Thursday, July 22, 2010

Secret Government Part 2: National Security Inc.

I realize that the Washington Post "Secret Government" series only marginally relates to privacy issues (at least not directly...yet). Nonetheless, there is a relationship worth delving into, one I started earlier in the week (see my last post).

Part 2 of the series is entitled "National Security Inc.", and, while not that privacy specific, again, I think the privatization of what was once government intelligence agencies has all kinds of deeply disturbing ramifications - including for privacy and civil liberties.

To remind everyone of one tidbit from part 1: Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications."

To call that an out-of-control, privacy-destroying Surveillance State is to understate the case. But the fact that a growing percentage of intelligence agents are corporate employees, serving shareholders first, the Constitution and the public second, adds to my concerns.

Before I get to some important critiques of the Washington Post series, in particular all those questions it does not answer or even ask, let me share a few choice clips from Part 2 of the series.

Priest and Arkin write:

The intent of the memorial is to publicly honor the courage of those who died in the line of duty, but it also conceals a deeper story about government in the post-9/11 era: Eight of the 22 were not CIA officers at all. They were private contractors.

To ensure that the country's most sensitive duties are carried out only by people loyal above all to the nation's interest, federal rules say contractors may not perform what are called "inherently government functions." But they do, all the time and in every intelligence and counterterrorism agency, according to a two-year investigation by The Washington Post.


It is also a system in which contractors are playing an ever more important role. The Post estimates that out of 854,000 people with top-secret clearances, 265,000 are contractors. There is no better example of the government's dependency on them than at the CIA, the one place in government that exists to do things overseas that no other U.S. agency is allowed to do.

Private contractors working for the CIA have recruited spies in Iraq, paid bribes for information in Afghanistan and protected CIA directors visiting world capitals. Contractors have helped snatch a suspected extremist off the streets of Italy, interrogated detainees once held at secret prisons abroad and watched over defectors holed up in the Washington suburbs. At Langley headquarters, they analyze terrorist networks. At the agency's training facility in Virginia, they are helping mold a new generation of American spies.


Nine years later, well into the Obama administration, the idea that contractors cost less has been repudiated, and the administration has made some progress toward its goal of reducing the number of hired hands by 7 percent over two years. Still, close to 30 percent of the workforce in the intelligence agencies is contractors.


Contractors can offer more money - often twice as much - to experienced federal employees than the government is allowed to pay them. And because competition among firms for people with security clearances is so great, corporations offer such perks as BMWs and $15,000 signing bonuses, as Raytheon did in June for software developers with top-level clearances.


The National Security Agency, which conducts worldwide electronic surveillance, hires private firms to come up with most of its technological innovations. The NSA used to work with a small stable of firms; now it works with at least 484 and is actively recruiting more.


Each of the 16 intelligence agencies depends on corporations to set up its computer networks, communicate with other agencies' networks, and fuse and mine disparate bits of information that might indicate a terrorist plot. More than 400 companies work exclusively in this area, building classified hardware and software systems.

Read the article in its entirety here.

The article also documents the growing size, wealth, and power of these "intelligence" corporations, both that supply contractors, and security technologies. In other words, we've got a growing, private army on our army that has increasing access to hi tech equipment that can monitor and capture nearly everything we do...and fight wars and kill innocent people...while not subject to international law.

I also feel obligated to point out that the likelihood a terrorist like Bin Laden will destroy us is extremely low…but the likelihood that our banana republic economy will is extremely high (made only higher by the amount we spend on “defending” against a mythical “enemy”). Yet, we are being led to believe there is this grave, terrorist threat out there…even though the risk of being hit by lightning is far greater than that of being killed by a “terrorist”.

So, aside from this surveillance state being too costly, and a threat to our privacy and freedom (actually, its already destroyed them), the very premise that we NEED IT in such size and magnitude is patently false. This series does does not however touch on the fundamental scam that the "war on terror" itself is...Nor, from what I’ve seen so far, does it delve into what all these private contractors are ACTUALLY DOING in our name (I’m talking specifics, not generalizations).

