NSA spying – musings about the surveillance state

Today’s Slaw post:

Much has been written about the NSA / Prism communications monitoring scandal over the last few days, including Simon’s recent post. Many things are unclear, and there are more questions than answers, but these things are clear to me.

Some people defend or trivialize it by saying that actual phone conversations and emails are not being monitored – just metadata. Metadata simply means data about data – it doesn’t mean that it is innocuous or public. The phone “just metadata” being tracked is equivalent to looking at one’s phone bill – numbers called, duration, etc. That definitely contains personal information which raises serious privacy issues. Reminds me of the “it’s just allergies” allergy medication ads.

Another comment that is supposed to make it better is that US citizens are not being targeted by the NSA. Who is targeted doesn’t change the fact that personal information on citizens is being collected and retained. And why is it somehow acceptable to spy on and violate the privacy of people in other countries?

Some ask why it is okay for Google to use knowledge it gains from searching your e-mails to sell advertising, but not okay for Google to pass it on to the government. There is a huge difference. Google serves up those ads without knowing or retaining the identity of the recipient. Privacy principles apply to contextual or behavioural advertising and contextual information (such as Google Now), and we can opt out of receiving it. Privacy obligations limit how long personal information is retained, who it can be disclosed to, and how it can be used. None of those concepts apply to NSA monitoring, and opting out is not an option. The devil is in the details when it comes to privacy, security and surveillance.

Edward Snowden, the person who leaked the information that started this, is apparently hiding in Hong Kong, and US authorities are eager to get him back to the US and charge him criminally. If he had done the same thing in certain countries in the Middle East or Asia, people in the US would be praise him as a hero and chastise the government for its retaliation against him. If those countries were doing the same surveillance as the NSA is, those in the US would demonize the state for its unacceptable assault on civil liberties and privacy.

I do not welcome the surveillance state.

http://harrisonpensa.com/lawyers/david-canton

Citizens recording police safe in Washington

For the London Free Press – August 27, 2012 – Read this on Canoe

In various countries, there has been a trend towards authorities stopping, questioning, intimidating, charging and even arresting people who are simply taking photographs of public places. These people might be videoing police in action, or may be just tourists taking pictures.

Police or security guards often insist that the photographer is breaking the law, and somehow think that taking photos equates to gathering information for terrorist purposes. There is also the belief that people are not allowed to use their cellphones, or other recording devices to record the actions of the police. In some cases this has resulted in arrests, and even seizing cellphones to delete the recordings.

Two years ago a Washington, D.C., citizen sued the city after he was told to stop taking pictures of a traffic stop in Georgetown. The court recently decided in his favour.

Police Chief Cathy Lanier has since adopted a policy making it clear that taking photos and recording videos is perfectly acceptable behaviour.

If an officer sees an individual recording his or her actions, the officer may not use that as a reason to ask the individual for ID, demand an explanation for the recording, deliberately obstruct the camera, or arrest them. Under no circumstances should the person be asked to stop recording. If an individual is in a position that interferes with the safety of police or their ability to perform their duties, the officer may ask the person to move out of the way.

Another scenario is when someone takes a photograph or recording that a police officer believes could be evidence of a crime. Under Lanier’s directive, an officer cannot take a recording device away from an individual without his or her consent. If the police officer believes the recording is needed for evidence but its owner is not willing to part with it, the officer is required to call a supervisor. The device or recording media can only be seized if the supervisor is present, only if there is probable cause to believe that the property holds evidence of a crime, and only if the circumstances demand it or some other recognized exception to the warrant requirement is present.

The policy instructs that police officers shall not delete any recorded images or sounds from any recording device. Recording devices that are in department custody should be preserved, so they can be returned to the owner with images or recordings undisturbed.

The example being set in Washington is a reasonable and refreshing approach. It is a model that should be followed everywhere.

NOTE:  Also see David Fraser’s post from last Thursday entitled Photographing and filming police officers in Canada

http://harrisonpensa.com/lawyers/david-canton/

Lawful Access bill – a very bad idea

The Canadian federal government is re-introducing a “lawful access” bill that will give police the ability to get certain information about us from our Internet Service Providers without a warrant.  It will also require anyone who offers telecommunications services to build in a backdoor to give police access for wiretap purposes.

This bill is an affront to privacy and should not be passed.  For some insight into the details and why it is a bad idea, and links to other material take a look at:

And sign the online petition at Open media.ca

And by the way, I’m tired of the political rhetoric and hyperbole that surrounds so much proposed legislation.  Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has been widely quoted as responding to an opposition question on the bill by saying  “He can either stand with us or with the child pornographers”.    Really?  We deserve better than that.

The laws that govern us deserve rational debate and intelligent discussion about why they are needed, whether the proposals will help address that, what the collateral damage might be, whether the benefits are worth the costs, etc.  

 

Privacy Commissioner explains problems with proposed lawful access law

That’s the title of my Slaw post for today.  It reads as follows.

With Parliament back in session, we are seeing more attention on the proposed “lawful access” legislation. There is good reason for that. Many of us believe the proposed legislation is an affront to privacy, and gives law enforcement overly intrusive rights without court supervision that will in practice be no more than expensive, invasive, privacy offensive security theatre.

In this CBC interview, Ann Cavoukian, the Ontario Privacy Commissioner, does an excellent job of explaining the issue. Well worth investing 7 minutes to watch.

