Trump Damaged Democracy, Silicon Valley Will Finish It Off

‘BRAIN HACKING’

Donald Trump’s rise is, in a sense, just one symptom of the damage the tech oligarchs are doing to America.

When Democrats made their post-election populist “Better Deal” pitch, they took a strong stance against pharmaceutical and financial monopolies. But they conspicuously left out the most profound antitrust challenge of our time—the tech oligarchy.

The information sector, notes The Economist, is now the most consolidated sector of the American economy.

The Silicon Valley and its Puget Sound annex dominated by Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft increasingly resemble the pre-gas crisis Detroit of the Big Three. Tech’s Big Five all enjoy overwhelming market shares—for example Google controls upwards of 80 percent of global search—and the capital to either acquire or crush any newcomers. They are bringing us a hardly gilded age of prosperity but depressed competition, economic stagnation, and, increasingly, a chilling desire to control the national conversation.

Jeff Bezos harrumphs through his chosen megaphone, The Washington Post, about how “democracy dies in the dark.” But if Bezos—the world’s third richest man, who used the Post first to undermine Bernie Sanders and then to wage ceaseless war on the admittedly heinous Donald Trump—really wants to identify the biggest long-term threat to individual and community autonomy, he should turn on the lights and look in the mirror.

Trump’s election and volatile presidency may pose a more immediate menace, but when he is gone, or neutered by lack of support, the oligarchs’ damage to our democracy and culture will continue to metastasize.

Killing the Old Silicon Valley

Americans justifiably take pride in the creative and entrepreneurial genius of Silicon Valley. The tech sector has been, along with culture, agriculture, and energy, one of our most competitive industries, one defined by risk-taking and intense competition between firms in the Valley, and elsewhere.

This old model is fading. All but shielded from antitrust laws, the new Silicon Valley is losing its entrepreneurial yeastiness—which, ironically enough, was in part spawned by government efforts against old-line monopolists such as ATT and IBM. While the industry still promotes the myth of the stalwart tinkerers in their garages seeking to build the next great company, the model now is to get funding so that their company can be acquired by Facebook or one of the other titans. As one recent paper demonstrates, these “super platforms” depress competition, squeeze suppliers and reduce opportunities for potential rivals, much as the monopolists of the late 19th century did (PDF). The rush toward artificial intelligence, requiring vast reservoirs of both money and talent, may accelerate this consolidation. A few firms may join the oligarchy over time, such as Tesla or Uber, but these are all controlled by the same investors on the current Big Five.

This new hierarchy is narrowing the path to riches, or even the middle class. Rather than expand opportunity, the Valley increasingly creates jobs in the “gig economy” that promises not a way to the middle class, much less riches, but into the rising precariat—part-time, conditional workers. This emerging “gig economy” will likely expand with the digitization of retail, which could cost millions of working-class jobs.

For most Americans, the once promising “New Economy,” has meant a descent, as MIT’s Peter Temin recently put it, toward a precarious position usually associated with developing nations. Workers in the “gig economy,” unlike the old middle- and working-class, have little chance, for example, of buying a house—once a sure sign of upward mobility, something that is depressingly evident in the Bay Area, along the California coast, and parts of the Northeast.

Certainly the chances of striking out on one’s own have diminished. Sergei Brin, Google’s co-founder, recently suggested that startups would be better off moving from Silicon Valley to areas that are less expensive and highly regulated, and where the competition for talent is not dominated by a few behemoths who can gobble up potential competitors—Instagram, WhatsApp, Skype, LinkedIn, Oculus—or slowly crush them, as may be happening to Snap, a firm that followed the old model and refused to be swallowed by Facebook but went through with its own public offering. Now the Los Angeles-based company is under assault by the social media giant which is using technologies at its Instagram unit, itself an acquisition, that duplicate Snap’s trademark technologies and features.

Snap’s problems are not an isolated case. The result is that the number of high-tech startups is down by almost half from just two years ago; overall National Venture Capital Association reports that the number of deals is now at the lowest level since 2010. Outsiders, the supposed lifeblood of entrepreneurial development, are increasingly irrelevant in an increasingly closed system.

The New Hierarchy

For all its talk about “disruption,” Silicon Valley is increasingly about three things: money, hierarchy, and conformity. Tech entrepreneurs long have enjoyed financial success, but their dominance in the ranks of the ultra-rich has never been so profound. They now account for three of world’s five richest people—Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg—and dominate the list of billionaires under 40.

Unlike their often ruthless and unpleasant 20th century moguls, the Silicon Valley elite has done relatively little for the country’s lagging productivity or to create broad-based opportunity. The information sector has overall been a poor source of new jobs—roughly 70,000 since 2010—with the gains concentrated in just a few places. This as the number of generally more middle-class jobs tied to producing equipment has fallen by half since 1990 and most new employment opportunities have been in low-wage sectors like hospitality, medical care, and food preparation.

The rich, that is, have gotten richer, in part by taking pains to minimize their tax exposure. Now they are talking grandly about having the government provide all the now “excess” humans with a guaranteed minimum income. The titans who have shared or spread so little of their own wealth are increasingly united in the idea that the government—i.e., middle-class taxpayers—should spread more around.

Not at all coincidentally, the Bay Area itself—once a fertile place of grassroots and middle-class opportunity—now boasts an increasingly bifurcated economy. San Francisco, the Valley’s northern annex, regularly clocks in as among the most unequal cities in the country, with both extraordinary wealth and a vast homeless population.

The more suburban Silicon Valley now suffers a poverty rate of near 20 percent, above the national average. It also has its own large homeless population living in what KQED has described as “modern nomadic villages.” In recent years income gains in the region have flowed overwhelmingly to the top quintile of income-earners, who have seen their wages increase by over 25 percent since 1989, while income levels have declined for low-income households.

