Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Did US Government Agencies spend over 20 million USD on Bogus Software for Counter-Terrorism?

Eric Lichtblau and James Risen of the New York Times report that various US agencies spent a total exceeding 20 million USD between 2002 and 2009 for phony counter-terrorism technologies linked to a California computer programmer. Among the things which the programmer allegedly claimed to be able to do were "find terrorist plots hidden in broadcasts of the Arab network Al Jazeera; identify terrorists from Predator drone videos; and detect noise from hostile submarines." Reportedly, the technology provided the basis for the diversion and grounding of several US-bound flights in 2003. The story is available here in the Sydney Morning Herald. The news follows on charges from Senator Bernie Sanders that, between 2007 and 2009, the US Defense Department awarded hundreds of billions of US dollars to companies involved in fraud. Sen. Sanders’ assertion was based on a Pentagon report released in January.

Friday, February 18, 2011

UK citizen denied travel from Canada to UK due to inclusion on US no-fly list

Canada’s Star reports that a UK citizen has been unable to fly home to Sheffield from Toronto because his name is on the US no-fly list. After being told he couldn’t board an Air Transat flight, he tried both Air Canada and British Airways. But both carriers refused to take him, according to the story. The Star states: “Airlines that operate from Canada have been known to reject passengers whose names are on the U.S. no-fly list. That's because many flights pass over American airspace or may be forced to land at a U.S. airport in the event of an emergency.“ Application of the US no-fly list to flights originating from Canada but that do not land anywhere in US territory has been “long-standing” according to the paper. The Star also notes that a bill is currently before the Canadian Parliament that would permit Canadian air carriers to transmit passenger information for the US Secure Flight passenger screening program.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Petition for Rehearing of Maynard GPS Case Denied

The petition for rehearing the GPS issues from the DC Maynard case was denied this past November.

It was a close decision with 4 of the 9 judges dissenting. Two dissenting opinions were issued. The first, drafted by Chief Judge Sentelle and also signed by Judges Henderson, Brown, and Kavanaugh, argued that Maynard was not distinguishable from the Knotts case, and therefore there was no reason to have decided Maynard differently than Knotts. The opinion also took issue with the theory that aggregation of information could amount to violation of the Fourth Amendment, which the original decision appeared to promote. It expressed concern that this line of reasoning would mean that other forms of surveillance—including personally conducted visual surveillance—could be held to violate the Fourth Amendment when done on a prolonged basis. Citing an opinion from the Seventh Circuit, it also suggested that GPS tracking should perhaps not even be considered a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.

The second dissenting opinion, drafted by Judge Kavanaugh, pointed out that the appellant had also asserted a Fourth Amendment violation on the basis of the interference with personal property through the installation of the GPS tracking device on the appellant’s automobile. Thus, Judge Kavanaugh opined that a rehearing was additionally warranted in order to adjudicate this question.

The order, a concurring opinion, and the two dissenting opinions are available here thanks to

Friday, January 7, 2011

Control Orders to be Scrapped

From BBC News: The UK Prime Minister has announced that the controversial 'Control Order' measure needs to be replaced. The statement follows mounting speculation over an alleged 'power struggle' in the Coalition - an allegation that Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has denied this morning.

The Coalition Government has received praise for is being widely reported as a progressive move. However, the question of what precisely they are to be replaced with remains unresolved - a fact reported with suspicion by liberals and hope by conservatives. The Telegraph's Benedict Brogan, a conservative journalist so close to Cameron some have identified him as a potential replacement for Andy Coulson, has taken to complementing Clegg's hardheaded realism in government:

As with tuition fees, spending cuts and much else, Mr Clegg has discovered with control orders that the realities of government appear much starker from the inside. What I find striking is the effort Mr Cameron is making already to ease his deputy past what will be a difficult moment when it becomes clear – as I believe it will – that control orders have survived the review largely unscathed. The Prime Minister has decreed that he will not accept a compromise that makes it easier for the eight currently held, and any others in future, to do harm. He wants to make it possible for Mr Clegg to agree.

Actually, the Deputy Prime Minister does. This is what we must start giving him credit for, and is perhaps the most significant development of the whole affair: we are learning more about Mr Clegg’s successful transformation from a politician of opposition to a politician of government. Mr Clegg can say that he has gone from
the easy life of an Opposition Liberal to a Government Liberal. He has been confronted with some nasty choices that have left some of his colleagues and many of his supporters weak at the knees, and he has compromised where necessary in the interest of taking the right decision. In government he has discovered the facts, and his views have changed accordingly. It may look painful now, but his bet is that voters will reward him for it in 2015.

Such generosity may be an indication that the government is anticipating another politically difficult compromise for Nick Clegg.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Increasing Controversy with Introduction of New Pat-Down Procedures for US Airline Travel

When the US deployed backscatter x-ray and millimeter wave scanners, travellers were given the choice to opt for a physical pat-down instead of going through the scanner. Now, the TSA has introduced new, more invasive pat-down procedures that involve exploring around breasts and genitals and between the buttocks (See for instance this particularly graphic account as well as this account reportedly from author Erin Chase). Some early reports speculated that the new measures were introduced in order to intimidate those who would otherwise choose the pat-down into deciding that maybe the scanners aren’t that bad. Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic has stated that TSA personnel explicitly admitted that that was the reason behind the new policy. John Pistole, Administrator of the TSA, who was called before the US Senate Commerce Committee this week, suggested that the new procedures are in response to covert testing of the old pat-down method which indicated it wasn’t “thorough” enough.

Meanwhile, concerns about the health effects of the scanners continue. Four scientists affiliated with the University of California at San Francisco drafted an open letter last spring to President Obama’s Assistant for Science and Technology outlining their concerns with the backscatter scanners. They argue that official assessments of the health impact from backscatter radiation may underestimate the potential effects of the low-levels of dosage that the scanners emit since they are based on whole body exposure, whereas the scanners would concentrate all radiation in the skin. Additionally, they express concern that certain groups or individuals may be particularly vulnerable to the increased radiation exposure, and they decry the failure to publish key data that would permit independent assessment of the health risks. Both the Allied Pilots Association and the US Airline Pilots Association have advised their members not to go through the scanners. The US Airline Pilots Association further notes that experiences with the new “enhanced” pat-down procedures have involved “a wide range of possibilities … and the results can be devastating.” Others have more general objections to both the scanner/ pat-down procedures. Two commercial pilots have even filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security citing Fourth Amendment violations. A number of State legislators in New Jersey have objected to the current screening regime and have introduced resolutions calling on the TSA to reconsider its procedures. Additionally, one private individual is calling for a national “opt-out” day to stage a protest.