Ed Lake writes: Who was Aaron Swartz? I never met him, though I’ve had dealings with friends of his over the years. The outline of his biography is a matter of public record: teenaged computer whizz gets rich, becomes a political activist and ends up in his 20s facing decades in jail for murky charges related to the misappropriation of academic journal articles. That much is on Wikipedia.
If that isn’t intimate enough, perhaps his character comes through in the tributes that poured onto the internet following Swartz’s suicide in 2013. The signature notes of tenderness, exasperation and awe, in reminiscences from Tim Berners-Lee, Lawrence Lessig, Cory Doctorow and many other notable mentors, certainly conjure a fleeting presence. Nevertheless, in the end, the person is irrecoverable, and those of us who weren’t lucky enough to know him never will.
‘What was Aaron Swartz?’, on the other hand, seems like both a tractable and a worthwhile question, not least because a decent answer ought to say something about where we are now. Swartz positioned himself at the exact spot where technology and politics press noses and glare at one another. It’s a Silicon Valley joke (or perhaps just a Silicon Valley joke) that every idiot with a dating app says he wants to change the world, but Swartz seems really to have meant it. He quit money the way PayPal’s co-founder Peter Thiel wants smart kids to quit college. He became a white-hat hacker among the levers of state power.
And things ended, not just badly, but dismally, in a sulphurous halfworld of G-men, prosecutorial intimidation and forced betrayals. It is, I suspect, impossible to learn anything about the young activist’s story without starting to see it as a symbol of something ominous in our present chunk of history. But what? [Continue reading…]
David Graeber writes: The Department of Justice’s investigation of the Ferguson Police Department has scandalized the nation, and justly so. But the department’s institutional racism, while shocking, isn’t the report’s most striking revelation.
More damning is this: in a major American city, the criminal justice system perceives a large part of that city’s population not as citizens to be protected, but as potential targets for what can only be described as a shake-down operation designed to wring money out of the poorest and most vulnerable by any means they could, and that as a result, the overwhelming majority of Ferguson’s citizens had outstanding warrants.
Many will try to write off this pattern of economic exploitation as some kind of strange anomaly. In fact, it’s anything but. What the racism of Ferguson’s criminal justice system produced is simply a nightmarish caricature of something that is beginning to happen on every level of American life; something which is beginning to transform our most basic sense of who we are, and how we — or most of us, anyway — relate to the central institutions of our society, in ways that are genuinely disastrous.
The DOJ’s report has made us all familiar with the details: the constant pressure on police to issue as many citations as possible for minor infractions (such as parking or seat-belt violations) and the equal pressure on the courts to make the fines as high as possible; the arcane court rules apparently designed to be almost impossible to follow (the court’s own web page contained incorrect information); the way citizens who had never been found guilty — indeed, never even been accused — of an actual crime were rounded up, jailed, threatened with “indefinite” incarceration in fetid cells, risking disease and serious injury, until their destitute families could assemble hundreds if not thousands of dollars in fines, fees, and penalties to pay their jailers.
As a result of such practices, over three quarters of the population had warrants out for the arrest at any given time. The entire population was criminalized. [Continue reading…]
Al Jazeera America reports: Canisters of tear gas thrown indiscriminately into crowds, armored vehicles rolling through city streets and men in camouflage wielding machine guns — it seems like a scene from Fallujah or Kabul or perhaps from the dark days of the U.S. civil rights movement.
But as the world knows, this is Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
Even as the community struggles to come to grips with the tragic shooting death of yet another unarmed young African-American man, the events unfolding in Ferguson have thrown a spotlight on a second alarming trend: the increasing militarization of local police departments.
In response to protesters expressing outrage over the killing of 18-year-old Mike Brown, the St. Louis County and Ferguson police departments have turned the streets of this majority-African-American suburb into a veritable war zone, firing rubber bullets, menacing demonstrators with dogs and in general displaying excessive force for the purposes of security and crowd control.
“This militarization that we are witnessing — police officers dressed as soldiers, using military vehicles and military weapons to engage largely unarmed protesters — is outrageous,” said Tom Nolan, chairman of the department of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, who served for 27 years in the Boston Police Department. “It’s a disgrace.” [Continue reading…]
BuzzFeed reports: Amid growing criticism of the military-style equipment and tactics deployed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, a Democrat from Georgia plans to introduce the “Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act” in Congress next month.
Rep. Hank Johnson asked his all his colleagues Thursday to join him in supporting the bill, which he said in a letter “will end the free transfers of certain aggressive military equipment to local law enforcement and ensure that all equipment can be accounted for.”