Despite endless prattling about diversity, African Americans and Hispanics who make up roughly one-third of the valley’s population, have barely 5 percent of jobs in the top Silicon Valley firms. Between 2009 and 2011, earnings dropped 18 percent for blacks in the Valley and by 5 percent for Latinos, according to a 2013 Joint Venture Silicon Valley report (PDF).

Similarly the share of women in the tech industry is barely half of their 47 percent share in the total workforce, and their ranks may even be shrinking. Stanford researcher Vivek Wadhwa describes the Valley still as “a boys’ club that regarded women as less capable than men and subjected them to negative stereotypes and abuse.”

While the industry hasn’t done much to actually employ women or minorities, it’s both self-righteously and opportunistically fed the outrage industry by booting right-wing voices from various platforms and pushing out people like former Google staffer James Damore, and before that Mozilla founder Brendan Eich after he made a small contribution to a 2014 measure banning gay marriage. Skepticism, once the benchmark of technology development, is now increasingly unwelcome in much of the Valley.

This marks a distinct change from the ’80s and ’90s, when the tech companies—then still involved in the manufacturing of physical products in the United States—tended toward libertarian political views. As late as the 1980s, moderate Republicans frequently won elections in places like San Mateo and Santa Clara. Now the area has evolved into one of the most one-sidedly progressive bastions in the nation. Over 70 percent of Bay Area residents are Democrats up from 55 percent in the 1970s. Today, the Calexit backers, many based in the Valley, even think that the country is too dunderheaded, and suggest they represent “different,” and morally superior, values than the rest of the country.

The Danger to Democracy

If these were policies adopted by an ice-cream chain, or a machine-tool maker, they might be annoying. But in the tech giants, with their vast and growing power to shape opinion, represent an existential threat. Mark Zuckerberg whose Facebook is now the largest source of media for younger people, has emerged, in the words of one European journalist (PDF), as “‘the world’s most powerful editor.” In the past they were the primary carriers of “fake news,” and have done as much as any institution to erode the old values (and economics) of journalism.

Both Facebook and Google now offer news “curated” by algorithms. Bans are increasingly used by Facebook and Twitter to keep out unpopular or incendiary views, and especially in the echo chamber of the Bay Area. This is sometimes directed at conservatives, such as Prager University, whose content may be offensive to some, but hardly subversive or “fake.” The real crime now is simply to question dominant ideology of Silicon Valley gentry progressivism.

Even at their most powerful the industrial age moguls could not control what people knew. They might back a newspaper, or later a radio or television station, but never secured absolute control of media. Competing interests still tussled in a highly regionalized and diverse media market. In contrast the digital universe, dominated by a handful of players located in just a few locales, threaten to make a pluralism of opinions a thing of the past. The former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris suggests that “a handful of tech leaders at Google and Facebook have built the most pervasive, centralized systems for steering human attention that has ever existed.”

Ultimately, particularly after the disasters associated with the Trump regime, the oligarchs seem certain to expand their efforts to control the one institution which could challenge their hegemony: government. Once seen as politically marginal, the oligarchs achieved a dominated role in the Democratic Party, in part by financing President Obama and later support for Hillary Clinton. In the Obama years Google operatives were in fact fairly ubiquitous, leading at least one magazine to label it “the Android Administration.” Since then a stream of Obama people have headed to Silicon Valley, working for firms such as Apple, Uber, and Airbnb. Obama himself has even mused about becoming a venture capitalist himself.

Of course with Trump in power, the oligarchs are mostly on the outs, although the twitterer in chief tried to recruit them. Now many of Silicon Valley power players are supporting the “resistance” and lending their expertise to Democratic campaigns. Unlike undocumented immigrants or other victims of Trumpism, they can count on many GOP politicians to watch their flank until the lunatic storm recedes.

In a future Democratic administration, as is already evident in places like California, the tech titans will use their money, savvy, and new dominance over our communications channels to steer and even dictate America’s political and cultural agendas to wield power in ways that even the likes of J.P. Morgan or John D. Rockefeller would envy.

What started as a brilliant, and profoundly non-political extension of the information revolution, notes early Google and Facebook investor Robert McNamee, now looms as “a menace,” part of a systematic “brain hacking” on a massive scale. We can choose to confront this reality—as the early 20th century progressives did—or stand aside and let the oligarchs chart our future without imposing any curbs on their seemingly inexorable hegemony.

http://www.thedailybeast.com/trump-damaged-democracy-silicon-valley-will-finish-it-off?via=newsletter&source=Weekend

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The Death of the Republic

Posted on May 21, 2017

By Chris Hedges

Mr. Fish / Truthdig

The deep state’s decision in ancient Rome—dominated by a bloated military and a corrupt oligarchy, much like the United States of 2017—to strangle the vain and idiotic Emperor Commodus in his bath in the year 192 did not halt the growing chaos and precipitous decline of the Roman Empire.

Commodus, like a number of other late Roman emperors, and like President Trump, was incompetent and consumed by his own vanity. He commissioned innumerable statues of himself as Hercules and had little interest in governance. He used his position as head of state to make himself the star of his own ongoing public show. He fought victoriously as a gladiator in the arena in fixed bouts. Power for Commodus, as it is for Trump, was primarily about catering to his bottomless narcissism, hedonism and lust for wealth. He sold public offices so the ancient equivalents of Betsy DeVos and Steve Mnuchin could orchestrate a vast kleptocracy.

Commodus was replaced by the reformer Pertinax, the Bernie Sanders of his day, who attempted in vain to curb the power of the Praetorian Guards, the ancient version of the military-industrial complex. This effort saw the Praetorian Guards assassinate Pertinax after he was in power only three months. The Guards then auctioned off the office of emperor to the highest bidder. The next emperor, Didius Julianus, lasted 66 days. There would be five emperors in A.D. 193, the year after the assassination of Commodus. Trump and our decaying empire have ominous historical precedents. If the deep state replaces Trump, whose ineptitude and imbecility are embarrassing to the empire, that action will not restore our democracy any more than replacing Commodus restored democracy in Rome. Our republic is dead.

