Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Online Gambling: According to the Feds, You’ll Be Holding Today

From The Wall Street Journal today, an article about the federal freezing or seizing of 27,000 online gambling accounts (including that of one of my colleagues, who shall remain nameless but is $150 short today).

I blogged a few weeks ago about some (admittedly very dim) light on the horizon so far as the freedom to gamble online is concerned, but this is a setback indeed. The Poker Players’ Alliance (a lobby group for online poker players) says this is the first time that players’ accounts (as opposed to the gambling site operators themselves) have been targeted.

U.S. laws  against gambling online, and the way those laws are administered, are an affront to personal freedom and a threat to our trading relationships.

Congress on Privacy: Schizophrenic or Lagging?

In the same bill that Congress limited the use of whole-body imaging or “strip-search machines” at airports (text of the amendment here), it required the Transportation Security Administration to study using facial and iris recognition to identify people in line for airport security checkpoints (Sec. 242 of House-passed version here).

So glimpses at de-identified bodies are a privacy outrage while massive biometric databases and records of people’s travels are good to go?

Not necessarily. Average people (and members of Congress) understand better what a look at the body is, but they don’t understand as well what biometric tracking and databasing of our movements means. So they’re quick to object to the former and lagging on the latter.

Those of us who understand the privacy consequences of government-deployed facial recognition and tracking must press to educate our less-well-versed fellow Americans.

Drug Related Gun Battle in Acapulco Leaves 18 Dead

A wild shootout over the weekend in Acapulco indicates that the drug-related violence in Mexico is spreading.

The Washington Post reports:

Suspected drug traffickers trapped in a safe house fought a furious gun battle with Mexican soldiers early Sunday in the beach resort city of Acapulco. As terrified residents and tourists cowered in their rooms, the firefight raged for two hours, leaving 16 gunmen dead. Two soldiers were also killed and several bystanders were wounded.

The gunmen, suspected members of one of Mexico’s major cartels, threw as many as 50 grenades at the advancing soldiers, and both sides fired thousands of rounds from assault rifles.

Mexican officials have long argued that while there has been serious turmoil in some cities along the border with the United States, the main tourist resort areas are safe. Even before the Acapulco incident, though, events over the past year had cast some doubt on such complacent assurances. A few months ago, a retired general who had just been appointed to direct anti-drug efforts in Cancun was assassinated, and there have been other troubling developments. The main Gulf coast and Pacific resorts are certainly safer than the war zones in such places as Tijuana, Nuevo Laredo, and Ciudad Juarez, but American tourists should not be lulled into thinking that those areas are immune from the drug violence.

President Felipe Calderon’s decision nearly three years ago to launch a military offensive against the drug cartels has backfired. The strategy has not stemmed the flow of illegal drugs into the United States, it has merely caused a spike in the violence and made Mexico a more turbulent, dangerous place for everyone.

More on Sotomayor

Cato adjunct scholars on Judge Sotomayor:

Today’s Wall Street Journal reports that Sotomayor’s record on criminal justice issues put her to the right of David Souter.  Good grief — that would mean that for Sotomayer just about all the barriers on state power come tumbling down: structural safeguards like enumerated powers, non-delegation, separation of powers and the limits pertaining to police and prosecutorial powers.

For more background, go here and here.

Fusion Centers

Most people don’t care about government surveillance – just so long as they are not affected by it.  We want the police to be on lookout for trouble – so some surveillance is necessary for the work they do.  But how much?

After 9/11, state officials said they had difficulty “connecting all the dots.”  Fusion centers are supposed to remedy that problem.  Police departments around the country are creating databases (“fusion centers”) and the objective is to link them together so that the police can spot patterns of behavior so that crimes or terrorist attacks can be thwarted.

The goal seems sensible and worthwhile but as the details emerge on how fusion centers operate, the concept gets controversial fast.  Who will be monitored? What kind of information will be  collected?   And who decides when pieces of information should be discarded or entered into a massive database?  If false information about, say, YOU, goes into the database, will you ever learn about it?  Have an opportunity to erase it or correct it?

Fusion centers are springing up all over the country and they are coordinating the efforts of some 800,000 American law enforcement officers to collect information about anyone deemed suspicious. One problem is that terrorists are not of a monolithic character. Terrorists can be extremely religious or secular; they may be Arab, white, black or any other race; terrorists come from both rich and poor backgrounds; they come from the far right, the far left – and some are simply against society generally. And when criminals are added to the mix, the potential dragnet for this casual government surveillance potentially covers scores of people.

Behaviors that make someone eligible for government monitoring are quite broad. As noted by Bruce Fein in his testimony before Congress in April, citing a July 2008 ACLU report on fusion centers, such suspicious behaviors in one LAPD directive include “using binoculars,” “taking pictures or video footage “with no apparent aesthetic value,” “drawing diagrams,” and “taking notes,” among others.

Former vice-president Cheney might argue that the monitoring is not extensive enough.  He recently said (pdf): “When just a single clue goes unlearned … can bring on a catastrophe – it’s no time for splitting differences.  There is never a good time to compromise when the lives and safety of the American people are in the balance.”  National security, it seems,  requires that we get everyone into the central database for scrutiny.  We can’t afford any ”gaps” in the surveillance matrix.

I will be moderating a Cato event about fusion centers on Thursday, June 11, at noon.  The panel will include attorney Bruce Fein, the ACLU’s Mike German (who co-authored the report linked above), and Harvey Eisenberg, Chief of the National Security Section in the Maryland Division of the U.S. Attorney’s office. 

Prosperity in Washington

 The current Attorney General, Eric Holder, left DC’s Covington and Burling to return to the Justice Department, where he held a senior post during the Clinton years.  Holder’s mission is to supposedly ”rein in the free market excesses of the last eight years.”  Bush’s people are done with their own crackdown and are now returning to DC’s big law firms to warn their client business firms about the coming crackdown by Holder’s prosecutors.  This is sorta like the GOP legislators who are now trying to lodge complaints about Obama’s spending.  Despite the rhetoric, both sides aggrandize federal power and then enrich themselves (pdf) while advising businesspeople on how to comply with myriad regulations  from the alphabet agencies.

For related Cato work, go here and here.

A Lesson about Power

High school seniors pull a prank by pitching tents in the school courtyard and sleeping there overnight.  Does the school need to discipline them?  Perhaps.  Maybe have them stay after school and pick up litter or something.

But school officials want the police to arrest the students.  And when a student who had no involvement in the prank speaks out against the school authorities’ response by sending out an email, he too must be punished!  The lesson here is do not question authority.

Either praise your school principal or be very quiet and obedient.