Images of assault rifle-carrying camouflaged police riding through Ferguson on military vehicles similar to the IED-resistant equipment used by American armed forces in combat have proven to be a jolt of energy for a long-simmering debate about police militarization.
In his letter to Congress, Johnson signaled that he expects his bill to break through the partisan gridlock in the House. [Continue reading…]
David Cole writes: On Tuesday, Senator Patrick Leahy introduced the revised USA Freedom Act, a bipartisan bill to rein in the National Security Agency’s collection of telephone and Internet records. If Congress enacts Senator Leahy’s bill in its current form, it will mark the most significant reform of US intelligence gathering since the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, enacted in the 1970s in response to the Church Committee’s revelations of abusive spying practices on political dissidents and activists.
This time, of course, the calls for reform were sparked not by a congressional inquiry, but by information leaked by Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who risked criminal prosecution and de facto banishment to let Americans know what its most expansive spy agency was doing to their rights in the name of their security. In December 2013, six months after Snowden’s first revelations, the president’s own expert panel recommended changes to the NSA program. In May, the House passed an earlier version of the USA Freedom Act, which unfortunately had been watered down at the behest of Obama administration officials in secret last-minute negotiations. Senator Leahy’s bill would significantly strengthen the House bill.
Leahy’s bill comes not a moment too soon. Two reports issued on Monday bring into full view the costs of a system that allows its government to conduct dragnet surveillance without specific suspicions of wrongdoing. In With Liberty to Monitor All, Human Rights Watch and the ACLU make a powerful case that mass surveillance has already had a devastating effect on journalists’ ability to monitor and report on national security measures, and on lawyers’ ability to represent victims of government overreaching. And the same day, the New America Foundation issued Surveillance Costs, a report noting the widespread economic harm to US tech companies that NSA surveillance has inflicted, as potential customers around the world take their business elsewhere. [Continue reading…]
The Intercept reports: The Obama administration has quietly approved a substantial expansion of the terrorist watchlist system, authorizing a secret process that requires neither “concrete facts” nor “irrefutable evidence” to designate an American or foreigner as a terrorist, according to a key government document obtained by The Intercept.
The “March 2013 Watchlisting Guidance,” a 166-page document issued last year by the National Counterterrorism Center, spells out the government’s secret rules for putting individuals on its main terrorist database, as well as the no fly list and the selectee list, which triggers enhanced screening at airports and border crossings. The new guidelines allow individuals to be designated as representatives of terror organizations without any evidence they are actually connected to such organizations, and it gives a single White House official the unilateral authority to place entire “categories” of people the government is tracking onto the no fly and selectee lists. It broadens the authority of government officials to “nominate” people to the watchlists based on what is vaguely described as “fragmentary information.” It also allows for dead people to be watchlisted.
Over the years, the Obama and Bush Administrations have fiercely resisted disclosing the criteria for placing names on the databases — though the guidelines are officially labeled as unclassified. In May, Attorney General Eric Holder even invoked the state secrets privilege to prevent watchlisting guidelines from being disclosed in litigation launched by an American who was on the no fly list. In an affidavit, Holder called them a “clear roadmap” to the government’s terrorist-tracking apparatus, adding: “The Watchlisting Guidance, although unclassified, contains national security information that, if disclosed … could cause significant harm to national security.” [Continue reading…]
— Pres. Hassan Rouhani (@drRouhani) June 25, 2014
Azadeh Moaveni reports: Iran may have lost to Argentina thanks to a Lionel Messi strike in the dying seconds of their World Cup match on Saturday, but that didn’t stop the Tehran street party that rattled the authorities. Large numbers of Iranians converged on the streets, dancing on overpasses, overrunning major thoroughfares, chanting and blaring music out of cars, in an outpouring of popular celebration that prompted the authorities to send plainclothes security agents on motorbikes through the crowds to disperse them. Riot police had locked down thoroughfares like Tehran’s busy Parkway intersection, but young people flooded into side streets to carry on their festivities, buoyed by the Iranian national soccer team’s strong showing against top-ranked Argentina.
Most neutral commentators concurred that the Iranian team had mounted a superb effort and had been unlucky to be denied at least a draw against the two-time World Cup champions. “This dignified loss means more to us than any win,” said one young man dancing with his friends on the street.
