Surveillance state quote of the day

Three disclosures this week show that the United States is losing its way in the struggle against terrorism. Sweeping government efforts to stop attacks are backfiring abroad and infringing on basic rights at home.

CIA drone strikes are killing scores of civilians in Pakistan and Yemen.  The National Security Agency is eavesdropping on tens of millions of phone calls worldwide — including those of 35 foreign leaders — in the name of U.S. security.

And the Department of Homeland Security is using algorithms to “prescreen” travelers before they board domestic flights, reviewing government and private databases that include Americans’ tax identification numbers, car registrations and property records.

Will we create a Minority Report-style Department of Precrime next?

* * *

Twelve years after September 11, 2001, the United States’ obsession with al Qaeda is doing more damage to the nation than the terrorist group itself.

— David Rohde, writing in The Atlantic. Check out the full essay here.

Unintentional self-disclosure (updated)

Michael Grunwald, senior national correspondent for Time Magazine made his view of the surveillance state quite clear:


He later deleted the tweet. But his is an example of so many mainstream reporters who, generally without disclosure, advocate for the government, rather than the people.

 Update: A good take on the incident is at the New Yorker.

Related articles

FBI admits using drones to spy on Americans

From Wired: Threat Level:

“Our footprint is very small. We have very few,” [FBI Director Robert] Mueller said in response to an inquiry on unmanned aircraft by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

Grassley asked: “Does the FBI own or currently use drones and for what purposes?”

“Yes, for surveillance.”

Grassley continued: “Does the FBI use drones for surveillance on U.S. soil?”

“Yes, in a very, very minimal way, and seldom.”

Moments later, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) said drones were a huge privacy threat to Americans. The director was unprepared to answer Feinstein’s questions on what “privacy strictures” are in place to protect Americans’ privacy in connection to FBI drone use.

And there is this description of the concerns of Senators from The Guardian:

A Senate intelligence committee member, Mark Udall, Democrat of Colorado, later questioned whehter such use of drones was constitutional. “Unmanned aerial systems have the potential to more efficiently and effectively perform law enforcement duties, but the American people expect the FBI and other government agencies to first and foremost protect their constitutional rights,” Udall said in a prepared statement.

“I am concerned the FBI is deploying drone technology while only being in the ‘initial stages’ of developing guidelines to protect Americans’ privacy rights. I look forward to learning more about this program and will do everything in my power to hold the FBI accountable and ensure its actions respect the US constitution.”

Another senator, Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa, also expressed concern. Asked whether the FBI drones were known about before the Mueller hearing, Grassley told CNN “absolutely not.” Grassley added the FBI was asked last year whether agents were using drones but the bureau never got back with an answer.

Two biggest stories last week merge (updated)

There were two big stories last week: drones and the hunt for cop-killer Chris Dorner. Now they have merged

Yesterday, as a task force of 125 officers, some riding Snowcats in the rugged terrain, continued their search, it was revealed that Dorner has become the first human target for remotely-controlled airborne drones on US soil.

A senior police source said: “The thermal imaging cameras the drones use may be our only hope of finding him. On the ground, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

Asked directly if drones have already been deployed, Riverside Police Chief Sergio Diaz, who is jointly leading the task force, said: “We are using all the tools at our disposal.”

The use of drones was later confirmed by Customs and Border Patrol spokesman Ralph DeSio, who revealed agents have been prepared for Dorner to make a dash for the Mexican border since his rampage began.

He said: “This agency has been at the forefront of domestic use of drones by law enforcement. That’s all I can say at the moment.”

(via Zero Hedge)

Update: The PBS app for the iPhone and iPad currently offers the full version of a Nova report called “Rise of the Drones.” You can also watch it on the web here. The information includes some up close time in the small cargo-container structures that the remote operators of military drones use. Fascinating.

Due process quote of the day

President Obama has refused to tell Congress or the American people why he believes the Constitution gives, or fails to deny, him the authority to secretly target and kill American citizens who he suspects are involved in terrorist activities overseas. So far he has killed three that we know of.

Presidents had never before, to our knowledge, targeted specific Americans for military strikes. There are no court decisions that tell us if he is acting lawfully. Mr. Obama tells us not to worry, though, because his lawyers say it is fine, because experts guide the decisions and because his advisers have set up a careful process to help him decide whom he should kill.

He must think we should be relieved.

Vicki Divoll, former general counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and former deputy legal adviser to the C.I.A.’s Counterterrorism Center, calling on President Obama to release his legal justification for killing American citizens without a trial.

John Brennan has proved himself

John Brennan has repeatedly supported illiegal torture policies, and is a strong advocate of increased drone attacks without providing an explanation of the legal basis for their use. It is an outrage that Brennan is the president’s choice to head the CIA. Glenn Greenwald has the details in this article.

Here is an excerpt:

Prior to President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, a controversy erupted over reports that he intended to appoint John Brennan as CIA director. That controversy, in which I participated, centered around the fact that Brennan, as a Bush-era CIA official, had expressly endorsed Bush’s programs of torture (other than waterboarding) and rendition and also was a vocal advocate of immunizing lawbreaking telecoms for their role in the illegal Bush NSA eavesdropping program. As a result, Brennan withdrew his name from consideration, issuing a bitter letter blaming “strong criticism in some quarters prompted by [his] previous service with the” CIA.

