Highway Surveillance Bill Passes House in RI

Legislation, Police, Surveillance

In a state whose largest city recently passed a sweeping privacy regulation, a new bill expanding police surveillance of license plates has passed the state’s House. The objective is to catch uninsured out-of-state motorists driving on RI highways and fine them up to $120. The bill’s sponsor, Robert Jacquard (D-Cranston), says that each license plate scanned by highway cameras will be erased in one minute following review by law enforcement, though many questions remain about the storage and sharing of this location data. Jacquard sees this technology as simply an extension of red-light cameras that already use automatic license plate recognition (ALPR). However, Rhode Island law enforcement would need to access license plate data from every state to make this work. Privacy groups and some auto insurers stand against this bill, with insurers pointing out the difficulty of getting other states to share personal data about their drivers with Rhode Island.

Sources: ArsTechnica, WPRI.com

Is the Geek Squad Spying for the FBI?

Computers, Police, Surveillance

EFF is suing the FBI through the Freedom of Information Act to obtain information on how it recruits Best Buy Geek Squad employees to report on illegal contents of devices they take in. This interest originates from a federal case in California, where Best Buy confirmed that members of its Geek Squad in Kentucky received compensation for reporting on customers who possessed child pornography on their devices. If the FBI is recruiting private industry employees to spy on personal computers, EFF argues, it constitutes an unlawful government search in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Relying on private vendors represents a means of accessing hidden data without the requirement to file a warrant, thus circumventing traditional protections for privacy. Best Buy has stated that the employees’ decision to accept payment goes against its policies. However, when you drop a device off at Geek Squad, you sign a document acknowledging that Best Buy will turn over devices containing child pornography to the FBI. Employees cannot search for such material; they instead must come across it while conducting the customer-requested service. Court documents from the California case demonstrate suspiciously close ties with the Geek Squad, referring to the employees as “sources.” It will be interesting to see what documents EFF’s FOIA suit uncovers regarding the cozy relationship between the FBI and private industry.

Source: SF Chronicle

Former Intelligence Director Clapper Calls for Police Access to Encrypted Data

Police, Regulation, Smartphones, Social Media, Surveillance

Former U.S. Director of National Intelligence (under the Obama administration) James Clapper spoke in Australia last week, calling on Silicon Valley to develop encryption that allows law enforcement to access the encrypted content while investigating criminal acts. He claims that technology companies have a “social responsibility” to provide this access to the government. Clapper likened full encryption to giving a “pass” to “criminals, terrorists, rapids, murderers, et cetera.” The encryption debate came to widespread public attention following the 2015 San Bernardino shooting, after which Apple refused to unlock the iPhone 5c used by the shooter. The FBI sidestepped Apple by working with a third party to unlock the phone. Clapper also called for filtering out “some of the more egregious material that appears on social media.” At the same time, the former intelligence chief has also been outspoken in his criticism of Trump, stating last week that the Watergate scandal “pales” in comparison with Trump’s strong pro-Russia stance in the face of evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Sources: TechCrunch, Reuters

Your Paper Printouts Are Not Anonymous

Exposure, Police, Surveillance

The recent arrest of Reality Winner, the 25-year-old NSA contractor accused of leaking classified documents on Russian efforts to hack U.S. voting systems, has brought light to tracking embedded in paper printouts. Security professionals believe that Winner was caught due to tiny yellow dots printed on the documents–and on every piece of paper that goes through particular printers. These dots, which can be revealed by shining a blue light or by digital magnification, typically include the date/time of the printout and a printer serial number. It is speculated that the information revealed from the yellow dots was used to tie Winner’s work printer history to the documents. EFF has previously decoded the yellow dots for some printers, and has created a guide.

One argument for the inclusion of the tracking dots is to prevent counterfeiting, such as attempts to print money. EFF writes that printed page tracking is a result of the government asking printer companies to include it without the law’s requirement and that it represents a lack of transparency.

Sources: EFF, The Atlantic

Supreme Court Will Hear Case on Location Privacy

Police, Regulation, Surveillance

The Supreme Court has granted certiorari to Carpenter v. United States, a case about historical cell phone location data. In question is whether police need a warrant to obtain historical customer location data from cell phone companies. In this case, a group of men committed a series of armed robberies, after which one of the men confessed and provided cell phone numbers for 16 others in the group. Investigators obtained cell site information for Carpenter through a court order under the Stored Communications Act, which required the government to provide evidence of reasonable suspicion, rather than the stricter test of probable cause. Metro PCS then provided 127 days of cell-site records for Carpenter. Lower courts have deferred to the precedent set in the 1979 Smith v. Maryland decision. In that case, the Court ruled that a robbery suspect had no reasonable expectation of privacy for phone numbers dialed, because he had voluntarily provided that information to a third party: the phone company. The third-party doctrine, said the lower courts, allows investigators to retrieve cell phone locations without a warrant.

