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Posted on Techdirt - 4 March 2015 @ 8:56pm

Auditor: Canadian Law Enforcement's Statistics On ISP Subscriber Data Requests Completely Unreliable

from the obfuscation-by-statistical-shrugs dept

Intrusive surveillance programs -- especially domestic surveillance programs -- are sold to wary legislators with promises of stringent oversight and periodic reporting. That's how they're sold. The reality is nowhere near as assuring.

The warrantless acquisition of Canadian ISP subscriber information was so thoroughly exploited by law enforcement that by 2011, subscriber data was being requested every 27 seconds. The recent addition of a warrant requirement has slowed these requests to a comparative crawl and resulted in cases being dropped by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). With this information no longer available on demand, law enforcement is apparently having to prioritize its cases. You know a system has gone off the rails when agencies would rather cherry pick enforcement efforts than deal with something so "onerous" as a warrant application.

No matter what the process entails, there's supposed to be oversight in place to prevent abusive behavior and/or civil liberties violations. In Canada, the oversight body is willing, but the law enforcement body is weak… and riddled with massive holes.

Last fall, Daniel Therrien, the government’s newly appointed Privacy Commissioner of Canada, released the annual report on the Privacy Act, the legislation that governs how government collects, uses, and discloses personal information. The lead story from the report was the result of an audit of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police practices regarding warrantless requests for telecom subscriber information.

The audit had been expected to shed new light into RCMP information requests. Auditors were forced to terminate the investigation, however, when they realized that Canada’s national police force simply did not compile the requested information. When asked why the information was not collected, RCMP officials responded that its information management system was never designed to capture access requests.
So, there is no audit. And without a periodic audit, there can be no oversight. There may be an entity in place to collate reported data, but what's being reported is incomplete and inaccurate. And not in any small way. The problem appears to be systemic, ingrained and possibly deliberately misleading. Some meaningful details have been redacted from the memo, but the mostly intact closing paragraph is far from comforting.
In conclusion, based on our review of statistics and interviews with senior officials at the RCMP we were unable to rely upon the numbers provided for warrantless access requests, nor was there any linkage between reports of such requests and the actual operational files containing such requests.
And the oversight entity? Apparently, almost as untrustworthy. Michael Geist points out that crucial wording was omitted from the Privacy Commissioner's official report.
The incident highlights the limits of Canadian oversight over law enforcement and surveillance activities. The use of the privacy commissioner’s audit power is frequently lauded as a mechanism to ensure that government does not run afoul of the law. Yet despite identifying inaccurate and incomplete data on a high profile privacy issue, the public audit report does not use the terms “inaccurate” or “incomplete.”
The commissioner may have kept these damning terms (temporarily) out of the public's eye in the official report, but even the more hedged version deployed there does nothing to instill confidence in the RCMP's ability to handle this access responsibly or to submit to any form of accountability.
Ultimately, our efforts to review files, combined with our interviews with RCMP personnel, did not allow us to determine whether the RCMP, as a whole, was compliant, or non-compliant, with the provisions of the Privacy Act with respect to the collection of subscriber information without a warrant. Moreover, other than through a manual review of all case files stored, the RCMP does not have a means to demonstrate its compliance in this regard.
Even if the Privacy Commissioner is unwilling to say it, the conclusions speak for themselves. The RCMP is "non-compliant." Stringent procedures that were implemented to ensure accountability have been largely ignored. The RCMP tries to claim it's really just a "software program," but that assertion doesn't explain why more than four years down the road from the cited 2010 report, nothing has changed.

There is a likely explanation for this lack of careful reporting by the RCMP. For one, it helps obscure the paper trail. It also makes the possibility of mounting a legal challenge on its domestic data-gathering a much more daunting prospect. The RCMP may be unable to show what it's doing right, but its lack of proper documentation helps ensure it will be equally as hard to prove it's doing anything wrong.

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Posted on Techdirt - 4 March 2015 @ 3:38pm

Suburban Express Changes Terms Of Service To Screw Sued College Students Out Of University-Provided Legal Aid

from the as-of-2015,-SE-will-be-fucking-you-in-a-new-location dept

Dennis Toeppen of Suburban Express is still deploying his highly-peculiar brand of "customer service" -- something that includes doxxing unhappy customers, suing unhappy customers, suing unhappy customers, suing unhappy customers and being arrested for "harassment through electronic communications."

Nothing has changed. Toeppen is still a lawsuit fan who believes negative reviewers or anyone who doesn't fully appreciate how hard it is to run a shuttle bus service should be forced to pay $500 (at least) in "liquidated damages." Now, he's looking to pave himself a downhill slope for his future lawsuit filing. Techdirt reader Kionae sends over this article from the University of Illinois' campus newspaper which contains a small detail that shows just how far Toeppen is willing to go to get his $500.

Suburban Express recently changed its “Terms & Conditions” so any legal action arising on the online transaction of tickets should take place in Ford County, roughly 30 miles north of Champaign.

In a statement on its website, the company said it chose Ford County “because of high availability of court dates, efficient court operation, excellent staff work ethic, low costs for both parties, easy parking, and other factors.”
This has nothing to do with "efficient court operations" and has everything to do with making it economically unfeasible for sued college students to fight back. Taking the action 30 miles away strips students of the following protection:
According to the Student Legal Services Operational Plan, Student Legal Services can only represent eligible students who have cases in or originating in Champaign County.
Toeppen's change of venue is carefully calculated to extract the most money/misery from the situation. That situation, of course, is Toeppen's inability to run a business and field criticism at the same time. In Toeppen's defense, he'll say he's never wrong and it's these spoiled brat students with overactive mouths who are to blame. (What? Did you think I was going to half-heartedly defend any aspect of Toeppen's behavior?)

With students forced to pay for their own defense against Toeppen's frivolous, vindictive lawsuits, the needle moves towards a higher default judgment rate. That's what Toeppen wants, considering his legal arguments are mostly indefensible. This should see his lawsuit-filing rate approaching the stratospheric highs of 2012-13, a two-year span in which Suburban Express filed 126 lawsuits. Toeppen is misusing the judicial system. Hopefully, the judges there will recognize his venue-shifting for what it is and push cases back to the proper courts.

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Posted on Techdirt - 4 March 2015 @ 9:47am

Plaintiff Awarded Damages In Default Judgment Against Censorious Dentist Who Billed Him $110,000 For His Negative Review

from the Streisanded-into-apparent-nonexistence dept

(Former?) dentist Stacy Makhnevich utilized a shady firm's (Medical Justice) legal documents to force a patient to sign over his copyright to any future reviews of her service. When he posted negative comments about her services, she followed this up by billing him $100/day for the Yelp review he supposedly no longer controlled.

This censorious behavior resulted in two things: a class action lawsuit being brought against the dentist by Public Citizen and a severe Streisanding that saw Makhnevich's personal and professional reputation torn to shreds by internet denizens, most notably at the same site she attempted to silence.

Shortly thereafter, Makhnevich simply… disappeared. She filed a motion to dismiss the class action suit, but received only sharp criticism from the judge for her "ridiculous" arguments. That was pretty much the last anyone saw of the disgraced dentist, something that makes plaintiff Robert Allen Lee's win somewhat bittersweet.

According to the default judgement [PDF] by a U.S. District Court in NYC last week, the judge concurs, saying that the prohibition against negative criticism, along with the use of copyright claims to prevent these reviews from being seen “constitute breaches of fiduciary duty and violations of dental ethics and are subject to the equitable defenses of unclean hands, and, as to such assignment and assertion, constitute copyright misuse.”
The very short decision points out that Makhnevich was wrong about pretty much everything before awarding presumably uncollectable damages to Lee.
The Court declares as follows:

A. Notwithstanding the claim of defendants Stacy Makhnevich, Aster Dental, Chrysler Building Dental Association, North East PC, South East Dental Suite, Lincoln Square Dental Arts, Lincoln Square Dental Arts of Manhattan, and Chrysler Dental (collectively, "defendants") to ownership of the copyright in writings by plaintiff Robert Allen Lee about them, Robert Allen Lee's posting of public comments about defendants' services ("Lee 's Commentary") is a non-infringing fair use pursuant to Section 107 of the Copyright Act;

B. Obtaining the promise by plaintiff Robert Allen Lee in the Mutual Agreement to Maintain Privacy (the "Agreement') not to publish criticism of defendants, the Agreement's purported assignment of copyrights, and the assertion of copyright claims by defendants for the express purpose of preventing the dissemination of Lee's Commentary, constitute breaches of fiduciary duty and violations of dental ethics and are subject to the equitable defenses of unclean hands, and, as to such assignment and assertion, constitute copyright misuse;

C. Robert Allen Lee's assignment and promise in the Agreement not to publish criticisms of defendants are null and void for lack of consideration;

D. Robert Allen Lee's assignment and promise in the Agreement not to publish criticisms of defendants are null and void for unconscionability;

E. The Agreement is a deceptive act or practice in violation of Section 349(a) of the New York General Business Law; and

F. Lee' s Commentary is not actionable defamation under New York common law.

Plaintiff Lee is awarded $4,766 in damages against defendants, jointly and severally, for their breach of contract, together with his costs of suit.
The other upshot of the lawsuit is that Medical Justice has ceased offering the legally-dubious forms deployed by Makhnevich, albeit in a rather begruding fashion.
"While we believe these agreements are honest, ethical, and legal, we are going to use this situation as an opportunity to retire these written agreements used since 2007," MJ CEO Jeffrey Segal told Ars on Wednesday. He claims that MJ will recommend to doctors that they stop using the agreements, and that patients will not be asked to sign any such agreements in the future.
The worst thing you can do about bad reviews is pretty much everything Makhnevich did: misuse copyright law, fire off cease-and-desist orders and bogus DMCA takedown requests, and bill unhappy customers to the tune of $110,000. Disappearing was probably a wise choice, but it does tend to result in default judgments. Lee may find it hard to collect what he's owed from the missing dentist, but the court's short but thorough dismantling of her every move should serve as a warning to future business owners who think it's wise to deploy the nuclear option when criticized.

