Here’s a recent LifeHacker article that may be well received: a manual on how to turn off the “read receipt” feature in some of the most popular apps, including What’s App. And yes, that’s another one up for privacy.
Question: If the NSA managed to threaten and make Internet and technology giants like Yahoo, Google, Apple, Facebook, etc to hand over our metadata, who else could they target?
The US Postal Service?
And why not – since the information like names, addresses and postmark dates of both the senders and recipients conveniently splashed on the package covers could provide valuable investigative leads to law enforcement agencies?
As it turned out, the USPS Office of Inspector General (OIG) — the internal watchdog of the postal service – found that “USPS captured information from the outside of about 49,000 pieces of consumer mail in 2013 and turned much of it over to law enforcement organizations throughout the country, unbeknownst to the intended senders and recipients” – see full story below.
The US Postal Service has been quietly surveilling more mail than anyone thought
Program captured information from the outside of 49,000 pieces of mail in 2013 alone, sharing it with law enforcement agents
By Carl Franzen on October 28, 2014 02:15 pm
Snail mail is growing steadily less popular thanks to the internet, but people in the US still send lots of it every year — over 158 billion pieces of mail were handled by the US Postal Service in 2013 alone. As it turns out, the USPS has also been quietly spying on way more of the mail passing through its doors than previously acknowledged. A report from the agency’s internal watchdog — the USPS Office of Inspector General (OIG) — found that USPS captured information from the outside of about 49,000 pieces of consumer mail in 2013 and turned much of it over to law enforcement organizations throughout the country, unbeknownst to the intended senders and recipients. This information reportedly did not include the contents of letters and packages, but rather was limited to the information appearing only on the exterior, such as names, addresses, and postmark dates.
The report on the USPS information capturing program, called “mail covers,” was initially published to little fanfare over the summer and subsequently reported on by Politico, but is getting more attention now with an article appearing today in The New York Times that includes additional details.
First some background: the mail covers program is hardly new, it’s been in existence for over a hundred years, as The Times notes. It’s also not as invasive as a full search warrant for the contents of mail, which the USPS also grants (although only for federal search warrants; state search warrants aren’t accepted by the agency). In a guide for law enforcement agencies, the USPS explains exactly how the program works: a police officer/law enforcement agent needs to be already conducting an investigation into a suspected felony and have the names and addresses for their intended surveillance targets. The officer must send this information to the USPS through the mail or provide it verbally (in person or over the phone), along with a reason why the mail cover is needed. Then the USPS will begin capturing the information from the exterior of all the targets’ incoming and outgoing mail for up to 30 days (although extensions are available). The USPS says that “information from a mail cover often provides valuable investigative leads,” but adds that it “is confidential and should be restricted to those persons who are participating in the investigation.”
However, as the OIG report found, there are numerous problems with the way the USPS has been running the mail covers program. For starters, the USPS has a mail cover app that apparently doesn’t work very well and is blamed for the agency continuing to capture information from the mail of 928 targets even after the surveillance period was supposed to have ended. The USPS also appears to have started mail cover surveillance on targets without sufficient justification from law enforcement as to why it was needed, and some USPS employees didn’t even keep the written justification on file like they were supposed to. And in a further failure of duty, several mail covers weren’t started on time. Perhaps most troubling of all, the USPS doesn’t appear to have been accurately reporting the total number of mail covers in its official records provided to the Times under Freedom of Information Act requests, which show only 100,000 total requests for mail surveillance between 2001 and 2012 (an average of 8,000 a year, way fewer than the 49,000 mail covers acknowledged in the OIG report). The USPS said it agreed with the findings of the OIG report and would work to implement changes, but for an agency already struggling with how to move into the future, the findings are hardly good news.
Here’s an interesting story from BuzzFeed about a “little-noticed” court ruling from the US Justice Department – that the government has the right to impersonate someone’s identity, create a phony Facebook account in that person’s name, post racy photos found on that person’s seized phone – all without that person’s knowledge – in order to reach out to suspected criminals.
The world is still coming to grips with the snooping of personal information by the NSA, GCHQ and the likes in this post-Snowden era. But to commandeer one’s identity, without one’s knowledge, to catch criminals (or terrorists for that matter)? Has that gone too far, endangering one’s life?
(Btw check out this article on how to detect fake Facebook profiles.)
Government Set Up A Fake Facebook Page In This Woman’s Name
A DEA agent commandeered a woman’s identity, created a phony Facebook account in her name, and posted racy photos he found on her seized cell phone. The government said he had the right to do that.
Chris Hamby BuzzFeed Staff
Posted on Oct. 7, 2014, at 7:16 a.m.
The Justice Department is claiming, in a little-noticed court filing, that a federal agent had the right to impersonate a young woman online by creating a Facebook page in her name without her knowledge. Government lawyers also are defending the agent’s right to scour the woman’s seized cellphone and to post photographs — including racy pictures of her and even one of her young son and niece — to the phony social media account, which the agent was using to communicate with suspected criminals.
