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Posted on Techdirt - 23 April 2014 @ 5:43am

Five Illinois Cops Are Caught Lying On The Stand When Defense Produces A Recording Contradicting Their Testimony

from the liars-apparently-still-trustworthy-enough-to-run-a-desk dept

Cops lie. Citizens know this. Defense attorneys know this. Prosecutors know this. Most importantly, judges know this. But rarely does it have any effect on the outcome of the case at hand. But in what has been described as a "Perry Mason moment," five Illinois police officers were caught lying on the stand. (h/t to Trevor Debus)

A seemingly routine suppression hearing in a suburban Chicago courthouse last month took an unexpected dramatic turn when video from a police car was introduced that disproved the testimony of five police officers.

They had said Joseph Sperling was arrested after officers who pulled him over in a traffic stop smelled marijuana, searched the vehicle and found nearly a pound in a backpack lying on the back seat of his car. But the Glenview police video showed the search occurred only after Sperling was taken from his car, frisked and handcuffed, reports the Chicago Tribune (sub. req.).
I suppose once the film rolled, there was little the judge could do but address it. It's one thing for a cop to lie in the courtroom and have it discovered months, weeks or even years later. It's quite another when the testimony is rebutted by video evidence during the same hearing.
"All the officers lied on the stand today," said [Judge Catherine] Haberkorn, who herself is a former prosecutor, at the March 31 hearing. "So there is strong evidence it was conspiracy to lie in this case, for everyone to come up with the same lie."
The officers, currently on desk duty, apparently did conspire to lie about the specifics of the search, at least according to the lawsuit filed by the arrestee shortly after this suppression hearing went sideways.
Joseph Sperling says in his suit that Chicago police asked Glenview officers at the scene of his arrest last June to turn off their squad car dashcams. At least one Glenview officer didn't, resulting in video footage that persuaded a Cook County Circuit Court judge to grant a motion to suppress seized evidence, because police testimony contradicted what the camera showed.
This case has obviously provoked quite a bit of discussion as to how often cops lie and what the final arbiters -- the judges -- do when they take this knowledge into consideration. The answers, unfortunately, are depressing. Even if these temporary desk jockeys manage to retain their jobs, one would think their days as credible witnesses are over. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Scott Greenfield talks about one judge he heard discuss why he kept on pushing defendants into the maw of the prison system, even while knowing those on the law enforcement side weren't necessarily any better when it came to truth-telling.
After a cocktail or two, Harold talked about how his experience as a judge changed him. Case after case, defendant after defendant, victim after victim, made it all a blur. Sure, cops lied. Everybody knew cops lied. Everybody knew cops lied in every case. That was the game. It was their job to put the bad guy away, and the way to win the game was to speak the magic words that the system accepted as necessary…

What was he supposed to do, Harold asked? They may not all be guilty, but they all were guilty. No one could pluck out the one in a hundred who didn’t deserve to be there, and he wasn’t going to cut everyone free because he couldn’t tell who was who. […] He had a job to do, to keep the cattle moving toward the slaughter. Harold could be a rather charming guy, personally. As a judge, he was utterly despicable.
Judge Richard Kopf, prompted by Greenfield's post, offered his own thoughts as to why he finds cops credible witnesses, despite loads of evidence otherwise. It's a bracing read and admirably soul-baring, but it's not going to make anyone feel any better about their odds against a lying law enforcement officer. While he makes several points that indicate he's still more careful in his selection process than the Judge Harold mentioned above, he does make the following indictment of his own beliefs and behavior.
I am a shitty judge of credibility. Truly, I am. See here for what happened when I believed a defendant and it blew up in my face with an editorial cartoon and the whole nine yards. Thus, when forced to judge between a cop and a defendant it is safer to believe the cop than the defendant particularly if a judge cares about his or her reputation. While pleading the subconscious in mitigation, there was a period of time when I really thought I might make it to the Circuit if I were a good little boy. See what happened to Judge Baer when he “screwed” up.
Will Baude at the Volokh Conspiracy, who originally questioned whether these five cops would be unable to offer believable testimony in the future, gathered some notable comments from Judge Kopf's post that lend credence to the belief that everyone in the courtroom knows cops lie, but there's very little anyone's actually willing to do about it, partly because the system destroys judges who refuse to play along.

Lorin Duckman, a former New York judge, noted how the system lends itself to accommodating lying cops, if only to keep the system moving at the pace that pleases most of those involved.
It’s not just about the trials. Jurors don’t want to sit, don’t understand the instructions and cannot consider what the sentence should be. They cannot tell if a person is lying or not and tend to believe those who look like them or wear badges, despite instructions to the contrary. It’s not about did the accused did it or didn’t do it, most of the time. It’s about the penalties, the sentences, and the lack of a future when one tries to put a life together after doing time. It’s about judges who need to move calendars, jailers and bailiffs, court reporters and clerks who depend on a steady stream of defendants for their livelihood ...
But Duckman also points out that judges have their own livelihoods to consider, and speaking aloud about the fact that cops lie on the stand tends to short-circuit their futures.
[M]ost of all it’s the Judges who sit silently, listening to the bartering, accepting the stories for fear that they will be removed if they question, dismiss or offer justice. Break my hear[t], they did.

A comment I made, “cops lie all the time,” was introduced as evidence at my removal hearing and served as the basis for finding me biased. I couldn’t have been the only judge who believed that, could I?
The system is broken all the way up and all the way down. These five cops were very possibly only called out because it was unavoidable. Their punishment for being caught perjuring themselves has been desk duty, something that may seem tedious compared to pulling people over and illegally searching their vehicles, but can hardly be considered a true punishment. It's not as though the facts are disputed. The cops are being "investigated" after lying in court in front of a judge and several witnesses. There's literally nothing to "investigate."

This is just two police departments (Glenview and Chicago) buying time until they can weigh possible punishments and outcomes. As few judges are willing to confront the fact that cops lie with the same frequency as other human beings, just as few PDs are willing to terminate officers (partly due to pushback from officers' unions), no matter the wrongdoing.

But before all hope is destroyed, another judge (Alabama's Judge Joseph Johnson) commenting at Kopf's blog noted the status quo is changing, at least in his courtroom.
Yesterday I met with our new police chief (city of 250,000) I I told him I was getting tired of not having video or audio recordings of defendants statements. I said I felt juries disbelieved the rendition by the officer (especially a narcotics officer). I added, I was not sure I was going to believe another citizen consented to the search of his vehicle unless I had a written signed consent to search (which they have). The Chief looked like I had kicked his dog. I said “Hey, the jurors expect this in this age of technology.” We will see.
Looking at this and another set of isolated incidents -- the pushback by two judges against overly-broad search warrants -- gives a modicum of hope that law enforcement will be finally forced to play by the rules that have been existent since shortly after the founding of this nation. It's too little, far too late and it's marked by outliers rather than exceptions to the rule. But at least it's something. And the more the public is informed about the routine abuse of civil liberties by law enforcement, the less those tasked with handling the intersection of cops and civilians will be able to ignore the reality of the situation and blithely (and blindly) believe badges denote a more trustworthy class of human.

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Posted on Techdirt - 22 April 2014 @ 9:08am

Police File On Student 'Bullied Into Committing Suicide' Strangely Lacking In Evidence Of Bullying

from the scapegoating-still-easier-than-addressing-the-ugliness-of-real-life dept

CNN recently published a follow up story dealing with the circumstances surrounding the suicide of Rebecca Sedwick, a 12-year-old who leapt to her death reportedly due to intense bullying -- and it appears the whole "bullying" part is almost entirely absent.

One of the more unexpected outcomes of Sedwick's suicide was the arrest of two students in connection with her death. (Though not wholly without precedent...) According to Sheriff Grady Judd, the two suspects posted messages both before and after Sedwick's death that indicated they were involved in her bullying. The older of the two suspects (one was 14 and the other 12) posted the following on Facebook after Sedwick took her own life.

Yes ik [I know] I bullied Rebecca nd she killed her self but IDGAF [I don't give a (expletive)].
Sheriff Judd took it upon himself to have these two arrested, setting a somewhat dangerous precedent in his county that people could be held criminally responsible for someone else's voluntary action. He seemed to approach this as a crusade against the cruelty of youth, one in which laws and common sense could be overturned in order to right wrongs.

Judd, as it turns out, has had plenty of crusades in his past. One of his more notable efforts involved sending deputies 1,900 miles away to arrest a suspected pedophile. Judd's moral compass, however, skews a bit further north than most, which makes his stance on issues like pornography and bullying somewhat suspect.
In 2007, commenting on a case in which he had arrested a man who was running a porn site out of his home in Polk, [Judd] said: "No normal person could even imagine what's depicted in those videos and in those photographs." A sexual behavior expert from the University of Central Florida said in a motion in the man's court file that it was run-of-the-mill erotica available anywhere on the Internet to anyone.
Judd also seldom performs his work without an audience. One colleague of his memorably stated that the most dangerous place to be is "between Judd and a camera." This calls into question Judd's judgement as well, which seems to be at least as populist-oriented as it is crime-oriented.

Not long after Judd's high-profile arrest of two students, the charges were dropped by the State District Attorney. Judd applied spin to his prized arrests being cut loose, claiming all he wanted to do was, "bring this conduct to the proper authorities." Considering Judd is one of the "proper authorities," one wonders what endgame he envisioned. It certainly couldn't have been his righteous crusade being found legally untenable by the state.

Another crusader, this time a lawyer, decided Sedwick's death called for a new law -- one that targeted parents for not policing their children's online behavior. According to his extrapolations, the parents should be held responsible for an unrelated person's suicide, something even further removed than Judd's assertion that the two students should be held criminally responsible for Sedwick's suicide. (Of course, Judd also thought the parents should be punished somehow, and even hauled in one of the parents for unrelated abuse/neglect charges.)

By the time this had all been sorted out, rumors were beginning to surface that Sedwick's home life wasn't quite the placid safehouse her grieving mother had portrayed it as.
More than a year before her death, Sedwick had been battling depression resulting from her deteriorating relationship with her father, according to intake reports from a counselor that are included in the police file. She also complained about fights between her mother and stepfather. The file, which has been reviewed by CNN, says she cut herself on a few occasions, had suicidal ideations and had been committed for psychiatric evaluation for two days.

In November 2012, she accused her mother of abusing her and then took back the accusation, saying she was pushed to lie by classmates who forced her off campus and told her they wouldn't let her return home unless she lied to an officer. Her mother denied abusing Sedwick but said she slapped the girl's face once during an argument about Sedwick being too young to date.

