surveillance state
July 8, 2019

Immigrations and Customs Enforcement has turned states' driver's license databases "into a facial-recognition gold mine, scanning through millions of Americans' photos without their knowledge or consent," The Washington Post reports, citing new documents unearthed by Georgetown Law researchers using public-records requests. The federal use of DMV photos as part of "the bedrock of an unprecedented surveillance infrastructure" violates some state and local laws, likely impinges on privacy rights, and has raised rare bipartisan hackles.

"This is a scandal," Harrison Rudolph, an associate at Georgetown Law's Center on Privacy and Technology, tells The New York Times. "States have never passed laws authorizing ICE to dive into driver's license databases using facial recognition to look for folks," and they've "never told undocumented people that when they apply for a driver's license they are also turning over their face to ICE. That is a huge bait and switch." The FBI has also conducted more than 390,000 searches through DMV and visa application photos over the past decade, a recent Government Accountability Office report found.

The researchers found evidence that ICE had requested access to DMV photos in Vermont, Utah, and Washington State databases from 2014 to 2017, and officials in Utah and Vermont handed over facial recognition access in response to just an emailed request. It's not clear if those states still cooperate with ICE, though an ICE spokesman defended his agency's general "ability to collaborate with external local, federal, and international agencies to obtain information that may assist in case completion and subsequent prosecution."

The House Homeland Security Committee is holding a hearing Wednesday on the Homeland Security Department's use of facial recognition, and the top Democrat and Republican on the House Oversight Committee are both upset over federal law enforcement's use of the error-prone, hackable surveillance technology on driver's license photos. You can explore some of the issues with facial recognition in the Post video report below. Peter Weber

May 5, 2018

The National Security Agency collected 534 million records of Americans' calls and texts in 2017, an annual agency report published Friday indicated, tripling its 2016 collection rate.

The surveillance in question focuses on metadata, which means the NSA records the source and recipient of each communication rather than its content. The agency is also able to collect details like the time, duration, contact information, and even the number of characters in a text message. The millions of records the NSA collected in 2017 stemmed from the agency's targeting of the communications of just 40 people — and, by extension, everyone they know.

While this mass surveillance remains substantially less than the NSA's spying on U.S. communications before the revelations of whistleblower Edward Snowden, privacy advocates are alarmed by the new escalation. "The intelligence community's transparency has yet to extend to explaining dramatic increases in their collection," said Robyn Greene of the Open Technology Institute. Bonnie Kristian

November 13, 2017

Some 15 months after the National Security Agency, in partnership with the FBI, began investigating a major breach of its digital surveillance technology by a group called the Shadow Brokers, the spying agency still does not know whether it is a victim of external hacking or a true leak, or whether the culprits are agency insiders or working for another government or some combination thereof. Indeed, as an extensive New York Times report published Sunday explains, the Shadow Brokers breach "far exceeds" the revelations of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who in 2013 exposed the agency's complex, invasive mass surveillance of American citizens.

The distinction between the two breaches is one of kind, not degree:

Mr. Snowden's cascade of disclosures to journalists and his defiant public stance drew far more media coverage than this new breach. But Mr. Snowden released code words, while the Shadow Brokers have released the actual code; if he shared what might be described as battle plans, they have loosed the weapons themselves. Created at huge expense to American taxpayers, those cyberweapons have now been picked up by hackers from North Korea to Russia and shot back at the United States and its allies. [The New York Times]

As a result, businesses, hospitals, and millions of ordinary people around the world have been victimized by NSA-created ransomware, which takes control of a user's computer and demands payment to restore data access. In the meantime, Shadow Brokers has accompanied the breach with online taunts of the NSA's investigatory failures, and morale at the agency is low as internal scrutiny continues. Read the full Times report here. Bonnie Kristian

October 24, 2017

Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) are expected to introduce bipartisan legislation Tuesday to prohibit warrantless searches of digital surveillance of Americans collected incidentally via Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

The information in question is data swept up in the process of FISA spying on foreigners located outside the United States. The content about Americans is saved, and that database is then available for warrantless searches by federal agents investigating matters unconnected to the original spying goal.

This type of FISA surveillance is what President Trump clumsily accused the Obama administration of using on Trump Tower during the 2016 election. Experts say it is plausible the feds "may have come upon Trump Tower phone calls if a targeted foreign agent was on the other end of the line" and that agent was subject to FISA spying.

