Things are not looking pretty for the land of the free.
The year 2014 has made it very clear that privacy is under threat, and the situation is not likely to improve. Mass surveillance – which became a national issue via the Edward Snowden leaks – is not subsiding or under reform; instead, is becoming more bold and complex with each passing day.
It would take several books to catalog the myriad ways in which the rights of The People have been casually infringed by various levels of government just in years since 9/11 and the introduction of the PATRIOT Act.
And it’s not only are federal agencies like the NSA, Homeland Security and the FBI that are taking liberties with our… umm… liberties; it is local police, too. The rise of technology is rapidly fueling these agencies with data and “intelligence” with very little oversight and even less pause for reflection to use these powerful abilities wisely and yes, judiciously.
Here are just a few major areas where privacy is losing badly to surveillance technology in 2014. Not that anyone is paying attention, but they are worth reflecting upon soon – hopefully before it is too late to turn thing back around:
• 1. Militarized Police and Weapons of War on American Streets:
True, this technology has been in use for several years now and has been demonstrated at protests such as the those held outside of the G20 in Pittsburgh and, Toronto and other locales.
But the events in Ferguson really allowed this brand of crowd control to come of age. This and other key protests have seemingly justified a massive police response for just about anything now… but… you know, the first amendment is still respected and all.
The Daily Sheeple reported:
Ferguson police have stocked up on less-lethal ammunition in the last few months including “hornets nest” CS sting grenades, which shoot out dozens of rubber bullets and a powdered chemical agent upon detonation, tear gas, riot gear, plastic handcuffs and the like in the lead up to the decision which is expected to come any time now. St Louis County police have spent $172,669 on this stuff just since August.
The Pentagon’s 1033 surplus program, which hands out everything from MRAP armored vehicles, to bullet proof vests, assault rifles, and other military weapons to domestic law enforcement agencies, is one of the major reasons that ordinary police departments, including those in small towns, are gearing up as for battle… and that includes Ferguson:
The Department of Defense Excess Property Program (1033 Program) is authorized under federal law and managed through the Defense Logistics Agency’s Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO) in Ft. Belvoir, Va. The 1033 Program provides surplus DoD military equipment to state and local civilian law enforcement agencies for use in counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism operations, and to enhance officer safety. The Missouri Department of Public Safety is the sponsoring state agency responsible for administration of the 1033 Program in Missouri.
• 2. Biometrics Comes of Age:
Fingerprints and iris scans are becoming normalized as identifiers on mobile phones, including the iPhone 5, computers and other platforms.
Increasingly, technology – including devices used by police – are utilizing other bodily features (in addition to fingerprints and eyes) to identify you, including ears, noses, heart rate (via electrocardiogram), blood vein matching, your scent or smell and even “butt biometrics” – no joke – which will allow smart car seats to identify the sitter based on their unique posture.
While these are surely being integrated into law enforcement devices, they are also becoming the mainstays of “wearables,” the new trendy technology that is collecting data on all of those using it to track health progress and etc.
Surveillance cameras have already been used to identify you by your walk for several years now, but advances have allowed technology to even identify the person wearing a camera, such a police officer with a mounted body cam, by just 4 seconds of footage, revealing a ‘biometric fingerprint’ of the individual.
Of course, roadside blood draws have already entered the picture in law enforcement work, including numerous locales that have implemented mandatory policies during stops. This is sure to pick up. In Seattle, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently conducted a paid, voluntary survey of drivers, who received up to $60 to give blood and breath samples at a roadside stop in effort to study how many people drive impaired.
• 3. Smart Phone Apps Know Everything About You:
Whether you realize it or not, permissions for apps routinely allow the collection and sharing of such information as your contact and address book, your text message, audio recorded from your device’s microphone, your call log and much more.
Yes, this is really happening, so beware if you are using mobile apps including:
AntiVirus Security, Viber, Facebook, 360 Security (Antivirus), Tango Messenger, WhatsApp Messenger, Skype, GO Launcher EX, WeChat, CM Security, Waze Social GPS Maps & Traffic, BBM, LINE Free Calls & Messages, Clean Master Phone Boost, BU Battery Saver, Google’s Chrome Browser, Twitter, Maps, Instagram, YouTube, Dolphin Browser, Castle Clash and Trivia Crack
Considering that Angry Birds and Candy Crush were admittedly used to collect surveillance data for the NSA (also revealed in 2014), and law enforcement now regularly investigate persons of interest based upon social media posts and cell phone data, there is no telling how many of these apps may be drawing unwanted suspicion your way… whether you have anything to hide or not.
Need we remind you of all the telecom and internet firms who, according to the Edward Snowden leaks, shared data willingly with the NSA?