Despite the heavy police presence across the city, the unexpected outpouring for Team Melli — as the national soccer team is known — stayed strictly in the spirit of fun. Young peopled flew the Iranian flag from their motorbikes and chanted their thanks to individual players, but their commotion carried none of the political overtones of past public celebrations around the World Cup. Instead, most seemed content to have Team Melli project a new image of Iran to the world, that of a moderate, soccer-loving nation, progressive enough to have an endangered species, the Asian cheetah, on its team uniform. “The national team and their fans can both improve Iran’s reputation, and if the government cooperates and doesn’t crack down, that will boost people’s sense of hope,” said Ali, a 28-year-old event manager. “Iranians are more depressed today than any other time, so a little bit of happiness can make it better.”
It’s precisely that prospect of hopefulness, though, that some say led the Iranian regime to deliberately stanch public excitement in advance of the World Cup. Security authorities took the unprecedented step of banning the broadcast of matches in public cinemas and cafés, effectively barring Iranians from experiencing the matches as collective events. [Continue reading…]
As CNN reports, that ban was not effectively enforced:
As the Associated Press reports, the popularity of a World Cup video led to arrests in Iran.
Iranian police have arrested three people who appeared in an online video of young men and women singing and dancing in support of the country’s World Cup football team, the official IRNA news agency reported Monday.
Provincial police chief Col. Rahmatollah Taheri was quoted as saying the video clip, produced by the London-based Ajam Band, features scenes from outside and inside Iran, including the city of Shahroud, where two 23-year-olds appearing in the film and a 26-year-old photographer were arrested.
The video shows young people, including women not wearing the mandatory headscarf, singing and dancing in support of Iran’s national team, interspersed with footage from matches. They are shown waving Iranian flags and dancing in cars, streets, homes and public parks.
Taheri called the video “vulgar” and urged the youth not to take part in such activities. The official said those arrested have been referred for possible prosecution.
Glenn Greenwald writes: A prime justification for surveillance – that it’s for the benefit of the population – relies on projecting a view of the world that divides citizens into categories of good people and bad people. In that view, the authorities use their surveillance powers only against bad people, those who are “doing something wrong”, and only they have anything to fear from the invasion of their privacy. This is an old tactic. In a 1969 Time magazine article about Americans’ growing concerns over the US government’s surveillance powers, Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, assured readers that “any citizen of the United States who is not involved in some illegal activity has nothing to fear whatsoever”.
The point was made again by a White House spokesman, responding to the 2005 controversy over Bush’s illegal eavesdropping programme: “This is not about monitoring phone calls designed to arrange Little League practice or what to bring to a potluck dinner. These are designed to monitor calls from very bad people to very bad people.” And when Barack Obama appeared on The Tonight Show in August 2013 and was asked by Jay Leno about NSA revelations, he said: “We don’t have a domestic spying programme. What we do have is some mechanisms that can track a phone number or an email address that is connected to a terrorist attack.”
For many, the argument works. The perception that invasive surveillance is confined only to a marginalised and deserving group of those “doing wrong” – the bad people – ensures that the majority acquiesces to the abuse of power or even cheers it on. But that view radically misunderstands what goals drive all institutions of authority. “Doing something wrong” in the eyes of such institutions encompasses far more than illegal acts, violent behaviour and terrorist plots. It typically extends to meaningful dissent and any genuine challenge. It is the nature of authority to equate dissent with wrongdoing, or at least with a threat.
The record is suffused with examples of groups and individuals being placed under government surveillance by virtue of their dissenting views and activism – Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement, anti-war activists, environmentalists. In the eyes of the government and J Edgar Hoover’s FBI, they were all “doing something wrong”: political activity that threatened the prevailing order. [Continue reading…]
Yochai Benkler writes: Tuesday’s US supreme court arguments involved a seemingly basic legal question about the future of the Fourth Amendment: do police officers need a warrant to search the cellphone of a person they arrest? But the two privacy cases pit against each other two very different conceptions of what it means to be a supreme court in the first place – and what it means to do constitutional law in the 21st century.
“With computers, it’s a new world,” several justices reportedly said in the chamber. Are they ready to be the kinds of justices who make sense of it?
Cellphones expose so much of our most personal data that the decision should be a 9-0 no-brainer. The basic problem that makes it a harder call is that lawyers and judges are by training and habit incrementalists, while information and communications technology moves too fast for incrementalism to keep up. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: Judges at the lowest levels of the federal judiciary are balking at sweeping requests by law enforcement officials for cellphone and other sensitive personal data, declaring the demands overly broad and at odds with basic constitutional rights.
