Thursday, July 4, 2013

Happy 4th of July

Drones Are Watching You:
As Congress considers a new immigration law that would expand the fleet of unmanned drones along the border, the agency in charge of border protection is increasingly offering the military-grade drones it already owns to domestic law enforcement agencies and has considered equipping them with “nonlethal weapons,” according to documents recently made public.

Agencies that have used the 10 Predator drones owned by the Customs and Border Protection Agency have deployed them to investigate fishing violations, search for missing persons and inspect levees along the Mississippi River, among other things.

Three years ago, the drones were used by other agencies 30 times; in 2012, that jumped to 250 times. How the agency stores and shares that data with other government agencies remains unclear. 
When most people think of drones (if they think of them at all) we think in terms of Afghanistan, theaters of war, terrorists, etc. I'm rather sure most people are not thinking of drones flying around domestically in the U.S., right now, above your head.
Additionally, the agency, in a 2010 report to Congress included in the documents, raised the possibility of eventually equipping its drones with “nonlethal weapons” to “immobilize” people and vehicles trying to cross the border illegally. In a statement on Wednesday, the agency said it had “no plans to arm its unmanned aircraft systems with nonlethal weapons or weapons of any kind.”  
LOL. That makes you feel better, doesn't it? Maybe we can start "immobilizing" the criminals before they act. If we can figure out who they are, that is.
The flight logs provided by the agency show that it has become increasingly generous with its unmanned aerial vehicles. They have been used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the North Dakota Army National Guard, Texas Department of Public Safety and the United States Forest Service, among others. 
I'm sure Deputy Fife will be putting in a request next.
Privacy advocates worry about the prospect of law enforcement officials using drones to patrol particular areas for long stretches of time or to follow particular individuals without a warrant.
“The danger comes from dragnet surveillance,” is how Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington, described it. By dragnet I mean indiscriminate,” he said, “not in a particular situation, but just to buzz around looking for suspicious activity, which is exactly what they do on border.”
Frightening. Almost as frightening to find out, on this "Independence Day" of ours, is that the Postal Service is photographing every piece of mail you send for law enforcement. Every single one of them.
As the world focuses on the high-tech spying of the National Security Agency, the misplaced card offers a rare glimpse inside the seemingly low-tech but prevalent snooping of the United States Postal Service. 

Mr. Pickering was targeted by a longtime surveillance system called mail covers, a forerunner of a vastly more expansive effort, the Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program, in which Postal Service computers photograph the exterior of every piece of paper mail that is processed in the United States — about 160 billion pieces last year. It is not known how long the government saves the images. 

Together, the two programs show that postal mail is subject to the same kind of scrutiny that the National Security Agency has given to telephone calls and e-mail. 
Don't you love the James Bondish program name? "Mail Isolation Control and Tracking". Right out of Deep Space Nine.
The Mail Isolation Control and Tracking program was created after the anthrax attacks in late 2001 that killed five people, including two postal workers. Highly secret, it seeped into public view last month when the F.B.I. cited it in its investigation of ricin-laced letters sent to President Obama and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. It enables the Postal Service to retrace the path of mail at the request of law enforcement. No one disputes that it is sweeping. 

“In the past, mail covers were used when you had a reason to suspect someone of a crime,” said Mark D. Rasch, who started a computer crimes unit in the fraud section of the criminal division of the Justice Department and worked on several fraud cases using mail covers. “Now it seems to be, ‘Let’s record everyone’s mail so in the future we might go back and see who you were communicating with.’ Essentially you’ve added mail covers on millions of Americans.”
And here you were only worried about your email being tracked and read. Now it's the hard mail too.
Said James J. Wedick, a former F.B.I. agent who spent 34 years at the agency and who said he used mail covers in a number of investigations, “It can be easily abused because it’s so easy to use and you don’t have to go through a judge to get the information. You just fill out a form.” 

For mail cover requests, law enforcement agencies submit a letter to the Postal Service, which can grant or deny a request without judicial review. Law enforcement officials say the Postal Service rarely denies a request. In other government surveillance programs, like wiretaps, a federal judge must sign off on the requests. 

Law enforcement officials need warrants to open the mail, although President George W. Bush asserted in a signing statement in 2007 that the federal government had the authority to open mail without warrants in emergencies or in foreign intelligence cases.  
Of course he did. And most people will shake their heads in bewilderment at the objections to these and other surveillance programs, offering up the old "if you ain't got nothin' to hide, what do you care if the gubmint reads your stuff?" defense of the government.

Meanwhile, abuses occur regularly.
The program has led to sporadic reports of abuse. In May 2012, Mary Rose Wilcox, a Maricopa County supervisor in Arizona, was awarded nearly $1 million by a federal judge after winning a lawsuit against Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The sheriff, known for his immigration raids, had obtained mail covers from the Postal Service to track her mail. The judge called the investigation into Ms. Wilcox politically motivated because she had been a frequent critic of Mr. Arpaio’s, objecting to what she considered the targeting of Hispanics in his immigration sweeps.
So, on this day where we celebrate "freedom" and independence, isn't it nice to know everything we do, electronically, physically and soon mentally is under some form of surveillance (if you want to read a great academic analysis of surveillance, visit this post by my colleague at Cranky Sociologists). 

Happy 4th. I'm rather sure the founders of the country are spinning in their graves.

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