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Posted on Techdirt - 4 March 2015 @ 8:35am

Florida Legislators Introduce Bill That Would Strip Certain Site Owners Of Their Anonymity

from the baby-SOPA dept

A few Florida legislators are looking to do some serious damage to both free speech and the internet.

This week, the Florida state legislature is considering a bill that would make it illegal to run any website or service anonymously, if the site fits a vague category of “disseminat[ing]” “commercial” recordings or videos—even the site owner’s own work. Outlawing anonymous speech raises a serious First Amendment problem, and laws like this one have been abused by police and the entertainment industry.
The bill (Senate and House versions) seems to be catering directly to the entertainment industry and could give local law enforcement City of London Police-esque powers to act as de facto copyright cops. And its potential stripping of anonymity not only requires disclosure to law enforcement, but everyone else on the web.
A person who owns or operates a website or online service dealing in substantial part in the electronic dissemination of commercial recordings or audiovisual works, directly or indirectly, to consumers in this state shall clearly and conspicuously disclose his or her true and correct name, physical address, and telephone number or e-mail address on his or her website or online service in a location readily accessible to a consumer using or visiting the website or online service.
Do-it-yourself doxxing! What could possibly go wrong? Handing over your personal information to complete strangers always works out so well. The bill seems only concerned with giving rights holders easier access to potential infringers (still problematic), completely ignoring the unintended consequences of forcing certain site owners to hand out their personal information proactively, rather than only by law enforcement subpoena or court order.

On top of that, there's the vagueness of the language. "Directly or indirectly" can mean a lot of things -- like links to alleged infringement elsewhere on the web. And it would potentially force any number of site owners worldwide to give up their anonymity. The bill isn't limited to sites/site owners residing in Florida. All it says is "electronic dissemination… to consumers in this state." If a website can be accessed from Florida, it conceivably falls under the jurisdiction of this proposed law.

This would give the Grady "Showboat" Judds of Florida law enforcement all the reason they need to send ad hoc anti-piracy task forces all over the US to shut down infringing sites. Even if the damage was solely confined to Florida, it would still be a bad idea.
Similar “true name and address” laws in other states have been used to justify police raids on music studios. In 2007, a Georgia police SWAT team (with RIAA employees in tow) raided the studio of DJ Drama and DJ Cannon, makers of influential “mixtapes” that record labels used to promote their artists. The police arrested the DJs and confiscated their CDs and equipment. Their justification wasn’t copyright law (which is a federal law) but a more limited version of the same law Florida is considering, one that applies only to physical goods. If Florida expands on Georgia’s law by including websites, we could see similar police raids against music blogs or other avenues of online speech. And the works on the site might even be in the public domain, as long as some “owner, assignee, authorized agent, or licensee”—perhaps a broadcaster—complains.
If there is a bright side to this proposed law, it's that it doesn't gut Section 230 protections and contains the smallest of nods towards Fair Use. But that's it. Otherwise, it's a mess -- a bill designed to expedite the pursuit of infringers at the expense of free speech and online anonymity.

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Posted on Techdirt - 4 March 2015 @ 4:04am

Separate And Unequal: Gen. Petraeus Facing Mild Wrist Slap For Leaking Eight Books Full Of Classified Info To His Mistress

from the granted-Most-Favored-Leaker-status dept

The administration still wants to punish whistleblowers and leakers, but only if it can do it with logic borrowed from Animal Farm. When it comes to prosecution, some leakers are more equal than others.

John Kiriakou -- who exposed a single CIA operative's name while exposing its waterboarding tactics -- spent more time in jail than former CIA director Leon Panetta, who has spent (at last count) a grand total of 0 days locked up for leaking tons of classified info to Zero Dark Thirty's screenwriter, Mark Boal.

Of course, some leaks just aren't leaks, at least not according to the government. Kiriakou's were wrong. Panetta's were right. And Kiriakou spent three years in prison for a lesser "crime."

Thomas Drake faced a potential 35-year sentence for his exposure of wasteful NSA spending. The government's case against him self-imploded, however, resulting in a guilty plea to a misdemeanor and no jail time.

General Petraeus, who leaked classified information to his mistress, is in line to receive the lightest of wrist slaps for his indiscretion: two years probation and a $40,000 fine. The lightness of the sentence suggested by government prosecutors belies the extent of Petraeus' wrongdoing.

What he handed over to his mistress far surpasses anything the above whistleblowers "leaked."

While he was commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, Petraeus “maintained bound, five-by-eight inch notebooks that contained his daily schedule and classified and unclassified notes he took during official meetings, conferences and briefings,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of North Carolina writes in a statement of fact regarding the case...

All eight books “collectively contained classified information regarding the identifies of covert officers, war strategy, intelligence capabilities and mechanisms, diplomatic discussions, quotes and deliberative discussions from high-level National Security Council meetings… and discussions with the president of the United States.”

The books also contained “national defense information, including top secret/SCI and code word information,” according to the court papers. In other words: These weren’t just ordinary secrets. This was highly, highly classified material.
On top of that, he lied to the government about these books, first in the form of a sworn statement...
Petreaus retained those Black Books after he signed his debriefing agreement upon leaving DOD, in which he attested “I give my assurance that there is no classified material in my possession, custody, or control at this time.” He kept those Black Books in an unlocked desk drawer.
And again to investigating FBI agents.
In an interview on October 26, 2012, he told the FBI:

(a) he had never provided any classified information to his biographer, and (b) he had never facilitated the provision of classified information to his biographer.
Simply lying to the FBI has consequences far greater than those Petraeus will face. But that's because he's General Petraeus and you're not -- as 22-year-old Kirstie Barratt recently discovered.
United States Attorney Bill Nettles stated today that Kirstie Elaine Philome Barratt, age 22, of Fort Mill, South Carolina was sentenced to 24 months’ imprisonment today after earlier pleading guilty to making a false statement to a federal agent, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1001. United States District Judge Joseph F. Anderson, Jr. imposed the term of imprisonment, which will be followed by a 3 year term of supervised release. In October, Barratt plead straight up to the charge without a plea agreement. Barratt also may face deportation as a result of her guilty plea. During the sentencing hearing, Judge Anderson granted the government’s motion for an upward departure from the federal guidelines sentencing range of 0 to 6 months, noting that this was a “rare” case and that Barratt “knowingly placed a law enforcement officer’s life in jeopardy” by her false statement.
Petraeus was a trusted member of the military and the CIA. And he turned over eight books worth of classified info to his biographer/mistress just because she asked. But because he's part of the administration's arbitrarily-selected "in crowd," and because he didn't embarrass the government as much as he embarrassed himself, he's facing a sentence of nearly nothing. His suggested punishment will have zero effect on his current position at a top equity firm and his life will suffer none of the disruptions Kiriakou and Drake experienced. He'll be $40,000 poorer -- and with "deterrents" like these being deployed -- none the wiser.

What's most disgusting about Petraeus' cakewalk of a proposed sentence is that he himself took a hypocritical hardline stance on leaking after Kiriakou's sentencing.
When John Kiriakou pled guilty on October 23, 2012 to crimes having to do with sharing a single covert officer’s identity just days before Petraeus would lie to the FBI about sharing, among other things, numerous covert officers’ identities with his mistress, Petraeus sent out a memo to the CIA stating,

"Oaths do matter, and there are indeed consequences for those who believe they are above the laws that protect our fellow officers and enable American intelligence agencies to operate with the requisite degree of secrecy."
Yeah. "Oaths matter." Except when you're the one uttering them, right? Apparently, a "requisite degree of secrecy" means stashing eight books full of classified info in an unlocked desk drawer and handing them out to your clandestine SO in hopes of keeping your knob biography as polished as possible.

This administration is severely hypocritical, but seemingly no more so than in its treatment of whistleblowers. There are those who will be persecuted and punished and those whose similar indiscretions will be waved away by government prosecutors. The problem is: you may not know which of these faces of the administration you'll be facing when you decide to start blowing the whistle. Chances are -- given this administration's track record -- it will be the vindictive, angry administration that continually hopes to "send a message" with each new whistleblower/leaker prosecuted.

Those on the inside of the military/industrial/surveillance supercomplex -- who leak under the name of "anonymous official" to aid filmmakers, deploy talking points or steer narratives -- will never see this side of the two-faced administration. Their leaks are more equal than others.

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Posted on Techdirt - 3 March 2015 @ 9:00pm

Wyoming Governor Vetoes Asset Forfeiture Bill, Because Asset Forfeiture 'Is Right'

from the any-and-all-money-prolly-drug-money-or-something dept

With the abuses of asset forfeiture being loudly publicized, there has (finally) been some legislative pushback against these abusive programs. Wyoming's legislators -- hoping to institute asset forfeiture reform -- ran into pushback themselves from the state's governor, who vetoed the popular bill (which passed out of the Senate with an 80-9 vote) when it hit his desk.

Governor Matt Mead explained his reasons for doing so in a letter to the Senate president Phil Nicholas. According to Mead, he didn't agree that Wyoming has an asset forfeiture problem and saw no reason to curtail a program that is (supposedly) so effective in fighting the Drug War.

Now, while Wyoming hasn't made splashy headlines with bogus busts, it's more likely due to the limited population than better laws or better law enforcement. Mead's letter explaining his veto contains three examples he feels prove Wyoming is better-behaved than most when it comes to separating citizens from their possessions. But none of those are particularly persuasive.

One deals with $17,000 being returned after "procedural safeguards" were ignored. The other two simply assume the seizure of funds was completely justified, even though no corresponding conviction is noted in his explanation.

In one case, a car owner denied knowing whose $327,000 was found in his vehicle. Fully justified, of course, because as Mead explains, the seized funds were spent "to enforce drug laws." In the other case, $415,000 was found in a vehicle being carried on a semi trailer full of vehicles. This, too, was taken and the seizure fully justified because the money was obviously evil in and of itself. Here's Mead's actual sentence explaining what happened to these funds.