Societies that once were open and had democratic traditions are easy prey for the enemies of democracy. These demagogues pay deference to the patriotic ideals, rituals, practices and forms of the old democratic political system while dismantling it. When the Roman Emperor Augustus—he referred to himself as the “first citizen”—neutered the republic, he was careful to maintain the form of the old republic. Lenin and the Bolsheviks did the same when they seized and crushed the autonomous soviets. Even the Nazis and the Stalinists insisted they ruled democratic states. Thomas Paine wrote that despotic government is a fungus that grows out of a corrupt civil society. This is what happened to these older democracies. It is what happened to us.

Our constitutional rights—due process, habeas corpus, privacy, a fair trial, freedom from exploitation, fair elections and dissent—have been taken from us by judicial fiat. These rights exist only in name. The vast disconnect between the purported values of the state and reality renders political discourse absurd.

Corporations, cannibalizing the federal budget, legally empower themselves to exploit and pillage. It is impossible to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs or ExxonMobil. The pharmaceutical and insurance industries can hold sick children hostage while their parents bankrupt themselves trying to save their sons or daughters. Those burdened by student loans can never wipe out the debt by declaring bankruptcy. In many states, those who attempt to publicize the conditions in the vast factory farms where diseased animals are warehoused for slaughter can be charged with a criminal offense. Corporations legally carry out tax boycotts. Companies have orchestrated free trade deals that destroy small farmers and businesses and deindustrialize the country. Labor unions and government agencies designed to protect the public from contaminated air, water and food and from usurious creditors and lenders have been defanged. The Supreme Court, in an inversion of rights worthy of George Orwell, defines unlimited corporate contributions to electoral campaigns as a right to petition the government or a form of free speech. Much of the press, owned by large corporations, is an echo chamber for the elites. State and city enterprises and utilities are sold to corporations that hike rates and deny services to the poor. The educational system is being slowly privatized and turned into a species of vocational training.Wages are stagnant or have declined. Unemployment and underemployment—masked by falsified statistics—have thrust half the country into chronic poverty. Social services are abolished in the name of austerity. Culture and the arts have been replaced by sexual commodification, banal entertainment and graphic depictions of violence. The infrastructure, neglected and underfunded, is collapsing. Bankruptcies, foreclosures, arrests, food shortages and untreated illnesses that lead to early death plague a harried underclass. The desperate flee into an underground economy dominated by drugs, crime and human trafficking. The state, rather than address the economic misery, militarizes police departments and empowers them to use lethal force against unarmed civilians. It fills the prisons with 2.3 million citizens, only a tiny percentage of whom had a trial. One million prisoners work for corporations inside prisons as modern-day slaves.

The amendments of the Constitution, designed to protect the citizen from tyranny, are meaningless. The Fourth Amendment, for example, reads: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” The reality is that our telephone calls, emails, texts and financial, judicial and medical records, along with every website we visit and our physical travels, are tracked, recorded and stored in perpetuity in government computer banks.

The state tortures, not only in black sites such as those at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan or at Guantanamo Bay, but also in supermax ADX [administrative maximum] facilities such as the one at Florence, Colo., where inmates suffer psychological breakdowns from prolonged solitary confinement. Prisoners, although they are citizens, endure around-the-clock electronic monitoring and 23-hour-a-day lockdowns. They undergo extreme sensory deprivation. They endure beatings. They must shower and go to the bathroom on camera. They can write only one letter a week to one relative and cannot use more than three pieces of paper. They often have no access to fresh air and take their one hour of daily recreation in a huge cage that resembles a treadmill for hamsters.

The state uses “special administrative measures,” known as SAMs, to strip prisoners of their judicial rights. SAMs restrict prisoners’ communication with the outside world. They end calls, letters and visits with anyone except attorneys and sharply limit contact with family members. Prisoners under SAMs are not permitted to see most of the evidence against them because of a legal provision called the Classified Information Procedures Act, or CIPA. CIPA, begun under the Reagan administration, allows evidence in a trial to be classified and withheld from those being prosecuted. You can be tried and convicted, like Joseph K. in Franz Kafka’s “The Trial,” without ever seeing the evidence used to find you guilty. Under SAMs, it is against the law for those who have contact with an inmate—including attorneys—to speak about his or her physical and psychological conditions.

And when prisoners are released, they have lost the right to vote and receive public assistance and are burdened with fines that, if unpaid, will put them back behind bars. They are subject to arbitrary searches and arrests. They spend the rest of their lives marginalized as members of a vast criminal caste.

The executive branch of government has empowered itself to assassinate U.S. citizens. It can call the Army into the streets to quell civil unrest under Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act, which ended a prohibition on the military acting as a domestic police force. The executive branch can order the military to seize U.S. citizens deemed to be terrorists or associated with terrorists. This is called “extraordinary rendition.” Those taken into custody by the military can be denied due process and habeas corpus rights and held indefinitely in military facilities. Activists and dissidents, whose rights were once protected under the First Amendment, can face indefinite incarceration.

Constitutionally protected statements, beliefs and associations are criminalized. The state assumed the power to detain and prosecute people not for what they have done, or even for what they are planning to do, but for holding religious or political beliefs that the state deems seditious. The first of those targeted have been observant Muslims, but they will not be the last.

