Posts Tagged ‘CISPA’

The game is rigged, the network is bugged, the government talks double-speak, the courts are complicit and there’s nothing you can do about it.”—David Kravets, reporting for Wired

Nothing you write, say, text, tweet or share via phone or computer is private anymore. As constitutional law professor Garrett Epps points out, “Big Brother is watching…. Big Brother may be watching you right now, and you may never know. Since 9/11, our national life has changed forever. Surveillance is the new normal.”

This is the reality of the internet-dependent, plugged-in life of most Americans today.

A process which started shortly after 9/11 with programs such as Total Information Awareness (the predecessor to the government’s present surveillance programs) has grown into a full-fledged campaign of warrantless surveillance, electronic tracking and data mining, thanks to federal agents who have been given carte blanche access to the vast majority of electronic communications in America. Their methods completely undermine constitution safeguards, and yet no federal agency, president, court or legislature has stepped up to halt this assault on our rights.

For the most part, surveillance, data mining, etc., is a technological, jargon-laden swamp through which the average American would prefer not to wander. Consequently, most Americans remain relatively oblivious to the government’s ever-expanding surveillance powers, appear unconcerned about the fact that the government is spying on them, and seem untroubled that there is no way of opting out of this system. This state of delirium lasts only until those same individuals find themselves arrested or detained for something they did, said or bought that runs afoul of the government’s lowering threshold for what constitutes criminal activity.

All the while, Congress, the courts, and the president (starting with George W. Bush and expanding exponentially under Barack Obama) continue to erect an electronic concentration camp the likes of which have never been seen before.

A good case in point is the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA), formerly known as CISPA (Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act). Sold to the public as necessary for protecting us against cyber attacks or internet threats such as hacking, this Orwellian exercise in tyranny-masquerading-as-security actually makes it easier for the government to spy on Americans, while officially turning Big Business into a government snitch.

Be warned: this cybersecurity bill is little more than a wolf in sheep’s clothing or, as longtime critic Senator Ron Wyden labeled it, “a surveillance bill by another name.”

Lacking any significant privacy protections, CISA, which sacrifices privacy without improving security, will do for surveillance what the Patriot Act did for the government’s police powers: it will expand, authorize and normalize the government’s intrusions into the most intimate aspects of our lives to such an extent that there will be no turning back. In other words, it will ensure that the Fourth Amendment, which protects us against unfounded, warrantless government surveillance, does not apply to the Internet or digital/electronic communications of any kind.

In a nutshell, CISA would make it legal for the government to spy on the citizenry without their knowledge and without a warrant under the guise of fighting cyberterrorism. It would also protect private companies from being sued for sharing your information with the government, namely the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in order to prevent “terrorism” or an “imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm.”

Law enforcement agencies would also be given broad authority to sift through one’s data for any possible crimes. What this means is that you don’t even have to be suspected of a crime to be under surveillance. The bar is set so low as to allow government officials to embark on a fishing expedition into your personal affairs—emails, phone calls, text messages, purchases, banking transactions, etc.—based only on their need to find and fight “crime.”

Take this anything-goes attitude towards government surveillance, combine it with Big Business’ complicity over the government’s blatantly illegal acts, the ongoing trend towards overcriminalization, in which minor acts are treated as major crimes, and the rise of private prisons, which have created a profit motive for jailing Americans, and you have all the makings of a fascist police state.

So who can we count on to protect us from the threat of government surveillance?

It won’t be the courts. Not in an age of secret courts, secret court rulings, and an overall deference by the courts to anything the government claims is necessary to its fight against terrorism. Most recently, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a case challenging the government’s massive electronic wiretapping program. As Court reporter Lyle Denniston notes:

Daoud v. United States was the first case, in the nearly four-decade history of electronic spying by the U.S. government to gather foreign intelligence, in which a federal judge had ordered the government to turn over secret papers about how it had obtained evidence through wiretaps of telephones and Internet links. That order, however, was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, whose ruling was the one the Justices on Monday declined to review…. One of the unusual features of the government’s global electronic spying program is that the individuals whose conversations or e-mails have been monitored almost never hear about it, because the program is so shrouded in secrecy — except when the news media manages to find out some details. But, if the government plans to use evidence it gathered under that program against a defendant in a criminal trial, it must notify the defendant that he or she has been monitored.