• 4. “StingRay” and “Dirtbox” Cell Phone Interceptors:
2014 is the year that much has come to light about the very secret and awfully quiet use of a data sweeping technology that has increasingly been used by agencies including the FBI, local law enforcement, and likely private, public and foreign intelligence agencies and even military units… though, due to extreme secrecy, it is just too difficult to know for sure.
Moreover, it emerged in 2014 that the FBI has been pressuring police departments to keep quiet about the use of StingRay, which it has also not been obtaining warrants before putting to use:
Not only are local police departments across the United States increasingly relying on so-called StingRay devices to conduct surveillance on cell phone users, but cops are being forced to keep quiet about the operations, new documents reveal.
Recent reports have indicated that law enforcement agencies from coast to coast have been turning to IMSI-catcher devices, like the StingRay sold by Florida’s Harris Corporation, to trick ordinary mobile phones into communicating device-specific International Mobile Subscriber Identity information to phony cell towers — a tactic that takes the approximate geolocation data of all the devices within range and records it for investigators. Recently, the Tallahassee Police Department in the state of Florida was found to have used their own “cell site simulator” at least 200 times to collect phone data without once asking for a warrant during a three-year span, and details about the use of StingRays by other law enforcement groups continue to emerge on the regular.
Although the majority of the December 2012 document is redacted, a paragraph from FBI special agent Laura Laughlin to Police of Chief Donald Ramsdell reveals that Tacoma officers were told they couldn’t discuss their use of IMSI-catchers with anyone… police in Tacoma were forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement, or NDA, with the Federal Bureau of Investigation before they could begin conducting surveillance on cell users with a Harris-sold StingRay.
It further emerged in 2014 that the Justice Department was overseeing the use of small Cessna aircraft using “dirtbox” technology to collect cell phone data over major urban centers across the nation to pinpoint suspects while scooping up information from thousands of cell phone users. Here’s what the Wall Street Journal revealed:
The Justice Department is scooping up data from thousands of mobile phones through devices deployed on airplanes that mimic cellphone towers, a high-tech hunt for criminal suspects that is snagging a large number of innocent Americans, according to people familiar with the operations.
The U.S. Marshals Service program, which became fully functional around 2007, operates Cessna aircraft from at least five metropolitan-area airports, with a flying range covering most of the U.S. population, according to people familiar with the program.
• 5. Radar Sweeps of Residential Homes:
The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals made a decision on the use of doppler radar technology for use in the execution of an arrest warrant. The Washington Post considered:
the “grave” Fourth Amendment issues raised by use of a “Doppler radar device capable of detecting from outside the home the presence of human breathing and movement within”
But it is also fair to ask, who is watching the watchers for the use of this technology, anyway? Is this (and much more) being used frequently by authorities or private agencies to collect data in pursuit of investigations, including before the burden of “reasonable suspicion” has been met?
Is such a radar sweep a violation of the 4th Amendment and other rights if the police don’t already have “reasonable suspicion”? The possibilities are foggy… and a bit unnerving.
We don’t normally encounter this question because we normally understand the uses and limits of investigatory tools. If the officer looked through the window and didn’t see any other people, for example, we could intuitively factor that into the reasonable suspicion inquiry without having to think about burdens of proof. I’m less sure what we’re supposed to do when the government use a suspicion-testing technological device with unknown capabilities. The opinion relies on the language from Buie that “the sweep lasts no longer than is necessary to dispel the reasonable suspicion of danger,” and thus asks whether there was evidence that the Doppler device “dispel[led]” the reasonable suspicion. But it’s not clear to me that this language from Buie applies here, as it was referring to evidence after reasonable suspicion was established and the entry was made rather than before.
But for the average person, the potential for abuse is pretty clear here. One commenter noted:
Use of this technology on a home is a search. The police don’t know what or who is in the house – they use this technology to survey (i.e. search) the house to determine information that they can’t ascertain without the home owners permission.
• 6. Pre-crime “Threat Assessment” Database:
The 9-1-1 emergency infrastructure now carries a real time “threat assessment” database known as “Beware,” that gives police and first responders a color-coded threat level, with green signifying no threat, yellow identifying a valid threat and red urging immediate caution. The catch? The threat assessment is not just based on the obvious stuff like prior arrests and criminal history, but also compiles billions of consumer records and, yes, social media. In fact, the majority of police now use social media in their investigations… the Beware database just makes it instant and universal.
Even worse, the co-founder of the technology said it flags “offensive speech” in its threat assessment… you don’t even have to make an online threat to be considered a threat, you just have be considered “offensive”! And who decides that, anyway?
Not you. You aren’t even allowed to know what has been entered in your privately-held records:
Your local police department is likely using numerous tools and applications that might determine how you get treated during a routine traffic stop, or in response to your neighbor’s call about loud music. One such application, Beware, has been sold to police departments since 2012. It can be accessed on any Internet-enabled device, including tablets, smartphones, laptop and desktop computers, while responders are en route to, or at the location of a call.
