Thursday, 16 June 2016

Orlando: No, We Don't Need MORE Mass Surveillance

Rainbow flag at half mast
Comes yet another gun-related tragedy, comes another slew of conspiracy theories and gun nuttery, the basic premise of which is, "The gubmint set this up as an excuse to take our boomsticks away!" Meanwhile, Our Glorious Leaders are unwilling to let such a golden opportunity go to waste despite the fact that mass surveillance is what allowed gunman Omar Mateen to carry out the attack that killed forty nine people at the Pulse nightclub. Allow me to explain.

Haystacks and needles and searching, oh my!

You DO know Omar Mateen was under more surveillance than the rest of us are, right? Talking smack about terrorism in front of work colleagues got him reported to the FBI, which kept a close eye on him for ten months, per Director James Comey. Mateen was actually interviewed twice, during which he told the FBI he was trying to wind up people he believed were picking on him. Going to the same mosque as a suicide bomber who blew himself up in Syria kept him on the watch list but when he got married and settled into family life he went quiet — and fell off the radar. You know what's funny? Being on an FBI watch list can stop you getting on a plane but is not a hindrance to getting a gun.

Mateen was a security guard and had a Florida firearms license that allowed him to carry concealed weapons. - The FBI director painted a bizarre picture of the man behind the worst mass shooting in US history, by Natasha Bertrand and Pamela Engel for Business Insider

Let that sink in for a minute. They're not really interested in catching terrorists, are they?

The haystack

Per the Snowden revelations the NSA and a whole alphabet soup of security agencies from all over the world from the USA to Europe to Israel, Canada, and Australasia are all sharing information gleaned from their tap in the internet backbone. They've got an awful lot of hay to work through to find useful intel. Remember, they're slurping up EVERYTHING. The only way to even start working through the haystack is to set up an algorithm that uses keywords to bring potential terrorists to their attention. Hilariously, "Gun" isn't on the list, but can you imagine how much more work they'd have to do if it was? All a potential terrorist has to do is carefully avoid using the words on that list and pretend to be an Anglo gun nut anticipating Armageddon. Job done.

The needle

Okay, so you've got your smaller mountain of data. The only way to make any of it make sense is to look for incidents of other words on that list. If you set up a macro that combs emails, blog posts, and social media status updates, then sorts them by the number of times certain words and word combinations crop up, in theory you've got probable cause to take a closer look at the activities of... a newspaper reporter or political blogger. This method is like using a machine gun to catch a mouse. You make a lot of noise and waste a lot of bullets but chances are you'll miss the little scrap.

The searching

Given the attitudes expressed by the military officers involved in the anti-Islamic teaching revealed by Wired in 2012, I think it's reasonable to expect it to be prevalent in other branches of the security services. It is in the FBI, per a 2011 report in Wired. So basically they're looking for Muslims who are likely to go nuts and bomb people. This is why they missed the one with the gun; right-wingers love guns too much to consider putting reasonable restrictions on them, such as "not selling them to people on FBI watch lists for making remarks that suggest they might be involved or planning to gt involved in terrorism." They do, however, have a shiny new plan to combat the scourge of terrorism. Are you ready? You might want to sit down for this one: more surveillance. *Facepalm*

The surveillance.

That they had.

Did nothing.

To flag up.

The potential danger.

Posed by Omar Mattan.

This is going to keep on happening and these twerps aren't going to be able to stop it because they're not doing anything that would stop it. And believe me, Our Glorious Leaders over here aren't going to let this tragedy slip by without at least trying to push the Snooper's Charter as if it would actually save us. No. It. Wouldn't.

Paranoid dystopia to follow

We are already in a police state but the Americans have it worse. Their police are increasingly militarised and they can nick your stuff or grab your prepaid debit card and drain you dry on suspicion alone of involvement in the illegal narcotics trade. If you think that's bad, you ain't seen nothing yet.

“We originally created the House Un-American Activities Committee to go after Nazis. We passed several laws in 1938 and 1939 to go after Nazis and we made it illegal to help the Nazis. We're going to presently have to go take the similar steps here,” [former Speaker Newt] Gingrich said in a Monday appearance on “Fox and Friends.” - Gingrich: Let's Create New Version Of House Un-American Activities Committee, by Allegra Kirkland for Talking Points Memo

It's bad enough that Gingrich is a colossal hypocrite, does he have to be an eejit as well?

Guns, and bullets, and lots of them

You can easily buy a gun in America. Depending on your location, you can walk out of the shop with one tucked under your arm in as little as seven minutes. Per a recent report in The Atlantic, even if a ban on people on terror watch lists had been in place, Mateen would still have been able to get hold of guns.

