Law of Secrecy

"While all deception requires secrecy, all secrecy is not meant to deceive" - Sissela Bok

Secrecy and Military Photos

The New York Times has an interesting editorial on the secrecy surrounding military photographs from Afganistan and Iraq that, according to one source, are “worse than Abu Ghraib."  A lawsuit has been filed to have them released, and on Wednesday a federal judge determined that the government must make a separate showing of harm from the release of each individual photograph.  A 2009 law permitted a three-year exemption from the Freedom of Information Act, which would have normally required their release.  Although there may have been reasons in 2009 not to release the photographs, the passage of time changes the circumstances:

“Three years is a long time in war, the news cycle, and the international debate over how to respond to terrorism,” the judge wrote. The law was enacted during a war, but the 2012 request, essentially identical to the original, came under different circumstances. “I am aware of no impassioned plea from the prime minister of Iraq relating to the photographs made at that time,” he said.


Dodd-Frank and Whistleblowing: This is how it’s supposed to work

In a triumphant moment for the Dodd-Frank Act last week, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission delivered a whistleblower reward that demonstrated the bounty program can and will serve its intended purpose of exposing and discouraging corporate malfeasance. 

The $300K reward was the first SEC whistleblower award given to an employee serving in an auditing or compliance capacity for a private company; the exact type of whistleblower the creators of the Dodd-Frank Act intended to have the opportunity to come forward.  What’s even more significant is that the whistleblower didn’t go public until he/she first exhausted the company’s internal reporting process.  The National Law Journal reported on the SEC award’s significance:

“Individuals who perform internal audit, compliance, and legal functions for companies are on the front lines in the battle against fraud and corruption. They often are privy to the very kinds of specific, timely and credible information that can prevent an imminent fraud or stop an ongoing one,” said Sean McKessy, chief of the SEC’s Office of the Whistleblower, in a written statement.  “These individuals may be eligible for an SEC whistleblower award if their companies fail to take appropriate, timely action on information they first reported internally.”

The whistleblower reported the wrongdoing to a supervisor, then waited four months for the company to take action. When nothing happened, the whistleblower went to the SEC.

Per the Dodd-Frank Act, the agency pays whistleblowers who provide high-quality, original information that results in an SEC enforcement action with sanctions exceeding $1 million a bounty of 10 to 30 percent of the money collected.

The Next Step In Surveillance: California Legislature Embraces Drone Technology

The California state legislature approved a proposed bill on Wednesday that would permit state law enforcement agencies to deploy drone technology for citizen surveillance purposes after first obtaining a proper warrant from a state court.  The bill was passed by a 56-1 vote and now awaits endorsement by the Governor before it becomes state law.

The Los Angeles Times reported on the bill and the legislature’s rationale for their near-unanimous decision:

Assemblyman Jeff Gorell (R-Camarillo) said that the expanded use of drones by law enforcement “has changed the paradigm of what we believe to be our reasonable expectation of privacy.”

"Because of that technology … it’s incumbent upon [the Legislature] to make sure we lay down a basic framework [and] guidelines for government to use these when they’re monitoring human behavior," Gorell said in an interview Wednesday.

The bill requires the government to get a warrant to use drones for surveillance, except in cases of environmental emergencies, such as oil spills or chemical spills.

The bill was backed by the American Civil Liberties Union. Law enforcement groups were less enthused with the measure, arguing that unmanned surveillance should be treated no differently than manned surveillance. 

Three other states, including Virginia and North Carolina, have placed a moratorium on drone use by state and local agencies.

"We don’t want to do that here in California," Gorell said, adding he wants to see drone manufacturing jobs in the state.

"But if we want to attract that industry, at the same time we have to send a signal that we’re respectful and cognizant of the privacy concerns of basic Californians as a result of this proliferation of this technology," he said.

There is a strong possibility that California could set the trend for other states to follow in developing legislation that regulates the seemingly inevitable implementation of drone technology into local law enforcement practices, especially when considering that the bill had the support of one of the more nationally vocal privacy advocates, the ACLU.  (If you’re interested in seeing the current status of drone regulation in any of the states, click here.)

Survey Says: Users Are Afraid To Talk About The NSA On the Internet

According to an article posted yesterday on the Wall Street Journal website, a survey conducted last summer demonstrated that Americans were more apprehensive about conversing online about the NSA and their exposed operations than they were in a face-to-face format.  But never fear… Law of Secrecy has not and will never be intimidated!  ;-)

The survey, performed by the Pew Research Center, was created as an attempt to empirically assess the clear division between Snowden’s supporters and his critics after the fall-out from the Snowden revelations began.  It’s important to note that this study was conducted at a time when anyone who was paying attention to the situation was sitting on pins and needles to see the extent of domestic government surveillance.  Hopefully anxieties have eased a bit since then as we have yet to see the NSA come after any domestic vocal opponents of their operations.  As was reported by the WSJ:

According to the survey, 86% of respondents were willing to have an in-person conversation about the NSA, while just 42% of Facebook and Twitter users said they were comfortable posting about it. People were more willing to talk about the NSA to complete strangers at a community meeting than they were discussing the story online.

Those who were uncomfortable discussing the NSA story at all were even more hesitant about sharing their views online. Of the 14% who were unwilling to discuss the NSA story at all in person, less than 1% was willing to post about it on social media.