The outward forms of democratic participation—voting, competing political parties, judicial oversight and legislation—are meaningless theater. No one who lives under constant surveillance, who is subject to detention anywhere at any time, whose conversations, messages, meetings, proclivities and habits are recorded, stored and analyzed, who is powerless in the face of corporate exploitation, can be described as free. The relationship between the state and the citizen who is watched constantly is one of master and slave. And the shackles will not be removed if Trump disappears.

http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/the_death_of_the_republic_20170521

AT&T, Time Warner and the Death of Privacy

att

OCTOBER 27, 2016

By Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan

It has been 140 years since Alexander Graham Bell uttered the first words through his experimental telephone, to his lab assistant: “Mr. Watson—come here—I want to see you.” His invention transformed human communication, and the world. The company he started grew into a massive monopoly, AT&T. The federal government eventually deemed it too powerful, and broke up the telecom giant in 1982. Well, AT&T is back and some would say on track to become bigger and more powerful than before, announcing plans to acquire Time Warner, the media company, to create one of the largest entertainment and communications conglomerates on the planet. Beyond the threat to competition, the proposed merger—which still must pass regulatory scrutiny—poses significant threats to privacy and the basic freedom to communicate.

AT&T is currently No. 10 on the Forbes 500 list of the U.S.‘s highest-grossing companies. If it is allowed to buy Time Warner, No. 99 on the list, it will form an enormous, “vertically integrated” company that controls a vast pool of content and how people access that content.

Free Press, the national media policy and activism group, is mobilizing the public to oppose the deal. “This merger would create a media powerhouse unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. AT&T would control mobile and wired internet access, cable channels, movie franchises, a film studio and more,” Candace Clement of Free Press wrote. “That means AT&T would control internet access for hundreds of millions of people and the content they view, enabling it to prioritize its own offerings and use sneaky tricks to undermine net neutrality.”

Net neutrality is that essential quality of the internet that makes it so powerful. Columbia University law professor Tim Wu coined the term “net neutrality.” After the Federal Communications Commission approved strong net neutrality rules last year, Wu told us on the Democracy Now! News hour, “There need to be basic rules of the road for the internet, and we’re not going to trust cable and telephone companies to respect freedom of speech or respect new innovators, because of their poor track record.”

Millions of citizens weighed in with public comments to the FCC in support of net neutrality, along with groups like Free Press and The Electronic Frontier Foundation. They were joined by titans of the internet like Google, Amazon and Microsoft. Arrayed against this coalition were the telecom and cable companies, the oligopoly of internet service providers that sell internet access to hundreds of millions of Americans. It remains to be seen if AT&T doesn’t in practice break net neutrality rules and create a fast lane for its content and slow down content from its competitors, including the noncommercial sector.

Another problem that AT&T presents, that would only be exacerbated by the merger, is the potential to invade the privacy of its millions of customers. In 2006, AT&T whistleblower Mark Klein revealed that the company was secretly sharing all of its customers’ metadata with the National Security Agency. Klein, who installed the fiber-splitting hardware in a secret room at the main AT&T facility in San Francisco, had his whistleblowing allegations confirmed several years later by Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks. While that dragnet surveillance program was supposedly shut down in 2011, a similar surveillance program still exists. It’s called “Project Hemisphere.” It was exposed by The New York Times in 2013, with substantiating documents just revealed this week in The Daily Beast.

In “Project Hemisphere,” AT&T sells metadata to law enforcement, under the aegis of the so-called war on drugs. A police agency sends in a request for all the data related to a particular person or telephone number, and, for a major fee and without a subpoena, AT&T delivers a sophisticated data set, that can, according to The Daily Beast, “determine where a target is located, with whom he speaks, and potentially why.”

Where you go, what you watch, text and share, with whom you speak, all your internet searches and preferences, all gathered and “vertically integrated,” sold to police and perhaps, in the future, to any number of AT&T’s corporate customers. We can’t know if Alexander Graham Bell envisioned this brave new digital world when he invented the telephone. But this is the future that is fast approaching, unless people rise up and stop this merger.

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The future of American policing is the stuff of dystopian science fiction

Departments nationwide are adopting wild new technologies capable of destroying what’s left of our personal privacy

Robots will rule us all: The future of American policing is the stuff of dystopian science fiction
Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Terminator Genisys” (Credit: Paramount Pictures)
This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.

Can’t you see the writing on the touchscreen? A techno-utopia is upon us. We’ve gone from smartphones at the turn of the twenty-first century to smart fridges and smart cars. The revolutionary changes to our everyday life will no doubt keep barreling along. By 2018, so predicts Gartner, an information technology research and advisory company, more than three million employees will work for “robo-bosses” and soon enough we — or at least the wealthiest among us — will be shopping in fully automated supermarkets and sleeping in robotic hotels.

With all this techno-triumphalism permeating our digitally saturated world, it’s hardly surprising that law enforcement would look to technology — “smart policing,” anyone? — to help reestablish public trust after the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the long list of other unarmed black men killed by cops in Anytown, USA. The idea that technology has a decisive role to play in improving policing was, in fact, a central plank of President Obama’s policing reform task force.

In its report, released last May, the Task Force on 21st Century Policing emphasized the crucial role of technology in promoting better law enforcement, highlighting the use of police body cameras in creating greater openness. “Implementing new technologies,” it claimed, “can give police departments an opportunity to fully engage and educate communities in a dialogue about their expectations for transparency, accountability, and privacy.”

Indeed, the report emphasized ways in which the police could engage communities, work collaboratively, and practice transparency in the use of those new technologies. Perhaps it won’t shock you to learn, however, that the on-the-ground reality of twenty-first-century policing looks nothing like what the task force was promoting. Police departments nationwide have been adopting powerful new technologies that are remarkably capable of intruding on people’s privacy, and much of the time these are being deployed in secret, without public notice or discussion, let alone permission.

And while the task force’s report says all the right things, a little digging reveals that the feds not only aren’t putting the brakes on improper police use of technology, but are encouraging it — even subsidizing the misuse of the very technology the task force believes will keep cops honest. To put it bluntly, a techno-utopia isn’t remotely on the horizon, but its flipside may be.

