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Posted on Techdirt - 15 February 2019 @ 9:20am

Georgia Gov't Employee Somehow Manages To Get Criminally Charged For Violating Public Records Laws

from the protections-for-records-requesters-no-longer-listed-as-'NIB' dept

In an event rarer than the stripping of qualified immunity from a police officer, a public official is being criminally charged for violating open records laws.

The press secretary for former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has been cited for allegedly violating the Georgia Open Records Act in the first-ever criminal complaint filed in connection with the law, the state attorney general’s office announced Monday.

Jenna Garland, 34, the press secretary during Reed’s second term, is accused of ordering a subordinate in the city’s watershed department in March 2017 to delay handing over public records that contained information damaging to Reed and other city officials. The records were requested by Channel 2 Action News.

Both misdemeanor charges are potentially worth $1,000 in fines and a year in jail, but we're probably not going to see anyone locked up for screwing the public. We've only seen one other case like this in the history of Techdirt, and there's nothing indicating any of the politicians indicted for public records law violations have been jailed for breaking the law. In fact, one felt so unthreatened by the charges, she filed for re-election while still under indictment.

In this case, a pair of records requests led to the criminal charges. The first request was for water billing records, filed by journalists at Channel 2. The second request -- filed by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution(AJC) and Channel 2 -- sought communications discussing the water billing records request. The second request was a goldmine for journalists and the impetus for criminal charges against Jenna Garland.

In March 2018, the AJC and Channel 2 published text messages Garland sent a year earlier to then-watershed spokeswoman Lillian Govus.

[...]

In the messages, Garland instructed Govus to “drag this out,” “be as unhelpful as possible” and to “provide the information in the most confusing format available.”

Garland later instructed Govus to “hold all” records until a Channel 2 producer contacted Govus for an update.

The records originally sought showed large amounts owed to the city's water department by a number of city politicians, including a councilwoman attempting to run for mayor. Those records were finally released to Channel 2 after it threatened to sue the agency.

There may be more charges coming, based on what's been seen in the text messages AJC obtained. Garland didn't work alone to withhold requested documents and quite possibly was following instructions from those above her when she started telling city employees to violate open records law.

This sort of thing should be happening more frequently, but it's difficult to convince prosecutors to go after fellow government employees. The laws themselves usually aren't much help, snaring only the most egregious violators. Still, it does show it's not impossible to punish government employees for violating open records laws, which should generate at least some minimal deterrent effect.

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Posted on Techdirt - 14 February 2019 @ 2:47pm

FBI's Internal Investigations Of Shootings By Agents Clears Agents 98% Of The Time

from the BONUSES-ALL-AROUND! dept

An agency that investigates itself will almost always clear itself. The FBI, which still allows interviews of suspects to be "memorialized" with pen-and-paper recollections by the interviewer, is allowed to handle its own internal investigations of deadly force deployment. Unsurprisingly, FBI agents are rarely found to have acted inappropriately.

New FBI data obtained exclusively by NBC News shows the bureau found fault with the actions of agents five times in 228 shooting incidents from 2011 to the present. Eighty-one were intentional shootings involving people or objects, 34 were intentional shootings of animals, and 113 were accidental discharges.

The large number of cleared incidents quite possibly includes this list of questionable shootings:

  • In August, an FBI agent was acquitted of federal criminal charges that he lied about firing his weapon in a 2016 standoff with right-wing extremists in Oregon. The FBI declined to comment on any disciplinary investigation.

  • In June, an FBI agent — off-duty but armed with a handgun — accidentally shot someone in a Denver nightclub after he did a backflip that dislodged his weapon. He pleaded guilty to third degree assault and was sentenced to two years probation. The FBI would not discuss his status at the bureau.

  • In 2016, an FBI agent shot a 31-year-old man during a military-style raid to serve a warrant on a different person. The FBI says the man was armed; his family, which has filed a wrongful death lawsuit, disputes that and adds that he was blind in one eye and disabled. The FBI declined to comment on the case.

  • In 2015, the FBI terminated an agent who fired his weapon from a second-story apartment in Queens, shooting an unarmed man as he tried to burglarize the agent's car on the street below.

It's impossible to say if any of these might be one of the five incidents the FBI found problematic. The agency refused to comment on any of these shootings when questioned by NBC.

Very little information can be obtained by those seeking to hold the FBI responsible for wounding them or killing their loved ones. Even as the FBI has tentatively encouraged other law enforcement agencies to be more proactive in releasing information about officer-involved shootings, it hasn't applied the same level of transparency to its internal investigations. What has been released is heavily-redacted, giving readers little to work with but a few raw numbers.

This is especially of concern to Junior Valladares, whose father was shot by an FBI agent during a hostage situation in Houston, Texas. His father was the hostage. According to the FBI, an agent poked a gun through a window to try to shoot the man holding Junior's father hostage. The gun was grabbed by someone in the room, resulting in the agent firing two shots into the room. One of those two bullets struck and killed Ulises Valladares, who was tied up on the couch.

The hostage was the only person in the room, and the FBI went on record as stating it was the hostage who grabbed the rifle. It seems like an unlikely thing for a bound hostage to do, but the FBI has stuck to this story. Houston police chief Art Acevedo -- who is dealing with the fallout from a botched raid himself -- stated at a news conference last fall he no longer believes the FBI's narrative. It's unclear what Acevedo has seen that has changed his mind, but at this same news conference he called out the FBI for allowing the investigation to drag on for months, denying Valladares' son any closure.

Law enforcement agencies have proven time and time again they can't be trusted to police themselves. The FBI is no exception.

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Posted on Techdirt - 14 February 2019 @ 10:40am

ICE Set Up A Fake College To Bust Immigrants For Trying To Legally Stay In The Country While They Earned Degrees

from the ridding-the-country-of-dangerous-degree-holders dept

We already know ICE can't find enough dangerous immigrants to satisfy President Trump's absurd fantasies of a nation overrun by foreign murderers, rapists, and terrorists. But it appears the agency has completely given up on its "worst of the worst" targeting. According to an unsealed indictment and recently-released ICE emails, the agency blew a lot of man hours and taxpayer money on rounding up [squints at court documents] immigrants attempting to further their educations.

The Department of Homeland Security set up a fake university in Farmington Hills to target foreign students who wanted to stay in the U.S. without proper authorization, according to federal indictments unsealed in Detroit on Wednesday.

Eight people were arrested and indicted in an immigration fraud case for conspiracy to commit visa fraud and harboring aliens for profit, said the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan Matthew Schneider.

Six of them were arrested in metro Detroit, one in Florida and another in Virginia. The students enrolled at the fake university with the intent to obtain jobs under a student visa program called CPT (Curricular Practical Training) that allows students to work in the U.S., said prosecutors.

This is ICE's take on the arrests. What actually happened here is something bordering on entrapment.

The students seeking to attend the fake university had expiring visas. They were allowed to stay in the US and work as long as they continued their education. As long as these students continued working towards approved degrees, they were allowed to stay in the country. A limited supply of H-1B visas means attending school or exiting the country for most of the immigrants involved.

The government portrays this as "staying in the US without proper authorization." But the university offered proper authorization under this immigration program. Rather than do nothing and sweep up students whose visas were expired, ICE decided to set up a bogus university as a honeypot for foreign students working against the clock to get their stays extended.

The emails obtained by the Detroit Free Press show an ugly, calculated move by ICE to both rob immigrants of their money and their chance to stay in the United States. The agency went so far as to obtain bogus accreditation from a national accreditation agency in order to better dupe unaware immigrants.

Here's a partial list of the deception ICE engaged in to round up foreign students.

Undercover investigators with the Department of Homeland Security registered the University of Farmington with the state of Michigan as a university using a fake name.

At the request of DHS, a national accreditation agency listed the University of Farmington as being accredited in order to help deceive prospective students.

The university was also placed by federal investigators on the website of ICE as an university approved by them under a government program for foreign students known as SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Program)

All of this led prospective students to believe they were dealing with a real university offering programs that would allow them to stay, study, and work in the US legally. In addition to taking $100 application fees from over 600 students, ICE also hoovered up an untold amount of tuition fees.

"I was told by the students, that the university reassured them that classes would be held and everything would be fine and that they are following the immigration laws," said Prashanthi Reddy, an attorney in New York City. "The students paid them the tuition fees and were trapped once they realized that classes were not being held, as some didn't have the money to transfer and pay tuition at another university."

Students were told by ICE's fake university they were complying with immigration laws by applying for continuing education. This was buttressed by the bogus accreditation obtained by the agency. Students thought they were taking the next step to extend their stays in the US -- all of it completely legal -- until it became apparent the fake university would never be holding classes or handing out degrees.

