Spirit of the Sith

Today’s link goes to Mano Singham’s post, The Obama administration considers constitutional rights to be dangerous. The administration is correct: constitutional rights are dangerous, at least to those who are exploiting others from positions of privilege and power. But the absence of rights is far more dangerous, in terms of the scope and extent of everyday harm.

Stray thoughts: congressional review of state secrets

If you’ve been reading Ed Brayton’s blog, you know that one of the big problems with the current administration, like administration before it, is a penchant for using the so-called State Secret Privilege to avoid accountability for any questionable activities it might be engaging in. In fact, if anything, the current administration is even worse than the last one, and worse yet, they’re proving successful at getting the courts to rubber-stamp this kind of blanket immunity. And that’s eroding the distinction between the democratic republic we’re supposed to have, and the effective dictatorship we’re heading for.

So here’s my stray thought of the day: if the judicial branch won’t provide any checks and balances to the executive, why not Congress? The genius of the American constitution is the trade-off between the democratic power of the legislature and the executive power of the president, with the additional safeguard of an independent judiciary (on paper, at least). So why can’t we have a congressional investigation into the administration’s reckless invocation of the State Secret Privilege? Obama can’t argue that only the state has the right to be “in” on the secret, because Congress is just as much the state as he is. And if the president still won’t allow Congress to exercise its constitutional responsibility to provide checks and balances to the abuse of executive power, then maybe it’s time for them to exercise their constitutional power of impeachment.

I’m no political scientist, so I don’t know whether that’s either desirable or doable, but I thought I’d put it out there. From what I remember from social studies class, it seems like the right thing to do.

White House pulls plug on popular petition (or does it?)

The Electronic Privacy Information Center reports a disturbing but sadly unsurprising development in the struggle to recover our civil liberties.

At approximately 11:30 am EDT, the White House removed a petition about the TSA airport screening procedures from the White House “We the People” website. About 22,500 of the 25,000 signatures necessary for a response from the Administration were obtained when the White House unexpectedly cut short the time period for the petition. The site also went down for “maintenance” following an article in Wired that sought support for the campaign.

If you follow the link to the Wired article, you can read about the circumstances which led to the petition, which was basically asking the White House to intervene to get the TSA to comply with the law.

UPDATE: Commenter Eidolon tracked down a post from the petition’s author stating that the petition was not pulled early, but simply expired. He speculates that people were assuming that the signing period would extend through midnight, but instead it expired in the middle of the day, at roughly the same time as when he first posted it. That’s not unusual, given how computers keep track of time periods, and it’s understandable that this could create the misperception of a prematurely-terminated petition. He also notes that the petition was given an extra day to compensate for the outage.

More state-sponsored malware discovered.

Having problems with your computer? You may have a virus paid for by taxpayer dollars.

A newly uncovered espionage tool, apparently designed by the same people behind the state-sponsored Flame malware that infiltrated machines in Iran, has been found infecting systems in other countries in the Middle East, according to researchers.

The malware, which steals system information but also has a mysterious payload that could be destructive against critical infrastructure, has been found infecting at least 2,500 machines, most of them in Lebanon, according to Russia-based security firm Kaspersky Lab, which discovered the malware in June and published an extensive analysis of it on Thursday.

The spyware, dubbed Gauss after a name found in one of its main files, also has a module that targets bank accounts in order to capture login credentials. The malware targets accounts at several banks in Lebanon, including the Bank of Beirut, EBLF, BlomBank, ByblosBank, FransaBank and Credit Libanais. It also targets customers of Citibank and PayPal.

via Wired.com.

Thank goodness we can rely on Russian heroes to defend us from the predations of democracies like the US and Israel.

4th Amendment protections officially moot

Wired magazine reports the depressing news that we now officially have fewer constitutional rights than we did under Bill Clinton.

The federal government may spy on Americans’ communications without warrants and without fear of being sued, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday in a decision reversing the first and only case that successfully challenged President George W. Bush’s once-secret Terrorist Surveillance Program.