It won’t be Congress, either (CISA is their handiwork, remember), which has failed to do anything to protect the citizenry from an overbearing police state, all the while enabling the government to continue its power grabs. It was Congress that started us down this whole Big Brother road with its passage and subsequent renewals of the USA Patriot Act, which drove a stake through the heart of the Bill of Rights. The Patriot Act rendered First Amendment activists potential terrorists; justified broader domestic surveillance; authorized black bag “sneak-and-peak” searches of homes and offices by government agents; granted the FBI the right to come to your place of employment, demand your personal records and question your supervisors and fellow employees, all without notifying you; allowed the government access to your medical records, school records and practically every personal record about you; allowed the government to secretly demand to see records of books or magazines you’ve checked out in any public library and Internet sites you’ve visited.

The Patriot Act also gave the government the green light to monitor religious and political institutions with no suspicion of criminal wrongdoing; prosecute librarians or keepers of any other records if they told anyone that the government had subpoenaed information related to a terror investigation; monitor conversations between attorneys and clients; search and seize Americans’ papers and effects without showing probable cause; and jail Americans indefinitely without a trial, among other things.

And it certainly won’t be the president. Indeed, President Obama recently issued an executive order calling on private companies (phone companies, banks, Internet providers, you name it) to share their customer data (your personal data) with each other and, most importantly, the government. Here’s the problem, however: while Obama calls for vague protections for privacy and civil liberties without providing any specific recommendations, he appoints the DHS to oversee the information sharing and develop guidelines with the attorney general for how the government will collect and share the data.

Talk about putting the wolf in charge of the hen house.

Mind you, this is the same agency, rightly dubbed a “wasteful, growing, fear-mongering beast,” that is responsible for militarizing the police, weaponizing SWAT teams, spying on activists, stockpiling ammunition, distributing license plate readers to state police, carrying out military drills in American cities, establishing widespread surveillance networks through the use of fusion centers, funding city-wide surveillance systems, accelerating the domestic use of drones, and generally establishing itself as the nation’s standing army, i.e., a national police force.

This brings me back to the knotty problem of how to protect Americans from cyber attacks without further eroding our privacy rights.

Dependent as we are on computer technology for almost all aspects of our lives, it’s feasible that a cyberattack on American computer networks really could cripple both the nation’s infrastructure and its economy. So do we allow the government liberal powers to control and spy on all electronic communications flowing through the United States? Can we trust the government not to abuse its privileges and respect our privacy rights? Does it even matter, given that we have no real say in the matter?

As I point out in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, essentially, there are three camps of thought on the question of how much power the government should have, and which camp you fall into says a lot about your view of government—or, at least, your view of whichever administration happens to be in power at the time, for the time being, the one calling the shots being the Obama administration.

In the first camp are those who trust the government to do the right thing—or, at least, they trust the Obama administration to look out for their best interests. To this group, CISA is simply a desperately needed blueprint for safeguarding us against a possible cyberattack, with a partnership between the government and Big Business serving as the most logical means of thwarting such an attack. Any suggestion that the government and its corporate cohorts might abuse this power is dismissed as conspiratorial hysterics. The problem, as technology reporter Adam Clark Estes points out, is that CISA is a “privacy nightmare” that “stomps all over civil liberties” without making “the country any safer against cyberattacks.”

In the second camp are those who not only don’t trust the government but think the government is out to get them. Sadly, they’ve got good reason to distrust the government, especially when it comes to abusing its powers and violating our rights. For example, consider that government surveillance of innocent Americans has exploded over the past decade. In fact, Wall Street Journal reporter Julia Angwin has concluded that, as a result of its spying and data collection, the U.S. government has more data on American citizens than the Stasi secret police had on East Germans. To those in this second group, CISA is nothing less than the writing on the wall that surveillance is here to stay, meaning that the government will continue to monitor, regulate and control all means of communications.