Here’s Robert Dreyfuss of The Nation:

"The core that Al Qaeda and its affiliates, its sympathizers, and even self-starting terrorist actors who aren't part of Al Qaeda itself, are a tiny and manageable problem. Yet the apparatus that has been created is designed to meet nothing less than an existential threat. Even at the height of the Cold War ... there was nothing like the post-9/11 behemoth in existence. A thousand smart intelligence analysts, a thousand smart FBI and law enforcement officers, and a few hundred Special Operations military folk are all that's needed to deal with the terrorism threat."

Even at the height of the cold war, when the Soviet Union and its allies were engaged in a brutal, country-by-country battle across Asia, Africa and Latin America to combat the United States, NATO, and American hegemonism, there was nothing like the post-9/11 behemoth in existence. A thousand smart intelligence analysts, a thousand smart FBI and law enforcement officers, and a few hundred Special Operations military folk are all that's needed to deal with the terrorism threat. It's been hugely overblown. Yet in the Post story, sage-like gray beards of the counterterrorism machine stroke their chins and pontificate about how difficult it is to coordinate all these agencies, absorb all the data, read all the reports and absorb the 1.7 billion e-mails and phone calls that are picked up every day by the National Security Agency. It's an "Emperor's New Clothes" problem. The emperor isn't naked, but no one,

What's missing from the story, however, is any assessment of the threat against which this vast and growing machinery is arrayed. The Post notes that twenty-five separate agencies have been set up to track terrorist financing, which admirably shows the overlapping and redundant nature of the post-9/11 ballooning of agencies and organizations targeting terrorism. But the article barely mentions that there are hardly any terrorists to track

Also, here’s Jeremy Scahill (who knows a thing or two about private contractors and their crimes against humanity):

The misplaced hype surrounding the Post series speaks volumes to the ahistorical nature of US media culture. Next week, if the New York Times published a story on how there were no WMDs in Iraq, there would no doubt be cable news shows that would act like it was an earth-moving revelation delivered by Moses on the stone tablet of exclusive, groundbreaking journalism.


In reality, there is little in the Post series that, in one way or another, has not already been documented …In 2007, Shorrock obtained and published a document from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence showing that 70 percent of the US intelligence budget was spent on private contractors. Shorrock was way out in front of this story and, frankly, corporate media ignored it …

The Post and its reporters, Shorrock told me, "are doing their best to obfuscate what contractors really do for US intelligence. They're eight years behind and still haven't caught up. Basically their stories are throwing big numbers at readers-such as the fact that of 854,000 people with top security clearances, 265,000 are contractors. But that's work that can be done by interns; there's virtually nothing in their series about the broader picture-like what it means to have private for-profit companies operating at the highest levels of our national security."

But instead of revealing new details on these types of operations and naming names and employers and specific incidents, none of that is to be found. The discussion of torture and extrajudicial killings committed by private contractors is relegated to a whitewashing by the Post…I'm sorry, Blackwater "added fuel" to "chaos?" "America run amok?" These are very strange descriptions of the take-away message from the massacre of seventeen innocent Iraqi civilians, the alleged murder of a bodyguard to the Iraqi vice president and night-hunting Iraqis as "payback" for 9/11.

Not to mention the allegations of young prostitutes performing oral sex for a dollar, guns smuggled on private planes in dog food bags, hiding weapons from ATF agents and on and on. But more important, where in the Post series is the examination of the CIA assassination program that relied on Blackwater and other private contractors? Where is the investigation of Erik Prince's hit teams that operated in Germany and elsewhere? What about the ongoing work of contractors in the drone bombing program? What about Blackwater contractors calling in air-strikes in Afghanistan or operating covertly in Pakistan?

And let me just add what I believe are some of the most pertinent "take aways" from this series so far, as explained by the great Glenn Greenwald of

In sum, if you combine this second Post installment with the first one from yesterday, the picture that emerges is that we have a Secret Government of 854,000 people so vast and secret that nobody knows what it does or what it is. Roughly 30% of that Secret Government -- engaged in the whole litany of functions from spying to killing -- is composed of private corporations...That there is a virtually complete government/corporate merger when it comes to the National Security and Surveillance State is indisputable...

As little oversight as National Security State officials have, corporate officials engaged in these activities have even less. Relying upon profit-driven industry for the defense and intelligence community's "core mission" is to ensure that we have Endless War and an always-expanding Surveillance State. After all, the very people providing us with the "intelligence" that we use to make decisions are the ones who are duty-bound to keep this War Machine alive and expanding because, as the Post put it, they are "obligated to shareholders rather than the public interest."