"The money was taken out of circulation so it could not be used for other illegal activity."
Stupid money. It's like it's a troubled teen in need of a grounding. "Don't let it out! It will probably just do illegal things!"

Not cited: the "illegal activity" prompting the seizure of the funds in either case.

The reform bill didn't ask for much -- just a conviction to go with every seizure -- but that was still too much for Mead, who still carries inside him the beating heart of a long-term prosecutor. To him, these means are perfectly acceptable because drugs are a problem. Case closed.

That's likely one of the factors playing into the deployment of his otherwise seldom-used veto power. This is the other: a meeting with the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs -- which occurred three days before the veto.
Beyond all that, Mead simply believes asset forfeiture is a law enforcement tool that simply cannot be questioned.
I believe civil asset forfeiture is important and it is right.
Too "right" to be even slightly curtailed by the addition of a small but logical stipulation: a conviction of the assets' owner before the assets can be claimed. Mead prefers the way it's been done for years: assets are presumed guilty, the burden of proof rests on those whose assets have been seized and anything not clearly associated with any criminal activity can still be repurposed to fight the Everlasting War on Drugs.

Wyoming may not have a history of forfeiture abuse, but it makes no sense not to head off a problem before it becomes one. Everything about its current program lends itself to abuse.
Wyoming has horrible civil forfeiture laws, with an F law grade. The state’s final grade is pulled up to a C only by limited use of equitable sharing (an evasion grade of A) to date. The government can seize and subsequently forfeit property with just probable cause that it is subject to forfeiture. This is the lowest standard, far easier for the government than proving criminal guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. A property owner who wishes to claim an innocent owner defense bears the burden of proof, effectively making owners guilty until proven innocent. All of the proceeds from civil forfeiture are distributed to the state Attorney General’s asset fund. In turn, those funds are used as matching funds for federal drug enforcement grants. Finally, although officials are required to collect information on the use of forfeiture, they did not respond to requests.
Gov. Mead's view of this program is rosy to the point of blindness. But that's the sort of thing we expect from career prosecutors who question very little if anything about the law enforcement under their purview and who wholeheartedly support strong drug enforcement tactics. Mead may not see any abuse occurring, but I get the feeling he's not looking too hard. Considering how low the bar is set in terms of burden of proof, you'd have to do some serious digging to find seizures not justified by this barely-there requirement. And, considering the funds flow into Mead's former office, I would imagine he's in no hurry to find anything that might threaten the state's revenue stream, or its attendant matching funds grants from the US government.

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Posted on Techdirt - 3 March 2015 @ 2:34pm

Judge John Facciola On Today's Law Enforcement: I'd Go Weeks Without Seeing A Warrant For Anything 'Tactile'

from the 'start-canvassing-the-neighborhood-for-unlocked-cellphones' dept

We lost one of the "good guys" when Magistrate Judge John Facciola retired late last year. Facciola was a leading figure in the small -- but important -- "Magistrates' Revolt" that emerged in the wake of the Snowden leaks. Multiple times the government approached Facciola for a signature on overly-broad warrants seeking the entire contents of a phone or an email account, only to find the judge unwilling to help it pack for its fishing trip.

More than once, the government was forced to rewrite its requests, and on one memorable occasion, it went "judge shopping" in hopes of obtaining the signature Facciola wouldn't give it, only to be rebuffed by the unamused judge on the opposite coast.

Zoe Tillman of the National Law Journal has a fascinating interview with the retired judge. Facciola was one of the few magistrates who actively attempted to understand the legal nuances inherent to today's interconnected world. According to Facciola, magistrate judges who allow technological advances to pass them by aren't doing the public any favors by not staying current. Law enforcement has moved on, and it's tough to act as a check against overreach if you don't understand the subject matter. The mental image of investigators dusting for fingerprints and tossing suspects' residences is completely outdated. Investigative work now involves -- almost exclusively -- more ethereal methods.

When asked how his job had changed since he took his post in 1997, Facciola responded:

[I]n March 2012, my criminal month, at the end of the month I realized something: I had not issued a warrant or an order for anything that was tactile. Everything I issued was for some form of electronically stored information. Whether it was a Facebook account or cell site information.

You almost look forward to the day when a guy will just want to break a door down and go in and get cocaine. Those days are gone forever apparently.
This would explain law enforcement's outspoken opposition to any form of electronic encryption. Today's law enforcement agencies seemingly have little stomach for old-fashioned police work. Searching something "tactile," like a suspect's residence, is almost always an afterthought. These agencies would rather dig through every communication they can obtain before they even think about utilizing methods that have worked for years. (And default mode for today's law enforcement has shifted the approach to physical searches as well. Increasingly, handling the "tactile" means going "tactical" with no-knock warrants, military rifles, full body armor, repurposed mine-resistant vehicles and a hell of a lot of guys shouting contradictory instructions/firing weapons in contradictory directions within moments of the "breach.")

This nearly-exclusive focus on digital searches poses a problem for the magistrates charged with vetting warrants for Constitutionality, not the least of which are the outdated laws and guidelines governing searches of citizens' communications and data. And this can't be fixed by the courts themselves.
[T]he problem is not a judicial one, the problem is Congress has not looked at the Stored Communications Act since 1986. My gosh. 1986. [...] If you look at the opinions about the Stored Communications Act, they are some of the most complicated opinions you will see because it's a classic example of the square peg not fitting in the round hole… There [is] out there a lot of wonderful thinking about how the act could be amended to bring it kicking and screaming into the 21st century. But no movement by Congress. That's deeply troubling.
Not that the judicial system hasn't tried. It's just that the conclusions are still unclear and mainly deal with warrantless searches. The Sixth Circuit Court ruled that email contents are covered by the Fourth Amendment, contrary to the claims of those who rely on the outdated SCA. The Supreme Court had a chance to weigh the SCA against the Fourth Amendment in 2010, but chose to carefully avoid the subject. So, if it's to be fixed, it's up to Congress, and there is only a very slim chance that it will be willing to alter a law so thoroughly exploited by law enforcement and intelligence agencies, even given the events of the past couple of years.

Particularization is what's needed in the digital realm, according to Facciola, but that's clearly not what the government wants. It wants to dump peoples' computers and devices on the metaphorical carpet and root through the pile until it finds what it's looking for. (Or, as has happened frequently, find something it wasn't looking for and pursue that angle instead/in addition, occasionally necessitating additional warrants.)

Particularized searches of ethereal contents is easier said than done, especially when one half of the parties involved has no interest in limiting its searches. Facciola has suggested searches of this type be handled by the third party that holds the data, but that has been shot down by other judges as "impractical." Facciola additionally suggests wholly separating the search team and the evidence review team (using a "Chinese wall") to help assure the search won't exceed the limitations provided by the warrant. The last resort is still the front line, however.
The third solution… is more careful supervision of the conduct of the search by the magistrate judge.
That's where Facciola fit in. He challenged the government on its broad search requests and forced it to reconsider its tactics. Unfortunately, there's usually been another judge willing to grant warrants that don't meet the standards of more demanding magistrates.

In his parting comment, Facciola points out that judges aren't the only technologically-resistant participants in the judicial system. Those on the other side of the bench have their issues as well.
We have to get across to lawyers that they really have to read outside of their fields. Every day I read the tech section of The New York Times. I find almost every article has to do with the law. And that's an important thing.

I learned from [a law professor] that — did you know this? — the telephone was in existence for 10 years before lawyers started to use it. They thought it was beneath their dignity. You wondered, did they use the elevator?

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Posted on Techdirt - 3 March 2015 @ 9:24am

In Unsealed Document, FBI Admits Stingray Devices Will Disrupt Phone Service

from the making-Stingray-omelets-required-breaking-a-few-communications dept

A small crack in the FBI's Stingray secrecy has appeared. A 2012 pen register application obtained by the ACLU was previously sealed, but a motion to dismiss the evidence obtained by the device forced it out into the open. Kim Zetter at Wired notes that the application contains a rare admission that Stingray use disrupts cellphone service.

[I]n the newly uncovered document (.pdf)—a warrant application requesting approval to use a stingray—FBI Special Agent Michael A. Scimeca disclosed the disruptive capability to a judge.

“Because of the way, the Mobile Equipment sometimes operates,” Scimeca wrote in his application, “its use has the potential to intermittently disrupt cellular service to a small fraction of Sprint’s wireless customers within its immediate vicinity. Any potential service disruption will be brief and minimized by reasonably limiting the scope and duration of the use of the Mobile Equipment.”
Notably, the application (and the magistrate's approval) do not refer to the device by any of the common names (Stingray, IMSI catcher, cell tower spoofer, etc.), but rather as "mobile pen register/trap and trace equipment." While it does admit the device will "mimic Sprint's cell towers," it downplays the potential impact of the device's use.

The fact that Stingray devices disrupt cell service isn't new, but an on-the-record admission by law enforcement is. The warrant application claims that numbers unrelated to the ones being sought will be "released" to other cell towers. The unanswered question is how long it takes before this release occurs.
“As each phone tries to connect, [the stingray] will say, ‘I’m really busy right now so go use a different tower. So rather than catching the phone, it will release it,” says Chris Soghoian, chief technologist for the ACLU. “The moment it tries to connect, [the stingray] can reject every single phone” that is not the target phone.

But the stingray may or may not release phones immediately, Soghoian notes, and during this period disruption can occur.
The problem with the so-called "release" is related to the amount of disruption that occurs when the device is used. Advances in cell technology have surpassed the ability of Stingray devices to capture calling info and location data. Upgrades are available and law enforcement agencies are scrambling to get their cell tower spoofers up-to-date, but the general process still involves "dumbing down" everyone's connection to the least secure and most easily-intercepted connection: 2G.
In order for the kind of stingray used by law enforcement to work, it exploits a vulnerability in the 2G protocol. Phones using 2G don’t authenticate cell towers, which means that a rogue tower can pass itself off as a legitimate cell tower. But because 3G and 4G networks have fixed this vulnerability, the stingray will jam these networks to force nearby phones to downgrade to the vulnerable 2G network to communicate.
If a device is in operation nearby, all calls that can't find a better connection will be routed to the cell tower spoofer. This means calls won't be connected, texts won't be sent/received and internet service will be knocked offline. While Stingrays are supposed to allow 911 calls to pass through without interruption, these are far from the only type of "emergency" communications. If the device is deployed for any considerable length of time, citizens completely unrelated to the criminal activity being investigated may find themselves unable to communicate.