Then there’s the third camp, which neither sees government as an angel or a devil, but merely as an entity that needs to be controlled, or as Thomas Jefferson phrased it, bound “down from mischief with the chains of the Constitution.” A distrust of all who hold governmental power was rife among those who drafted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. James Madison, the nation’s fourth president and the author of the Bill of Rights, was particularly vocal in warning against government. He once observed, “All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree.”

To those in the third camp, the only way to ensure balance in government is by holding government officials accountable to abiding by the rule of law. Unfortunately, with all branches of the government, including the courts, stridently working to maintain its acquired powers, and the private sector marching in lockstep, there seems to be little to protect the American people from the fast-growing electronic surveillance state.

In the meantime, surveillance has become the new normal, and the effects of this endless surveillance are taking a toll, resulting in a more anxious and submissive citizenry. As Fourth Amendment activist Alex Marthews points out,

Mass surveillance is becoming a punchline. Making it humorous makes mass surveillance seem easy and friendly and a normal part of life…we make uneasy jokes about how we should watch what we say, about the government looking over our shoulders, about cameras and informers and eyes in the sky. Even though we may not in practice think that these agencies pay us any mind, mass surveillance still creates a chilling effect: We limit what we search for online and inhibit expression of controversial viewpoints. This more submissive mentality isn’t a side effect. As far as anyone is able to measure, it’s the main effect of mass surveillance. The effect of such programs is not primarily to thwart attacks by foreign terrorists on U.S. soil; it’s to discourage challenges to the security services’ authority over our lives here at home.

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“If you’re not a terrorist, if you’re not a threat, prove it. This is the price you pay to live in free society right now. It’s just the way it is.”—Sergeant Ed Mullins of the New York Police Department

Immediately following the devastating 9/11 attacks, which destroyed the illusion of invulnerability which had defined American society since the end of the Cold War, many Americans willingly ceded their rights and liberties to government officials who promised them that the feeling of absolute safety could be restored.

In the 12 years since, we have been subjected to a series of deceptions, subterfuges and scare tactics by the government, all largely aimed at amassing more power for the federal agencies and extending their control over the populace. Starting with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, continuing with the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, and coming to a head with the assassination of American citizens abroad, the importing of drones and other weapons of compliance, and the rise in domestic surveillance, we have witnessed the onslaught of a full-blown crisis in government.

Still Americans have gone along with these assaults on their freedoms unquestioningly.

Even with our freedoms in shambles, our country in debt, our so-called “justice” system weighted in favor of corporations and the police state, our government officials dancing to the tune of corporate oligarchs, and a growing intolerance on the part of the government for anyone who challenges the status quo, Americans have yet to say “enough is enough.”

Now, in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, we are once again being assured that if we only give up a few more liberties and what little remains of our privacy, we will achieve that elusive sense of security we’ve yet to attain. This is the same song and dance that comes after every tragedy, and it’s that same song and dance which has left us buying into the illusion that we are a free, safe society.

The reality of life in America tells a different tale, however. For example, in a May 2013 interview with CNN, former FBI counterterrorism agent Tim Clemente disclosed that the federal government is keeping track of all digital communications that occur within the United States, whether or not those communicating are American citizens, and whether or not they have a warrant to do so.

As revelatory as the disclosure was, it caused barely a ripple of dismay among Americans, easily distracted by the torrent of what passes for entertainment news today. Yet it confirms what has become increasingly apparent in the years after 9/11: the federal government is literally tracking any and all communications occurring within the United States, without concern for the legal limitations of such activity, and without informing the American people that they are doing so.

Clemente dropped his bombshell during a CNN interview about authorities’ attempts to determine the nature of communications between deceased Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his widow Katherine Russell. In the course of that conversation, Clemente revealed that federal officials will not only be able to access any voicemails that may have been left by either party, but that the entirety of the phone conversations they had will be at federal agents’ finger tips.