This rising assertiveness by magistrate judges — the worker bees of the federal court system — has produced rulings that elate civil libertarians and frustrate investigators, forcing them to meet or challenge tighter rules for collecting electronic evidence.
Among the most aggressive opinions have come from D.C. Magistrate Judge John M. Facciola, a bow-tied court veteran who in recent months has blocked wide-ranging access to the Facebook page of Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis and the iPhone of the Georgetown University student accused of making ricin in his dorm room. In another case, he deemed a law enforcement request for the entire contents of an e-mail account “repugnant” to the U.S. Constitution. [Continue reading…]
Human Rights Watch: Russia’s State Duma should drop proposed amendments that would further restrict the law on public gatherings, Human Rights Watch said today. The draconian amendments and other recent pernicious legislative initiatives to suppress critics of the government take Russia even farther astray from its international human rights obligations.
The proposed amendments, submitted by the lower chamber of Russia’s parliament on March 31, 2014, would increase the already significant fines for violating rules on holding public events and provide that a participant of an unauthorized public gathering can be punished by administrative arrest, and, if a repeat offender of the rules, can be subject to criminal sanctions. According to the amendments, “repeated violations of the established order of organization or conduction of a gathering, rally, demonstration, march, or picket” would constitute a criminal offense punishable by up to five years of imprisonment. The penalty would apply to those who have been sentenced for organizing or participating in an unauthorized public gathering more than twice in 180 calendar days.
“The Russian authorities want to criminalize public criticism,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director. “They’re threatening peaceful demonstrators with prison time.” [Continue reading…]
Chase Madar writes: The US constitution’s Bill of Rights is envied by much of the English-speaking world, even by people otherwise not enthralled by The American Way Of Life. Its fundamental liberties – freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, freedom from warrantless search – are a mighty bulwark against overweening state power, to be sure.
But what are these rights actually worth in the United States these days?
Ask Cecily McMillan, a 25-year-old student and activist who was arrested two years ago during an Occupy Wall Street demonstration in Manhattan. Seized by police, she was beaten black and blue on her ribs and arms until she went into a seizure. When she felt her right breast grabbed from behind, McMillan instinctively threw an elbow, catching a cop under the eye, and that is why she is being prosecuted for assaulting a police officer, a class D felony with a possible seven-year prison term. Her trial began this week.
McMillan is one of over 700 protestors arrested in the course of Occupy Wall Street’s mass mobilization, which began with hopes of radical change and ended in an orgy of police misconduct. According to a scrupulously detailed report (pdf) issued by the NYU School of Law and Fordham Law School, the NYPD routinely wielded excessive force with batons, pepper spray, scooters and horses to crush the nascent movement. And then there were the arrests, often arbitrary, gratuitous and illegal, with most charges later dismissed. McMillan’s is the last Occupy case to be tried, and how the court rules will provide a clear window into whether public assembly stays a basic right or becomes a criminal activity. [Continue reading…]
Henry Porter writes: There are two striking images of modern Britain in this week’s news. The first is the story that crime in Britain is at a 32-year low, which confirms evidence in statistical trends that, like most western countries, we are becoming a more orderly and law-abiding society.
The second is provided by the police, which, while suffering a thoroughly deserved collapse in their own reputation, seeks to draw a picture of chaos and misrule that demands ever harsher and more invasive policing techniques. Five years after the financial crash, the police are making the case for deploying water cannon to deal with expected “austerity riots”, when it is blindingly obvious that Britain has passed through a very difficult period without widespread disorder (the riots that began in Tottenham two years ago were mostly a failure of policing, not a response to economic conditions) and, moreover, the economy and employment have both picked up.
But the far more worrying development is the unscrutinised rollout of the police automated numberplate recognition system (ANPR) for tracking vehicles, which, according to Nick Hopkins’ report, currently stores 17bn images in its archive and is set to increase its capacity by 2018 to read and store 50-75 million separate vehicle sightings a day.
This is a very powerful surveillance system and the important thing to remember is that the decision to cover Britain’s motorways and town centres with cameras that track the movements of innocent citizens is that it was never debated by parliament. [Continue reading…]
Andy Fitzgerald writes: America has a propensity for dismissing people and ideas with labels. Terms like “socialist” and “communist” are frequently hurled at those who dare to promote substantial programs that address poverty, or suggest that government provide what many other “developed nations” deem fundamental services – like universal healthcare. Anyone who openly identifies with such positions is assumed to have nothing legitimate to contribute to public debate, irrespective of the plausibility, merit, and true ideology informing their arguments.
