Privacy SOS

News roundup: Flying while Muslim, technologies to block associational spying, and racism in policing

Some items of interest on a busy news day:

The US government's no-fly list is completely out of control. Just weeks after a federal judge ruled the FBI's no-fly list procedures unconstitutional, the government was forced to disclose new details about the program in a CAIR lawsuit on behalf of a man stuck in the Kafkaesque limbo. AP reports:

The U.S. government is rapidly expanding the number of names it accepts for inclusion on its terrorist watch list, with more than 1.5 million added in the last five years, according to numbers divulged by the government in a civil lawsuit.

About 99 percent of the names submitted are accepted, leading to criticism that the government is "wildly loose" in its use of the list.

In fiscal 2009, which ended Sept. 30, 2009, 227,932 names were nominated to the database. In fiscal 2010, which includes the months after the attempted Christmas bombing, nominations rose to 250,847. In fiscal 2012, they increased to 336,712, and in fiscal 2013 — the most recent year provided — nominations jumped to 468,749.

But you don't have to be on a no-fly list to be routinely harassed while traveling. An American Muslim from Lexington, Massachusetts describes in the pages of the Boston Globe op-ed section his treatment by US Customs agents at the border:

[C]oming back to the United States invariably involves the confiscation of my cellphone and laptops, the recording of my assorted passwords, and has twice involved me being handcuffed and put inside a secondary holding room. The Customs and Border Protection officials look like they’re killing time, and claim to be “waiting on a call from D.C.” before letting me go. When a Homeland Security agent finally arrives, usually three hours in, to screen me, the first question I’m asked is surreal: “So, why are you here?”

During a previous detention, in which my parents were present for my detention, my father had a heated exchange with one of the officers manning the desk. “My American passport gives me access to travel around the world,” he said. “The only problem is when I try returning to my own country.”

No nifty app can stop CBP harassment at the border, but soon you might be better equipped to hide some of your digital trail from prying spooks.

Technologists Stephen Watt and Ladar Levison—of Lavabit fame—are teaming up to build an email system that hides metadata from the government’s prying eyes. Encrypting the content of our email communications has always been relatively easy, with the right technical knowledge and access to software. But thus far it’s been nearly impossible to keep private the who, where, when, and how of email communication. When the Dark Mail system is up and running, writes Wired, “If the NSA is passively monitoring internet traffic, the spy agency might watch a packet of encrypted data going from one domain to another, but won’t know who sent it or received it—something the agency can easily determine with existing email structures.”

Speaking at the HOPE X hacker conference in NYC over the weekend, Edward Snowden committed to working on building similar digital freedom technologies. “You in this room, right now have both the means and the capability to improve the future by encoding our rights into programs and protocols by which we rely every day,” he told the audience. “That is what a lot of my future work is going to be involved in.” See video and a full transcript of the event, which included Dan Ellsberg and Freedom of the Press Foundation's Trevor Timm.

Also in NYC, last week an NYPD officer choked Eric Garner, a father of six, to death on a Staten Island sidewalk. Officers apparently approached him about an issue related to selling untaxed cigarettes. The killing was captured on video by Garner's friend, who uploaded the horrifying spectacle to YouTube. Garner can be heard wheezing "I can't breathe" before he dies. Over the weekend, community protest attracted substantial media attention in New York. Mayor Bill DeBlasio canceled his vacation, saying "I watched [the video] the same way a family member would watch it, and it was very sad to watch." Prosecutors in Staten Island and internal affairs detectives have opened separate investigations into Garner's death.

Extreme and too often lethal police violence is a major problem in the United States, particularly in black communities. A new USA Today report shows that controversial ATF sting operations also target mostly black and brown Americans.

The nation's top gun-enforcement agency overwhelmingly targeted racial and ethnic minorities as it expanded its use of controversial drug sting operations, a USA TODAY investigation shows.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has more than quadrupled its use of those stings during the past decade, quietly making them a central part of its attempts to combat gun crime. The operations are designed to produce long prison sentences for suspects enticed by the promise of pocketing as much as $100,000 for robbing a drug stash house that does not actually exist.

At least 91% of the people agents have locked up using those stings were racial or ethnic minorities, USA TODAY found after reviewing court files and prison records from across the United States.

An essay at The Atlantic asks us to think about the privitization of policing, and what happens when the police are even less responsive to the public, whom they are meant to serve. If the situation is bad now, how much public accountability will there be when corporations—not the public—pay officers' salaries? The piece is inspired by the Menlo Park Police Department's employment of a full-time officer whose salary is entirely paid by Facebook. What happens when Mark Zuckerberg gets pulled over drunk driving by the Menlo Park PD? How might police in such a department treat anti-Facebook protesters?

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.