Getting Stung and Not Even Knowing It

Shemar Taylor was charged with robbing a pizza delivery driver at gunpoint. The police got a warrant to search his home and arrested him after learning that the cell phone used to order the pizza was located in his house. How the police tracked down the location of that cell phone is what Taylor’s attorney wanted to know.

The Baltimore police detective called to the stand in Taylor’s trial was evasive. “There’s equipment we would use that I’m not going to discuss,” he said. When Judge Barry Williams ordered him to discuss it, he still refused, insisting that his department had signed a nondisclosure agreement with the FBI.

“You don’t have a nondisclosure agreement with the court,” replied the judge, threatening to hold the detective in contempt if he did not answer. And yet he refused again. In the end, rather than reveal the technology that had located Taylor’s cell phone to the court, prosecutors decided to withdraw the evidence, jeopardizing their case.

And don’t imagine that this courtroom scene was unique or even out of the ordinary these days. In fact, it was just one sign of a striking nationwide attempt to keep an invasive, constitutionally questionable technology from being scrutinized, whether by courts or communities.

The technology at issue is known as a “Stingray,” a brand name for what’s generically called a cell site simulator or IMSI catcher. By mimicking a cell phone tower, this device, developed for overseas battlefields, gets nearby cell phones to connect to it. It operates a bit like the children’s game Marco Polo. “Marco,” the cell-site simulator shouts out and every cell phone on that network in the vicinity replies, “Polo, and here’s my ID!”

Thanks to this call-and-response process, the Stingray knows both what cell phones are in the area and where they are. In other words, it gathers information not only about a specific suspect, but any bystanders in the area as well. While the police may indeed use this technology to pinpoint a suspect’s location, by casting such a wide net there is also the potential for many kinds of constitutional abuses — for instance, sweeping up the identities of every person attending a demonstration or a political meeting. Some Stingrays are capable of collecting not only cell phone ID numbers but also numbers those phones have dialed and even phone conversations. In other words, the Stingray is a technology that potentially opens the door for law enforcement to sweep up information that not so long ago wouldn’t have been available to them.

All of this raises the sorts of constitutional issues that might normally be settled through the courts and public debate… unless, of course, the technology is kept largely secret, which is exactly what’s been happening.

After the use of Stingrays was first reported in 2011, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other activist groups attempted to find out more about how the technology was being used, only to quickly run into heavy resistance from police departments nationwide. Served with “open-records requests” under Freedom of Information Act-like state laws, they almost uniformly resisted disclosing information about the devices and their uses. In doing so, they regularly cited nondisclosure agreements they had signed with the Harris Corporation, maker of the Stingray, and with the FBI, prohibiting them from telling anyone (including other government outfits) about how — or even that — they use the devices.

Sometimes such evasiveness reaches near-comical levels. For example, police in the city of Sunrise, Florida, served with an open-records request, refused to confirm or deny that they had any Stingray records at all. Under cover of a controversial national security court ruling, the CIA and the NSA sometimes resort to just this evasive tactic (known as a “Glomar response“). The Sunrise Police Department, however, is not the CIA, and no provision in Florida law would allow it to take such a tack. When the ACLU pointed out that the department had already posted purchase records for Stingrays on its public website, it generously provided duplicate copies of those very documents and then tried to charge the ACLU $20,000 for additional records.

In a no-less-bizarre incident, the Sarasota Police Department was about to turn some Stingray records over to the ACLU in accordance with Florida’s open-records law, when the U.S. Marshals Service swooped in and seized the records first, claiming ownership because it had deputized one local officer. And excessive efforts at secrecy are not unique to Florida, as those charged with enforcing the law commit themselves to Stingray secrecy in a way that makes them lawbreakers.

And it’s not just the public that’s being denied information about the devices and their uses; so are judges. Often, the police get a judge’s sign-off for surveillance without even bothering to mention that they will be using a Stingray. In fact, officers regularly avoid describing the technology to judges, claiming that they simply can’t violate those FBI nondisclosure agreements.

More often than not, police use Stingrays without bothering to get a warrant, instead seeking a court order on a more permissive legal standard. This is part of the charm of a new technology for the authorities: nothing is settled on how to use it. Appellate judges in Tallahassee, Florida, for instance, revealed that local police had used the tool more than 200 times without a warrant. In Sacramento, California, policeadmitted in court that they had, in more than 500 investigations, used Stingrays without telling judges or prosecutors.  That was “an estimated guess,” since they had no way of knowing the exact number because they had conveniently deleted records of Stingray use after passing evidence discovered by the devices on to detectives.

Much of this blanket of secrecy, spreading nationwide, has indeed been orchestrated by the FBI, which has required local departments eager for the hottest new technology around to sign those nondisclosure agreements. One agreement,unearthed in Oklahoma, explicitly instructs the local police to find “additional and independent investigative means” to corroborate Stingray evidence. In short, they are to cover up the use of Stingrays by pretending their information was obtained some other way — the sort of dangerous constitutional runaround that is known euphemistically in law enforcement circles as a “parallel construction.” Now that information about the widespread use of this new technology is coming out — as in the Shemar Taylor trial in Baltimore — judges are beginning to rule that Stingray use does indeed require a warrant. They are also insisting that police must accurately inform judges when they intend to use a Stingray and disclose its privacy implications.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

And it’s not just the Stingray that’s taking local police forces into new and unknown realms of constitutionally questionable but deeply seductive technology. Consider the hot new trend of “predictive policing.” Its products couldn’t be high-techier. They go by a variety of names like PredPol (yep, short for predictive policing) and HunchLab (and there’s nothing wrong with a hunch, is there?).  What they all promise, however, is the same thing: supposedly bias-free policing built on the latest in computer software and capable of leveraging big data in ways that — so their salesmen will tell you — can coolly determine where crime is most likely to occur next.