Sometime before her death, Sedwick's relationship with an online boyfriend came to an end, according to the documents. Family conflict, in addition to bullying from girls at school, weighed on her.
What wasn't found in the files, however, was much evidence that Sedwick was unrelentingly bullied.
"I don't think I was prepared for the abysmal lack ... of any evidence of bullying for the seven months prior to her suicide," said Nancy Willard, director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age, a group that focuses on combating cyberbullying, and author of a handful of books including "Positive Relations @ School (& Elsewhere)."
Willard says this case is like many others: parents and authorities leaping to the wrong conclusions in the aftermath of a tragedy. The haste to pin a suicide on bullying buried the rest of Sedwick's background. This is somewhat understandable, given the circumstances. In the wake of a tragedy, no one wants to point the finger at the parents as possibly being partially responsible for their own child's death.

But if these teens were somehow responsible for Sedwick's suicide, then why wouldn't anyone go after the other factors, all of which were included in the police file? Why didn't someone haul in the ex-boyfriend? Surely he's as "culpable" as anyone.

No one would think to haul in anyone else (parents, ex-boyfriend) who contributed to Sedwick's unhappiness, but it was considered perfectly OK to haul in two teens and attempt to press criminal charges, even when faced with a dearth of evidence. But that's exactly how ridiculous Judd's efforts were.

Now that Judd has apparently seen this lack of evidence for the first time, he's backpedaling quickly.
"We never said that bullying was the only reason Rebecca committed suicide," Judd told The Associated Press. "But what the bullies did is that they continued to stack bricks on an already overloaded wagon till finally, it broke."
But these "bricks" could have been "stacked" in any order. Judd simply made the most popular move, one that brought in the most unsympathetic suspects. And then he rode his hobby horse hard, until it collapsed under the weight of his misguided convictions.

But there are still those who want to make someone pay. The lawyer for Sedwick's mother is planning to sue the school district as well as at least one of the two girls Judd arrested. He claims to have evidence that the teens bullied Sedwick and that the school not only knew, but did nothing to stop it.

There is evidence that indicates Sedwick was bullied in the months leading up to her death, but that evidence is scattershot at best. The lack of evidence doesn't necessarily mean it didn't happen, but it does suggest that, coupled with other information coming to light, it was hardly the only factor in Sedwick's decision to end her life.

The point here isn't to excuse the bullies for their actions. The point is that far too often the instantaneous reaction to tragedies is misguided and myopic, focusing on the least sympathetic protagonists and ignoring anything else that doesn't fit the narrative that's easiest to accept. The larger problem is that law enforcement and legislators are especially prone to act on this limited (or willfully ignored) information, and that results in all sorts of questionable actions and terrible laws -- things that negatively affect the general public.

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Posted on Techdirt - 22 April 2014 @ 5:39am

Time Warner Cable's Contractual Loophole Allows It To Tell Local Politicians It Has Received Zero Complaints

from the which-is-the-least-likely-thing-to-ever-have-happened dept

How plausible is it for a company that routinely ranks at the bottom of customer satisfaction surveys to claim it has had "no complaints?" Time Warner Cable did exactly that on its way to extending its franchise agreement with Keene, New Hampshire through 2023. Broadband Reports has the details:

Last month in Keene, New Hampshire, the Keene City Council was voting on whether to add a second local channel (which would give the city more revenue) through Time Warner Cable. In exchange, Time Warner Cable wanted to extend the franchise agreement with the city for an additional five years, or the year 2023. While the rest of the council agreed to give Time Warner Cable the extension, one Councilor had a bit of an issue with the way that Time Warner Cable was running their business.

Even though the Council voted 4-1 in favor of the second channel, Councilor Terry M. Clark expressed his disappointment with Time Warner Cable on their refusal to adhere to the original franchise agreement signed with the city years back that forces Time Warner Cable to tell the City Council about any complaints that they receive from customers:

"They reported back that they had no complaints," Clark said at last week’s meeting. "I asked, ‘Why?’ They said because they weren't required to write them down."
Yes, that last part is true. TWC's franchise agreement contains some language that allows it to whitewash its horrible track record. Bill Neilson at Broadband Reports spoke with the objecting council member, who forwarded him the no-problems-here contractual clause.
Except as limited by federal law or FCC regulations concerning privacy, Franchisee shall maintain a record of all such complaints and such records shall be available at Franchisee's local offices for at least two years for inspection by the Franchising Authority as it may from time to time request, during regular business hours and upon reasonable notice. Nothing herein shall be deemed to require Franchisee to maintain records of oral complaints, which can be handled to the customer's satisfaction in the course of the initial conversation in which the complaint is made or does not require technical field response. Upon request, the Franchisee shall provide to the Franchising Authority an accounting of the number and nature of such complaints.
Oral complaints apparently don't need to be recorded for posterity if they are handled with a single phone call, or if a technician is never sent out. The key here would seem to be "to the customer's satisfaction," but it appears TWC isn't going to let itself get bogged down by discussions about whether or not the end user was actually satisfied. Presumably, "handled in a single phone call" is still valid (and unrecordable) even if the person is bounced from useless rep to useless rep for hours or simply spends an unimaginable amount of time on hold. As long as someone on TWC's end can put a check in the "resolved" box at the end of the conversation (and keep technicians from leaving the building), the complaint is off the record.

If the person calls back, presumably a new record is opened for that single call and, again, dismissed once the problem is "resolved." This is cooking the books on low heat and since TWC is the custodian of the records, there's little anyone can do to point out where complaints are being vanished into the ether.

Councilman Clark strongly feels TWC just isn't being honest.
"It's my contention that most call-in complaints are not resolved in the course of the initial conversation and that they are required to account for the nature of all complaints," said Councilor Terry M. Clark.
But if only one council member is going to ask questions, it's highly unlikely TWC will suddenly become a model of corporate responsibility. Until there's danger of it losing the contract, it's not going to live up to even the most basic level of accountability. This is the other danger of cableco monopolies and duopolies: even cities themselves have no leverage against the only game in town.

It takes a humongous amount of chutzpah to claim you've had no complaints, when all of the following is on the record (gathered by Broadband Reports):
This statement by TWC is the company daring the city council to call bullshit on its claims. But the city won't. The funds the city collects from every TWC subscriber (much of which goes to support local TV channels) won't be easy to replace, especially if an incumbent cable company poisons the well before leaving town. TWC has a good thing going and has fought the council every step of the way to ensure its profit margins stay intact.
Time Warner offered an adapter box for free through Dec. 18, after which customers had to purchase the adapter from the cable company. The box will also come with a monthly $1 fee beginning Jan. 1, 2015.

Clark convinced his fellow councilors to ask Time Warner to consider waiving the $39.99 installation fee for subscribers who couldn’t install the adapter themselves, but the company refused.

“There are many other things that we’ve asked of Time Warner,” Clark said last week. “They’re not willing to give rate payers anything unless it’s required by law, and even if it is required by law, it has to be pushing and shoving before they’ll acquiesce to that. I don’t think they deserve (a contract extension).”
Clark has been outvoted and TWC has another nine years to continue fighting city hall and tossing complaints in the trash. Does anyone (other than Comcast) think merging it with another cable company with an equally horrendous customer service record will really improve things?

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Posted on Techdirt - 21 April 2014 @ 3:38pm

Putin's 'Clapper' Moment: What He Said Vs. What Russian Intelligence Actually Does

from the did-anyone-expect-Putin-to-actually-confirm-this? dept

Snowden's puzzling single-question Q&A with Russian president Vladimir Putin on the topic of domestic surveillance prompted many to believe this was an indication that he was, at the very least, under control of Russian intelligence, if not actually acting in concert with it. Putin took the apparent softball and lined it right down the middle, responding with a series of statements and denials that made Russia appear to be the antithesis of the US government: tightly controlled intelligence built on respect for its citizens' privacy.

As Snowden later clarified, he was pulling a Wyden -- crafting a question about the mass collection and storage of communications that would either result in transparency or an easily-disproven denial. Putin delivered the latter.

"Mr Snowden you are a former agent, a spy, I used to work for a intelligence service, we are going to talk the same language."

He said Russia did not have a comparable programme, stating: "Our agents are controlled by law. You have to get court permission to put an individual under surveillance. We don't have mass permission, and our law makes it impossible for that kind of mass permission to exist."
Putin's response was laughable. After all, his nation's intelligence services originally put the "surveillance" in Surveillance State. In the USSR, along with the Eastern Bloc, citizens were very closely watched and routinely punished for not toeing the Party line.

Not much has changed, even if Russia is nominally a "free" country. The Russian Federal Service for Telecoms Supervision (Roskomnazdor) is continually expanding its internet censorship efforts and Russian intelligence services have made public announcements about their surveillance plans, like the collection of all foreign communications during the Sochi Olympics.

While Roskomnazdor mans the front door, Russian intelligence lets itself in the back, according to information gathered by Privacy International.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, many of the KGB’s regional branches became the security services of the newly independent states. But they didn’t stray far from the Kremlin’s lead. They modeled their governing laws after Moscow’s, and used similar technology, too. Namely, SORM — Russia’s nationwide system of automated and remote legal interception on all kinds of communications.

SORM’s tactical and technical foundations were developed by a KGB research institute in the mid-1980s. Initially SORM was installed on analogue telephone lines. As new technologies developed, SORM did, as well.

Today SORM-1 intercepts telephone traffic, including mobile networks, while SORM-2 is responsible for intercepting internet traffic, including VoIP. SORM-3 gathers information from all communication media, and offers long-term storage (three years), providing access to all data on subscribers. In addition, SORM enables the use of mobile control points, a laptop that can be plugged directly into communication hubs and immediately intercept and record the operator’s traffic.
SORM also proved essential to spy on social networks based in Russia. “We can use SORM to take stuff off their servers behind their backs,” an FSB official told us. According to figures published by Russia’s Supreme Court, over the last five years the number of legal telephone intercepts alone has almost doubled, from 265,937 intercepts and recordings of phone calls and e-mails to 466,152 in 2011.
Going back to Putin's statement, he claims that "court permission" is needed to put someone under surveillance. From the above paragraph, that statement would appear to be true. But further digging into SORM reveals that court orders and warrants are little more than surveillance blank checks.
In Russia, an FSB operative is also required to get an eavesdropping warrant, but he is not obliged to show it to anyone. Telecom providers have no right to demand that the FSB show them the warrant. The providers are required to pay for the SORM equipment and its installation, but they are denied access to the surveillance boxes.
Thus, the FSB does not need to contact the ISP’s staff; instead the security service calls on the special controller at the FSB HQ that is connected by a protected cable directly to the SORM device installed on the ISP network. This system is copied all over the country: In every Russian town there are protected underground cables, which connect the HQ of the local FSB department with all ISPs and telecom providers in the region.
If the FSB needs to add targets to its existing "tap," it doesn't need to notify the court. The agent in place simply updates the SORM control device. So, one controller and one court order can easily trap the communications of an unlimited number of citizens, all without anyone but SORM knowing who's being surveilled. This technology has made its way to the former Eastern Bloc (which hasn't made those countries happy) and has been deployed to intercept communications from political opponents. The more things change, the more Russian intelligence appears to be happy to return to its KGB heyday.