Our military, our CIA, our spying agencies (such as NSA) are every bit corporate as they are governmental: in some cases more so. So complete is the merger that it's the same people who switch seamlessly back and forth between governmental agencies and their private "partners," which means we have not only a vast Secret Government, but one that operates with virtually no democratic accountability and is driven not by National Security concerns but by its own always-expanding private profits.


Everyone should decide for themselves if we have the "alert and knowledgeable citizenry" which Eisenhower said was necessary to "compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together." If we empower a massive private industry this way -- with core governmental authorities -- to gorge on unchecked power and huge private profits at the public expense, all derived from Endless War and civil liberties abridgments, why would one expect anything other than Endless War and civil liberties abridgments to be the inevitable outcome?

It's unfortunate that the Washington Post piece does not delve so deeply into these far more important questions...but at least it has elicited them from others...these are extraordinarily important questions to ponder...while there's still time to take a step back from the abyss.

Monday, July 19, 2010

America's Secret Government and the Surveillance State

Part 1 of Dana Priest and William Arkin's "Secret America" series in the Washington Post is now up on their site, and let's just say its the kind of way that keeps one up at night.

But even more enlightening than the piece itself is Constitutional Scholar Glenn Greenwald's analysis of it. The general thesis of the article shouldn't necessarily be a surprise to anyone that's been reading this blog, nonetheless it documents in the most detail yet, just how expansive, secret, and all encompassing our secret government has become since 9/11.

I once referred to this expanding surveillance state as something akin to a Fear-Industrial-Complex (i.e. Department of Defense, corporate media, talk radio, security technologies industry, Congress, the White House, “the intelligence community”, weapons/defense contractors, etc.), and I think the description fits. Of course, what the Priest and Arkin article exposes in particularly is the growing size and scope of a secret government that lurks in the shadows, answers to no one, and has a nearly endless supply of funding.

"Terrorist hysteria" has been the rage in this country for 9 solid years now, and we're starting to reap what we've sowed. It wasn’t long ago that the idea of our government wiretapping American citizens without warrants for purposes other than national security would have been revolting. Now its official Government policy – and the telecom companies that participated in these crimes have been given retroactive immunity while continuing to make billions off overcharging the same customers they betrayed.

Nor was it long ago that we would have been rightly outraged by Patriot Act provisions – recently renewed – that allow for broad warrants to be issued by a secretive court for any type of record, without the government having to declare that the information sought is connected to a terrorism investigation; or that allow a secret court to issue warrants for the electronic monitoring of a person for whatever reason — even without showing that the suspect is an agent of a foreign power or a terrorist; and of course, that allow the government to search your home as long as it doesn't tell you it did.

And of course, with advancements in security technologies that may serve certain important purposes in specific situations, more often than not, represent the continuing expansion of Big Brother's ability to monitor and record nearly everything we do - usually under the guise of "keeping us safe".

And before I get to some of Greenwald's brilliant musings on all of this, I just want to make a point I've been making over and over here that bares repeating. We must, as a society, redefine what it means to be "safe" and "secure", and why privacy matters.

For every "liberty" we give up, we should first ask whether in fact we are safer by giving it up at all. But I think it goes deeper than that. I would argue that we need to expand the definition of the word "safe" to include the concept of being "safe" from government surveillance and corporate profiteering.

Are we really made "safer" by being eavesdropped on or digitally strip searched at airports? In fact, there is a substantial amount of evidence – including the case of the “underwear bomber” itself - that suggests our government is gathering TOO MUCH information, and our expanding surveillance state is making us LESS safe, not more.

As Glenn Greenwald noted last year, The problem is never that the U.S. Government lacks sufficient power to engage in surveillance, interceptions, intelligence-gathering and the like. Long before 9/11 -- from the Cold War -- we have vested extraordinarily broad surveillance powers in the U.S. Government to the point that we have turned ourselves into a National Security and Surveillance State. Terrorist attacks do not happen because there are too many restrictions on the government's ability to eavesdrop and intercept communications, or because there are too many safeguards and checks. If anything, the opposite is true: the excesses of the Surveillance State -- and the steady abolition of oversights and limits -- have made detection of plots far less likely. Despite that, we have an insatiable appetite -- especially when we're frightened anew -- to vest more and more unrestricted spying and other powers in our Government, which -- like all governments -- is more than happy to accept it.”