And while the targeted number apparently belonged to Sprint, the warrant application notes that all service providers in the area will be asked to turn over a large amount of subscriber information.
[D]irecting AT&T, T-Mobile U.S.A., Inc., Verizon Wireless, Metro PCS, Sprint-Nextel and any and all other providers of electronic communication service (hereinafter the "Service Providers") to furnish expeditiously real-time location information concerning the Target Facility (including all cell site location information but not including GPS, E-911, or other precise location information) and, not later than five business days after receipt of a request from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, all information about subscriber identity, including the name, address, local and long distance telephone connection records, length of service (including start date) and types of service utilized, telephone or instrument number or other subscriber number or identity, and means and source of payment for such service (including any credit card or bank account number), for all subscribers to all telephone numbers, published and nonpublished, derived from the pen register and trap and trace device during the 60-day period in which the court order is in effect…
This request seems to run contrary to what's asserted earlier in the warrant application, in reference to the Stingray device itself.
In order to achieve the investigative objective (i.e., determining the general location of the Target Facility) in a manner that is the least intrusive, data incidentally acquired from phones other than the Target Facility shall not be recorded and/or retained beyond its use to identify or locate the Target Facility.
It appears there is a "catch-and-release" policy when it comes to Stingray devices, but the FBI's data request to every cell phone service provider in the area contains no such assurances about minimization. Additionally, the request for data on "all subscribers to all telephone numbers" covers a 60-day period, while the use of the tower spoofer is limited to two weeks.

So, not only did the FBI potentially disrupt cell service while searching for the robbery suspects, it also collected a massive amount of data on every subscriber whose phone happened to connect with its fake tower. It's not really "catch-and-release" if additional call/location data on unrelated subscribers is obtained from from other providers. This broad request was granted without question or additional stipulations by the magistrate judge -- the only limitation applied (in a handwritten addition, no less) being that the FBI would not be able to use the device "in any private place or when they have reason to believe the Target Facility is in a private place." (This falls in line with the FBI's "warrant requirement," which is written in a way that ensures the FBI will never have to seek a warrant for Stingray use.)

The FBI, along with other law enforcement agencies, has refused to answer questions about the disruptive side effects of Stingray device usage. With the unsealing of this document, their silence no longer matters. These agencies are well aware of these devices' capabilities -- something they're clearly not comfortable discussing. The excuses deployed routinely involve "law enforcement means and methods" and claims about "compromising current and future investigations," but with more heat being applied by the nation's legislators, this code of silence may finally be broken. The use of these devices -- despite being fully aware that critical communications may be at least temporarily prevented -- sends a continual implicit message to the public: your safety and well-being is subject to law enforcement's needs and wants.

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Posted on Techdirt - 2 March 2015 @ 2:40pm

Operators Of Revenge Porn Site YouGotPosted Hit With $900,000 Default Judgment

from the two-miserable-humans-profiting-on-the-misery-of-others dept

Here's a little bit more evidence to throw on the pile marked "You Don't Need to Destroy the First Amendment/Section 230 to Stop Revenge Porn."

Eric Chanson and Kevin Bollaert, proprietors of the revenge porn site YouGotPosted, are now on the hook for $450,000 each, thanks to a default judgment. This lawsuit rests heavily on the duo's violation of child pornography laws, so it's not a complete win for revenge porn opponents, but it does suggest a way out for minors who find themselves posted on sites operated by similar blights on humanity.

Defendants watermarked sexually explicit photographs of Plaintiff, a minor, with a “You Got Posted” logo and then posted them on the Website, along with identifying information including Plaintiff’s name and state of residence (California). Defendants did not take any steps to verify Plaintiff’s age before posting her photographs. Nor did Defendants obtain Plaintiff’s consent or that of her parents. According to the complaint, Defendants were aware that Plaintiff was a minor and that the images constituted child pornography when they posted the images on the Website. Defendants used Plaintiff’s photographs to advertise the Website and profited from using Plaintiff’s images.
Neither of the defendants mounted much of a challenge to the allegations. Chanson filed a motion for dismissal after being served but the court denied it nine months later. Chanson was deemed to have defaulted in June of last year, based on his lack of communication after his September 2013 motion.

Bollaert, on the other hand, was detained by more pressing matters -- like his arrest for extortion, online harassment and identity theft. All of the charges were problematic (especially the harassment charge, which somehow managed to bypass established Section 230 protections), but they did manage to keep Bollaert otherwise occupied as the lawsuit against him proceeded. Still, Bollaert was served two months before his arrest and had the option to file a response at any point, seeing as his conviction on the extortion charge (the most logical of the charges brought -- considering Chanson and Bolleart ran a side business taking down YouGotPosted material for a fee) didn't actually occur until February of 2015.

All in all, the pair's accuser was awarded $150,000 (from each) in statutory damages under US child pornography laws, along with $150,000/each in punitive damages and another $150,000/each for violations of California's ridiculous "publicity rights" law. It may seem slightly more palatable when it's being used to punish revenge porn site operators, but that still doesn't make that bad law any less stupid or easily abused.

It all adds up to $450,000 from each of the defendants and the option to pursue legal fees is still open.

If you're looking to shut down revenge porn site operators, this particular case doesn't have a whole lot to offer, other than the likelihood that pursuing a lawsuit could easily result in a default judgment if your allegations are solid. Judging from past events, it seems unlikely that many revenge porn site operators are interested in defending their actions in front of a judge. It also provides some comfort for minors whose photos and information have been posted at these sites.

On the other hand, easily-abused laws (with the exception of California's publicity rights statute) weren't abused to pursue these site owners. There was no suggestion that posting pictures without authorization is automatically copyright infringement or any desire expressed to punch holes in Section 230 protections. That's a plus for the internet in general. And the outcome shows there are a multitude of ways to approach the revenge porn problem that don't involve carving out chunks of the First Amendment.

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Posted on Techdirt - 2 March 2015 @ 9:24am

'Officer Awareness' Memo: Police Accountability Recording App Could Lead To Dangerous 'Flash Mobs'

from the and-they'll-be-armed-with-cameras!!! dept

Your law enforcement panic of the day: an app that automatically uploads recorded footage and forwards it to the ACLU. (h/t to Dave Maass.)

New Jersey's ACLU branch put together "Police Tape" back in 2012, an app which allowed anyone to record cops with a press of a button. The app then hid itself while the recording continued. If the recording was interrupted, the app would automatically send the recording to the ACLU. The app also advised those confronted by cops of their rights in various situations.

The app is apparently no longer available, but ACLU-NJ reported 30,000 downloads within the first few months of its availability. Widespread coverage of this police accountability app led to a somewhat overwrought response from (of all places) the Burbank, California Police Department.

"OFFICER AWARENESS," the bulletin yells, before heading into a brief summation of the app's capabilities. It takes a turn for the truly absurd when Lt. Eric Deroian attempts to portray the app as potentially dangerous to officers.

Both apps [including the "stop and frisk" app developed by ACLU-NY] will notify other app users within a defined area if someone has activated their app, with the exact location of the police action. This may result in officer safety issues if community groups are able to pinpoint various police actions, and respond to the location in the form of a flash mob.
First off, let's deal with the why of this app's existence. It is only because officers have routinely (and illegally) confiscated, shut down or deleted recordings from civilians' cell phones that an automatic archival process is needed. Despite being told repeatedly by judges, the DOJ and their own internal policies that citizens have the right to record police officers in public areas, many cops still seem to believe this isn't actually a right but a privilege completely subject to any recorded officer's willingness to oblige.

Because cops doing bad things hate to be held accountable for their actions, they often turn on those recording their actions. And because officers have power, weapons and the benefit of a doubt eternally on their side, it's usually pretty easy to shut down recordings. The tide is slowly turning, but civilians are still severely limited in their options when confronted by a cop who doesn't want to be recorded.

That's why apps like these even exist, and cops have only themselves to blame for this situation.

Now, let's address the inadvertent hilarity of the "flash mob" claim. Even if there were enough people with the app installed in the area, it's highly unlikely a coordinated (and apparently threatening) response would be mounted. The thing about successful flash mobs is that they're usually coordinated ahead of time. The best ones are, anyway. There are some that gel unexpectedly, but flash mobs usually require participants to be at least a little prepared.

Being suddenly alerted about some unexpected police bullshittery isn't generally going to provoke anything more than additional cameras and angry voices. I've seen tons of police video captured by citizens and I have yet to see crowds physically attack officers no matter how much of a beatdown they're putting on some unlucky individual. A lot of yelling and swearing? Yeah. But nothing more "threatening" than that. Even when a cop is choking the life out of someone, everyone stands a few feet away and hurls nothing more dangerous than epithets and criticism.

Here's the other thing: You know who else can "notify [others] in their area" and "pinpoint various police actions?" Cops. And their "flash mobs" usually arrive at high speed with sirens blaring, and armed to the teeth with a variety of lethal (and slightly less-lethal, depending on application) weapons. This "mob" has the force of law behind it, as well as a large number of options citizens don't have -- like departments and unions willing to justify nearly any amount of misconduct, as well as various levels of legal immunity should the "police action" result in a civil lawsuit. They'll also be acting out of "fear for their safety," so the occasional kidney punch/emptied gun magazine will be almost instantly forgiven. All the unfriendly citizen flash mob has is… well, their voices and their cameras. Nothing like bringing a Galaxy 4 to a gun/Taser fight.

Bottom line: there's nothing to fear from police accountability apps like these except the accountability. This is what Lt. Deroian's warning is really about. He closes it by noting that a "suspect" had the app installed on his phone, but leaves the details of this person's crime wholly up to the overactive imaginations of the officers reading this "alert."