Beyond the fact that Putin's answer was simply (and knowingly) false, there's also the fact that his denials echo those delivered by NSA and GCHQ officials. Whenever a new leak surfaces, the routine denial is dispensed. Here's GCHQ's canned response:
[A]ll of GCHQ’s work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight…
Putin basically says the same thing while denying information that's already been made public. According to him, it's all legal and subject to oversight, something that clearly isn't the case. Certainly Snowden expected a canned answer, and he got one -- one in which Putin lied about his intelligence agency's capabilities and tactics. At one point, we in the US (and the UK) could have mocked such a clearly false denial, but after the events of the past nine months, we no longer have that luxury.

The problem isn't that we don't expect Russia's government to have made a sea change in its relationship with its citizens. The problem is that we didn't expect ours had. Putting this on Snowden's head because a softball question was handled with a PR-savvy answer doesn't make him complicit with the FSB's surveillance activities. But our politicians and government agencies have made us unwillingly complicit with our own. "Legality" and "oversight" are mere buzzwords in the hands of surveillance state defenders. The words don't mean what they used to… if they ever meant anything at all.

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Posted on Techdirt - 21 April 2014 @ 2:15pm

9/11 Trial Grinds To A Halt As Evidence Surfaces That FBI Subverted Attorney-Client Privilege

from the hey,-it's-just-a-'privilege,'-amiright? dept

More evidence is being uncovered indicating that if the government wants access to privileged attorney-client communications, it will find a way to do so. This new incident, tied to the 9/11 trials, follows the news that the NSA gave Australian intelligence the go-ahead to intercept communications between an American lawyer and his Indonesian clients.

This previous incident resulted in the American Bar Association sending a letter to the NSA asking it to uphold the sanctity of attorney-clients communications. Gen. Alexander's response was basically "of course we respect that, but we grab so much stuff there's no way for us to guarantee we'll never intercept privileged communications." Not much in the way of reassurance there, and this following story shows there's even less reason to believe that investigative and national security agencies won't insert themselves into the attorney-client relationship.

Two weeks ago, a pair of F.B.I. agents appeared unannounced at the door of a member of the defense team for one of the men accused of plotting the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As a contractor working with the defense team at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, the man was bound by the same confidentiality rules as a lawyer. But the agents wanted to talk.

They asked questions, lawyers say, about the legal teams for Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and other accused terrorists who will eventually stand trial before a military tribunal at Guantánamo. Before they left, the agents asked the contractor to sign an agreement promising not to tell anyone about the conversation.

With that signature, Mr. bin al-Shibh’s lawyers say, the government turned a member of their team into an F.B.I. informant.
There's not much more available detail-wise, as the defense's motion informing the court of this subversion is -- like most of the documents related to this trial -- under seal. But everything leading up to this new revelation indicates the government views this trial to be a forum where the normal rules just don't apply.

To begin with, this was never meant to be much more than a show trial. The special tribunal system was set up by President Bush after the 9/11 attacks, specifically for suspected terrorists. (Despite the stacked deck -- foreign terrorism suspects aren't afforded the same legal protections as US citizens -- the court has yet to secure a conviction in its 12+ years of existence.) This special system has resulted in several instances of access to attorney-client communications, some intentional and others (supposedly) more inadvertent.
Last year, the government acknowledged that microphones were hidden inside what looked like smoke detectors in the rooms where detainees met with their lawyers. Those microphones gave officials the ability to eavesdrop on confidential conversations, but the military said it never did so…

A botched computer update gave prosecutors and defense lawyers access to the other side’s confidential work. And the Pentagon acknowledged inadvertently searching and copying defense lawyers’ emails but said nobody read them.
And it's not just the defense that's bothered by these incidents.
Christopher Jenks, a Southern Methodist University law professor and a former military prosecutor, said he sympathized with the Guantánamo prosecutors, who appeared to have been just as surprised as defense lawyers by the appearance of the F.B.I. and C.I.A. in their cases.
But even more troubling is the fact that an agency supposedly uninvolved in the proceedings has gone so far as to subvert the judicial process altogether.
Last year, as a lawyer for Mr. Mohammed was speaking during another hearing, a red light began flashing. Then the videofeed from the courtroom abruptly cut out. The emergency censorship system had been activated. But why? And by whom? The defense lawyer had said nothing classified. And the court officer responsible for protecting state secrets had not triggered the system. Days later, the military judge, Col. James L. Pohl, announced that he had been told that an “original classification authority” — meaning the C.I.A. — was secretly monitoring the proceedings. Unknown to everyone else, the agency had its own button, which the judge swiftly and angrily disconnected.
After witnessing the amount of effort the CIA has made in order to thwart the release of the torture report, it's of no surprise that it tried to control the narrative here as well. It's also no surprise the agency feels it should defer to no one, not even a presidentially-directed tribunal.

The government does have a little more leeway, considering these aren't your normal, subject-to-due-process trials, but it's still problematic that despite the advantages of a quasi-tribunal set up by a presidential order in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, government investigative agencies still feel compelled to not only insert themselves into the process, but to subvert client-attorney privilege on top of it. All's fair in the War on Terror, it would appear, even when those suspects are safely locked up and going into their second decade of detention as the broken process labors on.

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Posted on Techdirt - 21 April 2014 @ 1:14pm

Law School Trustee's Company Chills Critical Speech With Subpoena For Students' Personal Emails

from the this-isn't-about-you-but-please-give-us-your-emails dept

A New York University trustee has found a way to chill speech critical of him and the companies he owns: subpoena the personal emails of two particularly outspoken opponents.

A New York University Law trustee's company wants two students to hand over their personal emails after they circulated a letter criticizing him, according to a subpoena.

The law students, second-year Luke Herrine and first-year Leo Gertner, were targeted after they helped circulate a letter denouncing NYU Law School trustee Daniel Straus, who owns Care One Management, a home health aide and nursing home company embroiled in a labor dispute.
The two students started a petition asking for the removal of Straus from the Board of Trustees, pointing out that a law school should probably be associated with someone who respects the law, something Straus' companies seem to have trouble doing. His two companies, CareOne and HealthBridge Management, have been cited at least 38 times by the National Labor Relations Board for violating federal labor laws. In addition, HealthBridge was held in contempt of court for refusing to allow 600 workers to return to their jobs at their pre-strike pay levels.

CareOne's current legal battle with a local labor union, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), something that has dragged on for years at this point, has seemingly turned into a convenient way for Straus to get back at his critics. Of course, CareOne claims otherwise.
CareOne spokesperson Deborah Maxson said the deadline for the requested information is April 25.

“Straus is not a party to the lawsuit and is not managing the litigation,” Maxson said.
Straus may not be a party to this lawsuit, but these are his companies, and there can be very little doubt that Straus would prefer the ongoing criticism of his business efforts be halted. If CareOne wants to use the excuse that Straus isn't a "party" to this lawsuit, then it needs to extend that same courtesy to the two students, who also aren't a "party" to the ongoing legal fight.

Then there's the content sought by the subpoenas. This, too, mentions Straus directly, even as CareOne claims this has nothing to do with him. According to a letter sent by the Board of Trustees to NYU administration, this is what CareOne is hoping to obtain:
“The subpoenas requested information regarding any contact the students may have had with SEIU and any activity they may have engaged in, such as protests or meetings, relating to Mr. Straus or CareOne...”
If Straus isn't "party" to this lawsuit, why does CareOne need information relating to Straus? Beyond that, the information requested bears all the hallmarks of trying to use the power of the court to silence free speech. Protests and meetings, both activities covered by the First Amendment, are mentioned specifically by the subpoena.

For what it's worth, NYU has stepped up and has provided the students with the pro bono help of one of the school's lawyers. It also issued a very carefully-worded defense of the students, no doubt mindful of Straus' $1.25 million annual endowment.
“The Law School is not a party to the litigation between Care One and SEIU, and will remain uninvolved in it," the school wrote in a statement to DNAinfo New York sent Thursday. "We vigorously support the right of our students to express their views and to organize and participate in lawful demonstrations and other protest activity, at the same time that we acknowledge that parties to litigation are permitted, subject to applicable rules and judicial oversight, to gather evidence in support of their case."
Further statements reiterated NYU's support for its students' rights but also noted it considered Straus to be an "upright and honorable person."

That said, it seems that there is a clear -- and somewhat massive -- conflict of interest for Straus to remain on the board of trustees at NYU Law at the same time he's using the legal process to demand the email contents from two of its students.

As is noted by the students' new petition demanding the withdrawal of the subpoenas, this sort of activity, undertaken by a "victim" of criticism, will discourage others from approaching anything remotely controversial.
Forcing students to turn over emails and other private communications in litigation that does not concern them can chill free speech on campus and make students think twice about raising their voice about controversial issues. This is antithetical to NYU's mission of open academic inquiry and commitment to the public interest.
Rather than address these concerns, Straus is allowing (or directing) his company to shut down his critics by seeking personal communications from non-party NYU students. Straus also has additional leverage with the university should this fail to keep future criticism at bay. Of course, there's always a chance NYU will side with the students and decide that Straus' companies don't really reflect the culture it's trying to instill in its students. But until this all plays out, we're just witnessing the sort of tactics deployed by entities who would rather shut people up than address their concerns.

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Posted on Techdirt - 21 April 2014 @ 9:05am

Homeland Security Adviser Warns Parents That Their Mouthy Kids May Grow Up To Be Terrorists

from the just-when-you-thought-the-'terrorist-twos'-were-horrible-enough dept

Our nation's singular focus on terrorism has led to various branches of the government and counterterrorism pundits declaring all sorts of things to be warning signs of terrorist activity. Here's a short (but by no means all-inclusive) list of activities that are supposedly indicators of terrorism-in-progress.

Now, here's a new one to add to the list. If Lisa Monaco (White House Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Advisor) is to be believed, nearly every parent, especially those with stereotypical teens in the household, is harboring potential terrorists.

“Parents might see sudden personality changes in their children at home—becoming confrontational. Religious leaders might notice unexpected clashes over ideological differences. Teachers might hear a student expressing an interest in traveling to a conflict zone overseas. Or friends might notice a new interest in watching or sharing violent material.”
That's right, parents. If your child seems moody, unreceptive to your religious leanings, enjoys watching violent "material" or wants to travel nearly anywhere in the world (not a whole lot left outside of the First World that can't be described as war-torn), he or she is your family's very own "insider threat."

