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Just when you thought you'd heard it all about our "Turnkey Totalitarian State," a truly huge, exclusive lead story in Sunday's New York Times informs us that--according to a report on the results of a concerted effort by no less than 35 American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) affiliates and their respective information request filings with over 380 state and local law enforcement organizations throughout the U.S.--scores, and possibly hundreds, of police departments across the country "routinely" and secretly track, more often than not without any court's knowledge, let alone a warrant, the whereabouts of thousands of our citizens. (More about this in a moment.)

Approximately two weeks ago, we learned, via James Bamford's stunning cover story in Wired Magazine, of the details relating to our government's multi-billion-dollar, extremely stealthy effort to build a state-of-the-art data center outside of Salt Lake City. The project's called "Stellar Wind." When it's completed (it’s scheduled for completion sometime next year), it will be able to warehouse, track, cross-reference and apply analytical modelling protocols to virtually every email, phone call and encrypted (or otherwise) database/dataset in the world.

Just a week after the Wired story appeared, and as I also noted it here on March 23rd, "NYT's Orwellian Lead: AG Holder Officially Signs Off On 'Total Information Awareness' For All"...

...Attorney General Eric Holder signed-off on new guidelines for the National Counterterrorism Center which enable it to: a.) maintain entire copies of as many databases as that organization sees fit, both via its own efforts and those of “other agencies,” b.) datamine those databases,  and then c.) “…retain private information about Americans when there is no suspicion that they are tied to terrorism, intelligence officials said,” for up to five years...

In between those two stories, on March 19th, this little gem of a story appeared on the HDGuru blog: “Is Your New HDTV Watching You?

Samsung’s 2012 top-of-the-line plasmas and LED HDTVs offer new features never before available within a television including a built-in, internally wired HD camera, twin microphones, face tracking and speech recognition. While these features give you unprecedented control over an HDTV, the devices themselves, more similar than ever to a personal computer, may allow hackers or even Samsung to see and hear you and your family, and collect extremely personal data.

While Web cameras and Internet connectivity are not new to HDTVs, their complete integration is, and it’s the always connected camera and microphones, combined with the option of third-party apps (not to mention Samsung’s own software) gives us cause for concern regarding the privacy of TV buyers and their friends and families.

Samsung has not released a privacy policy clarifying what data it is collecting and sharing with regard to the new TV sets…

…These Samsung TVs locate and make note of registered viewers via sophisticated face recognition software. This means if you tell the TV whose faces belong to which users in your family, it personalizes the experience to each recognized family member. If you have friends over, it could log these faces as well…

…What concerns us is the integration of both an active camera and microphone…

…And unlike other TVs, which have cameras and microphones as add-on accessories connected by a single, easily removable USB cable, you can’t just unplug these sensors.
During our demo, unless the face recognition learning feature was activated, there was no indication as to whether the camera (such as a red light) and audio mics are on. And as far as the microphone is concerned the is no way to physically disconnect it or be assured it is not picking up your voice when you don’t intend it to do so…

Last July, I covered how facial recognition software was being integrated into day-to-day police activities in the field, and throughout the country. (SEE: “Uncivil Liberties In The Surveillance State: Handheld, Facial Recognition I.D. Checks By Police.”) As you read this, the reality is that many police departments are enabled to simply take a snapshot of virtually anyone and then run a background check on them, without the subject individual even knowing about it. Of course, if there was no match in the related database(s) for a given individual, the effort (much like not having one’s fingerprints on file) wouldn’t yield much detail.  

But, given the fact that most states have automated their motor vehicle registries to the point where those databases may now be adapted and integrated into the proverbial “mix,” this is basically a moot point. (Above and beyond that, with hundreds of millions of folks, worldwide, now posting their intimate life details and photos on social/community websites, this further expands the power of the implementation of facial recognition technology in virtually any totalitarian state.)