Mateen was under FBI investigation for connections to terrorism two separate times in 2013 and 2014... the government placed him in the Terrorist Screening Database, more commonly known as the terror watch list. ...When those inquires ended, the government removed him from the list, the Los Angeles Times reported. Even if the legislation had been enacted, it would not have ensured that the FBI would have flagged Mateen when he went to buy an assault-style rifle and handgun in the days before Sunday’s massacre. [Emphasis mine] - Could Congress Have Stopped Omar Mateen From Getting His Guns? by Russell Berman for The Atlantic

Roll that around your head for a minute: even if a law had been in place to ban people suspected of possibly being terrorists from being able to buy guns, the purchase of guns would not have been notified to the FBI. Well surely to goodness that would have been the point of such a law?! What is the reason for this insanity? That said, there are moves afoot to possibly bring in a system that would alert authorities when someone who has been on a watchlist tries to buy a gun.

The various law enforcement departments don't appear to be talking to each other. I thought the DHS was supposed to be about ending inter-agency turf wars.

Licensed to kill

Mateen was a security guard at a Florida courthouse licensed to carry concealed weapons in Florida, and he passed the necessary background checks to legally buy the guns used to carry out the massacre. He worked for G4S for eight years. This means that, while he was under investigation for possibly being a terrorist or terrorist enabler or sympathiser, he was carrying guns around as part of his job. After the investigating officers had effectively concluded that he was full of crap, Mateen walked into a shop and legally purchased guns to kill clubbers with.

Memo to the hard of thinking: in America, you can be under investigation for terrorism (admittedly the bar is very low and often arbitrary), which will stop you getting on a plane, but if you want to buy a gun, off you go, mate. Knock yourself out.

Could legislation save us?

When something like the Orlando massacre happens people turn to their leaders for guidance. They want someone to Do Something. This often results in knee-jerk legislation. Let's look at the Mateen investigation again.

He was suspected of terrorist tendencies

Omar Mateen, while working as a security guard for G4S, during which time he had access to guns and a license to use them, was called in for questioning by the FBI twice for talking smack about terrorism to colleagues and for possibly knowing an actual honest-to-Allah terrorist. The only thing he did during that time to create suspicion about himself was to talk smack and go to the same mosque as a suicide bomber who killed himself in Syria. That's it, he gave no indication of plans to carry out attacks on anyone, anywhere. When he stopped drawing attention to himself the surveillance ended.

Is it reasonable to allow someone who has indicated possible links to terrorism to have access to guns?

Is it reasonable and proportionate to the threat to keep someone who talks smack about terrorism constantly under close surveillance for the rest of their lives?

Is it possible to sniff out terrorism in advance?

One of the aims of proposed legislation is to do the same job as the pre-crime division in Minority Report, the idea being to stop the crime before it is committed. This is the idea behind Newt Gingrich's rebooted Un-American Activities Committee; they want to chase down and kick out people they believe are a threat to American society, i.e. non-white people. They also want to increase surveillance, as if having more data to wade through would make it easier to stop another Orlando before it happens. No, as I've pointed out, it won't.

A third U.S. official told The Daily Beast there often are not enough personnel to monitor every suspect for long period of times, and the decision to end an investigation can be subjective. How many times must a seemingly otherwise law-abiding suspected terrorist interact with someone in Syria or sympathetic imam at a radical American mosque for an investigation to remain open?

With limited resources and subjective criteria for monitoring U.S. citizens, the result is often that agents attempt to triage threats. In doing so, many live in a state of constant anxiety about people who once raised a red flag but yet have committed no clear crime. FBI Tracked Orlando Killer Omar Mateen and Came Up Empty, by Shane Harris and Nancy A. Youssef for The Daily Beast

Okay, what about banning Muslims from entering the country? Erm, Mattan was born in America. Try again.

Does surveillance have a role?

It seems that the FBI, in the course of carrying out their investigations of Mattan, did everything right and by the book. They carefully checked to see whether he was serious or talking smack. When it emerged that he was more likely to eat a ham sandwich than carry out a bomb attack, they dropped him from the list. That was reasonable, fair, and proportionate. There is no way of predicting what Mattan might have done as there were no indications present. If surveillance is to have any value it must be targeted. Since resources are limited it makes sense to reduce the surveillance burden and restrict it to targeted, warranted surveillance of people who have been reported for suspicious behaviour.

What can be done?

The trouble with "If you see something, say something" is that you can easily misidentify normal, acceptable behaviour for terrorism. However, if you see someone acting suspiciously you should totally report them. As much as I rail against the government and the Establishment, if I even imagined that someone was up to something nasty I would totally report it, and without a second thought. I don't approve of violence. For any reason. I'm not sure whether or not we can prevent future attacks but I do think that, if we can, we should. I just don't think mass surveillance is the right tool for the job.

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