While there may have been a few people taking advantage of immigrants by either lying to them about their visa status or charging fees to route them into another university, a majority of those swept up in ICE's sting were following the law. If the government says you can stay and work in the country as long as you continue your education, students applying to ICE's bogus university were in full compliance. All told, 149 duped students were arrested, but only eight of them are actually facing charges for what's detailed in the indictment.

This is a horrific abuse of trust -- aided and abetted by a national accreditation agency. The government lied repeatedly to people trying to follow the law, took their money, and basically arrested them for failing to figure out it wasn't a real university.

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Posted on Free Speech - 13 February 2019 @ 12:14pm

Federal Judge Thinks The Best Fix For An Accidentally Unsealed Court Doc Is Prior Restraint

from the welcome-to-America,-your-honor dept

The Chicago Sun-Times dropped a bombshell on city residents late last month with an article detailing the FBI's secret recordings of an Illinois politician's shady business dealings.

The FBI secretly recorded Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan trying to get business for his private law firm from a developer brought to him by Ald. Danny Solis, who was weighing the developer’s request to build a hotel in Chinatown, according to a federal court affidavit obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.

The affidavit makes clear for the first time that the federal investigation that has snared powerful Chicago Ald. Edward M. Burke extends beyond City Hall and into the Illinois statehouse, examining politicians’ longstanding practice of merging personal and political business.

The FBI's affidavit connected the conversational dots for those reading the court documents.

An FBI agent alleges in the 120-page affidavit: “I understand Solis to mean that by hiring Madigan’s private firm, [the developer] would ensure that Solis and Madigan would take official action benefitting [the developer] in their capacity as public officials.”

Normally, there's be no story here (meaning here at Techdirt) since this appears to be nothing more than the corruption we've come to expect from Illinois politicians. It's a fine tradition dating back to the city's founding, but hardly in our wheelhouse.

This would have stayed outside our wheelhouse if not for the judge presiding over this case. No one other than the judge and the involved parties were meant to see the details of these secret recordings. The details are the juiciest parts, though: the FBI got Alderman Solis to wear a wire by leveraging his personal life, which was apparently filled with "massage parlors and Viagra."

The affidavit submitted by the FBI was supposed to be filed under seal. A clerical error left it exposed and unsealed on the PACER docket for an unknown amount of time. That's how the Chicago Sun-Times got its hands on it. Greg Hinz at Chicago Business has more details -- this time coming from the judge himself.

None of that sat well with Magistrate Judge Young Kim, who court records indicate has been presiding over the Solis matter.

According to my sources, Kim re-closed the affidavit and ordered the Sun-Times not to print what was in it, presumably on grounds that premature publicity could undermine what appears to be an extremely wide-ranging federal probe into City Hall that has been underway for four years or longer.

Here's where we come in, along with the First Amendment. Judge Kim likely knows his prior restraint is unconstitutional. It couldn't have escaped him that this is not the proper response to accidentally unsealed court documents. Unfortunately, he's not the only judge who thinks the First Amendment doesn't apply to the end result of court clerical errors. But Kim had advance notice from the prosecution side.

Knowledgeable sources also say that Kim’s order came despite sentiment within the U.S. attorney's office here that a ban on publication, known as prior restraint, would be on shaky legal ground and likely inconsistent with past U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the famed Pentagon Papers case and others.

Kim did it anyway, resulting in the US Press Freedom Tracker taking notice of this unconstitutional blip on its radar. Judge Kim's order blows right past Supreme Court precedent and attempts to do damage to the First Amendment protections the Chicago Sun-Times enjoys.

Not that any of Kim's courtroom bluster matters... at least not at this point. The Chicago Sun-Times published its article anyway using the source document the court system failed to keep sealed. And now Chicagoans know yet another of their politicians engaged in questionable -- if not illegal -- business dealings. Readers are likely unsurprised, but even so, there's a strong public interest in political corruption, which should easily outweigh anything Judge Kim might try to summon in support of his free speech blindside hit. It's apparent the US attorney's office won't be backing him up, so he's going to have to go it alone if he's going to take a run at contempt of court hearings. Good luck with that.

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Posted on Techdirt - 13 February 2019 @ 3:40am

Google, Apple Called Out For Hosting Saudi Government App That Allows Men To Track Their Spouses' Movements

from the not-a-good-look dept

Seems like this would be something that would go without saying: if you're an American tech company, don't willingly assist oppressive regimes in the oppression of their populace. Twitter is forever helping the Turkish government silence critics and journalists. Facebook has allowed governments to weaponize its moderation tools, quite possibly contributing to government-ordained killings.

Now, Ron Wyden is calling out both Apple and Google for making it easier for Saudi Arabian men to treat their spouses (and employees) like possessions, rather than people.

Apple and Google have been accused of helping to "enforce gender apartheid" in Saudi Arabia, by offering a sinister app which allows men to track women and stop them leaving the country.

Both Google Play and iTunes host Absher, a government web service which allows men to specify when and how women can cross Saudi borders, and to get close to real-time SMS updates when they travel.

There's really no reason either company should be hosting this app in their app stores. If Absher's creators want to distribute an app that prevents certain Saudi citizens from being treated as equals, they're free to host it on their own site. It's not like the developers don't have the clout to go it alone. The app is developed and supported by none other than the Saudi government.

This isn't the sort of thing American companies should be giving platform space to, even if it technically meets the inconsistent standards both companies apply to app submissions.

As critics have pointed out, both companies have policies against apps that "facilitate threats and harassment." Absher may have some benign functions built in (like paying parking tickets) but the overall point of the app is to allow Saudi men to dictate when and where their wives can travel, as well as be alerted to any movements suggesting their spouses are trying to escape the horrible abuses allowed by this country's laws. Threats and harassment are all but guaranteed, and that's without even delving into the app's ability to provide employers with 24-hour surveillance of their employees.

Seems like the easy decision would be to pull the app. What's the potential downside? An oppressive regime complaining about a slight dip in oppression?

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Posted on Techdirt - 12 February 2019 @ 10:45am

Minnesota Judges Spent Only Minutes Approving Warrants Sweeping Up Thousands Of Cellphone Users

from the redefining-bulwark dept

Tony Webster, writing for MPR News, has obtained court documents showing Minneapolis, Minnesota law enforcement agencies are deploying "reverse warrants" in hopes of tying suspects to crime scenes. A normal warrant targets a known object. Reverse warrants are loaded with unknowns -- an attempt to wrangle cell site location info into something that might lead police to a suspect. That's what these agencies are trying to do, but the approved warrants guarantee a sizable number of non-criminals will be swept up in the data haul.

Knowing the Silicon Valley giant held a trove of consumer mobile phone location data, investigators got a Hennepin County judge to sign a "reverse location" search warrant ordering Google to identify the locations of cellphones that had been near the crime scene in Eden Prairie, and near two food markets the victims owned in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The scope of the warrant was so expansive in time and geography that it had the potential to gather data on tens of thousands of Minnesotans.

This new brand of warrant was first spotted last spring. Later that year, it was confirmed the feds were also using reverse warrants. These warrants are becoming more common, urged on by a private company pitching investigative methods and tools to law enforcement agencies.

[Brooklyn Park Deputy Police Chief Mark] Bruley said detectives learned about the potential value of the practice and how to write the warrant applications at an August training seminar held by ZetX, an Arizona-based company that teaches police about cellphone investigations, and sells software called TRAX that generates legal documents and maps cellphone data to assist in analysis. The company holds trainings all across the country.

[...]

The week after detectives attended the ZetX training in the Twin Cities, they wrote up their first three reverse location search warrants. By the next month, they had a dozen, each ordering Google to turn over information on devices located in the vicinity of crimes.

The warrants [PDF] demand Google turn over a bunch of data on every phone that happened to wander into a geofenced area around the time a crime was committed.

This warrant is directed to Google LLC, headquartered at 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway, Mountain View, California, and applies to (1) GPS, WiFi, Bluetooth or cellular sourced location history data generated from devices that reported a location within the geographical region bounded by the following latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates, dates, and times ("Initial Search Parameters")...

[...]

For each location point recorded within the Initial Search Parameters, Google shall produce anonymized information specifying the corresponding unique device ID, timestamp, coordinates, display radius, and data source, if available (the "Anonymized List").

As Webster notes, the warrants likely don't give judges any idea how many people will be swept up in these data requests. The warrants contain GPS coordinates but no map of the area covered. It's unlikely a judge can visualize the area covered just by looking at four coordinates. Judges may be able to enter those points into Google Maps to get some idea how much area is covered, but it doesn't appear any of the judges approached did anything more than briefly browse the warrants before signing them.

Here's how long it took to approve one requested by the Brooklyn Park PD:

No map was provided in the application to illustrate the area or accuracy level to the judge. This warrant was also issued within about 10 minutes of the detective requesting it.