The woman, Sondra Arquiett, who then went by the name Sondra Prince, first learned her identity had been commandeered in 2010 when a friend asked about the pictures she was posting on her Facebook page. There she was, for anyone with an account to see — posing on the hood of a BMW, legs spread, or, in another, wearing only skimpy attire. She was surprised; she hadn’t even set up a Facebook page.
The account was actually set up by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration special agent Timothy Sinnigen.
Not long before, law enforcement officers had arrested Arquiett, alleging she was part of a drug ring. A judge, weighing evidence that the single mom was a bit player who accepted responsibility, ultimately sentenced Arquiett to probation. But while she was awaiting trial, Sinnigen created the fake Facebook page using Arquiett’s real name, posted photos from her seized cell phone, and communicated with at least one wanted fugitive — all without her knowledge.
The Justice Department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., referred all questions to the DEA, which then declined to answer questions and, in turn, referred inquiries to the local U.S. attorney’s office in Albany, New York. That office did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
A Facebook spokesman declined to comment on the case. The site’s “Community Standards” say, “Claiming to be another person, creating a false presence for an organization, or creating multiple accounts undermines community and violates Facebook’s terms.” The spokesman said there is no exception to this policy for law enforcement.
Meanwhile, the bogus Facebook page remains accessible to the public, BuzzFeed News found.
Leading privacy experts told BuzzFeed News they found the case disturbing. “It reeks of misrepresentation, fraud, and invasion of privacy,” said Anita L. Allen, a professor at University of Pennsylvania Law School.
The experts also agreed that the case raises novel legal and ethical questions. There is a long tradition of deceptive practices by police that are legal, they noted. For example, officers assume a false identity to go undercover. “What’s different here,” said Ryan Calo, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law, is that the agent assumed the identity of a real person without her explicit consent.
“The technologies we have now are enabling all sorts of new uses,” said Neil Richards, a professor at the Washington University School of Law. “There are a whole bunch of new things that are possible, and we don’t have rules for them yet.”
The DEA’s actions might never have come to light if Arquiett, now 28, hadn’t sued Sinnigen, accusing him in federal district court in Syracuse, New York, of violating her privacy and placing her in danger.
In a court filing, a U.S. attorney acknowledges that, unbeknownst to Arquiett, Sinnigen created the fake Facebook account, posed as her, posted photos, sent a friend request to a fugitive, accepted other friend requests, and used the account “for a legitimate law enforcement purpose.”
The government’s response lays out an argument justifying Sinnigen’s actions: “Defendants admit that Plaintiff did not give express permission for the use of photographs contained on her phone on an undercover Facebook page, but state the Plaintiff implicitly consented by granting access to the information stored in her cell phone and by consenting to the use of that information to aid in an ongoing criminal investigations [sic].”
That argument is problematic, according to privacy experts. “I may allow someone to come into my home and search,” said Allen, of the University of Pennsylvania, “but that doesn’t mean they can take the photos from my coffee table and post them online.”
“I cannot imagine she thought that this would be a use that she consented to,” the University of Washington’s Calo said.
“That’s a dangerous expansion of the idea of consent, particularly given the amount of information on people’s cell phones,” said Elizabeth Joh, a professor at the University of California, Davis, School of Law.
The government’s court filing confirms that Sinnigen posted a photo of Arquiett “wearing either a two-piece bathing suit or a bra and underwear,” but denies “the characterization of the photograph as suggestive.”
This picture is no longer on the Facebook page, but others are. An album called “Sosa,” her nickname, shows her in a strapless shirt and large hoop earrings or, in another, lying face-down on the hood of the BMW, legs kicked up behind her. “At least I still have this car!” reads a comment supposedly posted by her.
The DOJ also acknowledges that Sinnigen posted photos of Arquiett’s son and niece, who were then clearly young children.
Arquiett’s current attorneys declined requests to interview her. But court documents tell much of her story.
She was arrested in July 2010 and accused of participating in a conspiracy to distribute cocaine, an offense that could carry up to a life sentence. She pled guilty in February 2011, and, in a court filing, federal prosecutors recommended a reduced sentence, noting that she was not a significant player in the conspiracy and had promptly accepted responsibility.
Arquiett grew up in Watertown, New York, according to a motion on sentencing by her attorney in her criminal case. Her father was imprisoned when she was an infant. Her mother was an alcoholic and drug user, and her stepfather abused both Arquiett and her mother.
By 2008, Arquiett was dating Jermaine Branford, who authorities believed to be the head of a drug trafficking ring, the criminal complaint against Arquiett says. He also physically abused her, according to the sentencing motion her lawyer filed.
The government accused Arquiett of allowing Branford and his associates to process and store cocaine in her apartment and helping them contact other members of the drug ring and arrange transactions. Branford later pled guilty in federal court to conspiracy to distribute cocaine and received a sentence of almost 16 years.