Now to today's article by Greenwald:

Consider this: "Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications." To call that an out-of-control, privacy-destroying Surveillance State is to understate the case. Equally understated is the observation that we have become a militarized nation living under an omnipotent, self-perpetuating, bankrupting National Security State. Here's but one flavoring anecdote:

Command centers, internal television networks, video walls, armored SUVs and personal security guards have also become the bling of national security.

"You can't find a four-star general without a security detail," said one three-star general now posted in Washington after years abroad. "Fear has caused everyone to have stuff. Then comes, 'If he has one, then I have to have one.' It's become a status symbol."

What's most noteworthy about all of this is that the objective endlessly invoked for why we must acquiesce to all of this -- National Security -- is not only unfulfilled by "Top Secret America," but actively subverted by it. During the FISA debate of 2008 -- when Democrats and Republicans joined together to legalize the Bush/Cheney warrantless eavesdropping program and vastly expand the NSA's authority to spy on the communications of Americans without judicial oversight -- it was constantly claimed that the Government must have greater domestic surveillance powers in order to Keep Us Safe. Thus,
anyone who opposed the new spying law was accused of excessively valuing privacy and civil liberties at the expense of what, we are always told, matters most: Staying Safe.

But as I wrote many times back then -- often by interviewing and otherwise citing House Intelligence Committee member Rush Holt, who has been making this point repeatedly -- the more secret surveillance powers we vest in the Government, the more we allow the unchecked Surveillance State to grow, the more unsafe we become. That's because the public-private axis that is the Surveillance State already collects so much information about us, our activities and our communications -- so indiscriminately and on such a vast scale -- that it cannot possibly detect any actual national security threats. NSA whistle blower Adrienne Kinne, when exposing NSA eavesdropping abuses, warned of what ABC News described as "the waste of time spent listening to innocent Americans, instead of looking for the terrorist needle in the haystack."


That's really the only relevant question: how much longer will Americans sit by passively and watch as a tiny elite become more bloated, more powerful, greedier, more corrupt and more unaccountable -- as the little economic security, privacy and freedom most citizens possess vanish further still? How long can this be sustained, where more and more money is poured into Endless War, a military that almost spends more than the rest of the world combined, where close to 50% of all U.S. tax revenue goes to military and intelligence spending, where the rich-poor gap grows seemingly without end, and the very people who virtually destroyed the world economy wallow in greater rewards than ever, all while the public infrastructure (both figuratively and literally) crumbles and the ruling class is openly collaborating on a bipartisan, public-private basis even to cut Social Security benefits?

The answer, unfortunately, is probably this: a lot longer. And one primary reason is that our media-shaped political discourse is so alternatively distracted and distorted that even shining light on all of this matters little.


Meanwhile, the Real U.S. Government -- the network of secret public and private organizations which comprise the National Security and Surveillance State -- expands and surveills and pilfers and destroys without much attention and with virtually no real oversight or accountability. It sucks up the vast bulk of national resources and re-directs the rest to those who own and control it. To their immense credit, Dana Priest and William Arkin will spend the week disclosing the details of what they learned over the past two years investigating all of this, but the core concepts have long been glaringly evident. But Sarah Palin's Twitter malapropism from yesterday will almost certainly receive far more attention than anything exposed by the Priest/Arkin investigation. So we'll continue to fixate on the trappings and theater of government while The Real Government churns blissfully in the dark -- bombing and detaining and abducting and spying and even assassinating -- without much bother from anyone.

Read more here.

Here's a few of the findings from the Washington Post piece:

* Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.


Every day across the United States, 854,000 civil servants, military personnel and private contractors with top-secret security clearances are scanned into offices protected by electromagnetic locks, retinal cameras and fortified walls that eavesdropping equipment cannot penetrate.

This is not exactly President Dwight D. Eisenhower's "military-industrial complex," which emerged with the Cold War and centered on building nuclear weapons to deter the Soviet Union. This is a national security enterprise with a more amorphous mission: defeating transnational violent extremists.

