Tuesday, December 16, 2008

So They Say

'Big Brother' has supposedly not won, says a media un-interested in examining stories of the possible use of warrant less surveillance to subvert the 1st Amendment

From The New York Times:


Big Brother Has Not Won

Published: December 13, 2008

IF you thought the wiretapping controversy ended last summer, when Congress blessed the Bush administration’s warrantless-wiretapping program by passing a new surveillance law that greatly enhanced the powers of the National Security Agency, think again. The legacy of the illegal operation represents a serious problem for the Obama administration.

After a contentious hearing this month on the most controversial aspect of the new law — a blanket grant of immunity to the telecom giants like AT&T that secretly permitted the N.S.A. to siphon off their customers’ communications — a federal judge in San Francisco must decide whether Congress has the authority to bestow absolution on private companies that appear to have violated the law. One paradox is that Bush administration lawyers have claimed from the outset that the surveillance program was entirely legal, yet they remain desperate to prevent any court from testing that claim. Instead, they are in the odd position of advocating immunity for something that they insist is not a crime.

Another paradox, which Barack Obama surely appreciates, is that the real issue underlying the immunity debate is not whether the telecoms should pay damages; it is whether lawsuits against the companies can be used to answer a question that Congress and the press have not: Just how bad was the N.S.A. program, after all?

Mr. Obama says he does not want his first term to become bogged down in any sort of “partisan witch hunt.” Indeed, the sheer extent of executive lawlessness in Washington over the past eight years has left so many wrongs to right that, in the interests of triage, the new president may choose to let bygones be bygones where wiretapping is concerned.

But that would be a mistake. From 2001 to 2007, the United States government violated one of the signature prohibitions of the post-Watergate era by turning its formidable eavesdropping apparatus on its own citizens. The new law last summer resolved matters only by moving the goalpost, so that many of the N.S.A.’s more questionable activities simply became legal. But major questions remain about the legal grounds used to justify the program, and about how many innocent Americans were ensnared.

The Obama administration cannot enact the kind of thorough course correction on domestic surveillance that is needed without understanding how far off course the intelligence community got in the first place. Mr. Obama, who initially vowed to filibuster the immunity provision but, under pressure in the race against John McCain, backed down and reluctantly supported it, has committed “to have my attorney general conduct a comprehensive review” of N.S.A. surveillance.

That is a promising first step, but it is not enough. Nor is the prospect of reports due next summer from the inspectors general of the N.S.A. and the Justice Department. The good news for Mr. Obama, politically, is that the executive branch should not lead the charge in investigating the wiretapping. Congress should.

Provided that the Obama administration is willing to cooperate rather than stonewall in the Bush fashion, Congress can get to the bottom of the abuses while simultaneously reasserting itself as a coequal branch of government. To the extent possible, the hearings should be public, and if necessary, investigators should grant immunity to witnesses in exchange for candid testimony; this is no witch hunt, but an effort to establish an accurate historical record.

What details can actually be aired in public without violating national security? The number of Americans listened to and the broad contours of the program, for a start. For example, in March 2004, Attorney General John Ashcroft threatened to resign over the program, backing down only when it was adjusted. What transgression was so appalling that it made John Ashcroft look like a civil libertarian? We still don’t know.

Even the legal opinions governing the program are still squirreled away in a safe in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office. In recent months, the Senate Judiciary Committee and a Washington district judge have ordered them turned over, and the next attorney general should do so immediately.

Without some baseline understanding of what went wrong — and how wrong — in recent years, and without the establishment of some bright line rules of the road, it would be na├»ve to think that there won’t be future abuses. For aggressive intelligence agencies, legal ambiguity is an invitation to excess.

Wiretapping can sometimes seem forbiddingly complex, and many Americans just aren’t concerned that the government might monitor their calls. But what is at stake here is not mere personal privacy, but the bedrock American principles of separation of powers and the rule of law.

Jack Goldsmith, a former top Bush administration lawyer, pronounced the wiretapping program “the biggest legal mess” he had seen in his life. That sort of mess cannot simply be swept under the rug; it must be cleared up.

Patrick Radden Keefe, a fellow at the Century Foundation, is the author of “Chatter: Uncovering the Echelon Surveillance Network and the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping.”

Thursday, December 11, 2008

RFID tracking 50 foot range admitted

New ID Scanners at Borders Raise Privacy Alarm

Monday, December 1, 2008 6:19 PM

By: Dave Eberhart

The federal government has already deployed new detection machines that can scan citizens without their knowledge from as far as 50 feet away and "read" their personal documents such as passports or driver's licenses.

The Homeland Security Department touts the high-tech devices as increasing security at border crossings, but privacy advocates are raising all sorts of red flags.

Critics say the new machines, which read one's personal information right through a wallet or purse, do so without consent or a warrant and may set a worrisome precedent.

The devices, called Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) machines, allow officials to read remotely any passports, pass cards, and driver's licenses that contain special chips with personal information.

The RFIDs are so sensitive that, even before a vehicle pulls up at a border checkpoint, agents already will have on their computer screen the personal data of the passengers, including each person's name, date of birth, nationality, passport or ID number, and even a digitized photo.

The new gadgets are in place, or soon will be, at five border crossings: Blaine, Wash.; Buffalo; Detroit; Nogales, Ariz.; and San Ysidro, Calif. They are slated to have a dramatically expanded presence in June.

Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation argues that the technology could make Americans less secure because terrorists or other criminals may be able to steal the personal information off the ID cards remotely.

Tien and other critics warn that people up to no good can use their own RFID machines in a process called "skimming" to read the information from as far as 50 feet.

Indeed, consumer privacy expert Katherine Albrecht maintains that the chips create the "potential for a whole surveillance network to be set up." Among other abuses, she says police could use them to track criminals; abusive husbands could use the technology to find their wives; and stores could trail the shopping patterns of patrons.

Homeland Security, however, rebuts the criticism, arguing that the embedded chips surrender only a code to machine readers. That code is then broken in order to display the personal information on the border agents' screen.

Meanwhile, the same agencies that are issuing the newfangled IDs supply a sleeve that keep out all prying electronic eyes when not in use.

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