Things moved even faster for Edina investigators:

About four minutes after the detective signed the application — which included no map of the targeted area — the judge approved it.

Webster has provided the maps the police wouldn't, which illustrate exactly how big an area is being covered by these reverse warrants. (Click through for a larger version.)

Given the scope of the area covered and the imprecise nature of location data, each warrant has the potential to generate a ton of false positives -- people who happen to live, work, or travel through these busy areas. If a map had been provided, there's a good chance judges would have taken a little longer considering these requests.

Or not.

Of the 22 reverse location search warrants issued in Hennepin County, only three times did the warrant applications include map demonstrating the geographic area being targeted by the warrant. And yet, the time difference between an officer signing a warrant request, and a judge approving it, was sometimes just a few minutes.

There's not a lot of good news from the law enforcement perspective either. Most of the reverse warrants failed to generate possible suspects. They also failed to generate false positives either, so that's a (very limited) plus. But I don't think a lack of success will deter investigators from seeking these warrants. Reverse warrants allow officers to perform a virtual canvassing of the neighborhood for possible suspects without expending much in the way of time or manpower.

Google appears to be pushing back when requests are excessive. This is all well and good, but Google's a one-stop shop for law enforcement thanks to its expansive data harvesting over the years. The initial pushback should be coming from judges, not the private sector. When it's up to a data-hungry megacorp to provide the first layer of protection for cellphone users' privacy, the judicial system is failing to do its job.

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Posted on Techdirt - 12 February 2019 @ 3:43am

California Court Says New Records Law Covers Past Police Misconduct Records

from the your-tax-dollars-hard-at-work-hiding-stuff-from-taxpayers dept

The battle over public records in California continues. A new law made records of police misconduct releasable to the public, kicking off predictable legal challenges from law enforcement agencies not accustomed to accountability.

These agencies believe the law isn't retroactive. In essence, they think the passage of the law allows them to whitewash their pasts by only providing records going forward from the law's enactment. None other than the law's author, Senator Nancy Skinner, has gone on record -- with a letter to the Senate Rules Committee and the state Attorney General's office -- stating the law applies retroactively.

This has been ignored by the state AG, who has stated in records request denials that he believes the law can't touch pre-2019 misconduct files. This is exactly what agencies challenging the law want to hear. Unfortunately for them, they've just been handed a loss by a California court.

A Contra Costa County judge on Friday refused to block public access to records of police misconduct that occurred before California’s new transparency law took effect, the first ruling in a string of police-backed lawsuits filed across the state.

Judge Charles Treat said it seemed unlikely the suing law enforcement unions would prevail on the merits while dumping the unions' requested injunction. He pointed out the new law has no impact on past misconduct. All it does is make those records available to the public.

“If it was illegal in 2018, it’s illegal in 2019,” Treat said. “It doesn’t change the legal principles applicable to anyone’s conduct.”

This was said in response to the unions' argument that the release of old records would introduce new liabilities for officers. The availability of records may make it easier to sue officers, but it doesn't change the fact they were always potentially liable for misconduct. It just used to be a lot easier to hide this misbehavior from the public.

The impact of this bench ruling is muted by Treat blocking his own unblocking for another ten days to allow the union to appeal his decision.

There's a chance this ruling will be overturned, despite Sen. Skinner's clarification. And it's not the only legal battle being waged over the new transparency. Multiple agencies are suing in multiple counties and it's probably going to take a trip to the state Supreme Court to resolve the issue.

These agencies may state publicly they believe the law isn't retroactive, but their actions say something different. The Inglewood PD went so far as to get permission from the city council to shred all pre-2019 misconduct records prior to the law's enactment date. As a local attorney points out, why would they have bothered if they felt the law would only affect records generated after January 1, 2019?

First Amendment and police misconduct attorney Matthew Strugar predicted the unions’ challenge will ultimately fail.

[...]

Cities, too, had expected SB 1421 to disclose existing records, Strugar said. “Why was Inglewood running its shredding machines 24/7 before the New Year?” he asked.

It's a question no cop or city legislator in Inglewood wants to answer. Thanks to their cooperative effort, the likelihood of the PD being sued over unreleased misconduct is almost nil… easy to do when there's nothing left to sue over.

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Posted on Techdirt - 11 February 2019 @ 3:45pm

Report Shows ICE Almost Never Punishes Contractors Housing Detainees No Matter How Many Violations They Rack Up

from the failing-to-meet-the-super-low-expectations-we-have-for-ICE dept

ICE continues to make its own case for abolishment. The agency busies itself with neglecting detainees when not acting as the extension of major corporations to shut down infringing panties/websites. ICE is too big and it's getting bigger at a rate it can't sustain. To achieve the ends the President has set down for it, it's wearing itself thin trying to find the dangerous immigrants Trump keeps talking about or the bound-and-gagged women he insists are being brought across the border by the truckload.

It seemingly doesn't have the manpower to even capture just dangerous foreigners. Instead of using its resources more carefully, it's doing things like setting up fake colleges to capture dangerous criminals immigrants seeking educational opportunities. And it's continuing to outsource its responsibilities while taking an apparent hands-off approach to third party detention.

ICE's Inspector General released a report last summer stating the agency was failing to inspect detention facilities often enough or well enough. It found contractors performing government work were doing the job poorly. Detainees weren't being interviewed properly or given translators to overcome speech barriers. In some cases, detention personnel were not giving detainees access to services like phone calls to the ICE officers handling their cases. In some facilities, dangerous detainees were intermingled with non-criminals. In almost every case, ICE issued a waiver for deficiencies it actually observed. As far as the OIG could tell, dozens of deficiencies went unnoticed thanks to ICE's inability (or unwillingness) to perform mandatory inspections.

There's more bad news coming from the OIG's office about ICE's use of contractors to handle detainees. The latest report [PDF] delves into ICE's apparent unwillingness to hold anyone accountable. ICE can't be trusted to police itself, so it obviously can't be trusted to police its contractors.

This is the Inspector General's ultra-dry summary of the problems it discovered:

ICE does not adequately hold detention facility contractors accountable for not meeting performance standards. ICE fails to consistently include its quality assurance surveillance plan (QASP) in facility contracts. The QASP provides tools for ensuring facilities meet performance standards. Only 28 out of 106 contracts we reviewed contained the QASP.

That's only the beginning of it. From this missing paperwork, ICE moves even further away from anything resembling accountability. As was detailed in the last report, the IG points out ICE's "solution" to the few deficiencies it does decide to do anything about is the issuance of waivers, which magically make deficiencies acceptable protocol. ICE calls this a "multilayered" approach. The IG calls it nonexistent.

Between October 1, 2015, and June 30, 2018, ICE imposed financial penalties on only two occasions, despite documenting thousands of instances of the facilities’ failures to comply with detention standards. Instead of holding facilities accountable through financial penalties, ICE issued waivers to facilities with deficient conditions, seeking to exempt them from having to comply with certain detention standards. However, ICE has no formal policies and procedures about the waiver process and has allowed officials without clear authority to grant waivers. ICE also does not ensure key stakeholders have access to approved waivers.

To be more precise, ICE only imposed financial penalties twice, despite observing a jaw-dropping 14,003 deficiencies over the course of three years. ICE is blowing taxpayer money and expecting nothing in return. What's detailed in this report -- along with the IG release from last year -- is an agency repeatedly abusing the public's trust.

Our review of the corresponding payment data identified about $3.9 million in deductions, representing only 0.13 percent of the more than $3 billion in total payments to contractors during the same timeframe. ICE did not impose any withholdings during this timeframe.

When the agency whitewashes bad behavior by contractors, there's no paper trail. There's no follow up. And everyone involved seems to have no idea what's going on other than no one's going to be held responsible for their actions.

We analyzed the 68 waiver requests submitted between September 2016 and July 2018. Custody Management approved 96 percent of these requests, including waivers of safety and security standards.

Despite this high approval rate, ICE could not provide us with any guidance on the waiver process. Key officials admitted there are no policies, procedures, guidance documents, or instructions to explain how to review waiver requests. The only pertinent documents that ICE provided were examples of memoranda that Field Office Directors could use to request waivers of the detention standards’ provisions on strip searches. However, the memoranda did not acknowledge the important constitutional and policy interests implicated by a facility’s use of strip searches. ICE officials did not explain how Custody Management should handle such waiver requests when a contrary contractual provision requires compliance with a strip search standard.

ICE is handing out waivers for private companies to violate Constitutional protections afforded to detainees. These waivers are almost always indefinite. Each waiver is supposed to be followed up on to ensure the "deficiency" has been eliminated by the contractor. ICE has performed zero reviews or reassessments of these waivers.