Much of the information about this mission is classified. That is the reason it is so difficult to gauge the success and identify the problems of Top Secret America, including whether money is being spent wisely. The U.S. intelligence budget is vast, publicly announced last year as $75 billion, 21/2 times the size it was on Sept. 10, 2001. But the figure doesn't include many military activities or domestic counterterrorism programs.

Click here to read the article in its entirety. I'll cover some of the rest of the series too.

So when"redefining what it means to be safe" I would also add this: Are we really safe if we continue to bankrupt our country in the name of war and "national security"? Are we safe in a country that allows 45,000 Americans to die every year because they can't afford health insurance? Are we "safe" when millions of unemployed Americans are having their unemployment checks denied even as we spend more on the military than all other countries in the world combined? Are children "safe" when 1 in 5 go to bed hungry...yet trillions are spent on the military, "intelligence", and wars?

As I have written many times before, if we're truly trying to reduce the threat of terrorism there are DEMONSTRABLY more effective ways than those currently being pursued. A few alternative tactics to consider: stop bombing and occupying Muslim nations, arming their enemies, torturing and indefinitely jailing their people, and supporting ruthless dictators in their countries and around the world.

While we're at it we should reinstate every gay Arabic translator (which we have a critical shortage of today) expelled from the military due to their sexual preference (in fact all gays that were expelled), and focus our attention on intelligence gathering rather than war making to catch the real extremists that want to do our country harm.

No one is denying that terrorism is a threat, but how does creating more of them make us safer?

An analysis of official data for the government-supported RAND corporation found that the invasion of Iraq caused a "seven-fold increase in jihadism." If you really hate jihadism, perhaps we should figure out what reduces it, rather than engaging in things that increase it.

As Noam Chomsky recently wrote in describing the growing rebellions in Afghanistan:

"People have the odd characteristic of objecting to the slaughter of family members and friends."

He also said

"Everybody's worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there's a really easy way: stop participating in it."

Which leads me to the rights we are giving up here at home. Why should we fall prey to exactly what actual terrorists supposedly want: to cause us fear and terror...enough to give up our own freedoms and way of life. The only forces I see benefitting from this growing secret government is precisely those aspects of our government that shouldn't have more power and the corporate interests that profit off our fear.

Instead of spending one more minute listening to the grumblings of a war criminal like Dick Cheney, let's heed the words of Martin Luther King Jr. instead:

"We all have to be concerned about terrorism, but you will never end terrorism by terrorizing others."

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

EPIC Files Lawsuit Against Airport Body Scanners, Growing Consumer Backlash

Good news: The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), the organization that has really led the charge against the recent expansion of whole body imaging machines in US airports (i.e. "digital strip search"), has sued the Department of Homeland Security in federal court, seeking an emergency stay of the body scanner program.

As I wrote in my article "The Politics of Fear and "Whole-Body-Imaging", these full-body scanners see through clothing, producing images of naked passengers.

As I also lay out in detail, there are MANY reasons to oppose the widespread use of these scanners, from the obvious, privacy, to the less so, they won't make us any safer. In fact, if you define the word "safe" as also including the concept of "safe" from government intrusiveness and corporate profiteering off fear peddling, than I would argue these machines make us less safe, not more.

But, before I run down all the reasons why I personally have a BIG problem with these scanners, I want to discuss in a little more detail both the EPIC lawsuit, as well as what appears to be a growing consumer backlash too.

As for the EPIC suit, Roger Yu of the USA TODAY reported the following last week:

The program is "unlawful, invasive, and ineffective," says Marc Rotenberg, president of EPIC and lead counsel in the case.

According to the EPIC filing, the Transportation Security Administration program violates the federal Privacy Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Administrative Procedures Act.

It also asserts that the program violates the Fourth Amendment, as the body scanners are "highly invasive and are applied to all air travelers without any particular suspicion."


In an editorial written for the Washington Post in January, Chertoff said the machines are "configured to prevent TSA officers from storing or retaining any images."

But Rotenberg says government records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit revealed that "the TSA required that the devices be able to store and record images of naked air travelers."

