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Journalist Faces Sentencing Today for Daring to Investigate Government Insiders

By Andrew Meyer | PINAC | December 16, 2014

Barrett Brown faces eight and a half years in prison today for the crime of being a journalist. For any U.S. media outlet that claims to practice journalism, this story should be front page news.

Officially, Brown is charged with three crimes: (1) transmitting a threat in interstate commerce, (2) obstructing the execution of a search warrant, and (3) being an accessory after the fact to an unauthorized access to a protected computer.

Unofficially, Brown is being prosecuted for founding Project PM, a WikiLeaks-like website which dares to investigate “the intelligence contracting industry, the PR industry’s interface with totalitarian regimes, the mushrooming infosec/’cybersecurity’ industry, and other issues constituting threats to human rights, civic transparency, individual privacy, and the health of democratic institutions.”

On March 6, 2012, FBI agent Robert Smith raided Brown’s apartment and Brown’s mother’s house, supposedly looking for information on the hack of intelligence firm HBGary. Agent Smith took away Brown’s computers, which contained Brown’s research into contractors who spy or conduct information warfare on behalf of government and corporate clients.

Following the raid, Barrett Brown faced 100 years in prison for sharing a link on the leaked Stratfor emails, emails which revealed that Stratfor (called the “shadow CIA” by some) had allegedly partnered with a former Goldman Sachs director and other informants in order to profit from insider trading, among other dirty laundry. After prosecutors dropped the 11 charges related to Brown’s sharing a link, the only “crimes” the government had left to charge Brown with resulted from the raid on Brown’s apartment, where Brown allegedly hid his own laptops (aka obstructing the execution of a search warrant) and tried to protect Jeremy Hammond , now in prison for hacking Stratfor, from getting caught (being an accessory after the fact to an unauthorized access to a protected computer). As the FBI held on to his computers, Brown posted a pissed-off YouTube video lashing out at Agent Smith (transmitting a threat in interstate commerce).

While the government would argue that Brown is not being politically prosecuted, the government has taken many actions that say otherwise. Beyond seeking 100 years of jail time for Brown, the government has prosecuted Brown’s mother for obstruction (resulting in six months probation and a $1,000 fine), tried to seize Brown’s legal defense fund, obtained a gag order preventing Brown from speaking about his own case, tried to identify contributors to the website where Brown and others researched links between intelligence companies and governments, and argued that Brown seeks to overthrow the U.S. government.

For anyone horrified that the government would equate researching intelligence companies with trying to overthrow the government, today’s sentencing of Barrett Brown is a major event. Barrett Brown has already spent two years in prison for daring to be a real journalist.

The question now is, how much longer will the First Amendment be locked in a jail cell?

December 16, 2014 Posted by | Civil Liberties, Corruption, Full Spectrum Dominance | , , , | 2 Comments

The Government Can’t Even Figure Out How To Shut Down Its Websites In A Reasonable Way

By Mike Masnick | Techdirt | October 2, 2013

With the government shutdown, you have may have come across a variety of oddities involving various government agency websites that were completely taken offline. This seems strange. Yes, the government is shut down, but does that really mean they need to turn off their web servers as well, even the purely informational ones? I could see them just leaving them static without updating them, but to completely block them just seems… odd. Even odder is that not all websites are down and some, such as the FTC’s website appears to be fully up, including fully loading a page… only to then redirect you to a page that says it’s down. Julian Sanchez, over at Cato, explores the various oddities of government domains that are either up or down — or something in between.

For agencies that directly run their own Web sites on in-house servers, shutting down might make sense if the agency’s “essential” and “inessential” systems are suitably segregated. Running the site in those cases eats up electricity and bandwidth that the agency is paying for, not to mention the IT and security personnel who need to monitor the site for attacks and other problems. Fair enough in those cases. But those functions are, at least in the private sector, often outsourced and paid for up front: if you’ve contracted with an outside firm to host your site, shutting it down for a few days or weeks may not save any money at all. And that might indeed explain why some government sites remain operational, even though they don’t exactly seem “essential,” while others have been pulled down.

