You Can’t Hide From These Prying Eyes

by Walter Brasch

     The government’s knowledge of the lives of individuals is little more than the equivalent to a children’s coloring book compared to the library that private companies have on everyone.

     Doubt that? Just open your mail any day; chances are good you’ll have more junk mail-the corporations prefer to call it “direct mail”-than anything else. Check your email; if you’re not being spammed hourly, you are probably one of the few people in the U.S. who is living in an underground bomb shelter with no access to the outside world.

     And don’t complain. You caused this.

     Americans routinely fill out myriad forms that ask all kinds of personal information. Buy an appliance-or just about anything-and some database company learns not just the name, address, and where and when the customer bought that item, but also family income, what pets the family has, and the family’s hobbies. Some “warranty” cards ask more than five dozen questions, the data coded and stored on computers accessible by junk mail advertisers.

     Although the data helps companies notify customers about product re-calls or new products, most Americans don’t know they aren’t required to fill out the cards to get warranty protection.

Answer your telephone and respond to someone who claims to be from a “marketing survey company,” and dozens of offers will soon be yours to explore.

     The marketing departments of the mass media use databases not only to identify potential subscribers, but also to identify the demographics of their own readers and viewers to potential advertisers.

     The first thing scanned at registers in most supermarkets, department stores, discount stores, drug stores, and chain stores of all kinds is the bar-coded membership card that alerts a computer to record and analyze inventory, and track each purchase a customer makes. These cards lure customers to believe they are getting special deals in exchange for giving up their privacy. At its best, it may mean special coupons from manufacturers. At its worst, it means the store sells the data to a health insurance company that raises rates because it determines the customer bought too many bags of potato chips.

     With the ubiquitous use of computers, every person who ever bought anything online, or even searched for anything online-product or information-can now be identified, their web addresses stored for use in target marketing campaigns.

     Microtargeting, essentially vacuuming every piece of data about every person, is what allows corporations, marketing departments, and sales people to find specific groups of people to add to direct mail and telemarketing campaigns.

     Certain groups won’t sell their membership lists; others, including most U.S. colleges, are all too happy to get a few hundred dollars by supplying names and demographic details to the marketing companies.

     The Republicans, using a program they labeled Voter Vault, mastered the use of the technology to give them the tools they needed to reach donors and score decisive “get out the vote” strategies in 2002 and 2004 elections. So sophisticated had been the program that they could individually pitch every household with a message crafted to that family.

     By 2006, having lost two consecutive presidential elections and having been the minority party for a decade, the Democrats caught up, creating first DataMart and then Data Warehouse.

     Two years later, all candidates for presidential office had developed and used databases, with the staff of Barack Obama having the greatest technological skill not only to use social media to get its message to the people, but also to be able to specifically target even the narrowest demographics with specific messages.

     Legally, anyone can obtain voluminous data about anyone who has ever registered to vote, owned property, sued, been sued, arrested, served in the military, been married or divorced, licensed by any governmental agency, or attended a public school. The databases are what help reporters develop stories, some exposing corrupt governmental and business practices.

     Almost every American consumer now has a Fair Isaac score. The scores are based upon dozens of reports about a person’s credit history, and are available to Equifax, Experian, and Trans-Union, the three major credit reporting companies. FICO reports that 90 percent of the largest U.S. banks use the Fair Isaac scores. About three-fourth of credit reports contain errors, with about one-fourth of all credit reports containing significant errors that could result in denial of credit, according to the California Public Interest Research Group.

     If you’re using any social medium or search engine-Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In, Google, Pinterest, or anything that is composed not of carbon atoms but bits and bytes-you have been identified.

     If my publisher wished to target audiences for my current book, Fracking Pennsylvania, she might first get a direct mail list of all environmentalists. Then a sub-set of environmentalists in Pennsylvania. Perhaps, she might also want a tighter list, so she asks for Pennsylvania environmentalists who have purchased at least five books in the past year. She could ask the direct marketing company to drill down even further and get those in select ZIP codes who have a certain income range and are members of certain societies. I suppose it’s possible to target Pennsylvania environmentalists who live in the Marcellus Shale who bought at least five books last year, have a college degree and incomes above $45,000, and drive red convertibles on Sundays. A list of all Pennsylvanians might be a few cents a name; a highly targeted list could be $1 a name.