Monaco understands this might be troubling for parents to hear, but it's all for the best. Remember, parents: only you can prevent terrorism.
“The government is rarely in position to observe these early signals, so we need to do more to help communities understand the warning signs, and then work together to intervene before an incident can occur.”
The nation's counterterrorism forces are profoundly sympathetic for these terrorist-raisers. They truly wish they could be in the position to catch these early warning signs, but our short-sighted predecessors have prevented them from observing first-hand, thanks to obstacles like the Third and Fourth Amendments.

Not to worry. As Monaco points out, the nation has mobilized parents' neighbors against them, providing them with any number of see-something-say-something venues with which to turn in your confrontational, agnostic, R-rated movie-watching hellspawn -- just in case you don't love America enough to do it yourself.

Oh, and P.S.: the DHS reiterates its commitment to flooding small towns with military vehicles and weaponry.
Monaco said that in addition to citizen alertness, the Department of Homeland Security is increasing its partnerships across the country and making hundreds of millions of dollars in grant money available annually to local law enforcement to help improve anti-terrorism security at the municipal and county level.
A terrorist in every household and a military assault vehicle in every unincorporated township. USA! USA! USA!

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Posted on Techdirt - 21 April 2014 @ 5:46am

Police Raid Apartment, Seize Electronics Related To A Long-Suspended Twitter Account Parodying Town's Mayor

from the from-overkill-to-backfire-in-record-time dept

It doesn't matter how you look at this situation. This is an abuse of power. No matter how much benefit of a doubt you give the protagonists -- even if you cut the Peoria, IL police so much slack you're both falling over backwards (to borrow a Sparks lyric) -- this situation looks like the end result of an overly-close relationship between city politicians and local law enforcement. How else would you explain the following?

Illinois police seized computers and mobile phones while raiding a house whose owner was suspected of parodying the town mayor on Twitter.

In all, five people following the Tuesday evening raid were taken to the Peoria Police Department station for questioning, local media report.
The Twitter account, which had all of 50 followers, and had been already shut down by Twitter "weeks ago," became the flash point for a police raid that involved seven plainclothes officers and the detainment of five people - two of whom were cuffed at their place of employment.

If the mayor felt there was something wrong with this "impersonation," he had plenty of other options available that wouldn't have resulted in this egregious show of force. For one, he could have contacted Twitter and asked for the account to be suspended. (And, for all we know, he did. [UPDATE: see below.] The account hadn't been active for "weeks" by the time the raid took place.) Second, he could have pursued this through civil action (if he felt the account was defamatory, etc.). There was no reason to involve the police in this -- unless, of course, this was the sort of thing the Peoria Police enjoy doing.

Justin Glawe at Vice has a followup on this story which highlights the Peoria Police Department's shady misconduct record.
Peoria is a town of 116,000 people. It has some problems with crime and also some problems with the police, which you can get a sense of if you follow my work or the work of Matt Buedel, the Journal Star crime reporter who broke a several stories last year detailing misconduct within the police department, including an attempt to catch a city councilman in a prostitution sting. The Illinois Attorney General’s Office ruled that an internal report regarding some of those acts of alleged misconduct should be released, but the city and the police department refused. (That report was apparently “lost” by Settingsgaard, and somehow ended up in the hands of a panhandler who, coincidentally, I used to work at a gas station with and know to be a pretty serious drug addict.)
The prostitution sting involved 12 task force officers staking out a Red Roof Inn overnight in hopes of catching Dan Irving, a city council candidate, with a prostitute. This sting ran the day after a close primary election. (Irving went on to lose the general election.) The overnight stakeout was ultimately fruitless as Irving never arrived at the motel with or without a prostitute.

Evidence exists that the Peoria Police Department is willing to be politically motivated. These officers trashed rooms and grabbed every device with an internet connection (including some Xboxes), proclaiming they were linked to an "internet crime." Although no one's been charged yet (other than an unrelated marijuana possession charge -- hooray for the fortuitous results of a bogus police search), the chief of the Peoria Police has dug deep enough into Illinois law to find something to use against the person running the long-suspended, inside joke of an account.
Peoria Police Chief Steve Settingsgaard said the department was investigating misdemeanor charges of impersonating a public official, which carries a maximum one-year jail term and $2,500 fine. The chief, according to the Southern Illinoisan, said it "appears that someone went to great lengths to make it appear it was actually from the mayor."
Really? "Great lengths?" How many Twitter users would have believed the following was issued by the Mayor or his office?

Beyond that, the account bio was changed on March 10th to indicate the account was a parody. A couple of weeks later, it was suspended. Three weeks after that, Peoria police corral five people and their electronics in order to stop something that was already dead and never popular.

Now, news of this has spread nationwide, and as Justin Glawes points out, it has led to the generation of several more fake Peoria Mayor accounts. The colossally stupid effort has done little more than given the nation a reason to dig into the misdeeds of the Peoria Police and an indication of just how thin Mayor Ardis' skin is.

UPDATE: Confirmed: Mayor Ardis was behind the raid. The search warrant obtained by Peoria's Journal Star notes that Ardis approached the police department and told officials there he wanted to find out who was behind the Twitter account. He also told the PD he wished to pursue criminal charges. Warrants were also served to Comcast and Twitter in order to obtain additional information. [h/t to Jim Romenesko]

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Posted on Techdirt - 18 April 2014 @ 5:33pm

Finally, Someone Acts Like An Adult: District Attorney Drops Charges Against Bullied Teen Who Recorded His Tormentors

from the and-to-think,-this-all-could-have-been-prevented dept

South Fayette School in Pennsylvania, along with a complicit criminal justice system, recently made headlines with its groundbreaking anti-bullying program, which apparently deters bullying by punishing bullied students.

Here's a short recap:

A bullied student used an iPad to make an audio recording of other students abusing him. He brought this to school administration who a) called in a police officer (after being advised by its legal team that this might be a violation of the state's wiretapping law) and b) deleted the recording.

The police officer, unable to actually bring a felony charge against the minor, settled for disorderly conduct. This charge brought him before a judge, who first stated her firm belief in the school's inability to do wrong before finding him guilty.

Throughout the entire debacle, not a single person involved even considered the possibility that the student had committed no crime or the fact that he had followed all of the school's prescribed steps for reporting bullying incidents. Instead, the desire to punish someone was obliged every step of the way.

Finally, someone within the justice system has chosen to act like an adult, rather than a bunch of clique-y, vindictive children.

Stanfield (the student) had announced that he and his attorney would file an appeal to that ruling but his fight may already be coming to an end. Today, has been told by Stanfield’s attorney that the District Attorney will allow the appeal to go forward but will no longer pursue this case.
More specifically, both the wiretapping charge (which was apparently still brought despite the involved officer's statement otherwise) and the disorderly conduct charge (which the judge found the student guilty of) were dropped.
A wiretapping charge against a South Fayette High School student who recorded two classmates bullying him has been dropped by the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office.

Mike Manko, a spokesman for District Attorney Stephen Zappala, said Judge Robert Gallo signed an order Thursday to withdraw the citation against 15-year-old Christian Stanfield.

"No one in our office who is authorized to give advice on wiretap issues or school conduct issues was ever contacted in this matter. We have made multiple attempts to contact the officer who wrote the citation and (the) results have been unsuccessful," Manko said in a written statement. "We do not believe this behavior rises to the level of a citation."
Odd that a police officer wouldn't talk to a district attorney. Unless, of course, a little bit of hindsight made him realize his every move fell between vindictive and buffoonish. Lt. Murka, who apparently considered both wiretapping and disorderly conduct to be appropriate "remedies" for a bullied student recording his tormentors, seems to have recused himself from the public eye. Manko, speaking for the DA, hits the heart of the issue -- one simple sentence that any of those involved could have deployed to call an end to this ridiculous situation before it ended up in front of a judge: "We do not believe this behavior rises to the level of a citation."

The school has now gone on record to declare it's everyone else who's wrong:
The South Fayette Township School District wishes to address recent reports in the local and national media concerning a student of the South Fayette Township School District. It is to be noted that certain information being disseminated by the media is inaccurate and/or incomplete.
Rather than clear up what exactly was "inaccurate and/or incomplete" about the reporting, it instead has chosen to hide behind "confidentiality."
The School District is legally precluded from commenting specifically in regard to these reports as the issue involves a confidential student matter.
Considering the story has been all over the news, it seems a bit weak to claim the matter is still "confidential." It would seem it could comment on any of the specifics already in the public domain. The story has gone nationwide, so it's disingenuous to pretend it's still a "confidential" matter.

While it's nice that the DA has dropped the charges and allowed the student to proceed through school without criminal charges hanging over his head, one wonders if this same outcome would have forthcoming without the attendant public outcry. Any adult can start acting like one with enough public shaming. But the application of a little common sense would have averted this incident completely.

A bit more troubling is one of the suggestions that escaped the lips of a local politician who showed up to the teen's "not a criminal" celebration.
State lawmaker Jesse White joined the rally, telling Stanfield he wants to name a law after him. He said it would close the loophole in the wiretapping law and allow victims of bullying to record it as proof for police and school officials.
His opportunistic heart's in the right place, but naming laws after people often indicates the new law is a bad one. This isn't an issue where a new law will fix things. This is an issue where no one in this chain of events showing the courage (and common sense) to stand up and ask why they were punishing a bullied kid for recording bullies.

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Posted on Techdirt - 17 April 2014 @ 10:20am

Connecticut Lawmakers Push 'Knockout Game' Bill, Citing Various 'Feelings' As Evidence Something Must Be Done

from the can-I-legislate-a-feeling? dept

A few states are still wrapped up in the "knockout game" panic, despite there being very little evidence that it's even a thing, much less something that can't be handled by existing assault laws. But since no panic can be allowed to escape unlegislated, sweaty-browed legislators are pushing bad, broadly-written bills in order to put an end to this scourge, one that lies somewhere between "vodka tampon" and "jenkem" on the scale of believability.

South Carolina's attempt is a complete disaster. It aims to criminalize the act of recording criminal activity, supposedly because no knockout game player ever lets a knockout go unrecorded. The list of unintended consequences that will spring from that addition is longer than most career criminals' rap sheets. Again, aiding, abetting and criminal conspiracy laws are all on the books and could be applied to both the person delivering the blow and to the person recording it. In short, a stupid and mostly redundant bill, words that also aptly describe the Connecticut legislature's attempt to turn the knockout game into its own criminal offense.

Legislation aimed at discouraging the “knockout game” cleared the Judiciary Committee on Monday over opposition from lawmakers who say the unprovoked attacks addressed in the bill are not a problem in Connecticut.