That doesn’t seem to account for some of the weird patterns we see, however. The main page at NASA.gov redirects to a page saying the site is unavailable, but lots of subdomains that, however cool, seem “inessential” remain up and running: the “Solar System Exploration” page at solarsystem.nasa.gov; the Climate Kids website at climatekids.nasa.gov; and the large photo archive at images.jsc.nasa.gov, to name a few. There are any number of good reasons some of those subdomains might be hosted separately, and therefore unaffected by the shutdown—but it seems odd they can keep all of these running without additional expenditures, yet aren’t able to redirect to a co-located mirror of the landing page.

He also takes on the issue of the FTC redirect, in which he notes that the redirect after loading the full page shows that they’re not saving any money at all this way, meaning it makes absolutely no sense at all.

Still weirder is the status of the Federal Trade Commission’s site. Browse to any of their pages and you’ll see, for a split second, the full content of the page you want—only to be redirected to a shutdown notice page also hosted at FTC.gov. But that means… their servers are still up and running and actually serving all the same content. In fact they’re serving more content: first the real page, then the shutdown notice page. If you’re using Firefox or Chrome and don’t mind browsing in HTML-cluttered text, you can even use this link to navigate to the FTC site map and navigate from page to page in source-code view without triggering the redirect. Again, it’s entirely possible I’m missing something, but if the full site is actually still running, it’s hard to see how a redirect after the real page is served could be avoiding any expenditures.

Sanchez tries to piece together why this might be happening, and points to a White House memo which explicitly says that agencies should shut stuff down even if it’s cheaper to keep them online:

The determination of which services continue during an appropriations lapse is not affected by whether the costs of shutdown exceed the costs of maintaining services…

It’s difficult to see how this helps anyone at all. But it does yet a good job (yet again) of demonstrating that logic and bureaucracy don’t often go well together.

October 2, 2013 Posted by | Deception | , , , , | Leave a comment

Federal Appeals Court Lets FBI off the Hook after It Lied to a Judge

By Ken Broder | AllGov | August 12, 2013

Yes, the FBI was spying on the Muslim community in Southern California and, yes, it lied to a federal judge about the existence of documents relevant to a case regarding that   surveillance.

But, no, the FBI shouldn’t be sanctioned for its behavior.

That was the ruling by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which disagreed with U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney, who ordered the government in 2011 to pay court costs for those bringing suit on behalf of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, an umbrella organization of mosques and Muslim organizations that has operated in Southern California since 1995.

The civil liberties case before the District Court alleged that U.S. authorities illegally spied on mosques in 2006 and 2007. The FBI was accused of sending an undercover informant into several Orange County mosques as part of Operation Flex and may have collected information on hundreds of people. The FBI admitted that it used the informant, but demanded that the case be tossed for national security reasons.

Lawyers for the mosques demanded to see surveillance records on the plaintiffs. The FBI told the judge it had provided all the information within the scope of the plaintiffs’ original Freedom of Information Act request. That wasn’t true and an incensed Judge Carney sanctioned the FBI.

“The Government cannot, under any circumstance, affirmatively mislead the Court,” Judge Carney wrote.

But the Ninth Court of Appeals said that wasn’t true and reversed his ruling. You can, apparently lie to a judge if later on you admit you lied.

The FBI had initially released eight heavily-redacted pages of information in response to the lawsuit brought against them and said that was all there was. But eventually they coughed up another 100 pages of equally heavily-redacted documents that they showed the judge privately in camera. Then, later, the FBI produced yet more documents.

In response to the serial deception, Carney wrote in his 2011 ruling, “The court must impose monetary sanctions to deter the government from deceiving the court again.”

The three-judge appellate panel disagreed, cited what is known as a safe harbor provision of the law, and reversed on procedural grounds, saying what counted was the fact that the judge eventually got the documents.