The waivers have approved unconstitutional strip searches, as detailed above. They've also approved the commingling of violent criminals in general population, and the use of a chemical ten times more toxic than pepper spray to subdue detainees. As the report notes, detainees are being seriously harmed by the lax standards deployed by contractors, and ICE's response has been to shrug and issue waivers.

ICE is an active partner in the dehumanizing of immigrants, allowing private contractors to treat the human beings they're supposed to be taking care of like pieces of meat to be exchanged for cash. It's no better than ICE treats detainees itself, but a federal agency should be ensuring its very existence isn't a cancerous growth on the soul of this nation.

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Posted on Free Speech - 11 February 2019 @ 10:44am

UK Cop Calls Up 74-Year-Old Woman To Ask Her To Stop Tweeting Mean Things

from the time-to-waste-and-money-to-burn dept

The policing of tweets continues in the UK. The literal policing of tweets.

Because there's apparently not enough people being stabbed on a daily basis, local law enforcement agencies have decided making house calls over reports of "hateful" tweeting is a worthwhile use of resources. This fairly recent law enforcement tradition dates back to at least 2014, but in recent weeks police have ramped up efforts to... well, it's unclear exactly what the endgame is.

Irish writer Graham Linehan was recently visited by a Scottish police officer over supposed harassment of a trans rights activist. There didn't appear to be any actual harassment. Instead, it appeared the alleged harassee wasn't satisfied with the Mute and Block options offered by Twitter, and decided to file a formal complaint about speech he didn't like.

The end result was a stupefying mix of force and futility. The officer asked Linehan to stop engaging with Adrian Harrop (the offended party). Linehan refused to do so. The officer left and Linehan got back on Twitter to talk about this bizarre waste of everyone's time.

More time is being wasted by UK law enforcement, this time in an attempt to persuade an elderly person she harbors some outdated ideas.

Margaret Nelson is a 74-year-old woman who lives in a village in Suffolk. On Monday morning she was woken by a telephone call. It was an officer from Suffolk police. The officer wanted to speak to Mrs Nelson about her Twitter account and her blog.

[...]

Among the statements she made on Twitter last month and which apparently concerned that police officer: ‘Gender is BS. Pass it on’.

Another:

‘Gender’s fashionable nonsense. Sex is real. I’ve no reason to feel ashamed of stating the truth. The bloody annoying ones are those who use words like ‘cis’ or ‘terf’ and other BS, and relegate biological women to a ‘subset’. Sorry you believe the mythology.’

The only way any public official should have felt "concerned" is if they know her personally and frequently attend social events where she's both present and vocal. That's a very low level of concern, one that could be mitigated by steering clear of these social functions. It shouldn't be "concerning" enough for law enforcement to get involved. No one should be getting phone calls from cops because they said something stupid on the internet.

This phone call was especially pointless. The officer asked Nelson to stop writing things other people found offensive. Nelson asked the officer if free speech was still something the officer considered important. The officer said she thought free speech was important and Nelson said that's exactly why she wouldn't stop writing things that mildly upset other people.

The oddest aspect of this futile interaction was the department's response on Twitter -- one that makes it appear as though officers have voluntarily deputized themselves on behalf of Twitter.

Hi Margaret, we had a number of people contact us on social media about the comments made online. A follow-up call was made for no other reason than to raise awareness of the complaints. Kind regards, Web Team.

No law enforcement agency needs to be wasting its time acting as a complaint box for social media. If Nelson's content violated the terms of use, Twitter (and her blog host) are free to do something about it. If readers don't like what they're reading, they can simply stop reading Nelson's posts. Twitter also allows users to block or mute other users. Reading blogs you don't like isn't mandatory. All anyone has to do is not navigate to sites containing content they dislike.

Instead, an unknown number of internet users chose to make this a police matter. We could blame this entirely on them if it wasn't for the fact that multiple UK police agencies have made it clear they'll investigate impolite speech if someone's willing to waste their own time filing a complaint. In the end, they can't do anything more than ask someone to stop making other people angry. But that's all they can do, so it becomes a waste of taxpayers' money on top of everything else, which should make people angrier than whatever happened to piss them off as it rolled through their timeline.

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Posted on Techdirt - 8 February 2019 @ 7:39pm

California AG Steps Up To Help Cops Pretend New Public Records Law Doesn't Apply To Past Misconduct Docs

from the bros-before-accountability,-as-they-say dept

The bullshit debate over California police misconduct records continues. A new law granting the public access to police misconduct records for the first time in decades has resulted in a slew of public records requests. It's also resulted in a slew of refusals and legal challenges.

Some law enforcement agencies (and their unions) have chosen to believe the law erases their past misdeeds. Although the law says nothing limiting access to records created prior to January 1, 2019, some agencies have decided the lack of specific language allows them to draw this inference from the missing words. Multiple lawsuits have hit the California court system, which may soon force the state's Supreme Court to deal with this miss, even if it took a hard pass on one law enforcement union's attempt to get a preemptive declaration that past misconduct records are off-limits.

If these law enforcement agencies were truly seeking clarity, they were given a crystal clear explanation of the legislative intent from none other than the law's author, Senator Nancy Skinner.

[I]t is my understanding in enacting SB 1421 that the change in the law applies to all disclosable records whether or not they existed prior to the date the statute went into effect…

This isn't the answer cops wanted. They wanted someone to tell them they could whitewash the past and stonewall the future. Instead, the law's author told them the law applies retroactively. If they missed their opportunity to destroy these records prior to the law's enactment, that's on them.

But they're getting a little help from the state's top cop. State attorney general Xavier Becerra has decided retroactivity is still an open question, despite Sen. Skinner's statement on the issue.

The attorney general's response to a public records request seeking that information references some superior court challenges to the law's application to past records brought by police unions.

"We will not disclose any records that pre-date January 1, 2019 at this time," Mark Beckington, supervising deputy attorney general, said in a response last Friday to a request from freelance reporter Darwin BondGraham.

This sentence follows a very dubious assumption by the attorney general's office.

[U]ntil the legal question of retroactive application of the statute is resolved by the courts, the public interest in accessing these records is clearly outweighed by the public's interest in protecting privacy rights.

Oh, really? But whose privacy rights? The public may want to protect their own privacy rights, but I doubt they're more concerned about protecting the "privacy" of public servants who committed misconduct on the public's dime.

AG Becerra is deliberately confused by the retroactivity non-question. Sen. Skinner, the law's author, is honestly confused.

"I find the AG's interpretation puzzling considering that we have law enforcement agencies up and down the state, including our California Highway Patrol, releasing records..."

Also confusing: the AG was sent a copy of the same letter Skinner sent to the Senate Rules Committee clarifying the law's retroactive powers.

Cops have a friend in high places. With this action, he's the best friend a bad cop could have. But he's only delaying the inevitable. These records will be in the public's hands. If the courts somehow find in favor of law enforcement agencies, this only keeps the past a secret. Unless police misconduct is somehow also only a thing of the past, California cop shops will still be generating a whole lot of publicly-accessible documents.

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Posted on Techdirt - 8 February 2019 @ 1:34pm

After No-Knock Raid Goes Horribly Wrong, Police Union Boss Steps Up To Threaten PD's Critics

from the garbage-in,-garbage-out-apparently dept

Four Houston police officers were shot -- allegedly by now-dead suspects -- while serving a no-knock warrant on a Houston residence. The no-knock warrant was supposed to make everything safer for the officers, giving them a chance to get a jump on the suspects and prevent the destruction of evidence/officers. But as anyone other than cops seems to comprehend, startling people in their own homes with explosives and kicked-in doors tends to make everything more dangerous for everyone.

Operating on a tip that from someone claiming to have purchased heroin from the home of Dennis Tuttle and Rhogena Nicholas, the Houston PD SWAT team secured a no-knock warrant and kicked in the door roughly five hours later. No heroin was found. Some guns and an apparently small amount of cocaine and marijuana were recovered. According to cops, the 59-year-old Tuttle opened fire on officers and his wife tried to take a shotgun from a downed officer, resulting in her being killed as well. The married couple are now dead, having amassed a combined 21 years of marriage and a single criminal charge -- a misdemeanor bad check charge -- between them before this raid ended their lives.

The cops have vouched for the reliability of their confidential informant despite there being a huge discrepancy between what the CI told them and what was actually found in the house.

According to the affidavit, the informant said he bought the powder from the middle-aged man, who called it “boy,” a street name for heroin. The informant also said that the man carried a gun, and that there was more of the brown powder at the house, “packaged in a large quantity of plastic baggies.” The author of the affidavit wrote that the informant had “proven to be credible and reliable on many prior occasions” and he asked a municipal court judge “to enter the suspected place and premises without first knocking and announcing the presence and purpose of the officers executing the warrant.”

The dead couple cannot provide a narrative, so the one we're stuck with comes from the Houston PD.