This “victory” of forcing Brennan’s withdrawal proved somewhat Pyrrhic, as Obama then appointed him as his top counter-terrorism adviser, where he exerted at least as much influence as he would have had as CIA Director, if not more. In that position, Brennan last year got caught outright lying when he claimed Obama’s drone program caused no civilian deaths in Pakistan over the prior year. He also spouted complete though highly influential falsehoods to the world in the immediate aftermath of the Osama bin Laden killing, including claiming that bin Laden “engaged in a firefight” with Navy SEALS and had “used his wife as a human shield”. Brennan has also been in charge of many of Obama’s most controversial and radical policies, including “signature strikes” in Yemen – targeting people without even knowing who they are – and generally seizing the power to determine who will be marked for execution without any due process, oversight or transparency.

As it typically does in the US National Security State, all of that deceit and radicalism is resulting not in recrimination or loss of credibility for Brennan, but in reward and promotion.

Send in the drones

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Unman...
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Unmanned aerial vehicle of the CBP Air and Marine Unmanned Aircraft System. (Predator unarmed) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In response to a FOIA request submitted by the EFF, the FAA has released a two lists of its authorizations to fly drones in the United States. One list (called COA) covers governmental entities and a second list covers drone manufacturers who are flight-testing their products.

The EFF has a full summary of what it found and a map showing where the listed entities are located here.

Some of the entities on the COA list are unsurprising. For example, journalists have reported that Customs and Border Protection uses Predator drones to patrol the borders. It is also well known that DARPA and other branches of the military are authorized to fly drones in the US. However, this is the first time we have seen the broad and varied list of other authorized organizations, including universities, police departments, and small towns and counties across the United States. The COA list includes universities and colleges like Cornell, the University of Colorado, Georgia Tech, and Eastern Gateway Community College, as well as police departments in North Little Rock, Arkansas; Arlington, Texas; Seattle, Washington; Gadsden, Alabama; and Ogden, Utah, to name just a few. The COA list also includes small cities and counties like Otter Tail, Minnesota and Herington, Kansas. The Google map linked above plots out the locations we were able to determine from the lists, and is color coded by whether the authorizations are active, expired or disapproved.

The second list we received includes all the manufacturers that have applied for authorizations to test-fly their drones. This list is less surprising and includes manufacturers like Honeywell, the maker of Miami-Dade’s T-Hawk drone; the huge defense contractor Raytheon; and General Atomics, the manufacturer of the Predator drone. This list also includes registration or “N” numbers,” serial numbers and model names, so it could be useful for determining when and where these drones are flying.

Keep in mind that drones will almost certainly reduce the privacy of citizen activities, and their are questions about whether and to what extent they can be used to watch citizens acting on their own property without a warrant. And they can operate undetected.

Now drones are also being used domestically for non-military purposes, raising significant privacy concerns. For example, this past December, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) purchased its ninth drone. It uses these drones inside the United States to patrol the U.S. borders—which most would argue is within its agency mandate—but it also uses them to aid state and local police for routine law enforcement purposes. In fact, the Los Angeles Times reported in December that CBP used one of its Predators to roust out cattle rustlers in North Dakota. The Times quoted local police as saying they “have used two unarmed Predators based at Grand Forks Air Force Base to fly at least two dozen surveillance flights since June.” State and local police are also using their own drones for routine law enforcement activities from catching drug dealers to finding missing persons. Some within law enforcement have even proposed using drones to record traffic violations.

Drones are capable of highly advanced and almost constant surveillance, and they can amass large amounts of data. They carry various types of equipment including live-feed video cameras, infrared cameras, heat sensors, and radar. Some newer drones carry super high resolution “gigapixel” cameras that can “track people and vehicles from altitudes above 20,000 feet[,] . . . [can] monitor up to 65 enemies of the State simultaneously[, and] . . . can see targets from almost 25 miles down range.” Predator drones can eavesdrop on electronic transmissions, and one drone unveiled at DEFCON last year can crack Wi-Fi networks and intercept text messages and cell phone conversations—without the knowledge or help of either the communications provider or the customer. Drones are also designed to carry weapons, and some have suggested that drones carrying weapons such as tasers and bean bag guns could be used domestically.

Send in the drones

In a new law signed by the President on Tuesday, the FAA is compelled to allow unmanned drones to be used in the United States for commercial purposes, as well as law enforcement and emergency purposes.

Under the law, within 90 days, the F.A.A. must allow police and first responders to fly drones under 4.4 pounds, as long as they keep them under an altitude of 400 feet and meet other requirements. The agency must also allow for “the safe integration” of all kinds of drones into American airspace, including those for commercial uses, by Sept. 30, 2015. And it must come up with a plan for certifying operators and handling airspace safety issues, among other rules.

What could possibly go wrong with this? From the point of view of privacy, this could be a very big deal indeed. Drones are relatively inexpensive, and becoming more so every day.  And, under current US law, there is no right to privacy for images taken from the air.

Imagine your neighbor (or the police) flying a drone equipped with an HD video camera over your back yard while you having a party or over your swimming pool.  When I lived in Los Angeles, there were frequent law enforcement uses of the sky by helicopter. While the noise could be very annoying, it also made clear that law enforcement was watching. With drones, the noise level will be greatly reduced or even eliminated. The ACLU has prepared a report on the implications of drone deployment in this country and suggested privacy protections.

Routine aerial surveillance in American life would profoundly change the character of public life in the United States. Rules must be put in place to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of this new technology without bringing us closer to a “surveillance society” in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the authorities.

Aside from privacy, imagine the damage that could be caused by unskilled operators of the drones. And what about possible mid-air collisions with piloted aircraft? There is no technology in the current crop of commercial drones for locating or communicating with nearby aircraft.

One wonders who in Congress seriously considered these risks (other than the lobbyists for the drone industry).

Next-gen drone tech

This video is only a lab experiment, but it shows developments in technology that could revolutionize America’s military use of armed drones. Note that these craft are all operating autonomously yet collectively.

Scary video of a hive of tiny robotic helicopters acting with one will


More at WIRED.