This is clearly an important step. But perhaps more important to the prospects of these scanners invading individual privacy in airports across the country is whether the public remains supportive of them. Early polling indicated in the range of 80% support - but that was before passengers started being more regularly subjected to them.

Gary Stoller, also of USA TODAY, recently documented what appears to be a growing backlash against these digital strip search devices. This is particularly hopeful news, because at the end of the day, if the flying public revolts against these scanners it will be monumentally more difficult to justify their exorbitant costs. He writes:

Opposition to new full-body imaging machines to screen passengers and the government's deployment of them at most major airports is growing.

Many frequent fliers complain they're time-consuming or invade their privacy. The world's airlines say they shouldn't be used for primary security screening. And questions are being raised about possible effects on passengers' health.

"The system takes three to five times as long as walking through a metal detector," says Phil Bush of Atlanta, one of many fliers on USA TODAY's Road Warriors panel who oppose the machines. "This looks to be yet another disaster waiting to happen."

The machines — dubbed by some fliers as virtual strip searches — were installed at many airports in March after a Christmas Day airline bombing attempt. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has spent more than $80 million for about 500 machines, including 133 now at airports. It plans to install about 1,000 by the end of next year.

The machines are running into complaints and questions here and overseas:

•The International Air Transport Association, which represents 250 of the world's airlines, including major U.S. carriers, says the TSA lacks "a strategy and a vision" of how the machines fit into a comprehensive checkpoint security plan. "The TSA is putting the cart before the horse," association spokesman Steve Lott says.

•Security officials in Dubai said this month they wouldn't use the machines because they violate "personal privacy," and information about their "side effects" on health isn't known.

•Last month, the European Commission said in a report that "a rigorous scientific assessment" of potential health risks is needed before machines are deployed there. It also said screening methods besides the new machines should be used on pregnant women, babies, children and people with disabilities.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office said in October that the TSA was deploying the machines without fully testing them and assessing whether they could detect "threat items" concealed on various parts of the body. And in March, the office said it "remains unclear" whether they would have detected the explosives that police allege Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to detonate on a jet bound for Detroit on Christmas.

This is a pretty damning list of complaints if you ask me. But let me go back to some of what I have written on this subject because I think there's an even more fundamental problem that none of these address: the politics of fear and the corrosive effect it has on our right to privacy and our ability to make informed decisions.

So before embracing the latest "terror fix", we should remember that for every specific "terror tactic" we target with a new, expensive, and often burdensome security apparatus, the terrorist's tactics themselves will change.

Risks can be reduced for a given target, but not eliminated. If we strip searched every single passenger at every airport in the country, terrorists would try to bomb shopping malls or movie theaters.

The likelihood that I'll get hit by lightning in one year is 500,000 to 1 while the odds I'll be killed by a terrorist on a plane if I flew constantly over 10 years is 10 million to 1. Does this laughably minuscule risk warrant yet another civil liberties encroachment? Does this irrational fear of being blown up in a plane really warrant supporting wars on countries that did nothing to us, or in this case, wasting HUGE amounts of money on ineffectual security systems?

Does this "fear" warrant increasing the already long list of airline passenger indignities? Isn't suffering through long lines while being shoeless, beltless, waterless, and nail clipper-less enough? Now we've got to be digitally strip searched too?

Then there are the privacy concerns regarding how images could be stored...and just the basic guttural reaction of "screw you, I'm not letting you see me naked just so I can board a plane!" argument.

EPIC published documents in January revealing that the machines can record, store and transmit passenger scans - in contradiction to TSA claims.

Are we really to believe the government won't allow these devices to record any data when the easy "go to" excuse for doing so will be the need to gather and store evidence? What about the ability of some hacker in an airport lounge capturing the data using his wi-fi capable PC - and then filing it to a Flickr album, and then telling of its whereabouts on Twitter?

For these reasons, privacy advocates are seeking increased oversight, full disclosure for air travelers, and legal language to protect passengers and keep the TSA from changing policy down the road. Again, what's to stop the TSA from using clearer images or different technology later?