     You’ve been warned.

       Dr. Brasch’s current book, Fracking Pennsylvania, is available atamazon.com, or your local bookstore.

Your Friendly Neighborhood Totalitarian State

by Walter Brasch

It makes no difference if Edward Snowden, who had fled to Hong Kong and revealed that the American government was spying upon American citizens, is a traitor or a hero.

Intelligence agencies from China, Russia, England, Israel, and maybe even Lichtenstein, probably already know that the National Security Administration (NSA) is collecting data of all the phone calls and emails of Americans, and linking them to conversations with foreign nationals. What is unsettling is that everything the NSA is doing is legal. Secret federal courts can issue secret warrants to agencies that maintain secret files.

Americans who have been paying attention should also know that electronic spying-it sounds better when the government says it’s data mining to prevent terrorism-has been going on at least a decade.

In 2002, the federal government disclosed Operation TIPS, the Terrorist Information and Prevention System. Dreamed up within the Department of Justice, the “spy on your mommy” nationwide program would have given, according to the Department of Justice, “millions of American truckers, letter carriers, train conductors, ship captains, utility employees, and others a formal way to report suspicious terrorist activity.” When the U.S. Postal Service refused to participate in this witch hunt, the program failed.

About the time the Department of Justice was developing TIPS, the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations developed TALON, the Threat and Local Observation Notice System. Like TIPS, TALON’s purpose was to encourage “civilians and military personnel to report on activities they consider suspicious.” The reports were “raw, non-validated” reports of “anomalous activities,” and likely to be “fragmented and incomplete,” according to a classified memo written in May 2003 by Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense. These unverified tips were then sent by “automated information systems or via e-mail attachment” to the secret Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA) office, created in December 2002, and added to an equally super secret database.

Other than the problem of Defense staff spending significant time and money on the collection and analysis of massive amounts of unverified and mostly useless data, not only wasn’t that data purged within 90 days, as promised, but subsequent investigations revealed the Department of Defense had been collecting data on persons who opposed the war in Iraq but posed no threat to national security.

More sinister than TIPS and TALON was TIAP, the Total Information Awareness Program to create an “ultra-large-scale” database of databases about individuals. The program was designed to develop a file on every American. That program was never fully funded, apparently because even Congress didn’t want the government spying on whatever it is that Congress does.

However, parts of discredited programs were quickly moved into classified status, with “need to know” stamped all over them, and then fused into new programs. Next up: the Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC). The program, under the CIA but with the input from several other federal agencies, was designed to “merge and analyze terrorist-related information collected domestically and abroad in order to form the most comprehensive possible threat picture.”

However, the inspector general of the Department of Justice revealed the program “could not ensure that the information in that database was complete and accurate.” It noted conflicting information, that some on the list were noted as “armed and dangerous” but given the lowest rating, while others with little or no history of violence were given higher ratings. The report was especially critical of the handling of data-“A lack of sufficient training, oversight and general management of the call screeners has left the activities of the call center vulnerable to procedural errors, poor data entry and untimely responses to callers.”

MATRIX, the name imposed by the acronym-happy government for the Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange, was was finally shut down in April 2005 when the federal government reluctantly stopped its funding. MATRIX was created to give local and state governments a common database that merged government and private records. Like private credit reports, MATRIX included data that was incomplete or completely wrong. Seisint, the private company that Congress showered millions of dollars upon, also collected data about ethnicity, meal requirements, and telephone calling records. Interestingly, MATRIX didn’t include records of gun ownership, which could be a far more important indicator to determine possible terrorism potential than the color of eyes of an individual, based upon driver’s license information.