“Once the officers breached the door and the gunfire began from the suspects, one of the suspects actually retreated momentarily to the back of the room and then that suspect came back and again engaged the officers in gunfire,” Acevedo said at a Monday evening news conference.

Maybe some footage survived the shootout...

[Chief Acevedo] said none of the officers was wearing a body camera.

It's not that the Houston PD doesn't have cameras. It's just that officers wear them when they want to and activate them only when they want to. It appears no one in the department has stepped up to hold officers accountable for failing to follow policy. So, only one story survives this shooting: the PD's account.

There might have been a second version covering some of the raid, but the PD took care of that as well.

[K]HOU, the CBS affiliate in Houston, reports that the house had no security cameras, although "a house next door to the Tuttles' home does have surveillance video," and "police took that footage for evidence."

As is to be expected, this deadly raid has led to criticism of the police department and its tactics. It started with a CI tip about an illegal substance that wasn't found during the search and ended with four cops wounded and two people with no criminal history shot dead in the home they had lived in for twenty years.

The criticism is well-earned. But the head of the city's police union believes the police have done no wrong -- not in this case and possibly not ever.

Houston Police Department Union president Joe Gamaldi went a step further, calling out people who criticize the police. “We are sick and tired of having targets on our back,” Gamaldi said at a press conference on Monday night outside of the hospital where the injured officers were being treated. (All four survived their injuries.) “We are sick and tired of having dirtbags trying to take our lives when all we’re trying to do is protect this community and protect our families. Enough is enough. If you’re the ones out there spreading the rhetoric that police officers are the enemy, well just know we’ve all got your number now. We’re going to be keeping track on all of y’all, and we’re going to make sure to hold you accountable every time you stir the pot on our police officers.

This statement says a lot about the mindset of law enforcement. Officers appear to believe that because they do a job few people want to, they shouldn't be criticized for how they do it.

But the statement says something much more worrying about how police officers and their representation respond to criticism. Gamaldi's statement suggests the Houston PD will be keeping tabs on its critics. He's basically saying the government agency employing the people he represents is willing to retaliate against protected speech. That's not something the Houston PD can do (at least not legally) and it's something it shouldn't do, even if some officers feel they might be able to get away with it. If the PD is willing to violate the Constitution when it's publicly criticized, it's probably willing to do it during its more private ventures. Ultimately, this statement says more about the PD than its critics, and what it does say is pretty ugly.

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Posted on Free Speech - 8 February 2019 @ 9:33am

NYPD Sends Letter To Google Demanding It Remove Cop Checkpoint Notifications From Google Maps

from the when-one-business-model-interferes-with-another-business-model dept

A few years after law enforcement officials claimed Google's Waze navigation app allowed cop killers to stalk cops, the NYPD is demanding Google alter one of its apps (Google Maps, which incorporates certain Waze features) so it works more like the NYPD wants it to work, rather than how drivers want it to work. Gersh Kuntzman of Streetsblog NYC was the first to obtain a copy of a cease-and-desist sent to Google by the NYPD.

The NYPD is demanding that Google remove a just-added feature to its omnipresent Maps program that tips off drivers to the locations of speed cameras, Streetsblog has learned.

Google added the speed camera notification as part of its effort to incorporate some of the crowd-sourced features of Waze, which the tech giant bought in 2013. The Waze app shows the locations of police checkpoints as well as what some drivers call “speed traps,” but what police believe are life-saving enforcement efforts.

The NYPD sent its “cease-and-desist” letter to Google over the weekend — after Streetsblog asked officials’ about the Waze feature that allows drivers to inform each other of police roadblocks.

The NYPD is upset because the new notifications allow drivers to route around DWI roadblocks. The NYPD apparently feels allowing drivers to bypass checkpoints will make the streets less safe and prevent the police force from enjoying the side benefits of dozens of suspicionless stops.

There are a number of reasons drivers may not want to interact with the NYPD, most of which have nothing to do with driving drunk. A police checkpoint is a hassle for anyone wanting to go from Point A to Point B, especially when every driver in line is presumed guilty until cleared by officers. It's win-win for the NYPD, which also assumes anyone avoiding a checkpoint is also guilty. These notifications might suck for cops, but it's a stretch to assume the app is allowing a horde of drunk drivers to roam the city unmolested.

But that's exactly what the NYPD assumes. Its cease-and-desist letter [PDF] demands Google not only remove this feature from Google Maps but somehow prevent users from finding others ways to notify fellow drivers about law enforcement checkpoints. It also accuses Maps users of committing criminal acts simply by posting the location of cop checkpoints.

Individuals who post the location of DWI checkpoints may be engaging in criminal conduct since such actions could be intentional attempts to prevent and/or impair the administration of DWI laws and other relevant criminal and traffic laws. The posting of such information for public consumption is irresponsible since it only serves to aid impaired and intoxicated drivers to evade checkpoints and encourage reckless driving.

This is nonsense. The posting of this information doesn't "only serve" impaired drivers. It also aids unimpaired drivers who may not want to make a suspicionless stop part of their daily commute. Even the most historically-strident advocate of driving while intoxicated laws doesn't agree with the NYPD's claims.

Helen Witty, the national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, was reluctant to address the specifics of the letter without more information, but she noted that sobriety checkpoints were frequently publicized in advance and that even when drivers were warned about them, they served their purpose.

“If you are impaired, you are not going to pay attention to that information,” she said, adding that in her experience, drunken drivers coming through sobriety checkpoints were often very confused or unaware of what was happening.

Witty goes on to point out the goal of regular DWI checkpoints is to make all drivers aware officers are looking for and punishing drunk drivers. More public awareness means fewer drunk drivers on the road, which should be the ultimate goal of these checkpoints.

Google has responded to the letter with a statement that indicates it won't be removing users' ability to warn others of speed traps and DWI checkpoints.

“Safety is a top priority when developing navigation features at Google. We believe that informing drivers about upcoming speed traps allows them to be more careful and make safer decisions when they’re on the road,” a Google spokesperson told CBS2 in a statement.

If the purpose of speed limits is to reduce drivers' speed to something the local government considers to be safe, a warning about speed traps ensures nothing more than drivers using Maps will be driving the speed limit when they approach that area. If the actual goal of speed traps and DWI checkpoints is to generate revenue, then of course law enforcement is going to be upset about Google picking its pocket.

The other odd thing to note is that the NYPD seems to want its letter to Google memory-holed. Streetsblog was the first to obtain the letter, but its copy has already been removed from Scribd. CBS News also posted a copy of the letter, but that link now returns a 404 error. No updates have been published at either site explaining the disappearance of the letter, and neither site has expressed any doubt as to the letter's legitimacy. What's posted below is built from screenshots of Streetsblog's embed, which is (so far) still generating an image of the PDF Scribd no longer hosts. It seems odd the NYPD would want this letter scrubbed from the internet, but it seems completely unlikely StreetsBlog and CBS both decided to delete this document on their own.

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Posted on Techdirt - 7 February 2019 @ 12:00pm

Sheriffs' Union Boss Says Officers Have No Reason To Do Their Job If They Can't Score Forfeiture Cash On The Side

from the checkmate...-I-guess dept

Civil asset forfeiture is an abomination loaded with perverse incentives for law enforcement. Investigations and convictions are too much work. Seizing cash from random motorists or residents is so much easier than legitimate police work. The laws barely governing this practice allow the agency performing the seizure to keep all or most of what's seized, which has led directly to the widespread abuse we see around us today.

The practice always has its defenders. Most of those defenders come from the same agencies that are directly profiting from asset forfeiture. They say the expected stuff about fighting the good Drug War -- that taking $500 from a random motorist somehow creates a ripple effect felt all the way at the top of the drug distribution chain. Everyone knows they're full of shit, but there are enough true believers in most state legislatures that the practice remains largely unaltered across the United States.

But there are some outliers. Some people see the perverse incentives asset forfeiture creates and say perverted cops are the best cops.

Jarrod Bruder, the executive director of the South Carolina Sheriff's Association who frequently lobbies for law enforcement interests at the Statehouse, said that without the incentive of profit from civil forfeiture, officers probably wouldn't pursue drug dealers and their cash as hard as they do now.

If police don't get to keep the money from forfeiture, "what is the incentive to go out and make a special effort?" Bruder said. "What is the incentive for interdiction?"

I don't know... how about IT'S YOUR FUCKING JOB. This is a law enforcement professional who actually thinks cops won't do cop work unless they can periodically seize cash from people they interact with. Hey, Mr. Bruder, if cops can't solicit bribes or extort protection money from local businesses, why should they be bothered to patrol neighborhoods or respond to robbery calls?

If Wells Fargo account reps can't sign people up for accounts without their knowledge or permission, why should they even show up to help people open accounts or deal with banking issues? If an entrepreneur can't rope investors into a pyramid scheme, why even bother getting out of bed at 4 am to bathe in the glow of inflated self-worth? Come on, Bruder. How can you be so obtuse?