“We certainly have ways in national security investigations to find out exactly what was said in that conversation,” stated Clemente. “All of that stuff [meaning phone conversations occurring in America] is being captured as we speak whether we know it or like it or not.” A few days later, Clemente was asked to clarify his comments, at which point he said, “There is a way to look at all digital communications in the past. No digital communication is secure.”

In other words, there is no form of digital communication that the government cannot and does not monitor—phone calls, emails, text messages, tweets, Facebook posts, internet video chats, etc., are all accessible, trackable and downloadable by federal agents.

At one time, such actions by the government would not only have been viewed as unacceptable, they would also have been considered illegal. However, government officials have been engaged in an ongoing attempt to legitimize these actions by passing laws that make the lives of all Americans an open book for government agents. For example, while the nation was caught up in the drama of the Boston bombing and the ensuing military-style occupation of the city by local and federal police, Congress passed a little-noticed piece of legislation known as the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA). The legislation, which the House of Representatives approved by an overwhelming margin of 288-127, will allow internet companies to share their users’ private data with the federal government and other private companies in order to combat so-called “cyber threats.”

In short, the law dismantles any notion of privacy on the internet, opening every action one undertakes online, whether emailing, shopping, banking, or just browsing, to scrutiny by government agents. While CISPA has yet to clear the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, the spirit of it is alive and well. In fact, officials in the Obama administration have for some time now been authorizing corporate information sharing and spying in secret through the use of executive orders and other tactics.

The Justice Department, for instance, has been issuing so-called “2511 letters” to various internet service providers like AT&T, which immunize them from being prosecuted under federal wiretapping laws for providing the federal government with private information. Despite federal court rulings to the contrary, the Department of Justice continues to assert that it does not require a warrant to access Americans’ emails, Facebook chats, and other forms of digital communication.

NSA Surveillance Octopus

While it may be tempting to lay the full blame for these erosions of our privacy on the Obama administration, they are simply continuing a system of mass surveillance, the seeds of which were planted in the weeks after 9/11, when the National Security Agency (NSA) began illegally tracking the communications of American citizens. According to a Washington Post article published in 2010, the NSA continues to collect 1.7 billion communications, whether telephone, email or otherwise, every single day.

The NSA and Department of Justice are just two pieces of a vast surveillance network which encompasses and implicates most of the federal government, as well as the majority of technology and telecommunications companies in the United States. For the past two years, the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has approved literally every single request by the federal government to spy on people within the United States. There have been some 4,000 applications rubberstamped by the court in the past two years, applications which allow federal officials to monitor the communications of any person in the United States, including American citizens, if they are believed to be in contact with someone overseas.

These government-initiated spying programs depend in large part on the willingness of corporations to hand over personal information about their customers to government officials. Sometimes the government purchases the information outright. At other times, the government issues National Security Letters, which allow the government to force companies to hand over personal information without a warrant or probable cause.

Some web companies, such as Skype, have already altered their products to allow government access to personal information. In fact, government agents can now determine the credit card information and addresses of Skype users under suspicion of criminal activity. Aside from allowing government agents backdoor access to American communications, corporations are also working on technologies to allow government agents even easier access to Americans’ communications.

For example, Google has filed a patent for a “Policy Violation Checker,” software which would monitor an individual’s communications as they type them out, whether in an email, an Excel spreadsheet or some other digital document, then alert the individual, and potentially their employer or a government agent, if they type any “problematic phrases” which “present policy violations, have legal implications, or are otherwise troublesome to a company, business, or individual.” The software would work by comparing the text being typed to a pre-defined database of “problematic phrases,” which would presumably be defined on a company-by-company basis.

The emergence of this technology fits in well with Google chairman Eric Schmidt’s view on privacy, which is that “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” Unfortunately, this is not just the attitude of corporate benefactors who stand to profit from creating spy technology and software but government officials as well.

Additionally, police officials throughout the country have become increasingly keen on monitoring social media websites in real time. Rob D’Ovido, a criminal justice professor at Drexel University, has noted that, “The danger of this in light of the tragedy in Boston is that law enforcement is being so risk-averse they are in danger of crossing that line and going after what courts would ultimately deem as free speech.”

