Free Speech

by Tim Cushing

Filed Under:
boston, ryan gallagher


Private Security Contractors Try To Shut Down Journalist Using Legal Threats And Claims Of Harassment

from the plausible-deniability:-ur-doing-it-wrong dept

Post-Boston bombing, everyone's talking about surveillance and privacy. Those doing most of the talking seem to think we need more of the former and less of the latter. And there's no getting these legislators and law enforcement officials to shut up about it, either. It almost as if they believe repetition converts false presumptions into incontrovertible facts.

Ryan Gallagher, writing for Slate, finally found someone (actually, several of them) with affinities towards increased surveillance that not only don't want to talk about the issue, but also don't want Gallagher talking about it either.

Gallagher was putting together an article on the upcoming reopening of the Statue of Liberty after its extended post-Hurricane Sandy closure. More to the point, he was curious about the updated surveillance equipment (including state-of-the-art facial recognition software) that would be making its debut at the same time.

A few weeks ago, those involved seemed willing to discuss the new system and point out its impressive features.

In March, Statue of Liberty superintendent Dave Luchsinger told me that plans were underway to install an upgraded surveillance system in time for the reopening. “We are moving forward with the proposal that Total Recall has come up with,” he said, adding that “[new] systems are going in, and I know they are state of the art.”
But when Gallagher attempted to gather a few details about the new facial recognition software (FaceVACS, made by German firm Cognitec and deployed by surveillance contractor Total Recall Corp.), no one seemed willing to provide any clear answers.
“We do work with Cognitec, but right now because of what happened with Sandy it put a lot of different pilots that we are doing on hold,” Peter Millius, Total Recall’s director of business development, said in a phone call. “It’s still months away, and the facial recognition right now is not going to be part of this phase.” Then, he put me hold and came back a few minutes later with a different position—insisting that the face-recognition project had in fact been “vetoed” by the Park Police and adding that I was “not authorized” to write about it.
That's a rather odd statement. Millius may not be authorized to talk about it, but I highly doubt private security contractors can claim a journalist is not authorized to write about it. They can react to what's written via comments or statements, but telling a writer they can't write about something pretty much guarantees it will be written about.

Millius' bizarre "order" was followed up by an email from Cognitec's marketing manager Elke Oberg. Oberg told Gallagher one day earlier that Cognitec's software would be implemented at the Statue of Liberty. The email he received a day later contained both a denial... and a threat.
Now, Oberg had sent a letter ordering me to “refrain from publishing any information about the use of face recognition at the Statue of Liberty.” It said that I had “false information,” that the project had been “cancelled,” and that if I wrote about it, there would be “legal action.”
Gallagher also received a nearly identical email from Total Recall Inc., again warning him against publishing any information on the software's on-again, off-again deployment. Even more bizarrely, Millius claimed he would pursue charges of harassment against Gallagher if he persisted in seeking answers to his questions. Representatives for the National Park Service also refused to confirm or deny any software installation.

There's a one-way street in effect here and it's being paved with discarded privacy and civil liberties. These security contractors (and their employers) want to gather as much info as they can, but when pressed for details on their software and devices they respond with diversionary tactics and threats.
The great irony here, of course, is that this is a story about a statue that stands to represent freedom and democracy in the modern world. Yet at the heart of it are corporations issuing crude threats in an attempt to stifle legitimate journalism—and by extension dictate what citizens can and cannot know about the potential use of contentious surveillance tools used to monitor them as they visit that very statue.
That's the problem -- one of many -- with the growing surveillance "culture" in America. Lots of private corporations are landing lucrative government contracts to, in essence, spy on American citizens. These companies, and the legislators and law enforcement officials that support them, deploy more and more surveillance technology and expect US citizens to hand over their dwindling privacy without offering any more of a guarantee than a "you're just going to have to trust us" statement. And yet, they provide example after example of how they cannot be trusted with this power.

Furthermore, should surveillance this sensitive really be handled by companies whose reaction to a few questions is to attempt to silence the questioner with legal threats and implausible statements about what he is or isn't "authorized" to write about? What we certainly don't need in this country is another opaque layer of "security" surrounding our public places, especially one created and serviced by two companies with some serious control issues.

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  1. icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 30 Apr 2013 @ 6:45pm

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