There's nothing quite like a law enforcement union rep telling the public the police are only willing to work when they can directly profit from their efforts. That's the kind of word-of-mouth advertising asset forfeiture reform efforts need... courtesy of a union rep who doesn't want the practice ended, much less altered.

That's the stupidest thing said in defense of asset forfeiture in this article from the Greenville News, which gathers law enforcement responses to its investigation of the unsavory tactics deployed by state agencies. Even victims of crime aren't off limits. Local cops will take money right off the kitchen counter when investigating murders and claim the $43 pocketed was the result of criminal activity.

But it's not the only stupid thing said by law enforcement reps defending forfeiture.

Clemson Police Chief Jimmy Dixon said if police didn't get to collect forfeiture money, it would hamper the department's ability to conduct long-term drug surveillance.

"It could potentially shut down our K-9 unit," he said. "Overall, our ability to conduct undercover narcotics operations could be stifled."

Lt. Jake Mahoney with the Aiken Police Department said they'd have to divert money from the budget to cover drug enforcement.

Greenwood Police Chief Gerald Brooks said it would "sharply curtail our drug enforcement activities."

Sounds like another set of cops with motivation problems. But even if you believe they're not like the union rep quoted above them, they're still complaining about possibly not being able to do something they're not legally allowed to do.

Forfeiture proceeds are not meant to be written into a budget or counted on for recurring expenses, but should be treated as a supplement to provide for extra training or equipment, according to the law and legal opinions.

Those are the arguments in favor of asset forfeiture: cops won't do their job if they can't earn cash on the side and budgets, that aren't supposed to include forfeiture funds, will experience shortfalls because chickens cops aren't supposed to count will no longer be hatched. Nice work, so-called drug warriors. It isn't -- and never has been -- about dismantling the drug trade. If law enforcement ever made a serious dent in crime, the extra money would dry up. And that's something they're just not going to allow to happen.

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Posted on Techdirt - 7 February 2019 @ 9:44am

Australian Government Agencies Already Flexing Their New Encryption-Breaking Powers

from the sure,-cops-are-right-on-top-of-this-law-and-its-implications dept

Claiming the nation was beset on all sides by national security threats and rampant criminality, the Australian government hustled an encryption-breaking law through Parliament (and past concerned members of the public) at the end of last year. The law compels companies to break encryption at the drop of a court order to give government agencies access to data and communications they otherwise can't access.

Supporters of the law did everything they could to avoid using the term "backdoor," but backdoors are what they're expecting. How this will all work in practice is anyone's guess, as each demand for "exceptional access" will likely collide head-on with quality assurance processes meant to prevent the creation of security flaws in software and hardware. Agencies that want exceptional access will either have to bring a majority of a company's personnel on board (and hope no one leaks anything to the public) or risk having their "not a backdoor" rejected after the code is submitted for approval.

No details have come to light (yet!) about companies being approached to punch holes in their own products, but it appears the Australian government has wasted no time putting its new powers to use.

Federal law enforcement and national security agencies have started using encryption-busting powers passed by parliament in December last year, and state-based police are set to be trained in using the powers this month.

This conclusion comes from the Department of Home Affairs' first report [PDF] on the new compelled access powers. The introduction contains several paragraphs about the new law and the Department's supposed oversight of its roll out. It concludes with this statement:

The Department continues to work closely with law enforcement and national security agencies and industry to facilitate the implementation of the Act. This will support the key measures in the Act, including the industry assistance measures in Schedule 1, so that they are being used consistently and appropriately. The Department has also been advised by Commonwealth law enforcement and national security agencies that the powers in the Act have been used to support their work.

The report also continues the fine Australian government tradition of denying the law has anything to do with encryption backdoors. Here's the latest lingo dodge, which comes from a list of amendments made in response to recommendations from Australia's intelligence committee.

[Introduces] a definition for ‘systemic weakness’ and ‘systemic vulnerability’ to clarify and prohibit those proposed requirements in a request or notice which will lead to unlawful and systemic intrusions into devices and networks. This enhances the operation of existing safeguards that prevents the creation and implementation of ‘backdoors.’

The Department's new definition of these terms appears to limit encryption breaking to single devices/users, rather than entire communications platforms or operating systems.

The selective introduction of a vulnerability or weakness, as it relates to a target technology connected with a particular person is allowable. The definition of target technology further reinforces the specificity and precision through which interaction with electronic protections such as encryption is permissible. This definition takes each likely item of technology, like a carriage service or electronic service, which may be supplied by a designated communications provider, and reinforces that a weakness or vulnerability may only be introduced to the particular technology that is used, or likely to be used by a particular person. For example, a single mobile device operated by a criminal, or likely to be used by a criminal, would be classified as a target technology for the purpose of paragraph (e) of that definition. However, a particular model of mobile devices, or any devices that are not connected with the particular person, would be far too broad to fall within the definition. This ensures that the services and devices enjoyed by innocent parties or persons not of interest to law enforcement and security agencies remain out of scope and unaffected.

This could reduce the scope of what can be targeted with assistance requests, but nothing in the report suggests the government should abandon requests that fall outside of these definitions. If accessing a single target's communications can only be done by introducing a systemic vulnerability, it's safe to say the government will find a way to make the requested assistance adhere to the definitions its provided -- anything to avoid having to use the phrase "backdoor" anywhere in reports or public statements.

This assurance that the government won't demand full-fledged backdoors isn't very assuring, especially since it appears the government still doesn't know what requests meet the constraints built into the law.

Home Affairs said it was also in the process of sourcing technical and judicial assessors and experts that can be used to determine whether an agency request is permissible or not.

Cool. Some requests have already been issued and Home Affairs hasn't gotten any further than begin the process of sourcing experts to help decide whether these requests are even lawful.

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Posted on Techdirt - 7 February 2019 @ 3:51am

Ex-NSA Personnel Spied On Americans And Journalists For The United Arab Emirates

from the all-the-'good-guys'-doing-all-the-bad-stuff dept

When former NSA employees and contractors decide to start working for a journalist-murdering authoritarian, they should feel sick. Instead, after targeting journalists, dissidents, and other people the United Arab Emirates government doesn't like, they felt exhilarated.

Working together with managers, Stroud helped create a policy for what to do when Raven swept up personal data belonging to Americans. The former NSA employees were instructed to mark that material for deletion. Other Raven operatives would also be notified so the American victims could be removed from future collection.

As time went on, Stroud noticed American data flagged for removal show up again and again in Raven’s NESA-controlled data stores.

Still, she found the work exhilarating. “It was incredible because there weren’t these limitations like there was at the NSA. There wasn’t that bullshit red tape,” she said. “I feel like we did a lot of good work on counterterrorism.”

That quote comes from a disturbing account of UAE "counterterrorism" work performed by a unit of Americans linked to the NSA published at Reuters. That "bullshit red tape" is, for the most part, known as the Constitution. The quote comes from Lori Stroud, who worked with a unit of hackers known as Project Raven, targeting whoever the UAE felt needed targeting. She is the only person from that unit willing to publicly-out her identity. Everyone else involved either spoke anonymously or refused to say anything at all. Here's the deafening silence that accompanied the Reuter's article:

An NSA spokesman declined to comment on Raven. An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment. A spokeswoman for UAE’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to comment. The UAE’s Embassy in Washington and a spokesman for its National Media Council did not respond to requests for comment.

Lori Stroud's work with the NSA dates far enough back that it includes a stupendous irony: she recommended the NSA add Ed Snowden to her Booz Allen contracting team. A few months later, Snowden was gone, taking with him a pile of documents that Stroud's recommendation had helped him gain access to.

Hacking for the UAE meant hacking American targets and British journalists.

One of the program’s key targets in 2012 was Rori Donaghy, according to former Raven operatives and program documents. Donaghy, then 25, was a British journalist and activist who authored articles critical of the country’s human rights record. In 2012, he wrote an opinion piece for the Guardian criticizing the UAE government’s activist crackdown and warning that, if it continued, “those in power face an uncertain future.”

This is what counterterrorism looks like in UAE. This is what it can look like anywhere, once mission creep sets in and the government decides criticism is suspicious behavior. But this was done by US intelligence personnel who took better-paying offers to spy for a nation we somehow consider an ally, despite its stances on pretty much everything being antithetical to ours.

The quote opening this post was from the aftermath of an indiscriminate deployment of a virus that infected every visitor of a targeted Islamist forum. It swept up plenty of communications from Americans, but even with safeguards in place to remove inadvertent collections, it was clear UAE did not consider Americans' communications off-limits.