The Center for Dynamic Data Analysis developed software and machine-learning algorithms that to monitor the news media, blogs, web sites, and possibly internet messages for any negative views about the United States and its leaders. The data mining program, according to the government, was also to be used “to identify members of groups who want to form a demonstration or oppose a particular event or government policy,” Publically, the government claimed only articles published by non-American media would be captured and then mined. Even if  accurate-President George W. Bush had sworn that the U.S. wasn’t routinely monitoring conversations between Americans, only to later admit he wasn’t telling the truth-numerous foreign publications include articles and RSS news feeds from American publications.

In March 2003, all airlines were required to provide U. S. Customs with electronic data of their passengers’ personal information, including ethnicity and meal requirements. After bullying 25 European Union nations, the U.S. got agreements that would yield personal data in 34 categories on every passenger who flies into or out of the United States. Three years later, the European Court of Justice ruled that the agreement between the 25-nation EU and the United States was illegal, and ordered member nations not to supply data to the United States unless changes to protect citizen rights and privacy were enacted.

The secret “No-Fly” list of March 2006 contained about 44,000 names, among them hundreds of individuals who opposed the Bush-Cheney Administration or the war in Iraq.

The federal government claims the NSA sweep has already stopped 50 potential terrorist activities. Two questions must be asked. First, could these activities had been stopped, using traditional law enforcement procedures that have already stopped hundreds of other possible terrorist events, if there was not massive surveillance? And, second, how do we even know that 50 events were stopped? After all, are we just supposed to trust the word of a government that has been acting more like a totalitarian state than a constitutional republic?

[Dr. Brasch’s book, America’s Unpatriotic Acts, was the first major book to catalogue and then destroy the government’s belief that the PATRIOTIC Act was necessary to protect American security at the expense of the Bill of Rights. His current book is Fracking Pennsylvania, which looks into the health, environmental, and economic effects of fracking. The book is available at local book stores and amazon.com]

Former Editor Sues Philadelphia Police for Constitutional Violations in Her Arrest

Editor’s note:  The owner of OpEDNews Rob Kall, is a personal friend.  John

by Walter M. Brasch

A former managing editor for the online newspaper, OpEdNews, has sued the city of Philadelphia and eight of its police officers for violating her Constitutional rights.

Cheryl Biren-Wright, Pennsauken, N.J., charges the defendants with violating her 1st, 4th, and 14th amendment rights. The civil action, filed in the U.S. District Court, Philadelphia, is based upon her arrest during a peaceful protest Sept. 12, 2009, at the Army Experience Center (AEC) in the Franklin Mills Mall.

According to the complaint, Biren-Wright, who was not a part of the demonstration but at the mall as a reporter-photographer, was arrested and charged with failure to disperse and conspiracy, second degree misdemeanors. The charges were subsequently dropped by the Philadelphia district attorney.

The Philadelphia police also arrested and charged six protestors with conspiracy and failure to disperse-Elaine Brower, 55, New York, N.Y.; Richie Marini, 35, Staten Island, N.Y.; Joan Pleune, 70, Brooklyn, N.Y.(one of the original Freedom Riders in 1961); Beverly Rice, 72, New York, N.Y.; Debra Sweet, 57, Brooklyn, N.Y.; and Sarah Wellington, 26, Piermont, N.Y. Two months after Biren-Wright’s case was dropped, the six protestors were found not guilty in Philadelphia Municipal Court.

Paul J. Hetznecker, who represented the six defendants in the criminal trial, and Biren-Wright in her civil suit, believes that police over-reaction to protestors, as well as their lack of knowledge or appreciation for Constitutional protections, may be “a systemic problem throughout the country.” Hetznecker says under Constitutional and state law, “There can not be an arbitrary and capricious decision to end the civil rights of the protestors.”

The civil suit complaint charges that police violated Biren-Wright’s First Amendment rights to “gather information . . . to cover a matter of public interest including the law enforcement activity in public places.” Actions by the police deprived her of 4th and 14th amendment rights that, according to the complaint, protect against “unreasonable search and seizure,” “loss of physical liberty,” and “freedom from excessive use of unreasonable and justified force.”

The suit lists six separate counts:

         * Abridgement of her rights under the First Amendment to observe and record news in a public place.