A better "Officer Awareness" memo might have addressed the fact that citizens have a right to record and that patrolling OFFICERS should be AWARE their actions have a good chance of being recorded, so try not to violate too many rights/beat down too many "suspects." And be careful out there.

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Posted on Techdirt - 27 February 2015 @ 6:11am

In Wake Of NSA Leaks, China Drops Major US Tech Companies From Its Approved Supplier List

from the leaks-docs,-leaking-dollars dept

The NSA continues to "save" the United States from terrorism by making it weaker. Not only has the agency actively undermined encryption standards, but its willingness to insert backdoors and spyware in any piece of hardware or software it can get its hands on has severely damaged the world's trust of American technology.

Cloud computing providers have already felt the aftershocks of the Snowden leaks. An Open Technology Institute report published a year after the first revelation noted that many had already seen a drop-off in sales and predicted that the backlash against the NSA's surveillance tactics could cost companies anywhere from $22-180 billion over the next three years.

Hardware makers are getting hit hard as well. One of the largest buyers of American tech products has dropped some very big brands from its approved supplier list.

China has dropped some of the world's leading technology brands from its approved state purchase lists, while approving thousands more locally made products, in what some say is a response to revelations of widespread Western cybersurveillance.

Chief casualty is U.S. network equipment maker Cisco Systems Inc, which in 2012 counted 60 products on the Central Government Procurement Center's (CGPC) list, but by late 2014 had none, a Reuters analysis of official data shows.

Smartphone and PC maker Apple Inc has also been dropped over the period, along with Intel Corp's security software firm McAfee and network and server software firm Citrix Systems.
It's certainly no surprise that Cisco would be one of the first dropped by foreign purchasers wary of NSA meddling. A leaked document detailing the agency's hardware interdiction program contained a photo of operatives carefully unwrapping a box full of hardware destined for NSA spyware implants. While the faces of the agents may have been blurred, the logo on the box was not. As the story spread across the internet, one conclusion was drawn: Cisco products are not "safe."

The fact that foreign hardware may arrive loaded with spyware and backdoors isn't the only thing prompting the Chinese government to drop nearly half of its overseas security-related tech suppliers. There's also the ongoing tension between the US and China, which has devolved into each country accusing the other of inserting backdoors into exported tech. It appears both sets of accusations are correct, but for years it was largely assumed that China was mostly alone in these efforts.

China also has a domestic market it would like to expand, which will now get a leg up from the government. As it eyes an increased exports, it is likely aware that many foreign governments and other potential purchasers consider its exports no more "secure" than NSA-infected tech shipping from the US. Purchasers will find themselves taking the "lesser of two evils" approach when seeking to obtain tech products -- something that won't always work out in favor of American companies.

Cisco has openly stated that "geopolitical concerns" -- like the NSA's interception of its products destined for foreign markets -- have led to a downturn in sales. Other affected companies like Intel have yet to issue official statements detailing any NSA-related impact on their sales, but it's clear the last 18 months of leaks have done little to raise their future expectations. OTI's wide-open estimate on potential losses will probably never achieve sharper focus. It's unlikely former customers are going to clearly state that unrenewed contracts or supplier list culls are due to the NSA's actions, but surveys have indicated this concern does factor heavily into purchasing decisions.

The leaks aren't going to stop, and what is already in the public domain will continue to take its toll. Just as certainly, the NSA isn't going to stop looking for ways to circumvent encryption or compromise hardware. At this point, there's no way any company can claim with certainty that they have avoided becoming part of any government's intelligence apparatus -- and that's going to hurt them for years to come.

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Posted on Techdirt - 27 February 2015 @ 3:59am

DOJ Inspector General Tells Congress That FBI Isn't Letting His Office Do Its Job... Again

from the Fight-Block-Impede dept

The FBI is still actively thwarting its oversight. Last fall, DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz informed the House Judiciary Committee that the FBI was routinely denying his office documents it needed to perform investigations. The withheld documents included everything from electronic surveillance information to organizational charts. Not only did the FBI refuse to hand over requested documents, but it also stonewalled OIG investigations for so long that "officials under review [had] retired or left the agencies before the report [was] complete."

Nearly six months later, the situation remains unchanged. Horowitz is again informing the House Judiciary Committee that the FBI is still less than interested in assisting his office. The same stonewalling tactics and withholding of information continues, preventing the IG from fully examining the DEA's use of administrative subpoenas.

The unfulfilled information request that causes the OIG to make this report was sent to the FBI on November 20,2014. Since that time, the FBI has made a partial production in this matter, and there have been multiple discussions between the OIG and the FBI about this request, resulting in the OIG setting a final deadline for production of all material of February 13,2015.
Both words in the phrase "final deadline" were quickly rendered meaningless by the FBI.
On February 12, 2015, the FBI informed the OIG that it would not be able to produce the remaining records by the deadline.
The FBI's fluid definition of "final deadline" apparently includes a shrugged "We don't really know when -- or if -- these documents will be produced."
The FBI gave an estimate of 1-2 weeks to complete the production but did not commit to do so by a date certain.
The FBI claims it still needs to review the requested document list to ensure nothing that's being asked for falls into its multitudinous exceptions -- like information related to grand juries, Title III electronic surveillance and, oddly, the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

Horowitz's letter points out two things, the latter of which may prompt more immediate action than the first.

In the first place, the exceptions raised by the FBI do not apply to OIG investigations. Secondly, the (apparently continual) stonewalling of OIG investigations is, at best, a misuse of taxpayer funds.
Section 218 of the Appropriations Act does not permit the use of funds appropriated to the Department of Justice to deny the OIG access to records in the custody of the Department unless in accordance with an express limitation of Section 6(a) of the IG Act. The IG Act, Section 6(a), does not expressly or otherwise limit the OIG's access to the categories of information the FBI maintains it must review before providing records to the OIG. For this reason, we are reporting this matter to the Appropriations Committees in conformity with Section 218.
We'll see if the the FBI suddenly becomes a bit more helpful now that Horowitz has made a move for its wallet. But once again, this sort of activity completely undermines the arguments of those defending these agencies by pointing to the "rigorous oversight" supposedly keeping domestic surveillance in check and abuses of power to a minimum.

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Posted on Techdirt - 26 February 2015 @ 9:00pm

Minnesota Legislators, Law Enforcement Trying To Strip The 'Public Accountability' Out Of State's Body Camera Program

from the one-way-surveillance-and-zero-accountability dept

More cities and states are getting behind the idea that outfitting their law enforcement officers with body cameras will result in better policing and more accountability. Unfortunately, many of them then follow this moment of clarity by gutting the "accountability" part of the programs.

Los Angeles law enforcement agencies will only turn over camera footage if it's part of a criminal or civil suit. Florida legislators are pushing for additional exceptions in the state's open records laws specifically for body camera footage and specifically at the request of the state's police union.

Minnesota seems to be taking the same route. The state wants its law enforcement officers to wear cameras but some legislators don't feel the public should have access to the footage. A bill supported by the state's law enforcement aims to keep as many recordings out of the public's hands as possible.

The bill states:

[A]udio and video data captured by a portable video recording system that is not part of an active or inactive criminal investigation must be destroyed within 90 days of the date the data were captured, unless the data subject, or any peace officer identifiable by the data, submits a written request to the law enforcement agency to retain the data for possible use in a future proceeding related to the circumstances under which the data were originally collected. Any law enforcement agency that receives a request to retain data shall retain it for a reasonable time, based upon the likelihood of its future use and the agency's policies for retention. Peace officers who are identifiable by portable video recording system data shall have unrestricted access to the data while it is retained and must be permitted to make copies.
It seems reasonable... until you realize what it's allowing law enforcement agencies to do. Anything retained by these agencies will only be accessible to civilians in the recording, and then only by request. Alleged misconduct that is cleared by law enforcement oversight will move affected recordings into the "destroy" pile, which means agencies can start deleting potentially damning footage almost immediately, provided there are no current requests for the recordings.

The bill also exempts recordings from state public records laws by deeming nearly all recordings "nonpublic" by default.

Except for data classified as active criminal investigative data pursuant to subdivision 7, portable video recording system data is private data on individuals or nonpublic data at all times. Notwithstanding subdivision 7, portable video recording system data that are part of an inactive investigation remain classified as provided in this subdivision.

Subdivision 7 pertains to "criminal investigative data" -- which is also "nonpublic" and "private."

On the other hand, peace officers will have unrestricted access to any footage they appear in. This open-ended access is the sort of thing that can lead to tampering and deletion. Any officer should, at best, have controlled access to recordings involving them if the recording system is going to maintain any sort of integrity. Anything else is completely irresponsible.

If the bill goes forward, the body cameras willed be largely robbed of their deterrent effect. By removing the general public from the information flow, the cameras will no longer be tools of police accountability, but rather just another surveillance option for peace officers. The cameras basically become "one way" collections, wholly controlled by the officers who generate the recordings.

Those representing the law enforcement side are defending this bill by presuming to speak for the public they don't want to be accountable to...
Dennis Flaherty, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, said public access to body camera footage "really serves no public purpose."
… because it might make things a little tougher for peace officers:
Flaherty and other law enforcement representatives expressed concern about what wide public access would mean -- both for exposing citizens' private lives and, in their minds, spurring more complaints against officers.
"Complaints against officers" is exactly what's spurring so many states and cities to outfit their cops with cameras. Flaherty conveniently forgets that body camera footage can also exonerate wrongly-accused officers in his haste to portray body cams as somehow intrusive to public officers.

Video works both ways… theoretically. Public access is essential if the camera programs are going to have any chance at reducing complaints and misconduct. Drastically limiting the number of people who can access recordings makes it highly unlikely the goals will be met. The bill creates a cover system for abuse and allows for full narrative control by law enforcement agencies. And this is coming from a state where law enforcement already expects the public to perform its surveillance for it and turn over video recordings captured in private businesses whenever a cop asks for it.