Cameron Dambrosio

For example, Cameron Dambrosio, a teenager and self-styled rap artist living in Metheun, Massachusetts, posted a video of one of his original songs on the internet which included references to the White House and the Boston bombing. While the song’s lyrics may well have been crude and ill-advised in the wake of the Boston bombing, police officers exacerbated the situation by arresting Dambrosio and charging him with communicating terrorist threats, a felony charge which could land him in prison for twenty years.

Unfortunately, cases like Dambrosio’s may soon become the norm, as the FBI’s Next Generation Cyber Initiative has announced that its “top legislative priority” this year is to get social media giants like Facebook and Google to comply with requests for access to real-time updates of social media websites. The proposed method of encouraging compliance is legal inquiries and hefty fines leveled at these companies. The Obama administration is expected to support the proposal.

The reality is this:  we no longer live in a free society. Having traded our freedoms for a phantom promise of security, we now find ourselves imprisoned in a virtual cage of cameras, wiretaps and watchful government eyes. All the while, the world around us is no safer than when we started on this journey more than a decade ago. Indeed, it well may be that we are living in a far more dangerous world, not so much because the terrorist threat is any greater but because the government itself has become the greater threat to our freedoms. — John W. Whitehead

“Of all the tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.”—C.S. Lewis

Caught up in the televised drama of a military-style manhunt for the suspects in the Boston Marathon explosion, most Americans fail to realize that the world around them has been suddenly and jarringly shifted off its axis, that axis being the U.S. Constitution.

For those like myself who have studied emerging police states, the sight of a city placed under martial law—its citizens under house arrest (officials used the Orwellian phrase “shelter in place” to describe the mandatory lockdown), military-style helicopters equipped with thermal imaging devices buzzing the skies, tanks and armored vehicles on the streets, and snipers perched on rooftops, while thousands of black-garbed police swarmed the streets and SWAT teams carried out house-to-house searches in search of two young and seemingly unlikely bombing suspects—leaves us in a growing state of unease.

Mind you, these are no longer warning signs of a steadily encroaching police state. The police state has arrived.

Equally unnerving is the ease with which Americans welcomed the city-wide lockdown, the routine invasion of their privacy, and the dismantling of every constitutional right intended to serve as a bulwark against government abuses. Watching it unfold, I couldn’t help but think of Nazi Field Marshal Hermann Goering’s remarks during the Nuremberg trials. As Goering noted:

It is always a simple matter to drag people along whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.

As the events in Boston have made clear, it does indeed work the same in every country. The same propaganda and police state tactics that worked for Adolf Hitler 80 years ago continue to be employed with great success in a post-9/11 America.

Whatever the threat to so-called security—whether it’s rumored weapons of mass destruction, school shootings, or alleged acts of terrorism—it doesn’t take much for the American people to march in lockstep with the government’s dictates, even if it means submitting to martial law, having their homes searched, and being stripped of one’s constitutional rights at a moment’s notice.

As journalist Andrew O’Hehir observes in Salon:

In America after 9/11, we made a deal with the devil, or with Dick Cheney, which is much the same thing. We agreed to give up most of our enumerated rights and civil liberties (except for the sacrosanct Second Amendment, of course) in exchange for a lot of hyper-patriotic tough talk, the promise of “security” and the freedom to go on sitting on our asses and consuming whatever the hell we wanted to. Don’t look the other way and tell me that you signed a petition or voted for John Kerry or whatever. The fact is that whatever dignified private opinions you and I may hold, we did not do enough to stop it, and our constitutional rights are now deemed to be partial or provisional rather than absolute, do not necessarily apply to everyone, and can be revoked by the government at any time.

Particularly disheartening is the fact that Americans, consumed with the need for vengeance, seem even less concerned about protecting the rights of others, especially if those “others” happen to be of a different skin color or nationality. The public response to the manhunt, capture and subsequent treatment of brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is merely the latest example of America’s xenophobic mindset, which was also a driving force behind the roundup and detention of hundreds of Arab, South Asian and Muslim men following 9/11, internment camps that housed more than 18,000 people of Japanese ancestry during World War II, and the arrest and deportation of thousands of “radical” noncitizens during America’s first Red Scare.

