Nov 16 2017

“Extreme Vetting” would be a #PreCrime #DigitalMuslimBan

Today The Identity Project joined 55 other civil rights, civil liberties, government accountability, human rights, immigrant rights, and privacy organizations in calling on the US Department of Homeland Security to abandon its Extreme Vetting Initiative.

The essential goal of the DHS Extreme Vetting Initiative is to extend the bogus “pre-crime” prediction algorithms and methods based on “big data” from suspicionless mass surveillance, already being used by the DHS and its partner agencies in the US and abroad to decide who is allowed to board airplanes, to a broader range of decisions about who is allowed to travel to, or reside or remain in, the US.

But the DHS doesn’t have any “pre-cogs”, human or robotic, to make these predictions. And prior restraint of our movements or other activities based on predictions of future criminality is not only impossible (and inherently subject to abuse by those who create the predictive and decision-making algorithms) but an affront to fundamental notions of justice, due process, and human rights.

According to a joint letter we sent today to the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, Elaine Duke:

We write to express our opposition to Immigration & Customs Enforcement’s proposed new Extreme Vetting Initiative, which aims to use automated decision-making, machine learning, and social media monitoring to assist in vetting of visa applicants and to generate leads for deportation. As it is described in ICE documents, this program would be ineffective and discriminatory. It would also pose a signal threat to freedom of speech and assembly, civil liberties, and civil and human rights. We urge the Department of Homeland Security to abandon this effort….

The goal of the Extreme Vetting Initiative is to “develop processes that determine and evaluate an applicant’s probability of becoming a positively contributing member of society as well as their ability to contribute to national interests,” using analytic capabilities including machine learning.  ICE also seeks to “develop a mechanism/methodology that allows [the agency] to assess whether an applicant intends to commit criminal or terrorist acts after entering the United States.”

In reality, as a group of prominent technologists advised in a recent letter, “no computational methods can provide reliable or objective assessments of the traits that ICE seeks to measure.” There is no definition anywhere in American law of what it means to be a “positively contributing member of society” or to “contribute to national interests,” posing a risk that ICE will exercise maximal latitude to discriminate beneath the cover of an unproven algorithm….

Confirming that ICE’s focus is on quantity rather than quality, the agency has announced that the winning vendor for the Extreme Vetting Initiative contract must “generate a minimum of 10,000 investigative leads annually” – without regard to how many leads are actually appropriate….

The Extreme Vetting Initiative will also undoubtedly chill free expression, contravening the First Amendment and international human rights, such as those contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for which the United States has registered official support, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the U.S. is a party… These risks are particularly acute in light of existing initiatives to ask travelers to identify all of their social media handles in order to obtain permission to travel to the United States….

Through the Extreme Vetting Initiative, ICE seeks to automate the process by which the U.S. government targets, finds, and forcibly removes people from our country…. But this system … risks hiding politicized, discriminatory decisions behind a veneer of objectivity – at great cost to freedom of speech, civil liberties, civil rights, and human rights.

Palantir Technologies has already become a target of criticism for its role in building tools for “extreme vetting”. (See our report from a protest outside the home of Palantir founder Peter Thiel earlier this year, and this recent 10-minute video, “Is Silicon Valley Building the Infrastructure for a Police State? New AI tools could empower the government to violate our civil liberties.“)  Now IBM, which attended a recent outreach day for Extreme Vetting Initiative contractors and has declined to distance itself from bidding to build the pre-crime program, is also being targeted by a petition asking IBM to “back up your verbal support of immigrants by publicly rejecting and denouncing the Extreme Vetting Initiative and pledge to not bid on any contract to build the tool.”

Sep 18 2017

TSA says it doesn’t know how to copy files

We’ve gotten used to delays, obstruction, and slander from TSA privacy and Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) officers. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether these result from incompetence, under-staffing, lack of diligence, mendacity, malice, or some combination of these and/or other factors.

The latest in these TSA FOIA follies is a letter we got last week from the TSA’s FOIA appeal officer, saying that the TSA doesn’t know how to copy computer files, and doesn’t know the names of any of the files on their computers or any other filesystem information or metadata about those files:

You assert that TSA should be able to reproduce digital files as bitwise copies. TSA does not maintain records in bitwise format nor can we produce records in such a format. Additionally,… the file or filesystem data or metadata from the raw format of the records are not available.

Where does this nonsense come from? Do the officials making these statements really believe them, or expect us to?