Surveillance society requires debate

That’s the title of my Slaw post for today.  It reads as follows.

There has been a lot written lately about the disturbing trend towards becoming a surveillance society. And the equally disturbing trend for governments to try to interfere with various kinds of communications to squash activity. Mathew Ingram has a good article about that on gigaom.

There is a great hue and cry about this when it occurs in countries that we feel suppress their people – but we are also seeing the trend in North America and Britain – such as the recent British riots and San Fransico’s Bart transit system shutdown of cell service.

And yet at the same time, authorities get upset at and try to stop people from photographing them doing their jobs – sometimes to the extent of trying to charge them with crimes such as wiretapping.

Along with that is the photographer as terrorist / criminal attitude that is seen far too often. That has been mentioned on Slaw before here and here. The latest example of that is a post on Techdirt that says police in Long Beach California have a policy that they can detain someone taking photos with “no apparent esthetic value”.

There is of course always some reason given for doing these things – but we can’t just let it be justified by some claim that it is necessary to stop violence or catch criminals. We have to consider many factors, including practical matters such as whether the actions are even effective to accomplish the stated goal, and how disruptive they are to others. We also need to think about issues like security vs privacy, and liberty vs control.

We need to think about these issues on matters such as the proposed lawful access laws.

 

Let’s just shut ‘er down

That’s the title of my Slaw post for today.  It reads as follows.

Apparently some of the British rioters have been communicating using Blackberrys. Which resulted in a suggestion that Blackberry should suspend its instant messaging service until things quiet down.

That kind of reaction never ceases to amaze me.

As if when that was shut down, the riots and destruction would stop because the malfeasants couldn’t communicate any more. And of course consider the effect on the average Blackberry user who is without service as a result. Attempts to shut the entire internet have not stopped people from doing what they are doing, let alone 1 mode of communication. That’s no different than trying to stop the use of any tool used by criminals. In most cases, people, like the internet, are good at working around outages.

Laws requiring data retention ill-advised

I’m not a fan of laws that require entities such as ISP’s to retain data about its customers so law enforcement can get to it.  To me, that flies in the face of privacy principles that say one should only retain personal information (both quantity and duration) to the extent it is required to fulfil the purpose of the services being offered.

I’m not convinced that the benefit to law enforcement outweighs the negative aspects of this – which range from costs to the entity retaining, the risk of abuse, and the risk of exposing it.   It is hard enough to protect the information that entities need, let alone information they don’t need.  And the more information you have, the more you are a target for malfeasers trying to get at it.

Mike Masnick of Techdirt has a post worth reading on the subject.  He refers to a researcher and author who says that a current US bill, the “Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act”  should be called the  “Forcing Your Internet Provider to Spy On You Just In Case You’re a Criminal Act of 2011″.

Unfortunately, we are heading down the same path here in Canada with the proposed lawful access statute.

Proposed Internet Surveillance bill ill advised

Michael Geist has written a good article in the Ottawa Citizen disucssing why the proposed “lawful access” internet surveillance law should not be passed.

From teh article:

Lawful access raises genuine privacy and free speech concerns, particularly given the fact the government has never provided adequate evidence on the need for it, it has never been subject to committee review, and it would cost millions to implement yet there has been no disclosure on who would actually pay for it. Given this, it is not surprising that every privacy commissioner in Canada has signed a joint letter expressing their concerns.

Like David Fraser and Michael, I have ranted on this before.   I have a real problem with legislation that erodes privacy and requires ISP’s or others to retain information for the sole purpose of government access to it. And when that access is not tempered by the need for a warrant.

Issues include erosion of privacy, the potential for misuse of the information (intentionally, accidentally, or creeping uses) the costs of ISP’s to comply, and whether the measures will actually have any meaningful impact on crime.

Bill c-52 Investigating and Preventing Criminal Electronic Communications

David Fraser has a post worth reading entitled Investigating and Preventing Criminal Electronic Communications Act bill one step closer to (warrantless) surveillance state.

The bill has been called “lawful access” , or “awful access” depending on your perspective.  It will give more power to government authorities to get information from telecommunications service providers without a warrant.

David uses the example of secret police in Belarus who used this kind of power to identify people at an anti-government demonstration.

As he puts it “If we’re shocked at what repressive regimes are doing to their citizens, we shouldn’t be giving our own governments tools to be repressive.”

Why internet back door laws are not a good idea

As I mentioned earlier, there is a proposal in the US for legislation to require backdoor internet access to law enforcement.  There have been similar proposals in Canada for “lawful access”.

Bruce Schneier has a good post entitled Wiretapping the Internet that explains why this is a bad idea.  The entire post is worth reading, but to give a flavour:

These laws are dangerous, both for citizens of countries like China and citizens of Western democracies. Forcing companies to redesign their communications products and services to facilitate government eavesdropping reduces privacy and liberty; that’s obvious. But the laws also make us less safe. Communications systems that have no inherent eavesdropping capabilities are more secure than systems with those capabilities built in.

Official misuses are bad enough, but the unofficial uses are far more worrisome. An infrastructure conducive to surveillance and control invites surveillance and control, both by the people you expect and the people you don’t. Any surveillance and control system must itself be secured, and we’re not very good at that. Why does anyone think that only authorized law enforcement will mine collected internet data or eavesdrop on Skype and IM conversations?