As the ACLU pointed out, "A choice between being groped and being stripped, I don't think we should pretend those are the only choices. People shouldn't be humiliated by their government" in the name of security, nor should they trust that the images will always be kept private. Screeners at LAX (Los Angeles International Airport) could make a fortune off naked virtual images of celebrities...The Bill of Rights extends beyond curbside check-in and if the government insists on using these invasive search techniques, it is imperative that there be vigorous oversight and regulation to protect our privacy. Before these body scanners become the status quo at America's airports, we need to ensure new security technologies are genuinely effective, rather than merely creating a false sense of security."

In other words, is yet another invasion of personal privacy a worthwhile trade-off for unproven protections against a terrorist threat that has a 1 in 10 million chance of killing someone over a ten year time period? To me this represents a line that I'd prefer not to cross. What's next? Cavity searches?

More on this issue to come...

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

ACLU Study Highlights US Surveillance Society, Launches "Spyfiles"

Do we live in a surveillance society? According to the ACLU's recent report the answer is yes. And, after making its case, the organization has also launched a new website to track incidents of domestic political surveillance by the government.

According to the report there have been 111 incidents of illegal domestic political surveillance since 9/11 in 33 states and the District of Columbia.

The report shows that law enforcement and federal officials work closely to monitor the political activity of individuals deemed suspicious, an activity that was previously common during the Cold War. That includes protests, religious activities and other rights protected by the first amendment, German said.

The spying could take the form of listening to phone calls, intercepting wireless communications, harassing photographers or infiltrating protest groups. Also discovered was the way in which agencies' are increasingly connected through various information sharing measures, making it more likely that information collected on an individual by a small police department could end up in an FBI or CIA database.

The report also noted how the FBI monitors peaceful protest groups and in some cases attempts to prevent protest activities. Its not hard to make the obvious connection between the increase in domestic political surveillance to an erosion of the standards of privacy and civil liberties in the wake of 9/11. The Patriot Act of course serves as exhibit A, as it authorized law enforcement to use tools domestically that were formerly restricted to hostile groups in foreign nations.

Let's go through some of the studies findings, as described by David Kravetz of Wired magazine:

The report, Policing Free Speech: Police Surveillance and Obstruction of First Amendment-Protected Activity, surveys news accounts and studies of questionable snooping and arrests in 33 states and the District of Columbia over the past decade.

The survey provides an outline of, and links to, dozens of examples of Cold War-era snooping in the modern age.

"Our review of these practices has found that Americans have been put under surveillance or harassed by the police just for deciding to organize, march, protest, espouse unusual viewpoints and engage in normal, innocuous behaviors such as writing notes or taking photographs in public," Michael German, an ACLU attorney and former Federal Bureau of Investigation agent, said in a statement.

Here are a few examples:

At a California State University, Fresno lecture on veganism, six of the 60 in attendance were undercover officers from the local and campus police. The Oakland Police Department in California had infiltrated a police-brutality demonstration, and its undercover officers selected "the route of the march."

A vegetarian activist in Georgia was arrested for jotting down the license plate of a Department of Homeland Security agent who was snapping photos of a protest outside a Honey Baked Ham store. A Joint Terrorism Task Force in Illinois went on a three-day manhunt in Chicago searching for a Muslim man for his suspicious activity of using a hand counter on a bus. As it turned out, the man was counting his daily prayers.

A Kentucky minister was detained at Canadian border trying to enter the United States because he had purchased copies of the Koran on the internet following the 2001 terror attacks. A New York, Muslim-American student journalist was detained for taking pictures of Old Glory outside a Veterans Affairs building as part of a class project. The authorities deleted the pictures before releasing her an hour later.

In a kind of response to their own study, the ACLU launched "Spyfiles" in order to track domestic surveillance.

On the home page of the site it states, "Today the government is spying on Americans in ways the founders of our country never could have imagined. Intelligence agencies, the military, state and local police, private companies, and even emergency services are gathering detailed information and sharing it through new institutions like joint terrorism task forces, fusion centers, and public-private partnerships, allowing any one of them to instantly produce electronic dossiers on ordinary Americans with a simple mouse-click. More

Michael German, ACLU Policy Counsel and a former FBI Special Agent sums up the issue nicely:

"In our country, under our Constitution, the authorities aren't allowed to spy on you unless they have specific and individual suspicion that you are doing something illegal. Unfortunately, law enforcement in our country seems to be reverting to certain old, bad behaviors when it comes to political surveillance."