Read More

Sep 13 2017

Federal court can review the Constitutionality of Federal blacklists

A Federal judge has ruled that yes, he can review the Constitutionality of Federal blacklists (euphemistically but misleadingly labeled “watchlists”).

That should be an unsurprising finding. But “pre-crime” and predictive policing programs, including decisions to put people on blacklists that are used to control what they are and aren’t allowed to do, have largely operated in secrecy and outside the rule of law.

Rather than defending blacklisting programs or individual blacklisting decisions, the Federal government — under both Democratic and Republican administrations — has consistently argued that it should not be required to disclose, explain or defend these decisions, the identity of the decision-makers, the criteria for their decisions, or the “derogatory” information on which these decisions are purportedly based, either to the people who have been blacklisted or to the courts.

Too often, even sixteen years after 9/11/2001, courts still traumatized by memories and fears of 9/11 have acquiesced to these Executive-branch claims that the conduct of the “war on terror” is exempt from judicial review.

In this context, the decision last week by Judge Anthony Trenga of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Virginia, rejecting the government’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit by blacklisted Muslim Americans, is one of the most significant steps to date toward legal accountability for the DHS and its accomplices in the war at home against Americans secretly accused and extrajudicially sanctioned through Federal blacklisting.

The decision comes in a case brought by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) on behalf of 24 individuals and as as a class action on behalf of all those who have suffered adverse consequences as a result of arbitrarily and without due process being named on Federal blacklists (“watchlists”) . As we reported when this case was filed last year, it’s the most fundamental challenge to date to the Constitutionality of the entire scheme of DHS and FBI pre-crime blacklists based on secret administrative procedures and algorithms rather than on court orders such as criminal convictions, injunctions, or restraining orders.

Read More

Jul 20 2017

Fact-checking the FAQs on ID to fly

In May and June of 2017, several new FAQs about “requirements” for travel on common-carrier airlines were posted on TSA.gov and DHS.gov:

Statements about current and future ID “requirements” similar to those on these websites have also appeared on official signs in some airports.

It should go without saying that neither government websites nor informational signs in airports create legal rights or obligations or can be relied on as authoritative statements of the law.

Federal law is contained in the US Constitution, international treaties duly ratified by the US in accordance with the US Constitution, the US Code, and US Public Laws. Federal regulations are contained in the Code of Federal Regulations. The Freedom of Information Act requires that binding Federal agency rules, regulations, and orders of general applicability be published in the Federal Register.

If you want to know what the law says, you need to read the law, not press releases from government agencies or anyone else (including us!).

This is especially important with respect to the TSA, since the TSA website and TSA signs in airports have for years included statements about ID requirements to fly that have been disclaimed by TSA witnesses testifying under oath and by TSA lawyers arguing before Federal courts.

So what is the TSA saying now about ID to fly? Is it true? And is it legal?

The TSA’s latest public statements are more accurate than some of the agency’s previous press releases about ID to fly, and may (although we can’t really tell, given the absence of fomal proposals or published rules) accurately describe the changes the TSA intends to implement. But major questions remain about the legality of both current and possible future ID practices at TSA and contractor checkpoints at US airports.

Read More

May 23 2017

TSA reveals that “Naked American Hero” John Brennan wasn’t alone

Last week three judges of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the TSA’s administrative decision to fine “Naked American Hero” John Brennan $500 for taking off all his clothes to protest TSA’s practices and to show that he wasn’t hiding any explosives under his clothes despite a false-positive result from a TSA swab test for residue of explosives.

At the same time, the TSA revealed that Mr. Brennan was not alone: At least two other air travelers have been fined in  recent years for taking off all their clothes in response to TSA demands that they submit to “pat-down” searches for weapons and explosives.

The judges on the 9th Circuit panel claimed not to believe that viewers would understand Mr. Brennan’s symbolic speech — notwithstanding the public reaction that made clear that Mr. Brennan’s expressive intent and message were perfectly clear to those who heard about what he had done. According to thre court’s “unbpublished” (it;s actually public, but can’t be cited as precednt in future cases) opinion:

Brennan’s core contention is that stripping naked in the middle of a TSA checkpoint is expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment. But Brennan fails to carry his burden of showing that a viewer would have understood his stripping naked to be communicative. Therefore, his conduct is not protected by the First Amendment.