The bill, which passed 31-10, would apply in criminal cases where an attacker strikes someone in the head without provocation and with the intent of knocking them unconscious. The legislation makes that attack a Class D felony with a mandatory two-year sentence. It also requires juvenile courts to transfer 16- and 17-year-olds accused of the crime to the adult criminal justice system.
The bill amends the statute applying to 2nd degree assault to add the following language.
or (6) with intent to cause serious physical injury to another person by rendering such other person unconscious, and without provocation by such other person, he causes such injury to such other person by striking such other person in the head.
As Connecticut public defender Gideon points out in his blog post, this makes anyone who goes for a knockout (or intends to) subject to a harsher penalty than someone handing out a much more brutal beating.
[P]ursuant to this amendment to the Assault in the Second Degree statute, you will now be subjected to a harsher penalty for one knockout punch than you would be if you took a baseball bat and beat the crap out of someone. Doesn't that make a lot of sense?
Of course, it doesn't make sense. But neither does claiming the knockout game is so pervasive it needs its own law. It's apparently headed towards epidemic levels if the state doesn't act, at least according to the wealth of statistics provided by proponents of the bill.
[Rep. Joe] Verrengia said it was difficult to determine how many of the attacks have occurred when he was asked Monday if there was any evidence suggesting that a large number have been committed by 16- or 17-year-old offenders.

"I tried to wrap my arms around it, I tried to get statistics, but it's very difficult to do so by virtue of the present reporting requirements by various law enforcement agencies," he said. ". . . I think if you were to ask [victims] how many assaults have there been throughout the state of Connecticut, they would say, 'One too many.'"
Fully justified. "One too many." No stats, just feelings. Feelings on top of feelings on top of gut instincts on top of "sending a message."
Rep. Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said she understood the concerns of opponents but agreed that the crime should come with a more severe penalty.

"This isn't kids just playing around having fun. Although they think that's what it is because they've decided it's a 'game.' But there are people who have lost — pregnant women who have lost children because of it," she said. "At the very least, if this sends a message to these kids that think this is funny, I think we've done our job."
Oh, I see. It's not a real law. It's a message. Except it's a message with a mandatory 2-year sentence and the opportunity to be tried as an adult. And all over something the main bill pusher can't even "wrap his arms around." SEEMS BAD. DO SOMETHING!

How bad is this legislative "something?" The bill's addition to the assault statute renders itself impotent.
Finally, do you know how badly they've destroyed logic? They've ruined their own bill and made it completely useless. How? Re-read the bill. What is the intent requirement in order to convict someone? That's right. "Intent to cause serious physical injury by rendering such other person unconscious."

Good luck proving that. Ever. I can almost guarantee that this subsection will never, ever be used because there's no damn "knockout game" and because no prosecutor can ever prove that intent.
Add to that the inverted logic of Rep. Verrengia (again), who feels assault victims who have been rendered unconscious (or seemed to have been assaulted with that intent) should have an upgraded victim status.
Verrengia said he was seeking to make the victims of unprovoked attacks a protected class similar to how the law treats victims who are handicapped, pregnant, or blind.

"Although the victims in this case may not be legally blind, they are certainly blindsided by this sort of attack," Verrengia said. ". . . I believe it warrants that sort of penalty."
So many logical leaps made solely with the intent of curbing a criminal activity so (supposedly) dangerously prevalent no one has any stats on it. This bill is the epitome of "doing something." Everyone pushing it forward has plenty of feelings about the subject at hand but not a single one has offered anything in the way of evidence to justify rewriting this law. Laws are not emotional. They may be applied badly and enforced randomly, giving them the appearance of highly emotional entities, but they are most beneficial to society when they aren't conceived, written and argued by lawmakers who have allowed something as irrational as emotions to guide their hand.

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Posted on Techdirt - 17 April 2014 @ 9:16am

Textile Company Drags A Bunch Of Clothing Companies To Court Over Copyrighted Stripe Pattern

from the system-works! dept

We've previously discussed how the lack of IP protection in the fashion industry really hasn't kept many designers from making tons of money, despite maximalists' protests to the contrary. The larger issue seems to be counterfeit goods, rather than anyone passing off someone else's creation as their own, and even that has its own stimulatory effect. But there will always be those that try to assert control over aspects of the design process, because trying to control the end product gets you nowhere.

Design Collection Inc., a "textile and garment resource," has filed a fistful of lawsuits alleging that a multitude of clothing retailers have ripped off its copyrighted horizontal stripe pattern. The latest filings target a dozen or so retailers, as well as a number of Does for allegedly infringing on this:

That's from one filing naming Jinwon Apparel and The Buckle (among others).

Here's another:

It takes a seriously creative eye to view these as infringing. Take any garment with horizontal stripes of varying widths and shades and hold it next to another one and you're bound to see some similarities. The closeup photos don't really clarify much. If anything, they seem to indicate there are more differences than similarities. The top one's pattern seems close until you see the entire end product, at which point the comparison falls apart. The lower photo has even fewer similarities in the closeup, never mind the overall photo that shows us only part of the entire product.

And so on it goes. Design Collection has sued clothing retailers over a few different patterns (the stripes surfacing most often) going all the way back to 2011, when ironically enough, it was sued by United Fabrics International for allegedly ripping off some of UFI's designs. (That UFI's designs are protected under copyright is itself a bit of a joke, considering most are generic floral patterns or animal prints.)

While this may be part of the fashion world where copyright protection really doesn't exist, designers can copyright patterns like Design Collection has done here. The copyright office, unlike the USPTO, doesn't make any determination as to whether the submission deserves protection. If you register it, it's yours and you can do what you want with it, like "license it" (read: sell bolts of fabric -- you can't actually "license" fabric) to apparel companies or, you know, drag them to court and make them point out how their irregular stripes are significantly different from your irregular stripes.

Some of this ridiculousness (copyright fights over patterns) has previously surfaced in odd places, like quilting… and origami. Recognizable patterns would normally fall under the purview of trademark (think Louis Vuitton's infamous "LV"), so seeing something as generic as stripes being the center of a copyright lawsuit is something of an anomaly.

Design Collection may have a valid claim here, but I'm not seeing it. The tendency of anything with stripes of varying widths and colors to resemble something else equally as randomized pattern-wise would seem to indicate that the "design" isn't original enough to warrant protection. But a copyright isn't a trademark, so that bar may never need to be approached, much less surmounted.

Put a skeptical enough mind to it and these lawsuits look more like an aggrieved company poring through clothing companies' offerings until it can find something to use to punish them for choosing a different supplier. Take a look at the wording used in the filings:
Plaintiff is informed and believes and thereon alleges that Defendants, and each of them, had access to Subject Design including, without limitation, through (a) access to Plaintiff’s showroom and/or design library; (b) access to illegally distributed copies of the Subject Design by third-party vendors and/or DOE Defendants, including without limitation international and/or overseas converters and printing mills; (c) access to Plaintiff’s strike-offs and samples, and (d) garments manufactured and sold to the public bearing fabric lawfully printed with Subject Design by Plaintiff for its customers.

Plaintiff is informed and believes and thereon alleges that one or more of the Defendants manufactures garments and/or is a garment vendor. Plaintiff is further informed and believes and thereon alleges that said Defendant(s) has an ongoing business relationship with Defendant retailers, and each of them, and supplied garments to said retailers, which garments infringed Subject Design in that said garments were composed of fabric which featured an unauthorized print design(s) that were identical or substantially similar to Subject Design, or were an illegal modification thereof.
The first paragraph entertains global conspiracy theories while the second alleges "illegal modifications" to its designs. The first is going to be awfully hard to prove and the latter may invite unwanted discussion about non-infringing derivative works.

All in all, this seems to be a case of really really wanting to see infringement where none exists and hoping the defendants will be happier to settle rather than try to defend themselves from a variety of claims that might prove difficult to disprove.

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Posted on Techdirt - 17 April 2014 @ 8:02am

LA Sheriff's Dept. On New Surveillance Program: We Knew The Public Wouldn't Like It, So We Kept It A Secret

from the because-screw-those-whiners-and-their-'rights' dept

As we've noted several times before, law enforcement and investigative agencies tend to roll out expanded surveillance systems without bothering to run it by the citizens they're planning to surveil. The systems and programs are deployed, FOIA battles are waged and, finally, at some point, the information makes its way to the public. It is only then that most agencies start considering the privacy implications of their surveillance systems, and these are usually addressed by begrudging, minimal protections being belatedly applied.

Now, it's obvious why these agencies don't inform the public of their plans. They may uses terms like "security" and "officer safety" and theorize that making any details public would just allow criminals to find ways to avoid the persistent gaze of multiple surveillance options, but underneath it all, they know the public isn't going to just sit there and allow them to deploy intrusive surveillance programs.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is using a new surveillance program utilizing the technology of a private contractor doing business under the not-scary-at-all name of "Persistent Surveillance Systems." This gives the LASD a literal eye in the sky that provides coverage it can't achieve with systems already in place. But it does more than just give the LASD yet another camera. It provides the agency with some impressive tools to manipulate the recordings.

The system, known as wide-area surveillance, is something of a time machine – the entire city is filmed and recorded in real time. Imagine Google Earth with a rewind button and the ability to play back the movement of cars and people as they scurry about the city.

“We literally watched all of Compton during the time that we were flying, so we could zoom in anywhere within the city of Compton and follow cars and see people,” [Ross] McNutt [owner of Persistent Surveillance Systems] said. “Our goal was to basically jump to where reported crimes occurred and see what information we could generate that would help investigators solve the crimes.”
As with nearly everything making its way into law enforcement hands these days, this technology was developed and deployed first in battlefields. Persistent Surveillance Systems' first proving grounds were Afghanistan and Iraq, tracking down bombing suspects. All it takes is a cluster of high-powered cameras and a single civilian plane to watch over Compton with warzone-quality surveillance. According to McNutt, the camera system covers "10,000 times" the area a single police helicopter can. McNutt also believes the system can be expanded to cover an area as large as the entire city of San Francisco.

While the cameras aren't quite powerful enough to allow the LASD to make use of another, increasingly popular technological tool -- facial recognition -- this still gives the LASD an unprecedented coverage area. Camera technology continues to improve, so there's no reason to believe a few of McNutt's planes won't someday (possibly very soon) have the power to assist the LASD with adding new mugshots to its databases.

