guantanamo. Neither President Obama nor the authors of the HSC report can bring themselves to admit that our own actions in the Middle East and Southwest Asia have helped to fuel the very terrorist violence and domestic recruiting efforts both decried this week.

The second unpleasant truth dodged by the White House and the HSC is that all the mass surveillance programs initiated in the post-9/11 era have failed to detect a string of real plots or actual attacks in advance. Yet the HSC report calls for a doubling-down on federal support for state-level intelligence “fusion centers,” none of which have uncovered actual terrorist plots while targeting civil liberties groups that question their utility and the constitutionality of their operational methods. 

A third unpleasant truth avoided by the HSC and the Obama administration is that CVE is not an “equal opportunity” program aimed at all kinds of violent extremists. The federal CVE focus is squarely on Arab- and Muslim-Americans, even though right-wing American political extremists have killed almost twice as many U.S. persons in the post-9/11 era as have American Salafist-oriented terrorists.

The taxpayer-funded CVE program is little more than a rhetorically dressed up race-and-religion-profiling counterterrorism campaign. That it is failing should surprise none of us.

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