The TSA fine was based on the claim that Mr. Brennan “interfered” with TSA screening because the TSA stopped screening him in order to stare at, or perhaps in order to avert their eyes from, Mr. Brennan’s naked body, or diverted their attention to trying to shield other travelers from sight of him.

But the TSA never claimed that Mr. Brennan’s nakedness violated any Federal law or regulation, and the local courts dismissed the criminal charges brought against him under state and municipal law on the grounds that his nakedness was, in the circumstances, protected by Oregon law. Mr. Brennan could legally have shown up at the TSA checkpoint already naked, and the duty of the TSA would have been to allow him to proceed unless “screening” showed him to be a threat to aviation security.

TSA staff and contractors are often distracted from their duties by the appearance of the travelers they are inspecting and groping. But that’s not a lawful basis for sanctions against those travelers. Mr. Brennan is not responsible for the decision of the TSA staff to stop doing their job because of what he looked like or how he was (legally) dressed or undressed.

The court found that the TSA rule against “interfence” isn’t unconstitutionally vague, even as applied to Mr. Brennan’s entirely peaceful and nonviolent conduct:

We have long recognized that “‘interfere’ has such a clear, specific and well-known meaning as not to require more than the use of the word[] . . . in a criminal statute.” In other words, the word has a “settled legal meaning[].” And courts have often defined and applied it, but never in a way that would lead a person of ordinary intelligence to think that he or she could strip naked at a TSA checkpoint and refuse to get dressed, leading to the closure of the checkpoint.

The court’s error, of course, is the mistaken claim that it was Mr. Brennan’s actions, rather than the choice of the TSA to abandon their duties and refuse either to screen a naked man or allow him to proceed once they could see he had no concealed weapons, that “led to” the closure of the checkpoint.

The 9th Circuit was the first (and only) court to review the Constitutionality of the TSA’s administrative fine of Mr. Brennan. TSA administrative decision-makers are forbidden from considering whether the regulations, policies, and practices they enforce are legal or Constitutional.

Brennan v. TSA and DHS was fully briefed before the 9th Circuit two years ago. Earlier this year, after a long silence, the court scheduled oral argument, which was to have been held earlier this month in Portland. Then, on its own initiative and without explanation, the court cancelled the scheduled oral argument, and decided the case a few days later on the written arguments. Our best guess is that one of the three judges on the panel had questions about a draft opinion, but was persuaded or decide to withdraw them.

Mr. Brennan discussed his original protest and his thoughts on the 9th Circuit decision in a lengthy interview with Portland TV station KGW. Some excerpts:

Read More

May 10 2017

New long form proposed for (some) applicants for U.S. visas

The Department of State has requested “emergency” approval  from the Office of Management and Budget for a new questionnaire which some applicants for U.S. visas would be required to complete.

The questions on the proposed new “long form” for disfavored visa applicants would include:

  • Travel history during the last fifteen years, including source of funding for travel [how many frequent business travelers would be able to provide a complete and accurate 15-year retrospective itinerary of their travels?];
  • Address history during the last fifteen years;
  • Employment history during the last fifteen years;
  • All passport numbers and country of issuance held by the applicant [for an unspecified time period, so perhaps meaning for your entire life];
  • Names and dates of birth for all siblings;
  • Name and dates of birth for all children;
  • Names and dates of birth for all current and former spouses, or civil or domestic partners;
  • Social media platforms and identifiers, also known as handles, used during the last five years; and
  • Phone numbers and email addresses used during the last five years.

Applicants required to complete this form could include tourists and other short-stay visitors (business, visiting friend and relatives, etc.) as well as applicants for work, student, refugee, or other visas.

As with the “long form” supplemental questionnaire for U.S. citizens applying for passports, some but not all applicants for visas to visit or reside in the U.S. will be required to complete the proposed new form. The State Department says it expects to require about 65,000 people a year, or half a percent of all applicants for U.S. visas, to complete the proposed new long from.

As with the long form passport application, there are no publicly-disclosed standards or procedures for judicial review of decisions by State Department staff to require particular individuals to complete the long form. Those decisions would be “discretionary”, meaning that they would be arbitrary and could be discriminatory.

Most people would be unable to provide complete answers to some of the questions on the long from, or would inevitably leave things out or make mistakes that would provide a basis for denial of their application.  The proposed “discretionary” long form is thus a pretext for arbitrarily selective denial of entry to the U.S., at the whim of State Department staff and/or on the basis of secret pre-crime algorithms, as well as of arbitrarily selective surveillance of certain foreign citizens.