But, as pointed out earlier, where does the public fit into all of this? Were privacy concerns addressed before moving forward with Persistent Surveillance Systems? I'm not even going to try to set up this astounding response from an LASD officer. Just read it:
“The system was kind of kept confidential from everybody in the public,” (LASD Sgt.) Iketani said. “A lot of people do have a problem with the eye in the sky, the Big Brother, so in order to mitigate any of those kinds of complaints, we basically kept it pretty hush-hush.”
You know, it's one thing to think this. We know from experience that many law enforcement officials (as well as the rank-and-file) absolutely resent being publicly accountable and having to make the occasional token effort to respect civil liberties, so it's not surprising that the LASD knew the easiest way to avoid a negative public was to lock the public out.

It is, however, quite another thing to come out on record and say this. This shows just how little the LASD actually cares about the public's concerns. The agency knew the public wouldn't be happy and an official comes right out and tells the public that his agency and others don't really care. What they don't know won't hurt them... until it's too late to do anything about it.

This was followed up by another statement from an LAPD official, who noted that frogs generally come around to the idea of being boiled to death.
The center’s commanding officer, Capt. John Romero, recognizes the concerns but equates them with public resistance to street lights in America’s earliest days.

“People thought that this is the government trying to see what we’re doing at night, to spy on us,” Romero said. “And so over time, things shifted, and now if you try to take down street lights in Los Angeles or Boston or anywhere else, people will say no.”
There's no honesty or accountability in these statements. There's only an admission that Los Angeles law enforcement feels the public is there to serve them and not the other way around. Hiding your plans from the public doesn't instill confidence that their rights will be respected. Neither does telling them they'll "get used to it." Instead, it creates an even more antagonistic environment, one where the public is viewed as a nuisance at best by people whose power is derived from the same citizens they so obviously have no respect for.

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Posted on Techdirt - 17 April 2014 @ 5:39am

Washington Post Editorial Board Deploys A Bunch Of Bad Arguments In Its Defense Of The Comcast Merger

from the fewer-companies-somehow-equals-better-competition dept

Searching beyond Comcast itself, it's hard to find too many people who have no objections to this massive cable company acquiring another massive cable company. Inside the Beltway, where it possibly matters most, you can find a few defenders, many of whom have pocketed Comcast's money during their legislative careers. But once you step outside of the insiders, you have a multitude of people who realize that, thanks to years of abusive behavior by incumbent service providers, making these companies bigger certainly won't make them better.

I'm not sure where the Washington Post's editorial board falls in terms of insider/outsider status, but it just issued an editorial supporting the merger. And, oh man, it's just a terrible set of opinions bolstered by some equally terrible assertions. The gist of it is that a massive cable company is no problem because regulators have done such a great job at ensuring a competitive playing field to this point.

The government’s smartest move is not to block the merger, but to make clear that regulators will respond if big industry players begin to violate basic principles of market fairness.
There's no question of "if." The violations are not only happening, they're ongoing. Incumbents have squeezed out upstart competitors by using their entrenched positions, pushing for favorable legislation and protecting it all with an army of lawyers that makes it almost impossible for new players to enter the market.

WaPo's board tries to deflect the arguments raised by merger opponents by deploying a combination of Comcast talking points and assertions that have no basis in fact.
[T]raditional cable television and wired broadband providers are in increasingly dire competition with online video services, wireless Internet providers and a cash-flush Google expanding its installation of high-speed fiber-optic cable across the country. Consolidation is the only way to ensure these companies have enough capital to invest in new and better technology that will keep their customers happy — or, at least, satisfied enough not to cancel their subscriptions.
Of everything that's wrong with this paragraph, the presentation of Google's fiber service as a serious competitor is perhaps the worst. Google's limited market entry only presents a direct threat to incumbents in the few areas it's selected to offer its service. At some point in the future, Google may expand the number of markets, but it's a stretch to call a handful of deployments a true competitor to the cable giants. Even the incumbents seem to realize they won't be going head-to-head with Google any time soon -- if at all -- judging from the number of "fiber to the press release" statements being issued.

And it's not as if the cable companies are lacking in capital. The biggest names in the business are also flush with money and they're certainly not spending it on "new and better technology." The supposed "wireless competitors" are giants themselves -- old school incumbents like AT&T that are divesting themselves of their landlines just as quickly as regulators will let them. These companies prefer wireless because it's more profitable, not because they have any desire to keep their customers happy. The maintenance costs are lower and the opportunity to deploy caps on calls and data keeps margins high. One needs only look at Verizon's post-Hurricane Sandy efforts in New York, which saw the provider tell customers it was inferior wireless packages or nothing and the service they once had wasn't going to be repaired.

More bad-to-inaccurate assertions follow.
Some criticism of the merger is misleading or speculative. Cable subscribers will not lose flexibility to get their television service from another company. The market is split geographically: Comcast and Time Warner Cable do not compete for customers.
The first part is only true because many cable subscribers already have little to no flexibility. There's very little for them to actually "lose." For many customers, the only "true" choice is Cable Giant A or DSL Giant A -- at best. That's not competition. That's an illusion of choice. In most markets, the number of competitors rarely rises above a very small number of interchangeable companies that work together to ensure their existing market share never dwindles. They act in concert to keep upstarts out and customers locked in.

That these two companies rarely compete directly for customers makes no difference. Turning two companies into one doesn't magically increase the number of options available to cable customers. Instead of simply aligning behind the scenes to preserve a duopoly, the unity of vision will now be out in the open. If anything, this will result in a more transparent screwing of customers, but that's hardly the sort of thing regulators should be giving their thumbs up to, or be encouraged by a responsible journalistic outlet.

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Posted on Techdirt - 16 April 2014 @ 1:38pm

NYPD Update: Stop-And-Frisk Now Under Federal Oversight; Muslim-Spying 'Demographics Unit' Disbanded

from the somewhere,-Mike-Bloomberg-is-choking-on-his-own-indignation dept

Time for an update on the NYPD scene. As you'll recall, both Mayor Bloomberg and Police Chief Ray Kelly exited their respective offices in their respective huffs, claiming the city would fall apart if the sanctity of the NYPD's Constitution-skirting programs (stop-and-frisk, the Muslim-watching Demographics Unit) weren't preserved.

The legal battle over the constitutionality of the stop-and-frisk took several turns, including the removal of the presiding judge for "appearances of partiality." Incoming mayor Bill de Blasio promised to drop the city's appeal of Judge Scheindlin's ruling, and oddly enough, actually did.

An attempt to keep the appeal going was filed by the union representing the NYPD, but this was shot down by the appeals court. It did, however, allow it to be part of the final negotiations. The end result was the installation of five years of oversight over the NYPD's controversial program in order to move it towards something more resembling compliance with the Constitution.

The apocalypse Bloomberg and Kelly claimed was unavoidable if stop-and-frisk was curbed has failed to materialize. Even before the ruling was handed down, the program had been scaled back, with 86% fewer stops being recorded in the first quarter of 2014 than in the same quarter of 2012. Despite this lack of pushing random people up against the wall, crime is down 13% compared to 2013. Was stop-and-frisk ever truly essential? Or was it simply something that became an all too easily abused "tool" of the NYPD? At this point, the numbers seem to indicate that stop-and-frisk had very little real effect on criminal activity.

More good news on the NYPD v. Constitution front: the infamous Muslim-spying wing of the NYPD -- the stupidly-named "Demographics Unit" -- has been disbanded. This program, started by a former CIA officer who leveraged the city's post-9/11 anxieties to craft major changes to guidelines governing the surveillance of New Yorkers, spent a considerable amount of time infiltrating and surveilling entire mosques under the pretense that each and every member was somehow related to ongoing counterterrorism investigations.

The investigations performed by this unit did considerable damage to the civil liberties of mosque attendees over the last decade, but failed to turn up any credible suspects, much less terrorism-related arrests. The unit's pervasive surveillance so thoroughly violated First and Fourth Amendment protections that the CIA and FBI were unable to avail themselves of the "intelligence" collected by the NYPD without violating federal guidelines. When even the CIA can't look at your investigative results for fear of violating its own minimal civil liberties protections, you know you've got a problem.

Bill Bratton, returning to the NYPD commissioner's office, seems to have realized that programs like the Demographics Unit ultimately do more harm than good. When heading the Los Angeles Police Department, he was approached with a similar idea for tracking that city's Muslim community. He had this to say then:

“A lot of these people came from countries where the police were the terrorists,” he said at the time. “We don’t do that here. We do not want to spread fear. We want to deal with criminals.”
The NYPD, before his return, had no such concerns. If anything, the NYPD actively created distrust -- both in the New York Muslim community and around the world, sending its officers uninvited to peer over the shoulders of local police and investigative units at scenes of terrorism activity in countries like Kenya and Bali.

The new NYPD is still staffed with the old NYPD, which means change will be slow and likely fought every step of the way. Muslims are understandably concerned that the public disbandment of the Demographics Unit will just result in the level of surveillance being unchanged, if only a bit more unfocused. Bratton seems to be nudging the department towards a more FBI-esque set of rules, which isn't ideal, but is certainly much better than the abusive behavior permitted under the NYPD's internal guidelines.

It does appear the NYPD will be moving towards something resembling an actual police force, rather than a law unto itself. Without Kelly and Bloomberg around to defend its every overstep, the NYPD can no longer expect to skirt the Constitution with impunity. But there's a long way to go to fix things, so any optimism must be tempered by the fact that good habits are tough to instill and bad habits are extremely hard to break. Five years of oversight is a start, but the city -- meaning the mayor and the police commissioner -- must be willing to hold its officers accountable.

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Posted on Techdirt - 16 April 2014 @ 3:16am

Los Angeles Law Enforcement Looking To Crowdsource Surveillance

from the snitches-get-stitches-cloud-storage dept

The LAPD wants you, Joe Citizen, to help it out with its surveillance. It has enlisted the help of a crowdsourcing tool called LEEDIR to collect photos and recordings from everyday people who may have additional footage of natural disasters or civil unrest that could help out both emergency responders and cops looking to put a few more demonstrators in jail.

In today's announcement, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, and the Boston Marathon bombings were mentioned as scenarios in which LEEDIR could help law enforcement respond to disasters or large-scale public security threats. One might also imagine large citizen protests like Occupy Wall Street being the focus of such crowdsourced surveillance.
It's unarguable that the addition of crowdsourced photos and video helped authorities track down the Boston Bombing suspects, which shows that there is some value to this service. But, as is pointed out by Xeni Jardin, it could also be used to build a database of people enjoying First Amendment-protected activities. Currently, the site is soliciting input for any info related to last week's party-turned-riot in Isla Vista, CA, where over 100 arrests were made and 44 people injured, including five police officers. The notice clearly states the police are "seeking to identify several subjects wanted for violent felonies that occurred during the evening."

This is a potentially useful tool that isn't completely evil, but there are some definite concerns. For one, there's no real way to submit anything anonymously. You aren't required to input your name, but the app itself demands access to GPS data and any other communications-related metadata is likely hoovered up by LEEDIR when images and video are uploaded.

