Monday, 4 July 2016

Authoritarianism Runs Amok: What Can We Do?

Cartoon me being watched by Wendy Cockcroft
We're not quite at the "Papers, please" stage in our societies but we're getting there. Some recent cases that have come to my attention have given me pause for thought. The more our governments crack down on our personal freedoms, the less we respect them, but they've only got themselves to blame for that. They may be hoovering up our data but as the song says, they still know nothin' 'bout us. Let's take a closer look at the state of play.

All ur social media are belong to us

Getting a visa to enter the US now involves giving up your social media details. If you're not on social media, you may have problems getting a visa since the powers that be might see this as holding out on them.

US Customs and Border Protection [have] entered a new proposal into the federal register, suggesting a new field in which persons entering the country can declare their various social media accounts and screen names. The information wouldn’t be mandatory, but the proposed field would still provide customs officials with an unprecedented window into the online life of travelers. The process already includes fingerprinting, an in-person interview, and numerous database checks. - US Customs wants to collect social media account names at the border, by Russell Brandom for The Verge

Surveillance theatre is counter-productive

This is lunacy. First of all this is a knee-jerk reaction to the San Bernadino shootings in which private messages were exchanged via Facebook. Private. Messages. Facebook will quite happily roll over and share data with the authorities. My personal policy is, "Don't put anything online, even in a private message, that you wouldn't want to go viral. Your privacy ends where the message receiver begins." So if I was plotting evil I wouldn't be doing it on Facebook or Twitter, where I live online; someone might snitch.

Secondly, smart criminals would create shadow social media accounts. They would disclose details of their respectable social media account, featuring pictures of their dinner and selfies, etc., to the border authorities leaving the "real" one for their nefarious activities. Nothing makes even the most law-abiding people more secretive than the creepy sensation of someone looking over their shoulder.

Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.
- The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (text of 1834), by Samuel Taylor Coleridge 

Jerking a knee is not the best way to respond to anything. If Orlando has taught us anything, it's that keeping people under surveillance because they tripped a switch isn't particularly effective. While it may be worth keeping tabs on individuals who make inflammatory statements, if you're not keeping a record of other complaints you won't have a detailed picture of the man who "only" beats his wife. Automated surveillance is ineffective and it's hard to predict what individuals will do. I have no problem with surveilling people if you have a warrant based on probable cause, but do it properly and take every element into account. People who are violent in one way may well be violent in others.

Automated justice - it's the future!

This is creepy. Pre-crime suspect analysis is now a thing in America. Pre-crime databases are being supplied to the police by companies hoping to turn a quick dollar based on patterns of behaviour that the system decides may result in criminal activity. They're not particularly useful; the best the Chicago one could do was compile a list of people most likely to shoot or be shot. Fifty of those people have been shot so far. There's no record of how many were prevented, presumably because the police are under no obligation to protect individuals. That's not the worst part; the eleven secret ingredients algorithms of a program called Compas are being used to determine the length of sentences based on the calculated likelihood of re-offending. The company behind Compas, Northpointe, refuses to share information abut how the Compas score is compiled. Okay, I'll take a wild guess:

$d = defendant("Sentence");

if ($d < "white") {
    echo "Maximum tariff";
} else {
    echo "Suspended sentence";

This is the trouble with assuming that everything the government touches turns to poo: you end up handing over the most essential services over to the private sector on the assumption that a for-profit service will have an incentive to provide the best service or be replaced.

This is a tool of the prison-industrial complex

Here's the problem: the prison-industrial complex in America has basically revived slavery. They've got more of an incentive to find reasons to lock people up and make them work for pennies in call centres, etc., than in accurately predicting how likely a felon is to commit crime again. The worst thing is, there is no way to hold them accountable; it would take a public outcry to get their contracts cancelled and in a me-first society that assumes you're guilty just because you've been accused of committing a crime, good luck with that. Binary politics has divided and conquered the populace. The only people likely to challenge this are most likely to be dismissed as dirty lib'ruls or socialists, etc. Justice is for pansies, or something.

Accountability? We don't need no steenking accountability!

One of the things that is supposed to mark us out as free people is the ability to Vote Them Out if "they" misbehave. Well it's easier to find out whether they are misbehaving or not if we have the tools we need to hold "them" accountable. But "they" are having none of it. I've seen two cases that made my eyes pop out.

Anti-cop-filming? There's an app for that

Apple has apparently been granted a patent for using infra-red strobe lights to stop your iPhone camera for recording. This is apparently to uphold the monopoly of the professional film crew on the rights to film a band in concert, or something, but Rick Falkvinge argues that it could be used to stop people filming the police in action. Cop cars actually do have infra-red strobe lights to turn traffic lights green when they're in a hurry. The article itself reads like a conspiracy theory until you realise that all of Rick's predictions about government overreach following hard on the heels of enforcing intellectual monopolies have actually come true. The good news is that any other company that wants to use this technology would have to pay a license fee to Apple, assuming they'd be willing to grant a licence. Expect iPhone sales to nosedive among those of us who are willing to call bad actors in uniform to account.

Jail for journalist using FOIA

In North Georgia, USA, a newspaper publisher has been indicted on a felony charge faces jail time for filing a freedom of information request. Fannin Focus publisher Mark Thomason faces jail for making FOIA requests regarding payments from the Superior Court's chief judge Brenda Weaver's office funds.

The story began in 2015 when he heard Judge Roger Bradley, the assistant district attorney, and courtroom deputies using racial slurs. When Thomason asked for the transcript, he found that it recorded only Bradley and the assistant DA using the slur. Thomason wrote an article about it, then filed suit to force the reluctant stenographer to release the audio recording. She filed a counter-claim for defamation, then a visiting judge threw Thomason's case out for lack of evidence. The stenographer dropped her case against Thomason in the belief that he would not be able to afford to pay her the sum demanded.

The FOIA was filed on the basis of the stenographer's demand to recoup attorney's fees even though Judge Bradley had already provided her with almost $16k from his operating account. To be fair, she did claim that the money was to be used to repay the public purse. However, trouble flared up when attorney Stookey filed subpoenas for evidence that the stenographer's attorneys had already been paid. This was used as evidence against Mark Thomason and his attorney Russell Stookey to suggest that they wanted to use the information to commit fraud.

Okay, two things: first of all, paying our mate's lawyer fees for a private lawsuit out of public funds is a big no-no whether she intends to pay the money back or not. Defamation is a civil, not a criminal issue. The court had no business paying out that money to the stenographer or her lawyers. She chose to file suit, then drop the case. That was up to her, however upset she was at the allegations made by Thomason. Secondly, although it's theoretically possible to commit ID fraud if you have a signature and bank account details, if any crime was committed with the details gleaned from the cheque, Thomason would have put himself straight in the frame. No, this was about proving that public funds were being used for private purposes and the judge, the DA, and the stenographer are apparently running a little fiefdom over there.

What can we do?

We need sunlight on cases like these. We need to get people talking and keep people talking. We need to be contacting our representatives and when the opportunity comes to vote them out we need to be ready to do so. The last thing I want is to live in a police state. The people in the stories listed above are discovering that it's a nightmare you never wake up from.

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