Such technology holds out the promise of allowing law enforcement agencies to deploy their resources to areas that need them most without that nasty element of human prejudice getting involved. “Predictive methods allow police to work more proactively with limited resources,” reports the RAND Corporation. But the new software offers something just as potentially alluring as efficient policing — exactly what the president’s task force called for. According to market leader PredPol, its technology “provides officers an opportunity to interact with residents, aiding in relationship building and strengthening community ties.”

How idyllic! In post-Ferguson America, that’s a winning sales pitch for decision-makers in blue. Not so surprisingly, then, PredPol is now used by nearly 60 law enforcement agencies in the United States, and investment capital just keeps pouring into the company. In 2013, SF Weekly reported that over 150 departments across the nation were already using predictive policing software, and those numbers can only have risen as the potential for cashing in on the craze has attracted tech heavy hitters like IBM,Microsoft, and Palantir, the co-creation of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.

Like the Stingray, the software for predictive policing is yet another spillover from the country’s distant wars. PredPol was, according to SF Weekly, initially designed for “tracking insurgents and forecasting casualties in Iraq,” and was financed by the Pentagon. One of the company’s advisors, Harsh Patel, used to work for In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital firm.

Civil libertarians and civil rights activists, however, are less than impressed with what’s being hailed as breakthrough police technology. We tend to view it instead as a set of potential new ways for the police to continue a long history of profiling and pre-convicting poor and minority youth. We also question whether the technology even performs as advertised. As we see it, the old saying “garbage in, garbage out” is likely to best describe how the new software will operate, or as the RAND Corporation puts it, “predictions are only as good as the underlying data used to make them.”

If, for instance, the software depends on historical crime data from a racially biased police force, then it’s just going to send a flood of officers into the very same neighborhoods they’ve always over-policed. And if that happens, of course, more personnel will find more crime — and presto, you have the potential for a perfect feedback loop of prejudice, arrests, and high-tech “success.” To understand what that means, keep in mind that, without a computer in sight, nearly four times as many blacks as whites are arrested for marijuana possession, even though usage among the two groups is about the same.

If you leave aside issues of bias, there’s still a fundamental question to answer about the new technology: Does the software actually work or, for that matter, reduce crime? Of course, the companies peddling such products insist that it does, but no independent analyses or reviews had yet verified its effectiveness until last year — or so it seemed at first.

In December 2015, the Journal of the American Statistical Association published a study that brought joy to the predictive crime-fighting industry. The study’s researchers concluded that a predictive policing algorithm outperformed human analysts in indicating where crime would occur, which in turn led to real crime reductions after officers were dispatched to the flagged areas. Only one problem: five of the seven authors held PredPol stock, and two were co-founders of the company. On itswebsite, PredPol identifies the research as a “UCLA study,” but only because PredPol co-founder Jeffery Brantingham is an anthropology professor there.

Predictive policing is a brand new area where question marks abound. Transparency should be vital in assessing this technology, but the companies generally won’t allow communities targeted by it to examine the code behind it. “We wanted a greater explanation for how this all worked, and we were told it was all proprietary,” Kim Harris, a spokeswoman for Bellingham, Washington’s Racial Justice Coalition, told theMarshall Project after the city purchased such software last August. “We haven’t been comforted by the process.”

The Bellingham Police Department, which bought predictive software made by Bair Analytics with a $21,200 Justice Department grant, didn’t need to go to the city council for approval and didn’t hold community meetings to discuss the development or explain how the software worked. Because the code is proprietary, the public is unable to independently verify that it doesn’t have serious problems.

Even if the data underlying most predictive policing software accurately anticipates where crime will indeed occur — and that’s a gigantic if — questions of fundamental fairness still arise. Innocent people living in or passing through identified high crime areas will have to deal with an increased police presence, which, given recent history, will likely mean more questioning or stopping and frisking — and arrests for things like marijuana possession for which more affluent citizens are rarely brought in.  Moreover, the potential inequality of all this may only worsen as police departments bring online other new technologies like facial recognition.

We’re on the verge of “big data policing,” suggests law professor Andrew Ferguson, which will “turn any unknown suspect into a known suspect,” allowing an officer to “search for information that might justify reasonable suspicion” and lead to stop-and-frisk incidents and aggressive questioning. Just imagine having a decades-old criminal record and facing police armed with such powerful, invasive technology.

This could lead to “the tyranny of the algorithm” and a Faustian bargain in which the public increasingly forfeits its freedoms in certain areas out of fears for its safety. “The Soviet Union had remarkably little street crime when they were at their worst of their totalitarian, authoritarian controls,” MIT sociologist Gary Marx observed. “But, my god, at what price?”

To Record and Serve… Those in Blue

On a June night in 2013, Augustin Reynoso discovered that his bicycle had been stolen from a CVS in the Los Angeles suburb of Gardena. A store security guard called the police while Reynoso’s brother Ricardo Diaz Zeferino and two friends tried to find the missing bike in the neighborhood. When the police arrived, they promptly ordered his two friends to put their hands up. Zeferino ran over, protesting that the police had the wrong men.  At that point, they told him to raise his hands, too. He then lowered and raised his hands as the police yelled at him. When he removed his baseball hat, lowered his hands, and began to raise them again, he was shot to death.

The police insisted that Zeferino’s actions were “threatening” and so their shooting justified. They had two videos of it taken by police car cameras — but refused to release them.

Although police departments nationwide have been fighting any spirit of new openness, car and body cameras have at least offered the promise of bringing new transparency to the actions of officers on the beat. That’s why the ACLU and many civil rights groups, as well as President Obama, have spoken out in favor of the technology’s potential to improve police-community relations — but only, of course, if the police are obliged to release videos in situations involving allegations of abuse. And many departments are fighting that fiercely.