A frustrated Judge Carney tossed out the spying lawsuit against the FBI in August 2012 for national security reasons, likening himself to a fictional Greek hero who must save all those around him at the expense of a few. “Odysseus opted to pass by the monster and risk a few of his individual sailors, rather than hazard the loss of his entire ship to the sucking whirlpool,” the apologetic judge wrote.

To Learn More:

No Sanctions for FBI’s Evasive Court Tactics (by Tim Hull, Courthouse News Service)

Judge Sanctions FBI for Hiding Info from Him (by Tim Hull, Courthouse News Service)

Mosques Will Not Get Day in Court to Contest U.S. Spying (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Federal Court Sanctions FBI for Lying about Surveillance Records (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)

Islamic Shura Council of Southern California et al v. Federal Bureau of Investigation  (U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals) (pdf)

August 13, 2013 Posted by | Civil Liberties, Deception | , , , | Leave a comment

Mandatory Data Retention Defeated in Australia, For Now.

By Daniel Nazer | EFF | June 24, 2013

For the last few years, Australia’s security agencies have been pushing for the mandatory retention of the communications data of every citizen. If implemented, this policy would require private companies to keep communications metadata of all customers for two years. Essentially, it treats every person as a criminal suspect. Yesterday, a parliamentary committee issued a report declining to recommend data retention and strongly criticizing the government for failing to adequately explain and justify its proposal. In the wake of the report, the governing Labor Party announced it will not pursue data retention before the next election. So data retention in Australia has been defeated, for now.

The most recent push began last July, when the Attorney General’s Department submitted a list of security proposals, including data retention, to the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security. The scheme met with overwhelming public opposition—98.9% of public submissions rejected data retention. Civil rights groups and individuals explained that the scheme sacrifices the privacy of all citizens. Contrary to the government’s claims, collecting metadata is highly intrusive as it reveals the most intimate connections between persons. In addition, the scheme would create a huge trove of data vulnerable to hacking while imposing significant costs on private companies dragooned to act as the government’s spies.

The government failed to rebut these objections. In a ham-fisted attempt to avoid criticism, the Attorney General’s Department initially refused to provide concrete details about its data retention scheme. The committee strongly criticized this lack of transparency:

[T]he Committee was very disconcerted to find, once it commenced its Inquiry, that the Attorney-General’s Department had much more detailed information on the topic of data retention. Departmental work, including discussions with stakeholders, had been undertaken previously. Details of this work had to be drawn from witnesses representing the [department].

Journalist Bernard Keane tweeted that he’d “never seen a government-controlled committee give a kicking to a department” like this report did. In addition to slamming the department for hiding the ball, the committee acknowledged public concern about privacy:

[A] mandatory data retention regime raises fundamental privacy issues, and is arguably a significant extension of the power of the state over the citizen. No such regime should be enacted unless those privacy and civil liberties concerns are sufficiently addressed.

The committee punted on the ultimate issue. It wrote that there was “a diversity of views within the Committee” as to the merits of a data retention regime and said it was “ultimately a decision for Government.” With an election scheduled for later this year, the governing Labor Party announced that it is dropping the unpopular scheme.

Green Party Senator Scott Ludlam cautioned that, even with the defeat of this proposal, Australia’s security agencies might achieve the same result by other means. He warned that, in light of the recent NSA Spying news, agencies may bypass domestic due process through the “wholesale importing of content and non-content data from colleagues in the U.S.” We need greater oversight of the security establishment to ensure that international cooperative agreements are not enabling the evasion of domestic legal restrictions.

Senator Ludlam also predicted that, regardless of who wins the next election, the data retention plan will be back. Security agencies will not abandon their campaign to treat every person like a criminal suspect. Privacy advocates in Australia and around the world need to keep up the fight.

June 25, 2013 Posted by | Civil Liberties, Full Spectrum Dominance | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Drones: The Nightmare Scenario

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project | May 2, 2012

In our drones report, we discuss the coming onslaught of domestic drones and the weak state of the privacy laws that should protect us, and we outline our recommendations for protections that Congress and local governments should put in place.

