Tag Archives: FBI

Trump Admin. Now Deploying Controversial Surveillance Tool in Immigration Crackdown

Detroit News reports on “troubling” use of Stingrays in hunt for undocumented immigrant

By Andrea Germanos, staff writer for Common Dreams. Published 5-20-2017

Federal investigators’ use of Stingrays to hunt for an undocumented immigration marks “the latest sign of mission creep in domestic deployment of battlefield-strength surveillance technology,” said EFF’s Adam Schwartz. (Photo: Håkan Dahlström/flickr/cc)

As the Trump administration and Congressional Republicans continue to push for a harsher immigration crackdown, new reporting reveals that FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents employed a controversial surveillance technology known as Stingrays to hunt down undocumented immigrants.

According to Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Adam Schwartz, the The Detroit News report, based on a federal search warrant affidavit, marks “the latest sign of mission creep in domestic deployment of battlefield-strength surveillance technology.” Continue reading

Share

‘Back on Track’: Sally Yates to Testify Publicly in House Russia Probe

Former acting attorney general was originally slated to testify in March, but then-lead investigator Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) canceled the hearing

By Nadia Prupis, staff writer for Common Dreams. Published 4-21-2017

Photo: Screengrab of C-SPAN

Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates has been invited to testify publicly before Congress on the investigation into alleged Russian election meddling.

The hearing is expected to take place after May 2. Former CIA director John Brennan and former director of national intelligence James Clapper are also scheduled to testify.

Yates was originally set to appear before the House Intelligence Committee in March, but the hearing was canceled by then-lead investigator Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who has since stepped down amid accusations of ethics violations. Continue reading

Share

Feds Drop Charges in Child Porn Case to Protect Secrets

By . Published 3-9-2017 by The Anti-Media

Official FBI flag. Photo: Public domain

Washington, D.C. — In a case that’s drawn criticism from multiple angles, last week federal prosecutors in Washington state dropped all charges against a man who allegedly downloaded child pornography from a website that was infiltrated, taken over, and allegedly even improved by the FBI.

The site, Playpen, operated on a platform designed to mask the real identities of its users, as Gizmodo explained Monday:

“The site in question operated on the Tor network, a system used to anonymize web activity. The network makes use of a special web browser that conceals people’s identities and location by routing their internet connections through a complex series of computers and encrypting data in the process.” Continue reading

Share

The FBI’s New FOIA Policy Is a Big Step Backward

By Fiona Morgan. Published 2-26-2017 by Free Press

Dust off your fax machine. The FBI is planning to take a big step backward for government transparency.

As of March 1, the Bureau will no longer accept Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests via email. Anyone seeking public records from the FBI will have to use a new online portal — or send requests via fax or snail mail.

Online FOIA portals may seem like a good idea in theory, but government agencies make them difficult to use — with way too many burdensome requirements.

Continue reading

Share

Tom Hayden, ‘One of the Great 20th Century Activist Leaders,’ Dies at 76

A nation mourns a figure, described by many as ‘a leading advocate for a more just and equal society’

By Lauren McCauley, staff writer for Common Dreams. Published 10-24-2016

Tom Hayden at the LBJ Library 2016. Photo: Godwin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Tom Hayden at the LBJ Library 2016. Photo: Godwin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Progressive icon and anti-war activist turned California lawmaker Tom Hayden passed on Sunday at the age of 76.

Hayden dedicated his life to peace, social justice, and activism: from the 1960s, when he helped found the New Left and worked to organize black southern sharecroppers, to building—alongside his former wife, actress Jane Fonda—a California political machine that for decades advanced progressive candidates and measures. Continue reading

Share

Feds: We can read all your email, and you’ll never know

Clark D. Cunningham, Georgia State University

Fear of hackers reading private emails in cloud-based systems like Microsoft Outlook, Gmail or Yahoo has recently sent regular people and public officials scrambling to delete entire accounts full of messages dating back years. What we don’t expect is our own government to hack our email – but it’s happening. Federal court cases going on right now are revealing that federal officials can read all your email without your knowledge.

As a scholar and lawyer who started researching and writing about the history and meaning of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution more than 30 years ago, I immediately saw how the FBI versus Apple controversy earlier this year was bringing the founders’ fight for liberty into the 21st century. My study of that legal battle caused me to dig into the federal government’s actual practices for getting email from cloud accounts and cellphones, causing me to worry that our basic liberties are threatened.

A new type of government search

The federal government is getting access to the contents of entire email accounts by using an ancient procedure – the search warrant – with a new, sinister twist: secret court proceedings.

The earliest search warrants had a very limited purpose – authorizing entry to private premises to find and recover stolen goods. During the era of the American Revolution, British authorities abused this power to conduct dragnet searches of colonial homes and to seize people’s private papers looking for evidence of political resistance.