In other words, the government can freely and secretly violate the Constitution, with absolutely zero accountability or oversight, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. They can watch everything we do, and we cannot watch what they do.

Government considers calculated misinformation to fight insider leaks

Computer scientists call it it “Fog Computing” — a play on today’s cloud computing craze. And in a recent paper for Darpa, the Pentagon’s premiere research arm, researchers say they’ve built “a prototype for automatically generating and distributing believable misinformation … and then tracking access and attempted misuse of it. We call this ‘disinformation technology.’”

via Wired.com. Your tax dollars being used to deceive you and shut down your access to information about government misconduct.

Wiretap requests down 14%

Networkworld.com is reporting a 14% drop in state and federal wiretap requests compared to a year ago.

According to a report issued by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts a total of 2,732 wiretap applications were authorized in 2011 by federal and state courts, with 792 applications by federal authorities and 1,940 applications by 25 states that provide reports. The reduction in wiretaps resulted primarily from a drop in applications for intercepts in narcotics offenses, the report noted.

At the risk of being paranoid, I can help wonder if that’s because the authorities are relaxing a little, or if it’s because they are now less apt to make a request first.

NSA: It would violate your privacy to report how many privacy violations we’re committing.

The surveillance experts at the National Security Agency won’t tell two powerful United States Senators how many Americans have had their communications picked up by the agency as part of its sweeping new counterterrorism powers. The reason: it would violate your privacy to say so.

via NSA: It Would Violate Your Privacy to Say if We Spied on You | Danger Room | Wired.com.

Video: the policeman’s friend

Ed Brayton has published a long list of police departments abusing people’s First Amendment rights and illegally interfering with people trying to videotape their conduct. But now, in a refreshing change of pace, there is news of at least one police department that finally “gets” video technology.

After years of seeing officers’ misconduct captured on video, police departments across the nation are trying to use the medium to their advantage, releasing footage of their own to rebut allegations and to build trust within communities. One department even posted video of an officer punching a woman to show why he was fired.

Weeks before the Occupy demonstration in April, Minneapolis police created their own YouTube channel to give officers a venue to tell their own stories.

Ed has been saying this all along: video is the policeman’s best friend. Police departments have significant power to do harm in society, and consequently deserve closer scrutiny. Video records of their actions will vindicate proper conduct and expose improper conduct. That’s a win-win all around.

Second-degree terrorism

Over at Pharyngula, PZ has a nice wrap-up of the debate between Bruce Schneier and Sam Harris on the topic of whether or not we ought to implement a 2-tiered screening system that subjects “Muslims or anyone who looks Muslim” to extra scrutiny at airports. Bruce points out some very good reasons why this is a bad idea, but there’s one somewhat tangential argument that he doesn’t mention. The biggest problem with screening for Muslims at the airport is that some of our biggest terrorists aren’t at the airport. They’re in the media, in Congress, and in the White House.

Of course, I’m not talking about first-degree terrorism, i.e. blowing things up and killing people directly. I’m talking about second-degree terrorism: keeping people in a constant state of fear in order to manipulate them. We’ve had going on 12 years of being told that we need to voluntarily surrender our liberties and constitutional rights because—gasp—there’s bad guys out there. And yes, there are, but there always have been. Our problem isn’t the terrorism that attacks us with bombs and guns, our problem is the terrorism that attacks us with legislation and unwarranted spying and other clandestine, illegal activities hidden behind the autocratic dictum of “state secrets.”

Bruce summed it up well:

But perhaps most importantly, we should refuse to be terrorized. Terrorism isn’t really a crime against people or property; it’s a crime against our minds. If we are terrorized, then the terrorists win even if their plots fail. If we refuse to be terrorized, then the terrorists lose even if their plots succeed.

Unless and until we stand up and refuse to be terrorized, unless and until we stop cowering and bleating like sheep every time a politician or media personality cries “security!”, these abuses of our liberty will continue to get worse. “Maximum security” is a prison, not a Utopia.