         * False arrest and imprisonment

         * Use of excessive force by the police.

         * False arrest under state law

         * Common Law Assault under state law

         * Failure of the City of Philadelphia to adequately train and supervise its police. The complaint charges that because of accepted practices, the defendants may have believed “that their actions would not be properly investigated by supervisory officers and that the misconduct would not be investigated or sanctioned, but would be tolerated.” The policy, according to the complaint, “demonstrates a deliberate indifference on the part of the policymakers of the City of Philadelphia, to the constitutional rights of persons within the City, and were the cause of the violations of the Plaintiff’s rights. . . .”

Named in the suit in addition to the City of Philadelphia are Lt. Dennis Konczyk, officers Tyrone Wiggins, John Logan, Robert Anderson, Donald West, William Stuski, and two unnamed John Does.

The Philadelphia Police Department refused to comment about the suit as a matter of policy regarding “issues in court,” according to Jillian Russell, Department spokesperson.

In August 2008, the Army opened the AEC, a 14,500 square foot “virtual educational facility” with dozens of video games. The Center, deliberately located near an indoor skateboard park, replaced five more traditional recruiting offices, and was designated as a two-year pilot program. The initial cost was $12 million.

Army recruiters could not actively recruit children under 17, but could talk with the teens and answer any of their questions about the Army. Among the virtual games was one in which children as young as 13 could ride a stationary Humvee and shoot a simulated M-16 rifle at life-like video images of Muslims and terrorists.

Because of the emphasis upon war, and a requirement that all persons had to sign in at the center, thus allowing the recruiters to follow-up as much as four or five years later, peace activists began speaking out against the AEC.

To counter what was quickly becoming a public relations problem, the Army sent out news releases, picked up by the mainstream media, and established a full social media campaign to explain the “benefits” of the AEC. The protests continued.

Elaine Brower, whose son was in Iraq on his third tour of duty, told OpEdNews a day after her arrest: “The AEC is giving guns to 13-year-olds, drawing them in with violent video games. As more and more Afghan civilians and U.S. military are being killed in the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, we’re saying ‘no’ to these wars. We’ve got to stop the flow of youth into the military, where they’re being used to commit war crimes in our name.”

With a police permit, and escorted by officers from Philadelphia’s Civil Affairs Unit, about 200-250 protestors-most of them middle-aged or senior citizens, many of them veterans-had come to the AEC, believing their First Amendment rights were being protected. The protest, although noisy at times, was peaceful; the counter-demonstration wasn’t.

According to the complaint, “The counter-demonstrators [members of an organization known as The Gathering of Eagles] yelled, jeered and taunted the AEC protestors. At no time did [the police] direct, or attempt to limit the First Amendment activities of the counter-demonstrators,” nor were they ever told to disperse.

Throughout the demonstration, the protestors had not given any indication that they posed any physical threat to others. However, about 45 minutes after the demonstration began, the police, under direction of Lt. Konczyk, ordered the protestors to disperse.

At that point, Biren-Wright, according to the complaint, “placed herself outside the immediate area . . . so as not to interfere with the police activity.” She continued to photograph and report on the demonstration. The complaint charges that Lt. Konczyk, “without just cause or legal justification,” directed several officers to arrest her, walking past several protestors and counter-demonstrators. She says she told the officers she was a member of the press. At no time, she says, did she participate as a demonstrator nor verbally or physically threaten anyone. The officers, says Biren-Wright, arrested her without any warning. The arresting officer’s “degree of anger-he was clearly red-faced-was inappropriate,” she recalls. The police, says Biren-Wright, “were clearly targeting me, trying to keep me from recording the demonstration and their reactions.”

One officer, says Biren-Wright, “unnecessarily twisted my arm.” Another officer seized her camera and personal items. One of the officers put plastic cuffs on her wrists “so tight that it caused significant pain, swelling and bruising, and an injury that lasted for several weeks,” according to the complaint.