To prevent the new federal government from engaging in that sort of tyranny, special controls over search warrants were written into the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. But these constitutional provisions are failing to protect our personal documents if they are stored in the cloud or on our smartphones.

Fortunately, the government’s efforts are finally being made public, thanks to legal battles taken up by Apple, Microsoft and other major companies. But the feds are fighting back, using even more subversive legal tactics.

Searching in secret

To get these warrants in the first place, the feds are using the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, passed in 1986 – long before widespread use of cloud-based email and smartphones. That law allows the government to use a warrant to get electronic communications from the company providing the service – rather than the true owner of the email account, the person who uses it.

And the government then usually asks that the warrant be “sealed,” which means it won’t appear in public court records and will be hidden from you. Even worse, the law lets the government get what is called a “gag order,” a court ruling preventing the company from telling you it got a warrant for your email.

You might never know that the government has been reading all of your email – or you might find out when you get charged with a crime based on your messages.

Microsoft steps up

Much was written about Apple’s successful fight earlier this year to prevent the FBI from forcing the company to break the iPhone’s security system.

But relatively little notice has come to a similar Microsoft effort on behalf of customers that began in April 2016. The company’s suit argued that search warrants delivered to Microsoft for customers’ emails are violating regular people’s constitutional rights. (It also argued that being gagged violates Microsoft’s own First Amendment rights.)

Microsoft’s suit, filed in Seattle, says that over the course of 20 months in 2015 and 2016, it received more than 3,000 gag orders – and that more than two-thirds of the gag orders were effectively permanent, because they did not include end dates. Court documents supporting Microsoft describe thousands more gag orders issued against Google, Yahoo, Twitter and other companies. Remarkably, three former chief federal prosecutors, who collectively had authority for the Seattle region for every year from 1989 to 2009, and the retired head of the FBI’s Seattle office have also joined forces to support Microsoft’s position.

The feds get everything

This search warrant clearly spells out who the government thinks controls email accounts – the provider, not the user. U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York

It’s very difficult to get a copy of one of these search warrants, thanks to orders sealing files and gagging companies. But in another Microsoft lawsuit against the government a redacted warrant was made part of the court record. It shows how the government asks for – and receives – the power to look at all of a person’s email.

On the first page of the warrant, the cloud-based email account is clearly treated as “premises” controlled by Microsoft, not by the email account’s owner:

“An application by a federal law enforcement officer or an attorney for the government requests the search of the following … property located in the Western District of Washington, the premises known and described as the email account [REDACTED]@MSN.COM, which is controlled by Microsoft Corporation.”

The Fourth Amendment requires that a search warrant must “particularly describe the things to be seized” and there must be “probable cause” based on sworn testimony that those particular things are evidence of a crime. But this warrant orders Microsoft to turn over “the contents of all e-mails stored in the account, including copies of e-mails sent from the account.” From the day the account was opened to the date of the warrant, everything must be handed over to the feds.

The warrant orders Microsoft to turn over every email in an account – including every sent message. U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York

Reading all of it

In warrants like this, the government is deliberately not limiting itself to the constitutionally required “particular description” of the messages it’s looking for. To get away with this, it tells judges that incriminating emails can be hard to find – maybe even hidden with misleading names, dates and file attachments – so their computer forensic experts need access to the whole data base to work their magic.

If the government were serious about obeying the Constitution, when it asks for an entire email account, at least it would write into the warrant limits on its forensic analysis so only emails that are evidence of a crime could be viewed. But this Microsoft warrant says an unspecified “variety of techniques may be employed to search the seized emails,“ including “email by email review.”

The right to read every email. U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York

As I explain in a forthcoming paper, there is good reason to suspect this type of warrant is the government’s usual approach, not an exception.

Former federal computer-crimes prosecutor Paul Ohm says almost every federal computer search warrant lacks the required particularity. Another former prosecutor, Orin Kerr, who wrote the first edition of the federal manual on searching computers, agrees: “Everything can be seized. Everything can be searched.” Even some federal judges are calling attention to the problem, putting into print their objections to signing such warrants – but unfortunately most judges seem all too willing to go along.

What happens next

If Microsoft wins, then citizens will have the chance to see these search warrants and challenge the ways they violate the Constitution. But the government has come up with a clever – and sinister – argument for throwing the case out of court before it even gets started.

The government has asked the judge in the case to rule that Microsoft has no legal right to raise the Constitutional rights of its customers. Anticipating this move, the American Civil Liberties Union asked to join the lawsuit, saying it uses Outlook and wants notice if Microsoft were served with a warrant for its email.