It should have. The UAE claims to be a partner in the War on Terror, citing its positive relationship with the United States as an intelligence partner. Even though Project Raven was run by the UAE using former US intel personnel, the NSA still was supposed to be notified before operation deployments or prior to presentations that might discuss classified techniques. What's published here shows either the NSA was cut out of the loop by UAE or that the NSA appears to have made no effort to keep tabs on operations run by its surveillance partner.

The UAE government took the project in-house, using a local tech contractor to create a company called DarkMatter that severed any ties the project might have with the US Intelligence Community. To their credit, at least eight former US intelligence analysts left when it became apparent targeting dissidents, journalists, and American citizens was going to be a large part of their work.

Lori Stroud eventually realized targeting Americans was a feature, not a bug.

When she questioned the apparent targeting of Americans, she received a rebuke from an Emirati colleague for accessing the targeting list, the emails show. The target requests she viewed were to be processed by “certain people. You are not one of them,” the Emirati officer wrote.

Days later, Stroud said she came upon three more American names on the hidden targeting queue.

Those names were in a category she hadn’t seen before: the “white category” — for Americans. This time, she said, the occupations were listed: journalist.

“I was sick to my stomach,” she said. “It kind of hit me at that macro level realizing there was a whole category for U.S. persons on this program.”

But sick or not, it was the UAE government that removed her from DarkMatter, terminating her employment when she kept objecting to the targeting of Americans. She was met by the FBI when she returned to the US. The entire operation is now under FBI investigation, but not necessarily for the illegal targeting of Americans. The FBI appears to be more concerned about possible leaks of classified surveillance techniques. It also wants to know if any US "systems" were targeted, suggesting it will be looking at attacks against US government entities and domestic corporations. It appears spying on journalists and Americans isn't worthy of an investigation.

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Posted on Techdirt - 6 February 2019 @ 9:32am

New Study Says The Removal Of Craigslist Erotic Services Pages May Be Linked To An Increase In Murdered Females

from the for-the-good-of-the-many-or-whatever? dept

Under the guise of targeting sex traffickers, FOSTA has both done damage to Section 230 protections and sex workers' literal lives. The law has yet to result in any credible, sustained damage to human trafficking, but that hasn't stopped the bill's supporters from trotting out debunked numbers anytime they need a soundbite.

There will likely be no studies performed by the government to determine FOSTA's actual impact on sex trafficking, but plenty of academics are offering evidence that pushing sex work further underground is endangering the lives of sex workers. This is just the icing on the stupid, life-threatening cake as multiple law enforcement agencies -- including the DOJ itself -- pointed out passing FOSTA would make it more difficult to hunt down traffickers.

A study released in 2017 showed the introduction of erotic services section on Craiglist tracked with a 17% drop in female homicides across many major cities. Craigslist spent a few years being publicly vilified by public officials -- mainly states attorneys general -- before dumping its erotic services section (ERS). This didn't stop sex work or trafficking, but it did shift the focus away from Craiglist as everyone affected found other services to use.

A newly-released study [PDF] (via Sophie Cull) shows there's been a corresponding increase in female homicides since the point Craigslist dumped ERS. Online services -- enabled by Section 230 -- helped sex workers stay safe by reducing or eliminating a few of the more dangerous variables.

In the context of prostitution, online clearinghouses have the potential to improve safety by redirecting exchange through the clearinghouse and replacing more risky outdoor face-to-face transactions and/or other intermediaries (e.g., pimps) with indoor, direct transactions (Bass, 2015a,b). Matching online through the clearinghouse enables both sides of the market to discern the quality of the match ex ante, through such activities as informal screening, circulated black and white lists, and online reviews (Cunningham and Kendall, 2011b; Grant, 2009). This may provide the ability for sex workers to identify and screen out violent clients, law enforcement, and scammers.

The wholly expected happens when you take these safeguards away by eliminating online services, like Craigslist did in 2010.

[W]e find evidence that ERS significantly reduced female homicide rates by as much as 10-17 percent. We do not find evidence that this was a more general reduction in homicide, as ERS is unrelated to male murder, females killed by an intimate partner, or manslaughters. This strengthens our assessment that ERS-driven changes in sex markets were the primary driver of the reduction in female murders.

The study pulls from a number of data sets (including the FBI's annual crime reports), but notes there are still some limitations that prevent this from being an exact determination. For one, most homicide reports don't note whether the person killed was a sex worker. For another, the data lags because homicide reports date from the time the body was found, rather than the time the person was actually killed. From this underreported and laggy data, some inferences can be drawn, even if it's impossible to say for certain what percentage of female homicides involved sex workers. If anything, the buggy data may point to an even greater reduction in violence against sex workers via the introduction of online marketplaces.

Are these magnitudes plausible? It is difficult to answer this question given that the true incidence of prostitution homicides is unknown. Most datasets do not record whether a female victim of a homicide was a sex worker, and those that do suffer from severe underascertainment biases built into the data collection methods. To our knowledge there is only one study that has attempted to estimate the incidence of prostitution homicide as a share of female homicides (Brewer et al., 2006). The authors concluded that 2.7 percent of all female homicides are prostitution deaths by clients. But this study has significant limitations. It is based on select data only from Chicago, St. Louis, Washington state, North Carolina, the SHR, 33 urban counties for one cross-section, and Colorado Springs. The issue of underascertainment bias would conceivably hold, and maybe moreso, for this select sample. Thus we interpret their estimates to be, at best, a lower bound. Our estimate of a 10 percent reduction in female homicides does suggest, though, that ERS created an overwhelmingly safe environment for female sex workers — perhaps the safest in history.

This is not to suggest government officials and lawmakers pushing laws like FOSTA don't care about people's lives. But I'm not sure what counterargument they can provide for legislation that not only results in increased harm to (mostly) women, but also undercuts the immunity that has allowed the internet to thrive. I guess the old adage is being spun to read "It's better for dozens of sex workers to die than for third-party service providers to go free."

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Posted on Techdirt - 6 February 2019 @ 3:49am

Multiple Parties (Including The Author Of The Law Governing PACER) Ask Court To Stop PACER's Screwing Of Taxpayers

from the 'free'-as-in-'open,'-but-also-as-in-'no-cost' dept

The US government is either going to end up giving the public free access to court documents via PACER or find a group of legislators willing to extend a middle finger to the public by codifying the ridiculous fees charged to digitally access supposedly public documents.

The government has been sued over PACER fees on multiple occasions. One lawsuit alleged that PACER is miscalculating page lengths on dockets, resulting in thousands, if not millions, of dollars of overcharges. Another lawsuit -- currently awaiting review by the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals -- argues PACER fees are excessive and violate the law that governs PACER's existence.

The E-Government Act says PACER fee intake should not exceed the cost of running the system. But as Matt Ford points out for The New Republic, PACER has an incredible profit margin.

The statute authorizes the judiciary to levy fees “only to the extent necessary” to provide “access to information available through automatic data processing equipment.” Though data storage costs have plummeted over the past two decades, PACER’s fees rose from seven cents a page at its establishment to ten cents a page by 2011, which remains the cost today. That may not sound like much, but it adds up fast. The PACER system itself brought in more than $146 million in fees during the 2016 fiscal year, even though it cost just over $3 million to operate.

This isn't how the system is supposed to operate. This single phrase in the E-Government Act has prompted more than a few lawsuits. And it's usually met by the government claiming that isn't what the law means when it's not arguing screwed PACER users don't have standing to sue over PACER screwing.

In addition, the fees are supposed to used only for PACER-related stuff. The money is getting spent, but very little of it is directed towards modernizing the archaic online system or finding a way of lowering access costs. Instead, millions of dollars are going to things that don't appear to be authorized by the law, like touchscreens for jurors or other courtroom tech.

The government continues to argue the law should not be read so narrowly, but it's going to be facing a lot of opposition in this appeal, including an amicus brief written by the E-Government Act's author.

In his friend-of-the-court brief, [former Senator Joe] Lieberman argued that the lower court had misinterpreted the law and its intent. He speaks with some authority on the matter, having introduced the Senate’s version of the E-Government Act and overseen its passage as a committee chairman. In his filing, Lieberman warned that excessive PACER fees would “impose a serious financial barrier to members of the public who wish to access court records, and these fees thereby create a system in which rich and poor do not have equal access to important government documents.”

In addition to Lieberman, the list of amici includes dozens of journalistic entities and former judges Richard Posner and Shira Scheindlin -- the latter most famous for dismantling the NYPD's unconstitutional stop-and-frisk program. The Knight First Amendment Institute and the Free Law Project (part of the RECAP project, which mirrors paywalled court documents for free) have also submitted briefs arguing for a stricter interpretation of the law and free access to documents already paid for once by the taxpayers who fund the court system that creates the documents.