That's not accountability. That's nothing more than a bunch of government agencies attempting to dodge their responsibilities to the public they're supposed to be serving.

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Posted on Techdirt - 26 February 2015 @ 2:29pm

Senator Asks FCC To Explain Its Involvement In The Proliferation Of Stingray Devices

from the let-the-finger-pointing-begin! dept

Despite the feds' best efforts to keep IMSI catchers (Stingray devices, colloquially and almost certainly to the dismay of manufacturer Harris Corporation, as they head to becoming the kleenex of surveillance tech) a secret, there's still enough information leaking out around the edges of the FBI's non-disclosure agreements to provoke public discussion.

The discussion appears to have reached the top of the food chain. Sen. Bill Nelson -- following the lead of Senators Leahy and Grassley -- has sent a letter to FCC chairman Tom Wheeler asking the following:

[image credit: Julian Sanchez]
Dear Chairman Wheeler:

On Feb. 23, The Washington Post published a front-page article “Secrecy around Police Surveillance Equipment Proves a Case’s Undoing.” That article indicated that the Tallahassee Police Department and other law enforcement agencies around the country have been using a device called the StingRay to collect cell phone call information.

That article and previous others concerning the device reveal the StingRay was certified for use by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), contingent upon the conditions that StingRay’s manufacturer sell these devices solely to federal, state, and local public safety and law enforcement; and that state and local law enforcement agencies must coordinate in advance with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) before acquiring or using this equipment. According to the article, these devices now have been purchased by 48 law enforcement agencies in 20 states and the District of Columbia and used in hundreds of cases.
Yep, the devices are pretty much everywhere and no one wants to talk about them. When the US Marshals Service isn't stepping in to physically remove Stingray-related documents, local law enforcement agencies are disguising their use of these devices behind vague warrants and subpoenas.

What Sen. Nelson wants to know is what the FCC knows about Stingrays.
What information the FCC may have had about the rationale behind the restrictions placed on the certification of the StingRay, and whether similar restrictions have been put in place for other devices;

Whether the FCC inquired about what oversight may be in place to make sure that use of the devices complied with the manufacturer’s representations to the FCC at the time of certification; and

A status report on the activities of the “task force” you previously formed to look at questions surrounding the use of the StingRay and similar devices.
What we DO know so far about the interplay of Harris, the FBI and the FCC is that the first two parties have been less than forthright with the third. Harris managed to push its devices past the FCC by implying they would only be used in emergencies -- even though it was already clear at the point it made that statement that law enforcement agencies were frequently deploying them in non-emergency situations.

The FBI has performed its own obfuscation, implying in a letter to law enforcement agencies that the FCC required the signing off a non-disclosure agreement with the FBI. The FCC has since denied this, and obtained documents indicate it's the FBI that wants to control the flow of information regarding Stingrays, not the other way around.

I imagine the FCC would be compliant with this request, considering its past relationship with the FBI and Harris. But it can expect to run into significant resistance from the DOJ, which still believes that the long-exposed technology should still be afforded NSA-level secrecy -- especially when answers to Sen. Nelson's questions will likely expose its less-than-honest dealings with the FCC.

Sen. Nelson deserves some extra praise for being willing to put himself in an awkward situation. As the ACLU's Chris Soghoian notes, the senator has picked a very public fight with his second biggest campaign contributor.

Somebody needs to provide some answers and, while it's really the FBI that should be talking at this point, the FCC's take on this -- and its dealings with the FBI -- should be enlightening. The FBI's insistence on secrecy is not only screwing defendants during the discovery process, but it's also harming local law enforcement itself, which has shown an alarming willingness to drop cases/charges rather than reveal the use of Stingray devices.

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Posted on Techdirt - 26 February 2015 @ 11:38am

Evidence Copy Of 'CitizenFour' Needs To Be 'Locked Up' Claims Plaintiff Suing Snowden, Filmmakers For Billions

from the is-there-someone-less-crazy-I-could-speak-to? dept

The billion-dollar lawsuit against the producers of the Edward Snowden documentary CitizenFour rolls on, gradually unraveling as it does. Since we last covered the story (where the United States of America was added as an involuntary plaintiff -- a plaintiff since forcibly removed by the court), a lot has happened. For one, CitizenFour won an Oscar for Best Documentary, something that can't be sitting too well with Horace Edwards and his legal representation, which sought to have the film removed from consideration during the early days of this lawsuit.

The film has also been put into limited release and is streaming on HBO GO -- something that makes the following developments even crazier than they would be without these key details. Over at Vice, Jason Koebler has compiled a timeline of Edwards' (and his lawyer, Jean Lamfers') descent into paranoiac craziness.

Around January 23rd, Lamfers requests that a copy of the film not be allowed to be entered as evidence, what with it being full of highly-sensitive documents, espionage and whatever. She asserts that the movie contains so much classified info that it should only be reviewed in camera.

Then, no hell at all breaks loose, although in Lamfers' and Edwards' eyes, the espionapocalypse is nigh.

Poitras and her attorney deliver a copy of the film to the Lamfers. She does not take it well.

"I said I did not want to take possession of it. This was because of my understanding the film contains classified information based on my having seen the film. I received no response to [my] request from defendants' counsel [to bar the film from being entered as evidence in court]," Lamfers wrote in an email sent to the judge presiding over the suit. "To the contrary defendant's counsel delivered a copy of the DVD to my office (which remains unopened and under lock and key)."
That time when the normal process of discovery became a cheap knockoff of a le Carré novel.

From this point on, it's a long but fast slide downhill into amateur cloak-and-dagger awkwardness.

Two DVDs and a transcript of the film are entered as evidence because this is how that process works. Lamfers immediately files a motion asking for these to be sealed. The requested injunction would have no effect on the public release of the film, as the judge notes.
"Given the inherently public nature of this film, the Court can discern absolutely no interest that could justify sealing this exhibit. Moreover, even if this DVD contained some sort of confidential information for which Plaintiff had an interest in preventing public disclosure, it has already been publicly filed…"
[Side note: For reasons only comprehensible to Cryptome, a copy of the movie is being made available at the site, apparently under the mistaken belief that publicly-filed evidence automatically enters into the public domain. This perhaps-willful misunderstanding of both the court system and copyright law may be at least partially due to Cryptome's ongoing animosity towards anyone involved with the Snowden leaks for their refusal to make every single document Snowden gave them available in one massive dump -- and without redactions.]

Undeterred by the judge's logic, Lamfers proceeds to pester the court with "emergency" phone calls in hopes of sealing the Very Dangerous DVD. The judge reminds Lamfers that there are certain ways these things are handled during court proceedings and making "emergency" phone calls isn't one of them. Lamfers reads this rebuking email and decides the judge is suggesting she pester the court with "emergency" emails.
Lamfers emails the judge, at 12:46 AM local time (according to the court record), chastising the court for endangering national security and not immediately responding to her call.

"This situation has placed the plaintiff in an untenable position regarding avoiding irreparable harm and obtaining appropriate relief sought on a serious issue in a timely manner," she wrote. "The denial of a sealing motion has furthered the irreparable harm and relief necessary to address such harm, among other things, by the continuing injury through repetition of classified, stolen information that reaches a broader constituency of extremists with each showing."
Lamfers follows this up with a filed motion stating that the DVDs and transcript should be locked up under the legal precedent of "better safe than sorry." (No, I am not making this up. If I was, it would be more credible.)

Apparently further phone calls from Lamfers ensued, because the court is forced to formally -- via a court order -- tell her to knock it off.
Plaintiffs counsel has been instructed that the Court prefers informal communications with the Court be made by e-mail, with copy to the opposing counsel. In the Court's experience, such informal communications are rarely necessary and are typically limited to coordinating hearing dates after the court has determined a hearing is necessary, or to address routine, procedural questions. The does not and will not entertain requests for relief in this manner and the Plaintiff shall refrain from this practice going forward.
Well, we'll see if that works. Nothing else has so far. The docket shows things have remained eerily quiet over the past several days, but there's no telling how many phone calls and emails have made their way to Judge Julie Robinson's court in the meantime.

Of course, the lawsuit doesn't hinge on the misguided actions of the plaintiff and his counsel but on the actual merits of the case. However, even if Edwards' suit has its legal merits, he and his counsel appear to be the worst people to argue them.

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Posted on Techdirt - 26 February 2015 @ 8:06am

Despite Losing Money Year After Year, States Still Wondering How They Can Hand Out BIGGER Subsidies To Hollywood

from the this-taxpayer-money-is-burning-a-hole-in-my-common-sense dept

Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me annually and let me get my checkbook! Losses continue to mount, but some very resilient states are still willing to throw more taxpayer money at the film industry. Michigan -- a state that seems to be able to generate at least one fiscal horror story per year -- is one of the nation's most consistent losers. Two years ago, it bet the state pension fund on film-related subsidies… and lost. When the "investment" failed to generate a return, nearly $2 million was removed from the already-underfunded retirement pool. One small town pinned its hopes and dreams on a film project that promised 3,000 new jobs but instead fell apart, dragging the town towards insolvency.

Michigan has made some moves in the right direction after being burned so often by Hollywood and its fleeting, mercenary "interest" in its state. It paid out nearly $100 million in subsidies in 2011, but that number has dropped to $38 million for the coming year. Michigan House Minority leader Tim Greimel is pushing to bring that back up to $50 million, claiming that the program has been a great job creator -- an assertion that couldn't be farther from the truth.

The state has funnelled $500 million in public funds to its fledgling film industry since 2008, and has almost nothing to show for it. While some jobs were created—temporary production crews, mostly—those were offset by the losses to the sectors of the economy that had to finance the film subsidy (i.e. Economics 101).
In fact, over the past 15 years, job creation has remained almost flat. According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, there were 1,537 in-state jobs in the film industry in 2001. As of 2013, there were 1,564. And in that particular year, the subsidized industry didn't create a single job.
This boondoggle currently costs Michigan taxpayers $50 million a year and even the state’s own economic development agency (MEDC) reported this costly subsidy failed in 2013 to create one permanent job,” said Tricia Kinley, senior director of tax and regulatory reform at the chamber, in an press release.
A study released in 2012 showed that for every Michigan dollar spent on subsidies, the film industry only generated $0.11 of in-state revenue. And yet, politicians like Greimel are still insisting the best way to make money is to spend money -- year after year after year.