But if nothing is done, how might things go? Let’s take a look at how police drone use could unfold:

  1. The FAA’s new rules go into effect. Acting under orders from Congress, the FAA in coming months and years will significantly loosen the regulations that have been holding back broader deployment of drones. Starting later this year, for example, the FAA must allow any “government public safety agency” to operate any small drone (under 4.4 pounds) as long as certain conditions are met.
  1. More and more police departments begin using them. The FAA’s new rules allow for the release of pent-up demand among police departments for cheap aerial surveillance. Ownership of drones quickly becomes common among departments large and small. Organizations are formed by police drone operators, who exchange tips and advice. We also begin to hear about their deployment by federal agencies, other than on the border.
  1. We start to hear stories about how they’re being used. Most departments and agencies are relatively careful at first, and we begin to hear stories about drones being put to use in specific, mostly unobjectionable police operations such as raids, chases, and searches supported by warrants.
  1. Drone use broadens. Fairly quickly, however, we begin to hear about a few departments deploying drones for broader, more general uses: drug surveillance, marches and rallies, and generalized monitoring of troubled neighborhoods.
  1. Private use is banned. A terrorist like the pilot who crashed his plane into an IRS building in Texas uses an explosives-laden drone to try to attack a public facility. In response, the government clamps down on private use of the technology. The net result is that the government can use it for surveillance but individuals cannot use it to watch the government.
  1. Drones become able to mutually coordinate. Multiple drones deployed over neighborhoods can be linked together, and communicate and coordinate with each other (see this video for an early taste of what that could look like). This allows a swarm of craft to form a single, distributed wide-area surveillance system such as that envisioned by the “Gorgon Stare” program.
  1. The analytics gets better. At the same time, drones and the computers behind them become more intelligent and capable of analyzing the video feeds they are generating. They gain the ability to automatically track multiple vehicles and bodies as they move around a city or town, with different drones handing off the tracking to each other just as a mobile phone network passes a signal from one cell to another as a user rides down the highway.
  1. Flight durations grow. Technology improvements (involving blimps, perhaps, or solar-power innovations) allow for drones to stay aloft for longer periods more cheaply, which becomes key in permitting their use for persistent surveillance.
  1. The cycle accelerates. The advancing technology incentivizes agencies to buy even more drones, which in turn spurs more technology development, and the cycle becomes self-perpetuating.
  1. Laws are further loosened. As drones get smarter and more reliable and very good at sensing and avoiding other aircraft, FAA restrictions are further loosened, permitting even autonomous flight.
  1. Pervasive tracking becomes common. Despite opposition, a few police departments begin deploying drones 24/7 over certain areas. The media covers the controversy but Congress takes no action, and eventually it becomes old news, and the practice spreads until many or most American towns and cities are subject to the practice.
  1. Technologies are combined. Drone video cameras and tracking analytics are combined or synched up with other technologies such as face recognition, gait recognition, license-plate scanners, and cell phone location data.
  1. The data is mined. With individuals’ comings and goings routinely monitored, databases are able build up records of where people live, work, and play—what friends they visit, bars they drink at, doctors they visit, what houses of worship, or political events, or sexually oriented establishments they go to—and who else is at those places at the same time. Computers comb through this data looking for “suspicious patterns,” and when the algorithms kick up an alarm, the person involved becomes the subject of much more extensive surveillance.

Ultimately, such surveillance leads to an oppressive atmosphere where people learn to think twice about everything they do, knowing that it will be recorded, charted, scrutinized by increasingly intelligent computers, and possibly used to target them.

I’m not sure how realistic this scenario is. Perhaps it is far-fetched (I hope so). But the questions to ask are: which of the above steps is unlikely to take place, and why? And if we don’t end up in the situation described, how close will we get?

May 2, 2012 Posted by | Civil Liberties, Full Spectrum Dominance, Timeless or most popular | , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Drones: The Nightmare Scenario