Biren-Wright’s 15-year-old daughter was shopping in the mall during the protest, but had reunited with her mother shortly before the arrests. Her daughter, says Biren-Wright, “came closer upon the arrest and I told the officer she was my daughter and a minor and would be alone.” The officer, says Biren-Wright, snapped, “You should have thought of that before.” At the processing center that police had previously set up at the mall, Biren-Wright told several officers that her daughter was alone in the mall and was from out of state. “None of them did anything to ensure her safety,” she says. The daughter, unsupervised, eventually found Rob Kall, OpEdNews editor, who drove her to the jail to take her mother’s keys and then drove her home, where she spent the night alone.

Outside the mall, counter-protestors shouted obscenities as those arrested boarded the police bus. “They were standing at the door to the bus,” says Biren-Wright, “and posed a safety issue to us since we were in handcuffs.”

The six who were arrested and Biren-Wright were initially taken to the 15th District jail. Richie Marini, the lone male arrested, was kept at the district jail. The six women were transferred to the jail at the jail of the Philadelphia Police headquarters, known by locals as the “Roundhouse,” where a nurse took each woman’s vital signs and asked if there were any injuries. “I showed him my wrist and thumb that were already red and swollen” from the restrictive handcuffs, says Biren-Wright. His response, she says, was “That doesn’t count.”

Biren-Wright, along with the other five women, was held for 14 hours. At 5 a.m., she says, they were released from the “Roundhouse” onto a dark and barren street-there were no taxis anywhere near-and locked out of the police station. Although the women had cell phones, they had not been allowed to call for rides while in the jail area. Outside, they called friends, but waited until help arrived. Marini was released from the district jail later that morning.

The only reason Biren-Wright’s pictures of the demonstration survived is because she had secretly removed the memory chip during the arrest. When the camera was finally returned, “all of the settings were messed up and the lens was not replaced properly.”

The Army closed the AEC at the end of the pilot program. It had claimed that because of increased enlistments nationwide, the Center was no longer needed. It never acknowledged that the protestors and the public reaction may have been a reason for the closing.

In an unrelated case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled in October 2010 [Kelly v. Borough of Carlisle] that recording police activity in public places is protected by Constitutional guarantees. This month, the ACLU settled a case, for $48,500, in Pittsburgh when a University of Pittsburgh police officer arrested Elijah Matheny and charged him with felony violation of the state’s Wiretap Act for using a cell phone to record police activity. Matheny spent a night in jail following his arrest. [See: Matheny v. County of Allegheny, et al.] The ACLU charged that the district attorney’s office “had engaged in a pattern of erroneously advising law enforcement that audio taping police officers in public violates Pennsylvania’s Wiretap Act.” Following the Third Circuit’s decision in the Kelly case, a conviction against Matheny is expected to be overturned.

The arrests in Philadelphia, Carlisle, and Pittsburgh underscores two major problems, both prevalent throughout the country. The first problem is a lack of understanding and respect for the Constitution by a large number, although not a majority, of police officers. For that reason, all police forces and district attorneys offices, from small isolated rural communities to the largest urban departments, need to have constant education about civil rights and Constitutional guarantees-and the penalties for violating those rights.

The second major problem is inherent within the mass media. Reporters need to know how and when to challenge authority to protect their own and the public’s rights. A camera crew from the PBS “Frontline” series was at the protest, but abruptly stopped recording the demonstration after Brower was arrested and either before or during Biren-Wright’s arrest. Rob Kall later said that a member of the “Frontline” crew told him the police informed them they would be arrested if they continued to film the demonstration.

Police threats, which violate Constitutional guarantees, place a “chilling effect” upon the media to observe and record actions by public officials. Even without a direct order by a public official, reporters may do what they perceive to be what others want them to do. The media, like police and public officials, also need constant education to know when police orders are lawful and when they are not. An order to move away from a scene may be lawful. An order to stop filming a scene upon threat of arrest is not.

In federal court, in the case of Biren v. City of Philadelphia, et al., these issues, and others, will be raised. But had there been an understanding of the Constitution by the police, the case would never have gotten to the point of a federal civil suit.