There are also other questions left unanswered about the handling of the data submitted.
According to today's announcement, agencies might typically retain uploaded content for a month or two, then delete it. But there's no requirement to delete it…
And the way the system is accessed and used seems to lend itself to abuse.
It's up to law enforcement to provide analysts or investigators to sort through all of the content uploaded to LEEDIR and find potential evidence…

Once the content is uploaded, it belongs to law enforcement, [Co-Global CEO Nick] Namikas said. It's up to each agency to decide how long they want to store the content in the cloud – a service being provided by Amazon.
An unfiltered influx of photos and videos curated by law enforcement officers. What could possibly go wrong? The tool may be aimed at natural disasters (which provides free access to police and emergency responders in the affected area), but paid subscriptions are available which would keep LEEDIR live at all times for any law enforcement agency willing to foot the bill.

As if the potential negatives of this sort of crowdsourcing weren't apparent enough, there's also the very large problem of who's behind this new system.
Under the leadership of disgraced former LA County Sheriff Lee Baca, the department is said to have conceptualized the web service and smartphone app, which was built by Citizen Global with Amazon

Baca's administration was plagued by corruption and scandal, and he resigned amid ongoing investigation into possible criminal activity. Certainly no such imperfect leader would misuse LEEDIR.
But LA Sheriff's Dept. commander Scott Edson sees no downside:
“I like to call this a flag-waving opportunity,” Edson said. “This is a great opportunity for the public who really wants to catch those guys as badly as any law enforcement agency wants to catch them. Now they’re going to have an opportunity.”
Sure. Just like "see something, say something" filled DHS Fusion Centers with thousands of reports of people using cameras. With unfiltered access to whatever citizens submit, law enforcement can browse for unrelated criminal activity or simply use it to fill in the holes in their surveillance network.

It's not that it couldn't help, as it did in the Boston Bombing. It's that the downside isn't even being considered by the proponents of the system, which include a former law enforcement official accused of corruption. There's seemingly no oversight to the program and absolutely no concerns being raised about privacy or the potentially endless retention of non-relevant footage and photos.

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Posted on Techdirt - 15 April 2014 @ 12:40pm

The FBI's Facial Recognition Database Combines Lo-Res Photos With Zero Civil Liberties Considerations

from the non-criminal-photos-mixed-in-just-for-fun! dept

Another FOIA lawsuit brought against the government by the EFF has resulted in the release of previously withheld documents. The papers cut loose this time detail the FBI's facial recognition database and other parts of its "Next Generation Identification" (NGI) program, one that aims to compile a collection of biometric data.

EPIC's FOIA lawsuit over similar information revealed last year that the FBI's facial recognition software (as of 2010) had an acceptable margin of error of 20%. With a 1-in-5 chance of "recognizing" the wrong person, the accuracy of the database had nowhere to go but up. But it appears the FBI prioritizes quantity over quality, as the first number to hit you from the "released" documents is a big one.

The records we received show that the face recognition component of NGI may include as many as 52 million face images by 2015. By 2012, NGI already contained 13.6 million images representing between 7 and 8 million individuals, and by the middle of 2013, the size of the database increased to 16 million images. The new records reveal that the database will be capable of processing 55,000 direct photo enrollments daily and of conducting tens of thousands of searches every day.
The millions of images come from a handful of sources. Only 46 million of those images, however, will be from criminal databases. The other 6 million will come from other sources, not all of those necessarily related to criminal or terrorist activity.
[T]he FBI does not define either the “Special Population Cognizant” database or the "new repositories" category [which account for nearly a million images]...

A 2007 FBI document available on the web describes SPC as “a service provided to Other Federal Organizations (OFOs), or other agencies with special needs by agreement with the FBI” and notes that “[t]hese SPC Files can be specific to a particular case or subject set (e.g., gang or terrorist related), or can be generic agency files consisting of employee records.”
These employee records may be tossed into the database along with the criminal records if the FBI chooses to assign these a Universal Control Number (UCN). And these records may become more common. As the EFF points out, if you submit your fingerprints as part of a pre-employment background check, these are added to the FBI's database. If employers decide they also want a pre-employment mug shot, that will head the FBI's way as well.

The database will be populated with non-criminal photos and overseen by an agency that hasn't provided an updated Privacy Impact Assessment for its facial recognition program since 2008. The low resolution (often at 0.75 megapixels or less) makes this blending of hit/non-hit photos even more problematic, as it means the FBI's actual accuracy rate still hovers between 80-85%. But the agency has weasel-worded its way out of having to defend such a lousy accuracy rating.
[T]he FBI has disclaimed responsibility for accuracy, stating that “[t]he candidate list is an investigative lead not an identification."

Because the system is designed to provide a ranked list of candidates, the FBI states NGI never actually makes a “positive identification,” and “therefore, there is no false positive rate.”
The FBI generates a "top 50 candidates" report from searches, which it claims is only an "investigative tool," not a starting point for any investigation. That's some remarkably devious dissembling. The agency won't ever be wrong because it's not even trying to be right!

So, how exactly is this supposed to aid in investigations, if the best results are a grab bag of low-res photos dredged from a variety of sources, some of them non-criminal? The FBI doesn't say. All it says is that the "true candidate" will show up on the "top 50 list" 85% of the time -- and then only if the "true candidate" is already present in the database. The EFF asks the question the FBI hasn't asked itself, or at least hasn't shown any interest in answering honestly.
It is unclear what happens when the “true candidate” does not exist in the gallery—does NGI still return possible matches? Could those people then be subject to criminal investigation for no other reason than that a computer thought their face was mathematically similar to a suspect’s?
The FBI's "answer" shifts all the accountability to other law enforcement agencies.
[T]he Bureau notes that because “this is an investigative search and caveats will be prevalent on the return detailing that the [non-FBI] agency is responsible for determining the identity of the subject, there should be NO legal issues.”
The FBI, which hasn't updated its privacy protections in a half-decade, which knows that a majority of the photos in its database have a resolution only slightly above "useless" and which sees no problem with throwing photos of criminals and non-criminals into the same database, still has yet to see any significant pushback on its NGI expansion from anyone tasked with overseeing the agency. The fact that these documents were forced free via a FOIA lawsuit shows the FBI has no interest in sharing this info with the public. As for our representatives -- they either don't know or don't care, neither of which should make the represented happy.

This program has some very serious issues, and it's only going to get worse unless someone outside the FBI intervenes. It's obvious from its caveat emptor-esque "policy" ("not our fault if you arrest the wrong pixelated suspect") governing law enforcement's use of the intermingled good guy/bad guy database that it has no interest in policing itself.

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Posted on Techdirt - 15 April 2014 @ 8:34am

Dianne Feinstein Asks DOJ To Investigate Leak Of Torture Report Summary To McClatchy News Service

from the because-only-Senate-staffers-are-allowed-to-access-unauthorized-documents dept

Sen. Feinstein seemed incredibly outraged that her office was spied on by the CIA in its efforts to keep a torture report under wraps. This was noted with some attendant irony, given Feinstein's boisterous support of the NSA's surveillance efforts.

Now, she's stepped into irony again, opening an investigation of McClatchy News for leaking a condensed, bullet-points-only summation of the findings hidden within the still-unreleased 6,600-page "torture report."

The Senate Intelligence Committee has opened an investigation into how McClatchy obtained the classified conclusions of a report into the CIA’s use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation tactics, the panel’s chairwoman said Friday.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she was also referring the case to the Justice Department for investigation.

“If someone distributed any part of this classified report, they broke the law and should be prosecuted,” Feinstein said in a prepared statement. “The committee is investigating this unauthorized disclosure and I intend to refer the matter to the Department of Justice.”
Unauthorized disclosure, maybe. But it's looking more and more like the only way Americans are ever going to see the inside of the infamous report is via unauthorized channels, what with the CIA asking for redaction privileges. This is the same Senator who fought the CIA over control of this report, only now she wants to control how the information is fed to the public.

The investigation of the CIA wasn't performed just because Washington had money to waste. Supposedly this was done in the public interest, even if almost everyone involved has done as much as they can to keep the information out of the public's hands. It's the kind of government no one wants: one that internalizes its investigative efforts and withholds the findings. The public is frequently treated like an unwanted side effect of governing. "Shut up," Feinstein explained, "or we'll make you regret ever speaking up."

Disappointing, yes. But worse, it's predictable. McClatchy isn't happy.
“We are disappointed that Sen. Feinstein plans to seek a Justice Department investigation of our journalism,” said James Asher, McClatchy’s Washington bureau chief. “We believe that Americans need to know what the CIA might have done to detainees and who is responsible for any questionable practices, which is why we have vigorously covered this story.”
Asher is right about the public knowing, which is ostensibly the endpoint of investigations like these. But now that it's all been compiled, representatives are (somewhat inadvertently) joining forces with the same agency they decried and throwing as much dirt as they can over any exposure. There's a slim chance that much of the 480-page "executive summary" will survive the rounds of redactions headed its way. For McClatchy to release a 2-page summary is a drop in bucket compared to the voluminous whole.

The DOJ will now (possibly) start searching for yet another whistleblower, one who felt the refusal to discuss the contents beyond vague generalities was an intellectually dishonest move by those heading the investigation. But it's even more wrongheaded for Feinstein to request an investigation into this leaked document, only a few months removed from the CIA asking the DOJ to investigate Feinstein's staffers for their "unauthorized removal" of documents. It's apparently OK to take "unauthorized" documents if you're a Senator, but not so much if you're a journalist.

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Posted on Techdirt - 15 April 2014 @ 12:15am

Judicial Branch Finally Acting As A Check Against Government Overreach

from the the-government's-been-skating-for-far-too-long dept

At long last, there finally seems to be a recognition by members of the judicial branch that they are, in fact, there to provide checks and balances against government overreach. We've already covered the recent orders by Magistrate Judge John Facciola, who has twice sent the government back to fix its overly broad warrant requests seeking access to email accounts and cell phone content. (This is tempered somewhat by another Facciola decision, which declared the law enforcement agency in question didn't need a search warrant for a supposedly "abandoned" phone.) Facciola isn't the only judge pushing back against the government's vague warrant requests, however.

In the past year, U.S. magistrate judges John Facciola in Washington, D.C., and David Waxse in Kansas City, Kan., have rejected or modified a number of applications for warrants to search people's emails and other electronic communications at Internet firms such as Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc.

The rulings go against the grain of a federal judiciary that has generally approved them, according to current and former law-enforcement officials. They also come against the backdrop of a legal and political debate over the scope of government surveillance that has raged since the National Security Agency's bulk collection of phone records was revealed last summer.