In Chicago, for instance, the police notoriously opposed the release of dashcam video in the shooting death of Laquan McDonald, citing the supposed imperative of an “ongoing investigation.” After more than a year of such resistance, a judge finally ordered the video made public. Only then did the scandal of seeing Officer Jason Van Dyke unnecessarily pump 16 bullets into the 17-year-old’s body explode into national consciousness.

In Zeferino’s case, the police settled a lawsuit with his family for $4.7 million and yet continued to refuse to release the videos. It took two years before a judge finally ordered their release, allowing the public to see the shooting for itself.

Despite this, in April 2015 the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners approveda body-camera policy that failed to ensure future transparency, while protecting and serving the needs of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).  In doing so, it ignored the sort of best practices advocated by the White House, the president’s task force on policing, and even the Police Executive Research Forum, one of the profession’s most respected think tanks.

On the possibility of releasing videos of alleged police misconduct and abuse, the new policy remained silent, but LAPD officials, including Chief Charlie Beck, didn’t. They made it clear that such videos would generally be exempt from California’s public records law and wouldn’t be released without a judge’s orders. Essentially, the police reserved the right to release video when and how they saw fit. This self-serving policy comes from the most lethal large police department in the country, whose officers shot and killed 21 people last year.

Other departments around the country have made similar moves to ensure control over body camera videos. Texas and South Carolina, among other states, have even changed their open-records laws to give the police power over when such footage should (or should not) be released. In other words, when a heroic cop saves a drowning child, you’ll see the video; when that same cop guns down a fleeing suspect, don’t count on it.

Curiously, given the stated positions of the president and his task force, the federal government seems to have no fundamental problem with that. In May 2015, for example, the Justice Department announced competitive grants for the purchase of police body cameras, officially tying funding to good body-cam-use policies. The LAPD applied. Despite letters from groups like the ACLU pointing out just how poor its version of body-cam policy was, the Justice Department awarded it $1 million to purchase approximately 700 cameras — accountability and transparency be damned.

To receive public money for a tool theoretically meant for transparency and accountability and turn it into one of secrecy and impunity, with the feds’ complicity and financial backing, sends an unmistakable message on how new technology is likely to affect America’s future policing practices. Think of it as a door slowly opening onto a potential policing dystopia.

Hello Darkness, Power’s Old Friend

Keep in mind that this article barely scratches the surface when it comes to the increasing numbers of ways in which the police’s use of technology has infiltrated our everyday lives.

In states and cities across America, some public bus and train systems have begun to add to video surveillance, the surreptitious recording of the conversations of passengers, a potential body blow to the concept of a private conversation in public space. And whether or not the earliest versions of predictive policing actually work, the law enforcement community is already moving to technology that will try to predict who will commit crimes in the future. In Chicago, the police are using social networking analysis and prediction technology to draw up “heat lists” of those who might perpetuate violent crimes someday and pay them visits now. You won’t be shocked to learn which side of the tracks such future perpetrators live on. The rationale behind all this, as always, is “public safety.”

Nor can anyone begin to predict how law enforcement will avail itself of science-fiction-like technology in the decade to come, much less decades from now, though cops on patrol may very soon know a lot about you and your past. They will be able to cull such information from a multitude of databases at their fingertips, while you will know little or nothing about them — a striking power imbalance in a situation in which one person can deprive the other of liberty or even life itself.

With little public debate, often in almost total secrecy, increasing numbers of police departments are wielding technology to empower themselves rather than the communities they protect and serve. At a time when trust in law enforcement is dangerously low, police departments should be embracing technology’s democratizing potential rather than its ability to give them almost superhuman powers at the expense of the public trust.

Unfortunately, power loves the dark.

Matthew Harwood is the ACLU’s senior writer/editor.

Stephen Fry signs off from ‘The Grid’ again

Wed 20 Apr 2016 2.47pm

stephen-fry-logans-run

Following a scathing departure from his four million Twitter followers regarding criticism of his BAFTA commentary in February, unelected UK and internet technology ambassador Stephen Fry has made an avowed departure from all social networks.

In a stinging 2,600+ word essay at stephenfry.com, the 58-year-old comedian, presenter and raconteur compares an exit from mainstream social network channels such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook to the heroic plight of the heroes of 1970s dystopian sci-fi movies such as Logan’s Run and Soylent Green; thereby comparing the pre-eminence of social media with those highly-telescoped visions of ruthless government authorities.

Likewise Fry regards flight from the social networks in the same light as ‘unplugging’ from the enemy artificial reality offered to a ‘sleeping’ populace in The Matrix:

‘Jacking out of the matrix would cast one as a hero of the kind of dystopian film that proved popular in the 70s, Logan’s Run, Zardoz, Soylent Green, Fahrenheit 451 … on the run from The Corporation, with the foot soldiers of The System hard on your heels. We really are starting to live in that kind of movie, mutatis mutandis, so surely it’s time to join the Rebels, the Outliers, the Others who live beyond the Wall and read forbidden books, sing forbidden songs and think forbidden thoughts in defiance of The One.’

The tech evangelist, first baptised into his ministry by early association with Apple’s products, turns his powers of persuasion 180 degrees in the piece, in a plea for ‘Generation Z’ to rebel against the matrix:

‘Who most wants you to stay on the grid? The advertisers. Your boss. Human Resources. The advertisers. Your parents (irony of ironies – once they distrusted it, now they need to tag you electronically, share your Facebook photos and message you to death). The advertisers. The government. Your local authority. Your school. Advertisers..
Well, if you’re young and have an ounce of pride, doesn’t that list say it all? So fuck you, I’m Going Off The Grid.