The government’s response? The ACLU has no right to sue because it can’t prove that there has been or will be a search warrant for its email. Of course the point of the lawsuit is to protect citizens who can’t prove they are subject to a search warrant because of the secrecy of the whole process. The government’s position is that no one in America has the legal right to challenge the way prosecutors are using this law.

Far from the only risk

The government is taking a similar approch to smartphone data.

For example, in the case of U.S. v. Ravelo, pending in Newark, New Jersey, the government used a search warrant to download the entire contents of a lawyer’s personal cellphone – more than 90,000 items including text messages, emails, contact lists and photos. When the phone’s owner complained to a judge, the government argued it could look at everything (except for privileged lawyer-client communications) before the court even issued a ruling.

The federal prosecutor for New Jersey, Paul Fishman, has gone even farther, telling the judge that once the government has cloned the cellphone it gets to keep the copies it has of all 90,000 items even if the judge rules that the cellphone search violated the Constitution.

Where does this all leave us now? The judge in Ravelo is expected to issue a preliminary ruling on the feds’ arguments sometime in October. The government will be filing a final brief on its motion to dismiss the Microsoft case September 23. All Americans should be watching carefully to what happens next in these cases – the government may be already watching you without your knowledge.

The Conversation

Clark D. Cunningham, W. Lee Burge Chair in Law & Ethics; Director, National Institute for Teaching Ethics & Professionalism, Georgia State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Share

‘Quite Disturbing’: Leaked Docs Reveal How Easily FBI Can Spy on Journalists

‘The other major question here is: why are these rules secret in the first place?’

By Deirdre Fulton, staff writer for Common Dreams. Published 7-1-2016

Leaked document shows the FBI does not have to jump through a lot of hoops to get access to journalists' call data. (Photo: Roger H. Goun/flickr/cc)

Leaked document shows the FBI does not have to jump through a lot of hoops to get access to journalists’ call data. (Photo: Roger H. Goun/flickr/cc)

Newly leaked documents published by The Intercept expose just how easy it is for the FBI to spy on journalists using so-called National Security Letters (NSLs).

The classified rules, which had previously been released only in heavily redacted form, “show that the FBI imposes few constraints on itself when it bypasses the requirement to go to court and obtain subpoenas or search warrants before accessing journalists’ information,” The Intercept‘s Cora Currier wrote on Thursday. Continue reading

Share

Supreme Court Quietly Approves Rule to Give FBI ‘Sprawling’ Hacking Powers

Absent action by Congress, the rule change will go into effect in December

By Nadia Prupis, staff writer for Common Dreams. Published 4-29-2016

The rule would allow a federal judge to issue a warrant for any target using anonymity software like Tor to browse the internet. (Photo: Ben Watkin/flickr/cc)

The rule would allow a federal judge to issue a warrant for any target using anonymity software like Tor to browse the internet. (Photo: Ben Watkin/flickr/cc)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday quietly approved a rule change that would allow a federal magistrate judge to issue a search and seizure warrant for any target using anonymity software like Tor to browse the internet.

Absent action by U.S. Congress, the rule change (pdf) will go into effect in December. The FBI would then be able to search computers remotely—even if the bureau doesn’t know where that computer is located—if a user has anonymity software installed on it. Continue reading

Share

Chomsky, Snowden, Greenwald on Privacy in the Age of Surveillance

Panel discussion challenges the rhetoric that national security requires that governments can access individual communications.

By Lauren McCauley, staff writer for Common Dreams. Published 3-26-2016

Photo via Facebook

Photo via Facebook

What is privacy and what is an individual’s right to it?

That is the question that renowned linguist and MIT professor Noam Chomsky, National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden, and Intercept co-founding editor Glenn Greenwald sought to answer on Friday evening as the three (virtually) shared a stage for a panel discussion at the University of Arizona in Tuscon.

Coming amid the FBI’s public battle against Apple as well as days after the bombings in Brussels last week, which have spurred another round of calls for heightened security and surveillance, the conversation challenged the rhetoric that national security requires that governments can access individual communications. Continue reading

Share

Trying (and Trying) to Get Records From the ‘Most Transparent Administration’ Ever

I experienced firsthand the incompetence and neglect behind Obama’s failure to make good on his FOIA promises.

by Justin Elliott ProPublica.  March 11, 2016, 7 a.m.

Photo: Tony Webster from Portland, Oregon (FBI FOIA) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commonshoto

Photo: Tony Webster from Portland, Oregon (FBI FOIA) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commonshoto

Two years ago last month, I filed a public-records request to the Federal Emergency Management Agency as part of my reporting into the flawed response to Hurricane Sandy. Then, I waited.