Boston Marathon bomber suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Moreover, there has been little outcry over the Obama administration’s decision to deny 19-year-old U.S. citizen Dzhokhar Tsarnaev his due process rights and treat him as an enemy combatant, first off by interrogating him without reading him his Miranda rights (“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law…”).

Presently, under the public safety exception to the Miranda rule, if law enforcement agents believe a suspect has information that might reduce a substantial threat, they can wait to give the Miranda warning. For years now, however, the Obama administration has been lobbying to see this exception extended to all cases involving so-called terror suspects, including American citizens. Tsarnaev’s case may prove to be the game-changer. Yet as journalist Emily Bazelon points out for Slate: “Why should I care that no one’s reading Dzhokhar Tsarnaev his Miranda rights? When the law gets bent out of shape for him, it’s easier to bend out of shape for the rest of us.”

The U.S. Supreme Court rightly recognized in its 1966 ruling in Miranda v. Arizona that police officers must advise a suspect of his/her civil rights once the suspect has been taken into custody, because the police can and often do take advantage of the fact that most Americans don’t know their rights. There have been few exceptions to the Miranda rule over the last 40 years or so, and with good reason. However, if the Obama administration is allowed to scale back the Miranda rule, especially as it applies to U.S. citizens, it would be yet another dangerous expansion of government power at the expense of citizens’ civil rights.

This continual undermining of the rules that protect civil liberties, not to mention the incessant rush to judgment by politicians, members of the media and the public, will inevitably have far-reaching consequences on a populace that not only remains ignorant about their rights but is inclined to sacrifice their liberties for phantom promises of safety.

Moments after taking Tsarnaev into custody, the Boston Police Dept. tweeted “CAPTURED!!! The hunt is over. The search is done. The terror is over. And justice has won.” Yet with Tsarnaev and his brother having been charged, tried and convicted by the government, the media and the police—all without ever having stepped foot inside a courtroom—it remains to be seen whether justice has indeed won.

The lesson for the rest of us is this: once a free people allows the government to make inroads into their freedoms or uses those same freedoms as bargaining chips for security, it quickly becomes a slippery slope to outright tyranny. And it doesn’t really matter whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican at the helm, because the bureaucratic mindset on both sides of the aisle now seems to embody the same philosophy of authoritarian government. Increasingly, those on the left who once hailed Barack Obama as the antidote for restoring the numerous civil liberties that were lost or undermined as a result of Bush-era policies are finding themselves forced to acknowledge that threats to civil liberties are worse under Obama.

Clearly, the outlook for civil liberties under Obama grows bleaker by the day, from his embrace of indefinite detention for U.S. citizens and drone kill lists to warrantless surveillance of phone, email and internet communications, and prosecutions of government whistleblowers. Most recently, capitalizing on the nation’s heightened emotions, confusion and fear, government officials used the Boston Marathon tragedy as a means of extending the reach of the police state, starting with the House of Representatives’ overwhelming passage of the controversial Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), which opens the door to greater internet surveillance by the government. 

House of Representatives passes CISPA in the wake of Boston Marathon explosions.

These troubling developments are the outward manifestations of an inner, philosophical shift underway in how the government views not only the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, but “we the people,” as well. What this reflects is a move away from a government bound by the rule of law to one that seeks total control through the imposition of its own self-serving laws on the populace.

All the while, the American people remain largely oblivious to the looming threats to their freedoms, eager to be persuaded that the government can solve the problems that plague us—whether it be terrorism, an economic depression, an environmental disaster or even a flu epidemic. Yet having bought into the false notion that the government can ensure not only our safety but our happiness and will take care of us from cradle to grave—that is, from daycare centers to nursing homes, we have in actuality allowed ourselves to be bridled and turned into slaves at the bidding of a government that cares little for our freedoms or our happiness. — John W. Whitehead