It’s a similar scenario with “radical” – a word often used to evoke associations with extremism, instability and an absolutist approach to politics. But the popular usage belies the important role many radicals have played in promoting democracy and justice throughout history, not to mention the continued role radical ideas and activism have to play in unfinished projects.
A recent op-ed in the Chicago Tribune illustrates the common abuse of the term in the media. The columnist, Dennis Byrne, rightly criticizes a tendency in America to privilege individual liberty over community solidarity, but he then attempts a “balanced” perspective by presenting examples of “radicalism” on both sides of the aisle. On abortion, Byrne writes: “Radical individuals on the right and the left demand the supremacy of a woman’s body. … For [those who are pro-choice], a woman’s rights are nearly absolute.”
Squaring the false equivalence circle he adds: “Similar absolutist views are held on the right by those who interpret the Constitution’s Second Amendment to mean that government regulation of firearms should be extraordinarily limited, if not nonexistent.”
But the mischaracterization of radicals extends beyond mainstream media and politics. While discussing feminist activism with several friends, one retorted, “there are radicals in every group”. I challenged the presumption that radicals were inherently a liability to social movements, given the positive history of radicalism in America.
Indeed, it was “radicals” who were responsible for sowing the seeds of two of America’s most important social movements: worker rights and racial justice. The labor movement, in its nascent days, was a radical movement. A confrontational approach to management was necessary to win many of the concessions now sorely taken for granted: the minimum wage, the eight-hour day, even the very possibility of forming a union.[Continue reading…]
At the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Parker Higgins writes: One year ago, we lost Aaron Swartz, a dear friend and a leader in the fight for a free and open Internet. The shock was, and remains, a profound one. It’s a testament to the power of his commitments and ideals that both in life and in death he has inspired millions around the world, including all of us at EFF, to redouble our own efforts to advance the causes that he believed in, and to untangle the twisted and brutal computer crime laws that were used to persecute him.
Aaron was a passionate activist, but he also stood out as a technologist whose ambitions were always aligned towards a better, more just future. His pioneering work demonstrated a passion for harnessing technology to advance the public interest. As the Internet community confronted massive new challenges to free speech and privacy in 2013, there were many moments when we wondered quietly about what Aaron would have said and done.
Sadly, we are left to wonder. We know from his work on the software that would become SecureDrop that Aaron believed in making the world a safer place for whistleblowers to expose injustice and wrongdoing. We are all worse off without the passion and curiosity he surely would have brought to Edward Snowden’s continuing disclosures about NSA spying. We are reminded of Aaron as we push forward in our court cases against the NSA, help organizing against the spying with the stopwatching.us coalition, evaluate the Congressional proposals and, of course, as we continue to build and support technologies that let people take their privacy into their own hands. Aaron understood deeply that, more than ever in a world where information is power, both legal and technical protections for privacy are essential to keep people from being rendered powerless. [Continue reading…]
The former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Chas W. Freeman, said at MIT on Thursday: We live in what the National Security Agency [NSA] has called “the golden age of SIGINT [signals intelligence].” We might have guessed this. We now know it for a fact because of a spectacular act of civil disobedience by Edward Snowden. His is perhaps the most consequential such act for both our domestic liberties and our foreign relations in the more than two century-long history of our republic.
This past spring, Mr. Snowden decided to place his oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” and his allegiance to the Bill of Rights above his contractual obligations to the intelligence community and the government for which it snoops. He blew the whistle on NSA’s ruthless drive for digital omniscience. When he did this, he knew that many of his fellow citizens would impugn his patriotism. He also knew he would be prosecuted for violating the growing maze of legislation that criminalizes revelations about the national security practices of America’s post-9/11 warfare state.
Mr. Snowden does not dispute that he is guilty of legally criminal acts. But he places himself in the long line of Americans convinced, as Martin Luther King put it, that “noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.” As someone long in service to our country, I am upset by such defiance of authority. As an American, I am not.
Like Henry David Thoreau and many others in protest movements in our country over the past century and a half, Mr. Snowden deliberately broke the law to bring to public attention government behavior he considered at odds with the U.S. Constitution, American values, and the rule of law. One point he wanted to make was that we Americans now live under a government that precludes legal or political challenges to its own increasingly deviant behavior. Our government has criminalized the release of information exposing such behavior or revealing the policies that authorize it. The only way to challenge its policies and activities is to break the law by exposing them. [Continue reading…]