The Freedom of Information Act requires a response within 20 business days, but agencies routinely blow that deadline. Eight months later, ProPublica and NPR published our investigation into the Sandy response, but it did not include any documents from FEMA. The agency had simply never gotten back to me.

Finally, this Feb. 10 2014 492 business days past the law’s 20-day deadline 2014 I got a curious phone call from FEMA. The agency was starting a “clean search” for the documents I asked for, because the original search “was not done properly.”

Why?

“I wish I had the answer,” the staffer told me. “There are quite a few cases that this happened to.”

Documents are the lifeblood of investigative journalism, but these problems aren’t of interest only to reporters. The Freedom of Information Act is supposed to deliver on the idea of a government “for and by the people,” whose documents are our documents. The ability to get information from the government is essential to holding the people in power accountable. This summer will mark the 50th anniversary of the law, which has been essential in disclosing the torture of detainees after 9/11, decades of misdeeds by the CIA, FBI informants who were allowed to break the law and hundreds of other stories.

President Obama himself waxed poetic about FOIA on his first full day in office in 2009, issuing a statement calling it “the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open Government.” He promised that his would be “the most transparent administration in history.”

But Obama hasn’t delivered. In fact, FOIA has been a disaster under his watch.

Newly uncovered documents (made public only through a FOIA lawsuit) show the Obama administration aggressively lobbying against reforms proposed in Congress. The Associated Press found last year that the administration had set a record for censoring or denying access to information requested under FOIA, and that the backlog of unanswered requests across the government had risen by 55 percent, to more than 200,000.

The Republican-led House Oversight and Government Reform Committee looked into the state of the public-records law and in January issued a report with a simple, devastating title: “FOIA Is Broken.”

Incredibly, it took my ProPublica colleague Michael Grabell more than seven years to get records about air marshal misconduct from the Transportation Security Administration. As he pointed out, his latest contact in the FOIA office was still in high school when Grabell filed his initial request.

After a reporter at NBC4 in Washington sought files related to the 2013 Navy Yard shooting, Navy officials actively strategized about how to thwart the request. The Navy only apologized after it mistakenly forwarded its internal email traffic to the reporter.

When a Mexican journalist asked the Drug Enforcement Administration in 2014 for files related to its role in the capture of drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the agency sent a letter back demanding $1.4 million in fees to search its records.

“There’s a leadership void that has gotten worse,” veteran FOIA lawyer Scott Hodes told me. “It’s not treated as an important thing within the administration.”

Why is the law failing so badly after all the promises about transparency? My experience and the experience of other journalists suggests the reason is twofold: incompetence and neglect.

When I probed a bit more into what had gone wrong at FEMA, the agency’s entire FOIA apparatus started to look like a Potemkin village of open government. The FOIA staff was never trained properly, a FEMA spokesman told me. Of 16 positions in the office, eight have long been vacant for reasons that are not entirely clear. The backlog of requests at FEMA has ballooned to 1,500. That’s more than double what it was less than two years ago.

Spokesman Rafael Lemaitre promised that the backlog was “frankly unacceptable to senior leadership here at FEMA, who have been aware of the problems and are taking actions to correct it.”

“Obviously the Freedom of Information Act is a very vital resource for taxpayers,” Lemaitre said. “Frankly, we haven’t done a very good job of fulfilling that promise.”

Over the past two years, whenever I periodically called or emailed for updates, agency staffers either ignored me, said their systems weren’t working or told me they didn’t have any new information.

My request outlasted the tenure of my original contact in the FOIA office. When I called 14 months into the process, I was told she had left the agency 2014 fair enough, as people change jobs all the time. But my request had apparently not been handed off to anyone else. No one seemed to know what was going on.

Last year, the federal FOIA ombudsman found that FEMA took an average of 214 days to process complex FOIA requests, the third-worst in the Department of Homeland Security. (That compares to an average processing time for complex requests of 119 days across the rest of the government.) “A lack of responsiveness prompted lawsuits that cost the agency a bunch of money,” said James Holzer, the head of the ombudsman’s office, who praised FEMA officials for at least recognizing the problem.

A hiring freeze at the agency after sequestration didn’t help matters. But officials told Holzer’s investigators last year that the eight long-vacant positions in the public records office would be filled as early as last fall. Today, those jobs remain empty. The FEMA spokesman didn’t have an explanation for what’s taking so long.

When I tried to find out whether anyone had been held responsible for the fiasco, I didn’t find much more transparency. “I cannot discuss any personnel issues, unfortunately,” the spokesman told me.

Has the agency at least set a specific goal for when it will get through its backlog? “Our target is to get these cleared as quickly as possible 2014 I don’t have a date for you.”

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.

Share