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The Government Search Engine of Metadata; ICREACH

The Intercept released another round of classified details concerning the behind-the-scenes operations of the NSA and their other government counterparts yesterday when they broke the story that there is an inter-governmental “Google-like” search engine enabling analysts to sift through over 850 billion metadata files of phone calls, emails, cell-phone locations, and internet chat records that have been collected via PRISM and other surveillance and data collection programs.  According to the report, which is premised on official classified documents stolen and leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013, American citizens and foreigners alike are intertwined in the harvest of information stored on the search engine’s server, which is of course only accessible to authorized members of the federal intelligence community.

According to The Intercept, the aptly named:

ICREACH has been accessible to more than 1,000 analysts at 23 U.S. government agencies that perform intelligence work, according to a 2010 memo. A planning document from 2007 lists the DEA, FBI, Central Intelligence Agency, and the Defense Intelligence Agency as core members. Information shared through ICREACH can be used to track people’s movements, map out their networks of associates, help predict future actions, and potentially reveal religious affiliations or political beliefs.

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The Next Step In Surveillance: Private Surveillance Companies For Hire

The cat’s been out of the bag with the reality of the surveillance state for a while now and big business is wasting no time in expanding the marketplace for private digital surveillance services.  Now that the surveillance technology sector has had some time to develop with the capabilities afforded by the internet, which of course has led to the offering of cheaper prices, more national governments are able to participate in this new digital surveillance arms race between states than ever before. 

Yesterday the Washington Post released an extensive article on the private surveillance industry’s campaign to sell cell-phone tracking software to numerous national governments of the world:

The technology works by exploiting an essential fact of all cellular networks: They must keep detailed, up-to-the-minute records on the locations of their customers to deliver calls and other services to them. Surveillance systems are secretly collecting these records to map people’s travels over days, weeks or longer, according to company marketing documents and experts in surveillance technology.

The world’s most powerful intelligence services, such as the National Security Agency and Britain’s GCHQ, long have used cellphone data to track targets around the globe. But experts say these new systems allow less technically advanced governments to track people in any nation — including the United States — with relative ease and precision.

Users of such technology type a phone number into a computer portal, which then collects information from the location databases maintained by cellular carriers, company documents show. In this way, the surveillance system learns which cell tower a target is currently using, revealing his or her location to within a few blocks in an urban area or a few miles in a rural one.

It is unclear which governments have acquired these tracking systems, but one industry official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share sensitive trade information, said that dozens of countries have bought or leased such technology in recent years. This rapid spread underscores how the burgeoning, multibillion-dollar surveillance industry makes advanced spying technology available worldwide.

And just to give you an idea of the how these new private surveillance companies-for-hire are marketing their products, the Post reported:

The marketing brochure for Verint’s SkyLock system suggests using it in conjunction with Verint’s IMSI catcher, called the Engage GI2. Together, they allow government agencies “to accurately pinpoint their suspect for apprehension, making it virtually impossible for targets to escape, no matter where they reside in the world.”

Verint can install SkyLock on the networks of cellular carriers if they are cooperative — something that telecommunications experts say is common in countries where carriers have close relationships with their national governments. Verint also has its own “worldwide SS7 hubs” that “are spread in various locations around the world,” says the brochure. It does not list prices for the services, though it says that Verint charges more for the ability to track targets in many far-flung countries, as opposed to only a few nearby ones.

Among the most appealing features of the system, the brochure says, is its ability to sidestep the cellular operators that sometimes protect their users’ personal information by refusing government requests or insisting on formal court orders before releasing information.

“In most cases mobile operators are not willing to cooperate with operational agencies in order to provide them the ability to gain control and manipulate the network services given to its subscribers,” the brochure says. “Verint’s SkyLock is a global geo-location solution which was designed and developed to address the limitations mentioned above, and meet operational agency requirements.”

NSA Compliance Director Gives Thanks To Snowden; Leaks Make His Job Easier

Looking past the made-for-TV events of Edward Snowden’s flight last year with the thousands of stolen classified documents, the long-standing effects of his decision are undeniable across all fronts of the ever-increasingly digitized world we live in today.  It caused a shift in the global paradigm that has changed nearly everything: the world’s governments behave together differently now that particular clandestine capabilities have been exposed, internet users are beginning to comprehend the real value of their meta-data to both the private and public sectors and now that the cat’s out of the bag, the NSA no longer has to conceal its secretive behind-the-scenes behaviors from the public it monitors.

Desensitization is a real technique and an integral part of the process to integrate systems that may initially give off a sour taste to the public palate.  Think of it as the age-old notion of the “acquired taste”.  Yesterday The Hill reported that the NSA’s compliance director, the official responsible for ensuring the NSA’s operational adherence to current U.S. law, commented on the plus-side of the public’s new-found understanding of the NSA:

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Pursued By DOJ, Swiss Banking Clients On the Move To Elite Micro City-State

Last month Law of Secrecy covered the U.S. Department of Justice’s aggressive tax evasion campaign against Swiss bankers and their clients.  (Forbes also had a recent article about secrecy and tax evasion.) By breaking down Switzerland’s historic banking secrecy laws via international treaty, the DOJ has been able to obtain the names of many tax evading citizens by first leveraging federal charges against the Swiss banks themselves. As a result of these developments, it is now being reported that the rapidly departing Swiss clients are making a short 350 mile move from Switzerland to another pseudo-Swiss tax-haven country; the miniature city-state of Monaco.

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There’s No Such Thing As Free; Why Would The Internet Be?

A recent article posted on discussed an interesting perspective of the ongoing online privacy debate from the consumer’s position; consumers should be okay with relinquishing all expectations of privacy on the net in exchange for the free digital content they utilize, for it is the free digital content which in turn harvests their data:

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