Arquiett’s lawyer argued that Branford and his crew took advantage of her vulnerabilities. “To her, because they ‘took care’ of her, she considered them like family,” attorney Kimberly Zimmer wrote. “In fact, they preyed upon and used her.”
Arquiett, Zimmer wrote, wasn’t paid like other members of the drug ring, just given money on occasion to buy gas or other items. “At the time, although she knew that her co-defendants were distributing drugs and that she was helping them to do so, she considered the things that she did for Branford and the other co-defendants as ‘favors,’ ” Zimmer wrote.
Zimmer also noted Sinnigen’s actions. “Ms. Arquiett never intended for any of the pictures on her phone to be displayed publicly, let alone on Facebook, which has more than 800 million active users,” she wrote in the motion addressing sentencing. “More disturbing than the fact that the DEA Agents posted a picture of her in her underwear and bra is the fact that the DEA agents posted a picture of her young son and young niece in connection with that Facebook account, which the DEA agents later claim was used for legitimate law enforcement purposes, that is, to have contact with individuals involved in narcotics distribution.”
Taking all of this into account, a judge sentenced Arquiett to five years of probation, including six months of weekend incarceration and six months of home detention. This March, a probation officer certified that she had complied with the terms of her sentence and terminated her probation.
From China with Love
It’s the one year anniversary of what is now known as the Snowden revelations, which appeared on June 5 and June 9 when The Guardian broke news of classified National Security Agency documents and Edward Snowden revealed himself in Hong Kong as the source of those leaks.
There is still much to decipher from the chronology of events in the aftermath and the sudden global awakening to the end of privacy. Among the impacts on the personal, business and political fronts, one interesting salient feature is the hypocritical rhetorical spats between the US and China in recent weeks, which could set the undertone for US-Sino relations for years to come.
Snowden said his biggest fear is that nothing would change following his bold decision a year ago.
You can find the entire column here.
NSA Snooping Compromises the Cloud Computing Industry
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg complained last week that trust in social networks and Internet companies has dived ever since cyber snooping and spying activities by the US National Security Agency began to make global headlines earlier this year.
It is no surprise. In fact, as fugitive former NSA operative Edward Snowden pointed out, the encryption system adopted by the International Organization for Standardization and its 163 member countries were actually written by the NSA, convincing proof that online platforms being used by Internet companies and the commercial world, including banks, could in fact be easily compromised by the NSA.
In other words, the NSA designed their own secret back door into the global encryption system for their convenience. So until the encryption system has been overhauled and taken away from NSA’s control, no server and no cloud service provider is secure enough to be entrusted with any confidential data.
So why then are blindly trusting companies still moving ever more data into the cloud and onto servers, where online access to highly confidential information related to clients, customers, employees, deals, business plans and performances, etc., is available to the US snoops?
You can find the entire column here.
Take your pick: Edward Snowden, Internet and phone service providers, or just everybody?
The furor over the past week about how US intelligence agencies like the National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have for years scooped up massive loads of private communications data raises one critical and distressing question.
Who, worldwide and in the US, are the general public supposed to trust now that it seems all forms of digital and cyber communications risk being read by the American authorities? The Americans, it seems, don’t believe it’s that big a deal. By 62-34, according to the latest poll by Pew Research and the Washington Post, they say it’s more important to investigate the threats than protect their privacy. But what about the rest of the world?
The immediate acknowledgement, rather than point blank denial, of the massive clandestine eavesdropping programs is no doubt alarming even for those long suspicious of such covert undertakings. But the more disturbing part is that the official response amounts to plain outright lies.
Please read this entire Opinion Column here.
The Security Assault on Social Networks
Forget hacking. It works but it’s illegal.
Big data mining is the future of cyber espionage. It is not illegal as long as the data is open source and in the public domain. And all that data on “open” social networking Web sites are most vulnerable.
Two recent commercially developed software packages could soon be giving your government and employer and possibly anyone else who is interested – ways to spy on you like never before, including monitoring your words, your movements and even your plans now and into the future.
Looking back at 2010: A Very Social World
The world has changed. More than ever before, it is dominated by two opposing forces: the compulsion to share information and the need to control it. The year 2010 can claim to have a pivotal spot in the technological history of mankind, though not evidently for the better.
On the eve of the New Year, I began to wonder what some of the most significant world events were and which of these stood out. How could they further have an impact on a world already paranoid about privacy and national security on one hand, and obsessed with the advancement of techno-devices on the other?
The WikiLeaks headlines obviously top the list on a global scale, followed by the Google pullout from China, which left its mark on the world of corporate espionage. Third is the pressure exerted on the Canadian company Research In Motion (RIM) to hand over its Blackberry encryption to several governments.
These three events signify a paradigm shift in the gathering and sharing of information… (Read the entire column here and there).