This app explores billions of records in social media postings, commercial and public databases for law enforcement needs, churning out “risk profiles” in real time. ‘Beware’ algorithm assigns a score and “threat rating” to a person — green, yellow or red – and sends that rating to a requesting officer. Worst of all, this information is not made available to the very person whose “threat rating” is being appraised. You have no ability to dispute being wrongly designated a high-risk potential offender.
And it stands to reason that this concerning database is going to be used against more than just serious criminals. The potential for abuse and use against gun owners and those exercising political speech, including offensive or less-than-responsible online rhetoric, is perhaps inevitable and unavoidable with this system, which as been in use for now for several years.
What’s worse? So-called “predictive policing” is just in its infancy… there are multiple platforms still finding a market, and their invasive capabilities are sure to grow in magnitude as the years go on. A federally-mandated network called FirstNet is being constructed, “using federal funding, are set to begin building a $7-billion nationwide first-responder wireless network” that will incorporate these emergency powers into every agency and locale across the country.
• 7. License Plate Scanning and Traffic Monitoring:
There are already issues for gun owners in Maryland, where concealed carry permits issued by other states are not recognized. Traffic cops there recently pulled over a licensed gun owner in good legal standing from Florida to search his vehicle for a s specific firearm – his Kel-Tec .38 semi-automatic handgun – while he and his family were traveling through the state. As it turned out, the the gun was locked in a safe at home in Florida, and the incident ended in a traffic warning for speeding. But what prompted the preemptive search, and how did police know know this man was a concealed carry?
Likely the stop-and-search was the result of police work involving routine license scanning, traffic monitoring and database threat assessment using software like Beware, which has already been used in some 38 million emergency calls across the country.
Only a few days ago, the mainstream rehashed the fact that the EZ Pass and other toll road transponders are not just used for collecting toll information, but are used for traffic surveillance and police investigations as well.
Forbes’ privacy advocate Kashmir Hill wrote about an electronics tinkerer who
“did an analysis of the many ways his car could be tracked and stumbled upon something rather interesting: his E-ZPass, which he obtained for the purpose of paying tolls, was being used to track his car in unexpected places, far away from any toll booths.“
Police subsequently copped to the use of this device in surveillance and tracking activities:
It’s part of Midtown in Motion, an initiative to feed information from lots of sensors into New York’s traffic management center. A spokesperson for the New York Department of Transportation, Scott Gastel, says the E-Z Pass readers are on highways across the city, and on streets in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Staten Island, and have been in use for years. The city uses the data from the readers to provide real-time traffic information, as for this tool… Notably, the fact that E-ZPasses will be used as a tracking device outside of toll payment, is not disclosed anywhere that I could see in the terms and conditions.
They are also used by toll companies themselves, as USA Today disclosed:
Warning to motorists: Don’t speed in the toll lanes. E-Z Pass is watching.
Several states, including New York, Maryland and Pennsylvania, say they monitor speeds through the fast pass toll lanes and will suspend your E-Z Pass for multiple speeding violations.
Years ago, a hacker explained how the the California DOT and law enforcement were able to use toll transponders as an active homing beacon capable of zeroing in on a suspect or monitoring the total flow of traffic over a given period of time:
Each radio frequency id (RFID) transponder sends a unique identification code to scanners positioned at toll booths. A tolling authority computer matches this ID code with credit card and other payment information to collect the toll… [even] an inexpensive RFID scanner [can be used] to read the ID code of any vehicle remotely, essentially turning the transponder into a homing beacon with a maximum range of about 100 yards.
“You can use it for tracking,” Lawson said. “Once you’ve seen the car, you can pick it out in a crowd.”
That is exactly what California’s 511 system does. Scanners placed throughout the highway network track the movement of motorists with toll transponders as a means of monitoring traffic flow. According to the California Department of Transportation, the system tracks individual ID codes, storing a movement history for each particular car in a database for 24 hours.
Additionally, both Homeland Security and the IRS were in the news this year regarding their use of data collected by both public and private agencies using license-plate tracking systems:
The Department of Homeland Security wants a private company to provide a national license-plate tracking system that would give the agency access to vast amounts of information from commercial and law enforcement tag readers, according to a government proposal that does not specify what privacy safeguards would be put in place.
“It is important to note that this database would be run by a commercial enterprise, and the data would be collected and stored by the commercial enterprise, not the government,” she said.
Fox News carried further details:
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In June 2012, the IRS awarded Vigilant a $1,188 contract for “access to nationwide data,” according to federal procurement records compiled by the news agency. The contract ended in May 2013, according to the records.
“Especially with the IRS, I don’t know why these agencies are getting access to this kind of information,” Lynch said. “These systems treat every single person in an area as if they’re under investigation for a crime — that is not the way our criminal justice system was set up or the way things work in a democratic society.”