Section 702 is due to expire at the end of this year, and the Senate will also hold closed-door committee hearings Tuesday about a measure to reauthorize it. Paul and Wyden argue a straight reauthorization will perpetuate grave civil liberties abuses in violation of the Fourth Amendment. "This legislation will have enormous impact on the security, liberty, and constitutional rights of the American people," Wyden wrote Monday. "The public has therefore taken a keen interest in the outcome of this mark-up and in specific proposed reforms to Section 702." Bonnie Kristian

June 3, 2017

Under the leadership of Chair Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the House Intelligence Committee asked spy agencies in late 2016 to "unmask," or reveal, the identities of U.S. citizens caught up in surveillance of foreign targets pertaining to Russian election manipulation efforts, The Washington Post reported Friday evening. Since then, Nunes, who has recused himself from the committee's Russia-Trump investigation, has accused the Obama administration of abusing the same sort of unmasking requests to target President Trump's associates.

Meanwhile, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the committee's ranking Democrat, told HuffPost Friday night that Nunes continues to screen subpoenas the committee investigation issues even after his recusal — subpoenas like the one issued to ousted National Security Adviser Michael Flynn this week.

"What I've been urging is power be delegated to [committee investigation lead Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas)] since the chair recused himself," Schiff said. "The chair has not been willing to honor that part of his commitment so he's still requiring his sign-off." Bonnie Kristian

March 17, 2017

A source at a telecom security firm contracting with the Department of Homeland Security has confirmed to CBS a report that it detected an unusual amount of suspicious cell tower activity affecting phones serviced by a "major" cell carrier in the vicinity of the White House and the U.S. Capitol.

DHS has not commented on the suspicious activity, but the source at ESD America, the security contractor, said the activity was first observed in January. It could indicate surveillance, possibly controlled by a foreign entity and potentially targeting specific lawmakers or officials given the geographic range.

"Mass amounts of location data appear to have been siphoned off by a third party who may have control of entire cell phone towers in the area," The Washington Free Beacon reported in its story breaking the news. "Such a tactic could be used to clone phones, introduce malware to facilitate spying, and track government phones." Bonnie Kristian

February 16, 2017

A bipartisan group of lawmakers from both houses of Congress on Wednesday introduced the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act (GPS Act) to require law enforcement to get a search warrant before collecting geolocation data.

"Outdated laws shouldn't be an excuse for open season on tracking Americans, and owning a smartphone or fitness tracker shouldn't give the government a blank check to track your movements," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a prominent Senate civil libertarian who introduced the legislation with Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and John Conyers (D-Mich.). "Law enforcement should be able to use GPS data, but they need to get a warrant. This bill sets out clear rules to make sure our laws keep up with the times."

The bill would especially affect police use of stingrays, surveillance devices that trick your phone into thinking it's talking to a cell tower. As the ACLU explains, stingrays "also gather information about the phones of countless bystanders who happen to be nearby," all without a warrant. Last year, a federal judge ruled warrantless stingray surveillance unconstitutional, but that decision did not effectively halt the practice.

Several variations of the GPS Act have been introduced since 2011, but the bills have never passed. Bonnie Kristian

January 26, 2017

A federal court has ruled in the FBI's favor in a dispute with the city of Seattle over whether the city can disclose in response to public records requests the location of FBI surveillance cameras affixed to city-owned utility poles.

Among the federal agency's arguments in support of surveillance secrecy was the bizarre contention that to reveal the location of the cameras would be a breach of privacy for the people the cameras are recording, because those people have yet to be charged with any crime:

Because of their close proximity to the subjects of surveillance, unauthorized disclosure of the locations of current or previously installed pole cameras can reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy for those persons under investigation who have not yet been charged. [Department of Justice]

The case was preemptively initiated by the FBI following a records request from a Seattle privacy advocate, but the precedent the ruling sets of broad deference to federal law enforcement privilege will be widely applicable beyond the specific circumstances in Washington state. The decision concurs with the Justice Department's argument that disclosure of the camera locations would cause "irreparable harm to important federal interests, namely, the ability to carry out effective investigations," even when the cameras are no longer in use for any active case. Bonnie Kristian

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