Comments on the “emergency” proposal for this new questionnaire can be submitted to the Office of Management and Budget through May 18, 2017.

Apr 14 2017

U.S. citizen stranded in South America without a passport

Imagine that you’re a U.S. citizen. You were born in the USA. You’ve never been a citizen of any other country, and you have no birthright to any other citizenship.

Now imagine that you are abroad long enough that your passport begins to approach its expiration date. Naturally, you apply to renew it, leaving plenty of time. You have to surrender your old passport with the renewal application, but of course you expect to get your new passport shortly.

Now try to imagine that the State Department puts your passport renewal application into limbo — for almost three years (and still counting). Your application for a new passport is neither granted nor denied, so there is no explicit “decision” to appeal administratively or challenge in court.

Without a passport, you are trapped in whatever country you happened to be in when you applied to renew your passport. No other country is likely to let you in without a passport, nor will any airline let you on an international flight without a passport — not even to return to the USA.

If your visa or permission to remain in that country as a foreigner expires, or if you get into any situation in which you are you are required to show your passport, you are liable to be arrested and thrown into detention or deportation proceedings.

You keep going back to the U.S. Consulate to find out what is happening with your passport application. They tell you they don’t know. They suggest that you go to the end of the line by withdrawing your still-pending application, and starting over — putting your new application at the back of the years-long queue.

Eventually they get tired of putting you off, and order you — a native born sole U.S. citizen — to leave the U.S. Consulate, and not to darken their door again under pain of arrest. Arrest for what violation of what country’s laws, they don’t say.

You try to find a lawyer to hire, but this is outside the expertise or experience of any U.S. lawyer, and none wants to take on your case.

Is this a realistic scenario? Yes.

We’ve heard from more than one person in this situation — and not just the Yemeni-Americans we wrote about a few years ago.

Meet Daniel Bruno, man without a passport:

I was born in Manhattan…. I have a birth certificate…

In May of 2014, I walked into the US Embassy in Buenos Aires with my perfectly valid US passport that was due to expire in six months. I filled out the renewal forms, paid the fees, was interviewed and dismissed by Vice Consul Creaghe. I never had a US passport again because they would not renew it.There is, of course, much more to this story,… but the bottom line is that according to them, Americans have no right to a passport, no right to a nationality document and no right to return to the US… and I know this is illegal.

BTW, let me mention that I’m not wanted for a crime, back taxes, child support, etc….

I am actively seeking constitutional and civil rights lawyers who want to help me defend the rights of all of us.

We’ve met Daniel Bruno in person, and all of the documentation we’ve seen — both from him and from the State Department in response to a Privacy Act and FOIA request we helped him file — supports his account of his bureaucratic ordeal. (The State Department has provided only a partial response, which does not yet include any of the records from the consulate in Buenos Aires.) Is Mr. Bruno now an expatriate? Or has he been effectively exiled by the USA?

We aren’t able to represent Mr. Bruno. But if you are, or you know a lawyer who is, we’ll be happy to put you in touch.

Mar 15 2017

Palantir, Peter Thiel, Big Data, and the DHS

San Francisco and Silicon Valley are among the centers of opposition to President Trump and his fascism, especially as it relates to restrictions on movement, border controls, immigration, and asylum.

Bay Area technology companies and their better-paid classes of employees like to think of themselves as building a better world that reflects the distinctive values that have attracted dreamers and futurists to this region  from across the country and around the world. But some of these companies are key developers and providers of “big data” tools for the opposite sort of “Brave New World“.

On Saturday, Edward Hasbrouck of the Identity Project was invited to speak to an ad hoc group of picketers outside the Pacific Heights mansion of Palantir Technologies founder and Trump supporter Peter Thiel (photo gallery from the SF Chronicle, video clip from KGO-TV; more photos from the East Bay Express).

As Anna Weiner reported in the New Yorker (“Why Protesters Gathered Outside Peter Thiel’s Mansion This Weekend“):

David Campos, a former member of the San Francisco board of supervisors, who emigrated from Guatemala, in 1985, stood on the brick stoop and raised a megaphone. “The reason we’re here is to call upon the people who are complicit in what Trump is trying to do,” he said. Clark echoed the sentiment. “If your company is complicit, it is time to fight that,” she said. Trauss, when it was her turn, addressed Thiel, wherever he was. “What happened to being a libertarian?” she asked. “What happened to freedom of movement for labor?”