The same issue is under discussion in Pennsylvania, another state suffering from budget overruns and the odd desire to throw away the better part of every subsidy dollar. Despite a $2.3 billion deficit, some legislators are thinking of increasing the state's film subsidies.
Senate Bill 218, introduced by state Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Allegheny, would raise the cap to $125 million. It’s now $60 million a year.

Senate Bill 219, also by Fontana, would allow for “rollover” of tax credits approved for a project but not ultimately awarded.
To push for these bills in the face of some heightened resistance, Fontana is trotting out some very suspicious numbers. The Department of Community and Economic Development -- an entity that sounds neutral but in reality administrates the film subsidies -- claims this handout has generated thousands of jobs and billions in revenue.
Since the program’s inception, nearly $433.5 million in film production tax credits have been approved/awarded to film production companies under the program. These companies, in turn, have directly injected close to $1.8 billion into PA’s economy; generated an estimated $3.2 billion in total economic activity; and supported an estimated 21,700 jobs (based on 2014 IMPLAN multipliers).
There are big problems with the Department's fuzzy math, as Rachel Martin at points out. For one, it grabs unfinished and pending projects and mixes them in with completed projects to up the totals for both the number of jobs and the amount of money generated. Looking at the state's financial statements reveals something completely different.
[F]rom fiscal 2007 to 2013, only $55 million in credits were awarded and 2,700 jobs were created.
A more sobering assessment put together by the state's Independent Fiscal Office takes a lot of the irrational exuberance out of the Department's fluffed numbers. There's no "anything's possible" math to be found here. The report takes a very long and detailed look at the fiscal performance of the state's film subsidies and finds that -- much like other states -- handing out money to Hollywood doesn't make it rain locally.
In terms of budgetary return, a 2013 report by the state Independent Fiscal Office, “Uncapping the Film Production Tax Credit: a Fiscal and Economic Analysis,” found the state got a return of 14 cents on the dollar for tax credits, from state taxes generated by the program.
This pitiable return rate remains completely unchanged from the conclusions drawn by the Tax Foundation in 2010. Pennsylvania's film subsidies hand out dollar bills to film producers and then follow along behind them to catch any change that might fall out of their pockets. It's easy to sell subsidies to legislators, who are often more interested in the reflected glory of Hollywood projects than in safeguarding the funds they've been entrusted with.

The report also debunks the notion that film subsidies are job creators, much less wealth generators.
Wages constitute more than 60 percent of production expenses receiving credit under the FPTC, and the economic effects of the FPTC depend heavily on the amount of credit-eligible earnings that leave the state. Nonresidents spend only a small share of their earnings in the state while working on a production, thus limiting the impact on the state economy… According to data analyzed by the IFO, approximately 70 percent of production-related wages were paid to nonresidents.
The bottom line, according to the IFO?
The net, fully phased-in fiscal impact for the additional credits authorized in FY 2013-14 is estimated to be -$46.5 million at the lower end… and -$93.1 million at the higher end of the range.
Of course, if Pennsylvania decides to limit or dump its subsidies, it will soon discover that all the money it spent in the past has purchased nothing in the way of loyalty.
As an example of the mobility and fickleness of the industry, consider the show “Banshee.” It filmed its first three seasons in North Carolina, but packed up after that state eliminated its tax credit program and replaced it with a much smaller grant program.

The show will now film in Pittsburgh, which has a built-in irony, given that the show’s setting has always been the fictional Banshee, Pennsylvania.
Given the deficit the state is facing, you'd think legislators would be more than happy to drop the subsidy, if only to prevent the leakage of another $50-90 million. But the glamour of show business -- even if only admired from afar -- is tough to resist. It's easy to mistake the busy milling around of temp workers and nonresident stars for created jobs and positive economic impact. Throwing away 9/10ths of every dollar simply doesn't make sense, especially in a state already severely overdrawn. But nothing involving both Hollywood and accounting ever adds up.

The math is so severely screwed up that the original home of the stars is upping its subsidy ante in hopes of luring Hollywood back to Hollywood.
Between 2004 and 2012, the California entertainment industry lost 16,137 film production jobs. During that same period the state of New York increased its entertainment employment by 25 percent. The Milken Institute attributes this shift in employment to the billions of dollars in robust incentives from competitive states like New York, New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana.
If you can keep all of the money in one place, a state might turn a profit. But with productions scattered all over the US, California will just be another state throwing money at fickle, mostly uninterested productions. A short-term "bribe" never buys loyalty, especially not in the Land of 1,000 Backstabbings. The film industry is still very cutthroat and California's decades-long slide into legislative absurdity has made movie-making within its heavily-taxed confines very unattractive. (And then there's the labor stranglehold, but we'll let that go. For now...) The solution? More taxes! But this time mostly from the little people!
The legislation will increase the annual allocation of state tax credits to $330 million per year, more than triple the current amount, starting with fiscal year 2015-16 and lasting for five years. [...]The legislation also provides extra incentives — beyond the current 20% — for visual effects and music scoring, as well as to producers who shoot in parts of the state outside of the Los Angeles region.
The industry is -- and has been for years at this point -- pay-to-play. Unfortunately, it's the states' long-term residents who are paying the most, and reaping none of the benefits.

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Posted on Techdirt - 26 February 2015 @ 6:06am

Here's 140 Fully-Redacted Pages Explaining How Much Snowden's Leaks Have Harmed The Nation's Security

from the FOIA:-Freedom-Of-Ink-Act dept

If the US intelligence committee is concerned about the status of "hearts and minds" in its ongoing NSA v. Snowden battle, it won't be winning anyone over with its latest response to a FOIA request.

Various representatives of the intelligence community have asserted (sometimes repeatedly) that Snowden's leaks have caused irreparable harm to intelligence-gathering efforts and placed the nation in "grave danger." But when given the chance to show the public how much damage has been done, it declares everything on the subject too sensitive to release. EVERYTHING.

Here's the Defense Intelligence Agency's appraisal of the current situation, as released to Vice News' Jason Leopold.

On the subject of compromised information:

How about intelligence sharing and cooperation?

At least we know that -- as of January 2014 -- there were four (4) "talking points."

Every single assessment, dating back to September 2013, is fully redacted. How does that help communicate the DIA's concerns about Snowden's leaks to the general public? How does that persuade anyone about the alleged severity of the situation?

From what's not on display here, it's safe to say the general public's perception of the American intelligence apparatus doesn't matter. Those who do matter are those already on the NSA's side, and then only those with the power to guide legislation towards favorable ends. It's safe to say that there are people in Washington DC who have seen at least a portion of these reports, but that small group contains no members of the general public.

A fully-redacted report may seem logical in the eyes of the intelligence community, which despite multiple leakers, still pretends its secrets will always be secret. Page after page of redaction shows it's really not interested in the transparency it keeps promising will make everything better. It doesn't want to give the public any more information than it already has and this mess of whiteout and black ink clearly and loudly states that it believes the public has no stake in the ongoing debate over mass surveillance.

It's a wordless insult, delivered under the pretense of "national security."

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Posted on Techdirt - 26 February 2015 @ 1:03am

Mandatory Sentencing Guidelines Have Nothing To Do With 'Justice'

from the throwing-people-away dept

One of the many problems with America's criminal justice system is the use of federally-mandated sentencing guidelines. These policies take a one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing, stripping away the chance of any leniency being applied by the presiding judge. The guidelines demand ridiculously lengthy prison terms for certain crimes -- the foremost being anything drug-related. Following close behind it are mandatory sentences for sexual offenses. What's meant to act as an effective deterrent has instead become an easy way to lock up people for far longer than their criminal activity would warrant.

One judge found out just how out of touch federal sentencing guidelines are when he did something out of the ordinary: he asked the jury's opinion. (via Simple Justice)

The crime was one of the most universally-loathed: the collection and distribution of child porn. And the perpetrator was completely unsympathetic.

When government agents used cutting-edge software to hack into the hard drive of Ryan Collins’s computer, they found more than 1,500 sexually-explicit images of children, some of whom were younger than twelve. The agents also discovered file-sharing programs, indicating that Collins may have been distributing the pornography online.

Collins was unrepentant, even after a jury in Cleveland, Ohio convicted him of possessing, receiving, and distributing child pornography. The prosecutors sought the statutory maximum sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment, and the federal sentencing guidelines would have allowed a term of as long as 27 years.
Even when faced with someone as apparently damnable as Ryan Collins, the jury's suggested sentence was lower than the sentencing guidelines called for. Far lower.
Before dismissing the jury, [Judge Gwin] asked each member what they thought would be an appropriate sentence for someone who had downloaded child pornography. According to Gwin, the average of the sentences they recommended was only 14 months.
This admittedly-small sampling shows that mandatory sentencing guidelines do not match up -- at all -- with what the public believes to be fair and just. These guidelines are supposedly written on behalf of the general public, with Congress and other government bodies acting to "protect" us from drug dealers, sex offenders, hackers, etc. by locking them away for extended periods of time. But it appears the public may still feel "protected" without putting child porn enthusiasts behind bars for a quarter of a century.

And it's not just Judge Gwin's peculiar query -- although he appears to be the first to make this line of questioning public. Other judges have heard similar answers from jury members, behind the scenes.

Iowa district court judge Mark W. Bennett:
"Every time I ever went back in the jury room and asked the jurors to write down what they thought would be an appropriate sentence -- every time – even here, in one of the most conservative parts of Iowa, where we haven't had a 'not guilty' verdict in seven or eight years – they would recommend a sentence way below the guidelines sentence."
Why wouldn't judges ask the jury's opinion on sentencing? After all, it's supposedly composed of the accused's "peers." They're entrusted with determining guilt or innocence, but somehow can't be trusted to offer up a worthwhile opinion as to the "reasonableness" of the sentence recommended by Congress? Those intimately familiar with the details of the case should at least be trusted to give their view on the ensuing sentence. Their view is no less informed than that of their representatives, who mostly deal with criminals and the criminal justice system in the abstract -- and are often far more inclined to appease the prosecutorial half of the equation than appear to be "soft on crime."