And, if you think this reality is not a hot topic in tech circles right now, consider this invite to an online lecture which I received in my email just a couple of months ago…

Faces of Facebook: Privacy in the Age of Augmented Reality
by Alessandro Acquisti

Date: Thursday, January 19, 2012

Time: 1000 HRS PST/1300 HRS EST

Duration: 60 minutes including Q&A   Register Now


We investigate the feasibility of combining publicly available Web 2.0 data with off-the-shelf face recognition software for the purpose of large-scale, automated individual re-identification. Two experiments demonstrated the ability of identifying individuals online (on a dating site where individuals protect their identities by using pseudonyms) and offline (in a public space), based on photos made publicly available on a social network site.

A third proof-of-concept experiment illustrated the ability of inferring individuals' personal or sensitive information (their interests and Social Security numbers) from their faces, by combining face recognition, data mining algorithms, and statistical re-identification techniques. The results highlight the implications of the inevitable convergence of face recognition technology and increasing online self-disclosures, and the emergence of "personally predictable" information. They raise questions about the future of privacy in an "augmented" reality world in which online and offline data will seamlessly blend.


Alessandro Acquisti is an Associate Professor of Information Technology and Public Policy at the Heinz College, Carnegie Mellon University. He is the co-director of the CMU Center for Behavioral Decision Research (CBDR), a member of Carnegie Mellon Cylab, and a fellow of the Ponemon Institute. His work investigates the economic and social impact of IT, and in particular the economics and behavioral economics of privacy and information security, as well as privacy in online social networks.

And, that brings us to yet another story which appeared in the New York Times on Friday: “New U.S. Research Will Aim at Flood of Digital Data.”
The federal government is beginning a major research initiative in big data computing. The effort, which will be announced on Thursday, involves several government agencies and departments, and commitments for the programs total $200 million. Administration officials compare the initiative to past government research support for high-speed networking and supercomputing centers, which have had an impact in areas like climate science and Web browsing software.

“This is that level of importance,” said Tom Kalil, deputy director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “The future of computing is not just big iron. It’s big data.”

Big data refers to the rising flood of digital data from many sources, including the Web, biological and industrial sensors, video, e-mail and social network communications. The emerging opportunity arises from combining these diverse data sources with improving computing tools to pinpoint profit-making opportunities, make scientific discoveries and predict crime waves, for example.

…departments and agencies that will be announcing big data programs at a gathering on Thursday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington include the United States Geological Survey, the Defense Department, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Energy Department. These initiatives will mostly be seeking the best ideas from university and corporate researchers for collaborative projects…

…for government departments and agencies promoting and mastering big data computing, there is self-interest as well…

So, here we are, just two days after this last NYT piece appeared, and we have this on the front page of today’s edition of that paper: “Police Are Using Phone Tracking as a Routine Tool.”
Police Are Using Phone Tracking as a Routine Tool
Eric Lichtblau
New York Times (Page A1)
April 1, 2012

WASHINGTON — Law enforcement tracking of cellphones, once the province mainly of federal agents, has become a powerful and widely used surveillance tool for local police officials, with hundreds of departments, large and small, often using it aggressively with little or no court oversight, documents show.

The practice has become big business for cellphone companies, too, with a handful of carriers marketing a catalog of “surveillance fees” to police departments to determine a suspect’s location, trace phone calls and texts or provide other services. Some departments log dozens of traces a month for both emergencies and routine investigations.

With cellphones ubiquitous, the police call phone tracing a valuable weapon in emergencies like child abductions and suicide calls and investigations in drug cases and murders. One police training manual describes cellphones as “the virtual biographer of our daily activities,” providing a hunting ground for learning contacts and travels.

But civil liberties advocates say the wider use of cell tracking raises legal and constitutional questions, particularly when the police act without judicial orders. While many departments require warrants to use phone tracking in nonemergencies, others claim broad discretion to get the records on their own, according to 5,500 pages of internal records obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union from 205 police departments nationwide.