The essay grounds its argument in the current millennial fad for ‘retro’ and ‘legacy’ – abstract, unlived ideas for young people captivated by the spirit of nostalgia for the fax age – but Fry, part of the ‘blank generation’ that emerged after the conformity of the 1950s and before the conformity of the yuppie age, ascribes genuine merit to the pre-digital society, and fond regard for the early days of the internet and the computer revolution:

‘The digital Wild West may have been rough and lawless but folk were politer to strangers and knew their manners better than the ruthless, ambitious citizens who took over. The pioneer territory has now had its shitty streets and crooked boardwalks paved over. In place of saloons there are strip malls, fun fairs and multiplexes. The telegraph and train killed the stage coach and the pony express.’

The highly discursive piece provides a fairly comprehensive history of the internet, and an array of historical examples demonstrating Fry’s contention that the current social media giants will fall as mightily as they have risen in the last ten years:

‘And Facebook will be dust one day. Hard to imagine perhaps but obviously and happily true… For now, Facebook is of course all powerful and finds itself busy eating the internet (thereby preparing its own extinction) and of course parents are on it. That’s how crap it is.’

‘Off the Grid’ is a refreshing note of rebellion because of who wrote it, though that’s somewhat counterbalanced by Stephen Fry’s epic history of departure, and not just from the virtual world. His last major retirement from Twitter was in 2009, following a row with another Twitter user. Fry suffers, now quite publicly, from bipolar disorder.

So he may be back – it wouldn’t be the first time. But his current spirit of rebellion is worthy of celebration:

‘I live in a world without Facebook, and now without Twitter. I manage to survive too without Kiki, Snapchat, Viber, Telegram, Signal and the rest of them. I haven’t yet learned to cope without iMessage and SMS. I haven’t yet turned my back on email and the Cloud. I haven’t yet jacked out of the matrix and gone off the grid. Maybe I will pluck up the courage.’

 

https://thestack.com/world/2016/04/20/stephen-fry-signs-off-from-the-grid-again/

Obama backs attack on encrypted communication

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By Evan Blake
14 March 2016

Speaking at the music, film and tech festival South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas on Friday, US President Barack Obama delivered his most open comments yet backing the attack on encryption and the FBI’s ongoing lawsuit with Apple.

The high-profile legal case centers on the ability of the FBI, NSA and other state surveillance agencies to get “backdoor” access to encrypted cell phone data. On February 16, a California federal court judge granted a Justice Department request for an order requiring Apple to write new software that can bypass the iPhone’s security features.

While the FBI initially claimed that the software would be used solely to crack the phone of Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the attackers in last December’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, the aim is to set a precedent that would justify the wholesale nullification of encryption.

The development of anti-encryption technology will destroy one of the last remaining privacy protections for the global population, whose use spiked following the 2013 Edward Snowden revelations of mass NSA spying on the entire planet’s communications. Apple—one of the major collaborators in PRISM and other NSA spying programs—has argued that its compliance with the order will set an illegal and unconstitutional precedent for the government to unlock any individual’s phone.

Obama presented his views on privacy before an audience of roughly 2,100 technology executives and enthusiasts at the close of an interview with Evan Smith, the editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune.

While posturing as impartial in the “privacy versus security debate,” Obama clearly expressed the dominant view held by state officials that the public has no right to privacy and that Apple and the other tech companies should fold in their dispute over encryption.

Throughout his comments, Obama sought to minimize the extreme demands being made by the FBI, which threaten to eliminate encryption capabilities. At various points, he loosely compared the cracking of digital encryption to such commonplace privacy infringements as the issuing of a home search warrant, airport security checks, tax collecting methods and road blocks for drunk driving tests, while moralizing against “fetishizing our phones above every other value.”

Obama began by falsely juxtaposing the FBI’s demand for anti-encryption software to a standard home search conducted with a warrant. He continued this specious line of reasoning by comparing encrypted cell phones to Swiss bank accounts, saying, “And the question we now have to ask is, if technologically, it is possible to make an impenetrable device or system where the encryption is so strong that there’s no key, there’s no door at all, then how do we apprehend the child pornographer? How do we solve or disrupt a terrorist plot? What mechanisms do we have available to even do simple things like tax enforcement? Because, if, in fact, you can’t crack that at all, government can’t get in, then everybody is walking around with a Swiss bank account in their pocket—right? So there has to be some concession to the need to be able to get into that information somehow.”

This is simply a statement that the government has to have access to all communications, rendering the purpose of encryption null and void.

Regarding the likelihood that this anti-encryption software could be used universally to unlock all encrypted cell phones, Obama feigned ignorance, declaring, “That is a technical question. I’m not a software engineer. It is, I think, technically true, but I think it can be overstated.”

Concluding his remarks, Obama postured as being “way on the civil liberties side of this thing,” before saying, “I anguish a lot over the decisions we make in terms of how to keep this country safe, and I am not interested in overthrowing the values that have made us an exceptional and great nation simply for expediency. But the dangers are real. Maintaining law and order and a civilized society is important. Protecting our kids is important. And so I would just caution against taking an absolutist perspective on this.”

In an effort to erode widespread suspicion of the security apparatus, Obama flatly lied about the significance of the Snowden revelations, declaring, “the Snowden issue vastly overstated the dangers to U.S. citizens in terms of spying, because the fact of the matter is, is that actually our intelligence agencies are pretty scrupulous about US persons, people on US soil. What those disclosures did identify were accesses overseas with respect to people who are not in this country. A lot of those have been fixed.”

With his remarks in Austin, Obama has sought to manipulate public opinion to enable Congress to enact long-planned legislation that will require technology companies to install “backdoors” to allow the government universal access to encrypted data. His administration declined to pursue such legislation last fall, but renewed it through the legal system and Congress in the wake of the San Bernardino attacks.

In his remarks, Obama noted that his administration has “engaged the tech community aggressively to help solve this problem.”

These comments represent a continuation of those made earlier this year to tech executives in Silicon Valley, at which Obama urged the tech leaders to “work together to combat terrorism and counter violent extremism online,” according to an official White House statement.

 

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/03/14/obam-m14.html