Judge Gwin's informal jury straw poll shows that the word "justice" -- in the context of mandatory sentencing guidelines -- is nothing more than a prosecutorial term of art, completely removed from the actual definition of the word.
All those people being sentenced to decades in prison under the pretense that it’s what society wants and needs is revealed, as Judge Bennett says, as baloney. While the Sentencing Commission won’t heed the defense lawyer perspective, perhaps a few federal judges making this point clear might carry sufficient weight to end the needless destruction of a life or two under the draconian guidelines. For the rest, maybe they will start taking the admonition of § 3553(a), “sufficient, but not greater than necessary.” seriously.
As for Judge Gwin, he did what he could in response to this gaping disparity by sentencing Collins to the minimum allowed under the guidelines -- five years, or roughly four years longer than the jury felt was reasonable or just. The prosecution had recommended the maximum -- 27 years -- a number so far removed from the public's sense of justice it may as well have been a number pulled out of thin air by a government lawyer who had stumbled into the wrong courtroom.

We're imprisoning people at an alarming rate in this country, and the nation's unofficial hobby shows no sign of slowing. And we're doing it for far longer than the public itself feels is necessary. We're destroying lives by taking criminals out of circulation for decades at a time, based on little more than Congressional appeasement of professional moral panickers and the law enforcement officials who love them. The fact that so many of our prisons are now run by private corporations makes the situation worse, because nothing pays better -- or more consistently -- than cell after cell of long-term "tenants."

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Posted on Techdirt - 25 February 2015 @ 2:43pm

Study After Study Shows The DHS Has An Intense Morale Problem That Can Apparently Only Be Solved By Study After Study

from the 'we've-tried-nothing-and-we're-all-out-of-ideas!' dept

Guess which national agency's feelings hurt the most?

The 2014 Best Places To Work in the Federal Government Survey, published by Stier’s group, ranked DHS dead last among large agencies.


Many DHS employees have said in the annual government “viewpoint” survey of federal employees that their senior leaders are ineffective; that the department discourages innovation, and that promotions and raises are not based on merit. Others have described in interviews how a stifling bureaucracy and relentless congressional criticism makes DHS an exhausting, even infuriating, place to work.
Beyond the problems listed here, there are a great many reasons why it might suck to work for the DHS. To begin with, the agency is actually a Frankensteinian monstrosity consisting of 22 agencies, all with their own ideas on how to run things and nearly all of them with their own sets of problems.

The DHS is in the (relatively) newly-minted business of securing the homeland against all comers -- mostly terrorists of the foreign and domestic varieties. Whether it's done out of paranoia or just the overwhelming need to look busy every time the national budget nears a vote, the DHS has gone overboard in its assessments of potential threats. The shorter of the two lists it has compiled by this point would be titled "Not Terrorists." Over the years, the DHS has conjectured that terrorists are hiding in food trucks, using hotel side entrances, exercising their First Amendment rights, possibly years away from graduating high school… etc.

The DHS also presides over the TSA, a security agency in name only that seems mostly interested in patting down mastectomy patients, running their brusquely officious hands over pre-teens, dumping breast milk and other "explosives precursors" into nearby garbage cans and feeling completely threatened by words printed in foreign languages.

It also keeps an eye on the CBP, which can't seem to stop shooting unarmed people, follow its own guidelines on vehicle searches, and operates a fleet of shiny, expensive and nearly useless drones.

Then there's ICE (with its own morale problems), the IP-focused Keystone Kops whose antics -- including yanking websites away from owners without a word of explanation and returning them years later without an apology, raiding lingerie shops for dangerously unlicensed panties, and struggling to come up with excuses for denying FOIA fee waiver requests -- are only outpaced by the imaginary rights vendettas of the City of London police.

That would be enough to depress anyone, especially the good employees who started out with ideals and enthusiasm but are now forced to answer question after question after question about why working for the nation's largest group of unhinged conspiracy theorists is a bit of a downer. The DHS has dumped a lot of money into divining the sources of its employees' unhappiness. But it seems more interested in spending money than fixing the problems.
The first study cost about $1 million. When it was finished, it was put in a drawer. The next one cost less but duplicated the first. It also ended up in a drawer.

So last year, still stumped about why the employees charged with safeguarding Americans are so unhappy, the department commissioned two more studies.
Yes, if anything's going to fix morale, it's going to be periodic questioning of employees who know their last several answers went completely ignored. Will the latest studies be titled "NO REALLY GUYS THIS TIME WE'RE LISTENING?"

To hear people like new DHS head Jeh Johnson tell it, the agency has never been more interested in improving morale.
Johnson and Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas have “personally committed themselves to improving the morale and workforce satisfaction across the Department of Homeland Security,” said Ginette Magana, a DHS spokeswoman. “They are directly engaging with employees, listening to their concerns, working diligently to improve employee recognition and training, and are focused on strengthening the skills and abilities of every employee. She said the studies “comprise a first step in a comprehensive process dedicated to tangible results.”
Yeah, but what about all the other "first steps" currently tucked away in drawers, presumably still in mint condition? How many "first steps" and empty promises are DHS employees expected to suffer through before they finally wander away from the metaphoric disinterested, lying spouse they call an employer? "No, really. This time will be different, honey. I SWEAR."

As it stands now, DHS employees pretty much have to stick guns in their mouths before someone will start paying attention to their morale issues.
Three years ago, officials in the department’s office of health affairs, which provides expertise on national security medical issues, began to wonder about the health of one of their own programs. In response to low scores on the viewpoint survey, officials had set up a program, DHSTogether, aimed at making DHS “one of the best places to work in the Federal government.”
The DHS spent over a million dollars on yet another study to find out why this study-prompted "Togetherness" wasn't working. The National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine arrived at this alarming conclusion.
The report, released in September 2013, concluded that DHSTogether had been starved of money and support from DHS leaders and devolved into little more than an ineffective suicide prevention program.
The DHS apparently didn't feel like talking anyone down, so it buried the report on the report as well.

And the vicious cycle of studies will continue. On top of the two recently-commissioned studies, the agency plans to add a "follow-up" survey to its annual "viewpoint survey," and plans to follow up government contractor ICF's morale study with yet another study once that one's completed.

Clearly, bureaucracy -- especially the combined bureaucracy of 22 agencies forced by terrorists knee-jerk lawmaking to live together under one superagency's roof -- generates more questions than answers. And clearly, in the DHS's case, the questions are the only part that matters.

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Posted on Techdirt - 24 February 2015 @ 8:54pm

Virginia Lawmakers Attempting To Reform State's Asset Forfeiture Debacle By Pushing For A Conviction Requirement

from the but-more-work-is-still-needed dept

The Institute for Justice's 2010 report "Policing for Profit" listed Virginia as one of the worst five states in the nation in terms of forfeiture abuse. Pushing the state towards its Bottom Five finish was this perverted incentive: 100% of the proceeds from civil asset forfeiture were retained by the law enforcement agency performing the seizure. And, like a majority of states, Virginia also perverted the justice system, deeming the property "guilty" and transferring the burden of proof to those whose assets were seized.

Now that civil asset forfeiture has gone mainstream, receiving coverage from major press outlets, legislators are having a harder time ignoring opponents of these "legalized theft" programs. In response, Virginia's lawmakers are trying to drag the state out of its forfeiture morass.

Last week the Virginia House of Delegates overwhelmingly approved a bill that would effectively raise the burden of proof for civil forfeitures by forcing the government to return seized property unless it can obtain a criminal conviction. The bill, introduced by Del. Mark Cole (R-Spotsylvania) and Del. Scott Surovell (D-Mount Vernon), passed by a vote of 92 to 6 and is now being considered by the state Senate.
This fixes one major issue with many civil asset forfeiture programs. Virginia's laws only demanded a "preponderance of the evidence," something that sounds like a lot but in reality is far lower than establishing guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt." If the latter edges towards a theoretical 75% assurance of guilt, the percentage for asset forfeiture approaches a coin flip: 51%. Now, there needs to be a conviction before the agency can keep the seized property.

But there are also problems left unaddressed by this proposal.
That conviction does not have to involve the owner, however. Someone who uses an asset (a car or a home, say) in connection with a crime could be convicted, whereupon the asset would be forfeited, even if it belonged to someone else. Once a "substantial connection" between an asset and a crime is established, Virginia puts the burden on innocent owners to prove their innocence, and this bill does not change that.
The law also doesn't change the allocation of seized funds. 100% is still awarded to the agency performing the seizure with 10% of that allocated for "promoting law enforcement activities." The law also leaves the DOJ loophole open, allowing agencies to route seizures through the feds in order to dodge restrictions placed on them by local laws.

The introduction of a criminal conviction requirement should be the minimum standard any agency with these powers should have to meet. Without it, you get the sort of abuse perpetrated by Virginia's law enforcement, which has seized nearly $3 million/year in vehicles for the last 18 years and approximately $5 million in cash/year over the last decade. Contrary to the oft-stated defense that these programs are necessary to cripple powerful drug lords and multimillion dollar fraudsters, more than half the cash seized from 2001-2006 fell in the $614-1,288 range and the average worth of vehicles seized has hovered at about $6,000.

Law enforcement agencies won't be happy with the new requirement, as it's certain to result in a lower take. According to Institute of Justice statistics, the total amount seized by the state's agencies spiked in 2007, jumping from about $4 million a year to over $25 million a year. And there's been no sign of slowdown since.

It's not a complete fix, but it does at least attack the biggest problem inherent to these programs: the lack of a conviction requirement. Somehow, proponents of asset forfeiture feel there's still some unshattered logic remaining when they contradictorily deem certain property guilty, but somehow can't amass enough evidence to charge its former owners with anything.

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