The internal documents, which were provided to The New York Times, open a window into a cloak-and-dagger practice that police officials are wary about discussing publicly. While cell tracking by local police departments has received some limited public attention in the last few years, the A.C.L.U. documents show that the practice is in much wider use — with far looser safeguards — than officials have previously acknowledged…

I strongly…very strongly…urge you to read the entire piece in today’s Times. Also checkout (the link to) the source material from the ACLU, noted two paragraphs above.

I’ve gone out of my way to try to NOT editorialize (too much, anyway) in this post. And, perhaps, that’s simply due to the extremely compelling nature of the totality—the veritable sum and substance as it were—of these now-rapidly-developing facts and events before us.

The inconvenient reality here is this is about a lot more than just the lead story in today’s NY Times.  But, we have to start somewhere. So, I will “officially” (heh) depart from that tack now, however, by leaving you with some actionable commentary from the ACLU (as noted in their report on this story, as linked above)…

The Solutions: What Can Be Done to Protect Privacy

Cell phone location data is not the sort of information that law enforcement agents should be obtaining without the safeguard of the probable cause standard and review by a judge. That will ensure that legitimate investigations can proceed, while protecting innocent Americans from unjustified invasions of their privacy.

State and federal lawmakers should pass laws requiring a warrant for police to engage in location tracking. In Congress, there are two pending efforts: First, bipartisan legislation, entitled the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance (GPS) Act, is sponsored in the Senate by Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and in the House by Representatives Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), Peter Welch (D-Vt.) and Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.). The bills would require law enforcement agents to obtain a warrant in order to access location information.

TAKE ACTION: Tell your representatives in Washington to support these important pieces of legislation

The other effort is part of Democratic Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy's proposal to update the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), which the government also uses to secretly access people's email accounts. The bill includes a warrant requirement for real-time tracking, but not for historical location information.

TAKE ACTION: Ask Congress to update ECPA today

In the meantime, more local law enforcement agencies should voluntarily follow the lead of those police departments that already require a warrant and probable cause to track cell phones.

And more states should pass laws requiring their law enforcement agents to obtain a warrant and probable cause to track cell phones.

When they have the opportunity, more judges should follow the leads of those judges who have required the government to obtain a warrant based upon probable cause.

Technology is evolving quickly, and often to the detriment of privacy. But how much privacy Americans enjoy is fundamentally a choice that ultimately is ours as a society to make.

#            #            #

Starting more than three years ago, and then through 2010, Kossack Adam B did a great job covering “WebCamGate” (i.e.: Robbins v. Lower Merion School District), which was an important case that set a lot of precedents relating to much of what I’ve covered above.  But, the reality was/is that there was no tie-in/“excuse,” real or imagined, with regard to homeland security and our government standing behind the “fight against terrorism” meme as a shield to enable distorted law enforcement transgressions against the public’s constitutional rights, at large.

(See: HERE, HERE,  HERE, and especially HERE, for more from Adam B on that story.)

Kossack Ray Pensador posted this, just a few hours ago:  “This is what real freedom looks like…” After reading my post, I’d strongly urge you checkout his words, too.

And, of course, I’ll end this with the same words I’ve used more than once in the past couple of weeks…

I cannot wait to read fellow kossack Jesselyn Radack’s take on this mind-numbing news. (For those reading this who aren’t aware of her work, she’s the director of National Security and Human Rights at the Government Accountability Project.) When it comes to “the whistleblowing beat” in this community and in the real world, she has it covered. We are very fortunate to have her as a contributor to this community! (Click on the link above in this paragraph for links to her most recent posts.)

And, speaking of those whom we are very fortunate to have as contributors to this community, also checkout one of our newest Kossack’s, Thomas Drake’s, first couple of posts, also from this past week, “UPDATE: I was First Whistleblower Prosecuted Under the Espionage Act in Recent Government Rampage,”
and “Release of Stevens Report - Why is Welch Still Practicing Law at the Department of Injustice?

Originally posted to on Sun Apr 01, 2012 at 03:36 AM PDT.

Also republished by Whistleblowers Round Table.

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