Edward Hasbrouck, a consultant with the Identity Project, a civil-liberties group, took the stand, wearing a furry pink tiger-striped pussyhat. “The banality of evil today is the person sitting in a cubicle in San Francisco, or in Silicon Valley, building the tools of digital fascism that are being used by those in Washington,” he said. “We’ve been hearing back that there are a fair number of people at Palantir who are working really hard at convincing themselves that they’re not playing a role — they’re not the ones out on the street putting the cuffs on people. They’re not really responsible, even though they’re the ones who are building the technology that makes that possible.”

It’s easy to rationalize the creation of technological tools by saying that they can used for good as well as evil. But you can’t separate the work of tool-making from the ways those tools are being used. Palantir workers’ claims to “neutrality” resemble the claims made in defense of IBM and Polaroid and when they were making and selling “general purpose” computers, cameras, and ID-badge making machines to the South African government in the 1970s. None of this technology and equipment was inherently evil. But in South Africa, it was being used to administer the apartheid system of passbooks and permissions for travel, work, and residence.

The same goes for “big data” today. To understand what’s wrong with the work being done by Palantir for the US Department of Homeland Security, it’s necessary to look not just at what tools Palantir is building but at how and by whom they will be used; not just at the data tools but at the datasets to which they are applied, the algorithms they use, and the outcomes they are used to determine.

Read More

Jan 20 2017

Inspector General: TSA uses secrecy to avoid embarrassment

A report on the security of TSA operational IT and communications systems released last month by the DHS Office of the Inspector General (OIG) is prefaced with a scathing critique of the redactions demanded by the TSA in the censored public version of the report.

The OIG report found a pervasive lack of basic security measures and consciousness at TSA airport facilities: doors propped open or with locks taped off, unmonitored entrances, lack of logs of physical access to communication nodes and servers, lack of redundancy, etc.

But the TSA tried to keep the OIG from reporting on even those problems that at already been publicly reported, after TSA review and permission, in earlier OIG reports or other pages of the same report. The real point of the TSA’s censorship is not security but avoidance of public and Congressional debate and oversight.

Here’s what the DHS’s own internal auditor reported:

I must lodge an objection regarding the way that TSA has handled information in the report it considered Sensitive Security Information (SSI). Specifically, we issued the draft report, Summary Report on Audits of Security Controls for TSA Information Technology Systems at Airports, to the Department on September 16, 2016.

[W]e asked for agency comments, including a sensitivity review, within 30 days of receipt of the draft. On October 7, 2016, the Chief of the SSI Program provided the results of its sensitivity review, marking as SSI various passages in the report. The redactions are unjustifiable and redact information that had been publicly disclosed in previous Office of Inspector General (OIG) reports. I am challenging TSA’s proposed redactions to our summary report….

I can only conclude that TSA is abusing its stewardship of the SSI program. None of these redactions will make us safer and simply highlight the inconsistent and arbitrary nature of decisions that TSA makes regarding SSI information. This episode is more evidence that TSA cannot be trusted to administer the program in a reasonable manner.

This problem is well-documented. In addition to my previous objection to the handling of one of our reports, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in 2014 issued a bipartisan staff report finding that TSA had engaged in a pattern of improperly designating certain information as SSI in order to avoid its public release because of agency embarrassment and hostility to Congressional oversight.

Read More

Jan 09 2017

IDP comments on TSA proposal to require ID to fly

Today the Identity Project and the Cyber Privacy Project filed comments with the Transportation Security Administration opposing a stealthy TSA proposal to start requiring ID to fly.

The TSA has long harassed people who try to fly without being required to show their “Papers, Please!” at TSA checkpoints.

But the TSA’s official position in court has always been that ID is not required to fly: “You don’t have to show ID to fly. You can fly without ID. We have a procedure for that.”

You can fly without ID, if you (1) fill out and sign the obscure TSA Form 415, (2) satisfy the TSA with your answers to a bunch of questions about what’s the file about you obtained by the TSA from the commercial data broker Accurint, and (3) submit to more intrusive than standard search (“secondary screening”) as a “selectee”.

That’s the way it is, and that’s the way it’s been for years.

Now, as we reported in November of last year, the TSA is contemplating a new pattern and practice of preventing anyone from passing through a TSA checkpoint or getting on an airline flight unless either  they have ID the TSA deems acceptable, or they reside in a state that the TSA deems sufficiently compliant with the REAL-ID Act.

Read More