At issue is the Justice Department's two-step process of obtaining all emails and other electronic information in the accounts of a person under investigation, and then using names and keywords to sift through it in hopes of finding evidence of wrongdoing.

The judges have ruled the government needs to refine its requests to comply with the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches.
This has been the government's process for years: obtain everything and keep whatever is deemed "relevant" to the case. Both of these judges appear to realize that they are the last line of Fourth Amendment defense between the government and the public. Presumably, the Snowden leaks have played a part in this altered mindset. As both judges have pointed out in their orders, what the government has routinely sought is unbounded access to communications via unconstitutional warrants.

These two have suggested an alternate route, if the government can't manage to operate within the constraints of the Constitution.
Both judges have suggested Internet service providers and other Web firms could do their own searches based on specific guidance from the Justice Department, and turn over only the information that appears relevant to an investigation. They have also proposed systems in which a court-appointed official or others could perform the initial search, providing a buffer between investigators and bulk data.
Of course, the government thinks these are terrible ideas.
"I don't think ISPs or email providers have the institutional competence to conduct the searches of their customers for evidence of crimes," said Neil MacBride, a former U.S. attorney in Virginia who described the magistrate judges' rulings as "outliers."
Maybe. Maybe not. But it's clear the government is no better than the private sector at performing targeted searches. Instead, it simply demands everything and expects to be trusted to only take a look at what is pertinent. Despite the fact that the government routinely asks (or rather, expects) the judicial branch, along with those defending the accused, to simply trust it with petabytes of someone's personal data, it seems completely unwilling to trust a private company with fulfilling searches for relevant data on its behalf.

The days of the government simply saying "it's complicated" and running broad warrant requests past technically-incompetent judges might finally be numbered.
Judge Waxse said he believed more people would come around to his view if they better understood recent technological advances and how service providers operate. "What Facciola and I are saying is, use what is now developed, and you can comply with the Fourth Amendment," he said. "There are too many lawyers and judges who don't have a clear grasp of how it all works."
This is also part of the problem. Far too often, technically-ignorant judges have credulously accepted the government's arguments because they don't have the knowledge to challenge these assertions. They could seek the input of those who can parse the technological demands, but rather than do so, this crucial part of the system of checks and balances has simply allowed the government to portray its circumvention of the Fourth Amendment as unavoidable.

Following the revelations of the last several months, including documents showing the NSA misrepresented its bulk records collections for nearly three years straight, the government has been shown it cannot be trusted with unlimited access to people's data and content. Hopefully, this pushback from the judicial branch will become the new standard.

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Posted on Techdirt - 14 April 2014 @ 12:03pm

Bullied Student Records Bullies, Gets Threatened With Felony Charges For Violating Wiretapping Law

from the hammers-all-the-way-down dept

Here comes another story highlighting the danger of schools "outsourcing" their disciplinary problems to law enforcement. As we've stated before, this does nothing more than turn routine misconduct into criminal behavior, which is a great way to derail a student's future.

A Pennsylvania teen, who claimed to have been bullied constantly (and ignored by school administration), made an audio recording of his tormentors using a school-supplied iPad. He brought this to the school's attention, which duly responded by calling the cops… to have him arrested for violating Pennsylvania's wiretapping law. (h/t to Techdirt reader btr1701)

[The student's mother, Shea] Love says that upon fielding her complaint, Principal Scott Milburn called South Fayette Township police Lieutenant Robert Kurta to the school to interrogate her son in the presence of Associate Principal Aaron Skrbin and Dean of Students Joseph Silhanek. The defendant testified before Judge McGraw-Desmet that he was forced to play the audio for the group and then delete it. Love says by the time she arrived at the school, her son was surrounded by school officials and the police officer and was visibly distraught. She says Milburn defended the teacher's response to the classroom disturbance.
The administration, rather than consider targeting the recorded bullies, instead called the cops believing (on advice from district lawyers, no less) that they had a felon in their office.
Kurta testified before the magistrate that Milburn requested his presence at the school on February 12 at 8:20 a.m. The officer said, “He believed he had a wiretapping incident.” Upon his arrival, Kurta said Milburn advised him that Silhanek fielded a call that morning from Love notifying him “that she planted a recording device in her son’s backpack to record the activities in one of his classes.” According to Kurta’s testimony, after Milburn consulted with the school district’s attorney, he advised reporting the incident to the police and treating it as a crime.
As Scott Greenfield points out, calling a cop in to handle a school disciplinary problem doesn't leave the officer with many choices.
At that moment, it was certainly within Lt. Kurta’s ability to pull the principal aside and tell him, “hey, you scared the crap out of the kid, which should do the job. You realize that this isn’t a crime of any sort, and so I’m just going to back away slowly, not embarrass you for bringing me here to waste my time, and you can go back to doing whatever it is you do in this big building. Have a nice day.”
That's one option. But as these things go, that's rarely, if ever, the option chosen. The officer, having been summoned, needed to find something to charge the bullied student with.
Kurta said, “After I left the school, I wasn’t sure what charge to file so I contacted the district attorney’s office. This would fall under a wiretapping violation, which is a felony.” He later answered as to why he thought the disorderly conduct charge applied to this case by saying, “Because his (the student’s) actions — he engaged in actions which served no legitimate purpose.” He then read the statute as, “Creates a hazardous or physically offensive condition by acts which serve no legitimate purpose.”
Because capturing evidence of bullying "serves no legitimate purpose," apparently.

As Greenfield puts it, the officer was a hammer. Therefore, the bullied student must be a nail. This brought the student in front of yet another authority who could finally apply some common sense to the situation -- the magistrate judge. But that was not to be. The judge dragged in her own faith in the malfunctioning system as justification for nailing the student for disorderly conduct. In fact, Judge Maureen McGraw made her statement in defense of the school before the student could make his statement.
“Normally, if there is — I certainly have a big problem with any kind of bullying at school. But normally, you know, I would expect a parent would let the school know about it, because it’s not tolerated. I know that, and that you guys [school administrators] would handle that, you know [...] Because it’s not tolerated, but you need to go through — let the school handle it. And I know from experience with South Fayette School that, you know, it always is. And if there is a problem and it continues, then it is usually brought in front of me.”
Greenfield again, pointing out just how wrong the judge's statement is:
While this may not be a unique reaction, whether with school officials or police, it is decidedly flagrant. Where a judge’s function is so fundamentally undermined from the outset, that an accuser is so virtuous that it cannot be wrong, the prejudice can neither be ignored nor excused. The die was cast by dint of the school having “brought [the student] in front of” the judge.
The last part of the "unholy trinity" was the final hammer, coming down on the "nail" placed in front of it by school administrators (who can do no wrong) and a police officer (who is beyond fault). Guilty as charged.

The judge's statement is particularly egregious, considering the situation in front of her. First off, the judge's faith in the school's ability to combat bullying is obviously misplaced. She saw no fault in her reasoning and, using that as her platform for the rest of her statement, she went on to act on her own information and beliefs.

But further than appealing to her own authority, the judge stated how these things should be handled, apparently completely unaware (or unwilling to recognize) that following the prescribed steps is what resulted in a bullied child standing in front of her, facing a BS "disorderly conduct" charge.

The judge said that bullying victims should first bring the problem to their parents -- which this student did. Next, she says the parents should let the school administrators know -- which she did. Finally, she says, let the school handle it -- which it did. And now, the student faces her -- having followed all the proper steps -- charged with disorderly conduct. And yet, despite this, she asserts that the system works and, indeed, has always worked in regards to this particular school. Logical fallacy piled on top of logical fallacy until a bullied kid is charged with a crime while his recorded tormentors remain unpunished.

The judge refused to believe that any one of these esteemed administrators could have screwed up, failing to believe that they, too, are human and as prone to failure as anyone else. If they've never screwed up in the past, all future misdeeds are forgiven (and forgotten) in advance. This is the sort of rationale that should never be deployed by a supposedly impartial overseer like a judge, because it's just as wrong as assuming every authority figure involved here is an irredeemable monster.
[P]eople are not so one-dimensional that they are horrible in every instance, to every person, under every circumstances. The cop who beats a man one day may have saved a kitten in a tree the day before.
Maybe the school has had an admirable track record on curtailing bullying. Maybe Officer Kurta doesn't always seek to find something to charge a person with when put in this position. But everyone here came together to make a string of regrettable decisions that led to a bullied student being punished, rather than the aggressors. Maybe the future holds better outcomes, but for right now, everyone involved had a chance to stop this from reaching this illogical conclusion, but no one -- from the administrators to their legal team to local law enforcement to the presiding judge -- was interested in reining this in. In the end, it looks as though an innate desire to punish someone was satisfied every step of the way.

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Posted on Techdirt - 14 April 2014 @ 3:33am

Government Forces Free Press Advocacy Group To File Its Amicus Brief In NSL Case Under Seal

from the now-they're-OUR-secrets dept

Throw the words "national security" around frequently enough and you might start to believe it actually means something. The EFF's battle against the government's use of National Security Letters (NSLs) is being fought mostly under seal (the EFF can't even reveal whom its clients are). To be sure, there is sensitive material being discussed, but the government's paranoia has extended so far as to seal documents written by entities with no access to classified or sensitive material. (h/t to Trevor Timm)

The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press (RCFP) recently filed an amicus brief in this case on the EFF's behalf, arguing that the non-disclosure demands of NSLs are a form of prior restraint, something that is clearly unconstitutional. It also notes the chilling effect this has had on journalism.

The information at issue is not just important for its own sake, but because, as recent reports have shown, fear of government surveillance has deterred confidential sources from speaking to journalists about a wide range of topics. The brief emphasizes that more knowledge about the NSL program can give sources and reporters confidence that their communications are confidential.
The government's desire for secrecy extends even further than the NSLs' gag orders. This secrecy has now spilled over into what would normally be the public's domain.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s challenge involves three cases, all of which are under seal. The Reporters Committee was required to file its briefs under seal, but submitted a motion to the Ninth Circuit asking it to unseal its brief.
Whatever the government's stated reasons for requiring the brief to be filed under seal, it's clearly wrong.
“The Court cannot constitutionally seal this brief,” the Reporters Committee wrote in the motion. “Amici have had no access to confidential materials in the case; the brief only includes information that is already public; and there are clear public policy reasons for requiring that the materials be open.”
The government doesn't know when to quit. It's sealed brief requirement makes about as much sense as government agencies' initial reactions to the first few leaked NSA documents -- instructing their employees to not look at publicly-available information because the documents were supposedly still "classified." As if that designation made any sense under the circumstances.

This is the same sort of reasoning: NSLs are super-secret and therefore, anything related to these should be withheld from the public, even if the brief contains nothing more than publicly-available information.

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