If they prevail, the government's going to be greeted by a long line of taxpayers expecting refunds. The system in place now is needlessly expensive. The cost of accessing court documents should be $0 for all taxpayers -- especially since the portal handling requests looks and acts like it cost roughly that much to get up and running. Overcharging and under-delivering is something the government does well, but that doesn't mean we should be expected to sit there and take it.

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Posted on Techdirt - 5 February 2019 @ 3:33pm

Author Of California's Public Records Law: The Law Covers Old Police Misconduct Files, Not Just The New Ones

from the stick-that-in-your-deliberate-obtuseness,-PD-officials dept

For the first time in years, California police misconduct records are accessible by the public. There's a huge asterisk on that sentence because, so far, law enforcement agencies have been unwilling to hand them over.

One police department decided to purge all of its old records before the law went into effect, mooting the question with a questionable memory-holing. Other agencies have told requesters the law isn't retroactive, pretending the law says something it doesn't. A sheriff's union tried to force the question by petitioning the state's supreme court, but the court declined the opportunity to clarify the law's ability to open up records of past misconduct.

At this point it's clear PDs aren't interested in complying with the new law. They'll sit on records until they're forced out of their hands by lawsuits. This isn't how transparency is supposed to work. The law wasn't a History Eraser button for old files and it certainly isn't there to assist PDs in withholding documents they're definitely obligated to turn over to the public.

Most law enforcement agencies appear to believe the law hit the reset on misconduct records, ordering them only to release records created past the point the law went into effect (January 1st, 2019). Again, the law says nothing about it only affecting records going forward, but since it doesn't say anything specifically about past misconduct records, law enforcement agencies will continue to pretend it doesn't affect those until courts tell them otherwise.

Whenever the courts take up the question, they'll have to examine the bill-making process and the law itself to determine its legislative intent. The law doesn't have to specifically order the release of pre-2019 documents if it's clear legislators intended the law to be retroactive. Fortunately for those suing PDs over withheld documents, the legislation's author has decided to clear the air on the law police departments are conveniently and deliberately misunderstanding.

In a one-page letter to the state Senate Rules Committee, Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), sought to clarify the intent of the law, which opens up records of shootings by officers, severe uses of force and confirmed cases of sexual assault and lying by officers.

In the letter obtained by The Times, Skinner said any relevant discipline records kept by a government agency should be disclosed under the new law, which was approved last year.

Therefore, it is my understanding in enacting SB 1421 that the change in the law applies to all disclosable records whether or not they existed prior to the date the statute went into effect,” Skinner wrote. “This is the standard practice for public records legislation in California.”

We'll see how quickly this letter results in the lifting of the temporary restraining order secured by Contra Costa law enforcement agencies, which are being sued by California newspapers for refusing to turn over historical misconduct files. There doesn't seem to be any room for misunderstanding in Skinner's letter. But if anyone's incapable of understanding crystal clear laws, it's law enforcement agencies.

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Posted on Techdirt - 5 February 2019 @ 9:35am

Mississippi Governor Extends Middle Finger To Constitution On Twitter While Applauding Asset Forfeiture

from the time-for-state-voters-to-use-the-EJECT-button dept

Nearly two years ago, Mississippi governor Phil Bryant signed a bill reforming the state's asset forfeiture programs. The state needed it. Mississippi's law enforcement has directly profited from asset forfeiture for years. This has been combined with an extremely low evidentiary bar and zero reporting requirements to completely skew the incentives. Making it so easy to just take stuff from citizens has resulted in things like this:

That conflict [of interest] is on full display in Richland, Miss., where construction of a new $4.1 million law enforcement training facility was funded entirely by forfeiture proceeds garnered by police in Richland—a town of just 7,000 people. A sign in the building’s window boasts: “Richland Police Station tearfully donated by drug dealers.”

And this:

Mississippi drug warriors had their eye on nearly $300,000 in "forfeited" funds but threw it all away by issuing one of the most deficient search warrants ever. It's not that it was loaded with errors or questionable probable cause assertions. It's that it omitted perhaps the single most important element of a search warrant -- the location being searched.

When the forfeiture is a foregone conclusion, small towns end up with multi-million dollar facilities and supposed drug warriors with an eye on someone else's money can't even be bothered to fill out the paperwork. The reforms were needed and Governor Phil Bryant approved them.

Not that it mattered to local law enforcement.

Mississippi police agencies have been seizing cash, guns and vehicles without legal authority for months after a state law changed and police didn't notice.

An Associated Press review of a Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics database shows more than 60 civil asset forfeitures with nearly $200,000 in property taken by state and local agencies under a law that lapsed on June 30.

The state's cops just kept taking stuff under the old rules. And why not? They weren't detail oriented under the old system. That wasn't going to change just because legislators passed a law directly affecting their work. It certainly didn't matter to law enforcement that the top official in the state -- Governor Phil Bryant -- had given his approval of the reforms by signing the bill into law.

Apparently it doesn't matter to Governor Phil Bryant either.

If you can't read/see the tweet, here's the Mississippi governor telling residents they and their precious Constitutional rights can go fuck themselves.

When drug dealers have taken over your neighborhood, call a Constitutional scholar and see how that works out for you.

Governor Bryant's tweet links to the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, which has just sent him a letter asking him (and other state legislators) not to roll back the minor reforms that went into effect last year. His tweet directly mocks Ilya Shapiro, the Constitutional scholar quoted in the Center's post. And it directly mocks everyone who saw law enforcement abusing a weapon in its drug war arsenal to strip property from citizens with almost zero accountability or avenues of recourse.

In short, Governor Bryant thinks cops should have more rights and people not even accused of crimes should have less. That's an extremely shitty look for someone representing one of the fifty states of the United States of America.

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Posted on Techdirt - 5 February 2019 @ 3:23am

DNA-Matching Company Decides To Open Its Doors To The FBI Without Bothering To Inform Its Users

from the thanks-for-the-heads-up,-tools dept

Your DNA may seem like a personal thing, but a number of companies specializing in DNA testing are ensuring it's anything but. Whether you're looking for markers identifying health risks or simply want to see who you're related to, you're giving these companies permission to create a pool of DNA samples almost anyone else can access.

Law enforcement has taken note of these developments, creating fake accounts to submit samples from crime scenes in an effort to close out cases. Whether or not we agree with law enforcement's misrepresentation, there's very little standing in the way of the government accessing your DNA sample via a third party. The thing that makes people unique becomes little more than a third party record -- only a subpoena away from being in the government's possession.

But even subpoenas aren't necessary if DNA companies decided to partner up with law enforcement by giving agencies access to their databases. That's what's happening with Family Tree, a company specializing in in-home DNA testing kits, as Salvador Hernandez reports for BuzzFeed.

Family Tree DNA, one of the largest private genetic testing companies whose home-testing kits enable people to trace their ancestry and locate relatives, is working with the FBI and allowing agents to search its vast genealogy database in an effort to solve violent crime cases, BuzzFeed News has learned.

Federal and local law enforcement have used public genealogy databases for more than two years to solve cold cases, including the landmark capture of the suspected Golden State Killer, but the cooperation with Family Tree DNA and the FBI marks the first time a private firm has agreed to voluntarily allow law enforcement access to its database.

The company says the FBI cannot freely browse its databases, but this partnership suggests its not asking the FBI to run anything past a court before running a search. The company feels the potential PR hit is worth it because it's "helping" the FBI "solve violent crimes." This is a bit discouraging. We're used to government agencies excusing incursions into people's privacy with statements about "violent crime" or "terrorism" or "the War on…" or whatever. It's disheartening when a private company does it, thinking it's somehow serving the public better by turning their DNA samples into investigation fodder.

Here's the full extent of the program so far, at least according to Family DNA:

While Family Tree does not have a contract with the FBI, the firm has agreed to test DNA samples and upload the profiles to its database on a case-by-case basis since last fall, a company spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.

This at least spares the FBI the trouble of creating fake profiles to do the same thing. Still, there's little PR or societal value in allowing a government agency to do something it was probably doing already. We see it all the time at the federal level where law enforcement/national security abuses are greeted with codification rather than criticism. Sure, we don't expect all companies to give the government the cold shoulder, but we should at least expect them to demand a bit more from the government when it starts asking for access to millions of DNA records.

There's a way to opt out of the FBI's co-opting if you're a Family Tree customer. Unfortunately, this option makes Family Tree a complete misnomer.

Officials at Family Tree said customers could decide to opt out of any familial matching, which would prevent their profiles from being searchable by the FBI. But by doing so, customers would also be unable to use one of the key features of the service: finding possible relatives through DNA testing.

If someone objects to the FBI's access, the service is useless. And this access was put into place without customers being informed ahead of time or given an option to opt out prior to the government's access. No matter how enthused Family Tree may be about being part of the FBI's posse, this is a terrible way to treat customers who expected their personal info would be given a bit more privacy.

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