Will be waiting to see the justices’ arguments and verdict in this appeal!


Providence Passes Sweeping Police Reform

Legislation, Police

Earlier this Spring, I posted about Providence’s visionary Community Safety Act, which included a broad set of police reform measures. As of last Thursday, it passed 13-1 in the Providence City Council! Now called the Community-Police Relations Act, the law enables people to see if they are listed in a gang database, codifies the right to observe/record police activity, and requires police to establish reasonable suspicion of criminal activity before using targeted electronic surveillance. Police may not inquire about immigration status, and are barred from profiling based on race, religion, and gender characteristics. The Fraternal Order of Police has stood against this act, which was drawn together from a widespread coalition of community groups. This law now sets a national precedent for protecting civil and digital rights.

Source: EFF

Scotland Yard Accused of Hiring Hackers in India to Monitor Activists

Online privacy, Police, Surveillance

Allegations from an anonymous whistleblower claim that London’s Metropolitan Police enlisted the services of hackers in India to access email accounts of activists, including campaign organizers and journalists. The whistleblower claims to be a current detective and accuses the Met’s Domestic Extremism unit of unlawfully tracking such email activity for years. As proof, the anonymous tipster provided email passwords of 10 individuals claimed to be targeted, five of which have been independently confirmed as correct. One of the targets, Greenpeace activist Colin Newman, reports feeling violated, as his email account contains not just event planning but intimate details of personal counseling. The Independent Police Complaints Commission is now investigating the unit’s collection of email data and shredding of a large volume of documents in 2014. The interception of emails without evidence of investigating serious crimes constitutes unlawful spying on protest groups.

Source: UK ArsTechnica

Emotion Detection to Be Added to 150,000 Moscow CCTV Cameras

Police, Surveillance

Emotion detection technology developed by NTechLab will reportedly be added to 150,000 surveillance cameras run by Moscow’s city government (though NTechLab remains very hush-hush about its clients). The purpose is to detect “suspicious behavior” and track particular individuals. The company has won various research awards (ex. University of Ohio’s EmotionNet challenge) for detecting faces and emotions, and is known for its FindFace app, which acts as a photo search engine to find the Russian social network VKontakte profiles of people spotted on mass transit. CEO of the company, Alexander Kabakov states,

The recognition gives a new level of security in the street because in a couple of seconds you can identify terrorists or criminals or killers

Chilling. Especially because the emotion component has a reported accuracy rate of 94% [on what kind of training data set, a researcher might ask]. Kabakov sees no additional privacy concerns arising from the addition of emotion detection because the cameras already exist. Flawed arguments of a spy merchant.

Source: The Telegraph

Taser Police Body Cameras Will Be Used to Detect “Suspicious Activity”

Police, Surveillance

Taser, recently re-branded as technology company Axon, has announced that it will provide free body cameras to police in the USA and 1 year of free data storage and training. Approximately 1/3 of police departments already use body cameras. Taser’s interest is in capturing and storing police camera data to offer predictive analytics of criminal activity: automating the classification of what looks “suspicious” through deep learning.

While automated machine learning is often portrayed as objective, there are inherent biases with algorithms used to classify behavior, The data set used to train the classifier is often subject to human bias. For instance, facial recognition algorithms trained on faces of white people have trouble identifying African Americans. The database of “suspicious activity” may be comprised of unevenly collected records of black and Hispanic people. Video collected by police body camera is controlled by where police decide to go and when cameras are activated. Finally, this represents further encroachment on private profit-driven industry on decisions that affect human rights and human lives.

How to Protect Your Privacy at a Protest

Police, Protection, Smartphones, Surveillance

Or, What I Should Have Done to Protect My Phone from Surveillance at Today’s March for Science (and What I Will Do at Future Protests)

Fantastic video by the Intercept highlighting the very real possibility of being tracked on our cellphones today at the worldwide marches for science.

Tips for Protesters

  • Lock your phone with a passcode. This entry key is more difficult to extract from you against your will than your fingerprint if you are apprehended by police.
  • Make sure your phone is encrypted. Turn encryption on in your security settings.
  • Use Signal by Open Whisper to communicate with your friends. This end-to-end encryption will prevent prying eyes from reading your messages.
  • Remember that it is your right to film police.
  • Turn off your phone if you are arrested.
  • Know that it is your legal right to refuse to have the digital contents of your phone searched.