NSA, DEA, IRS Lie About Fact That Americans Are Routinely Spied On By Our Government

Jennifer Granick and Chris Jon Sprigman shred the Obama administration’s assurances on NSA surveillance:

The Obama Administration repeatedly has assured us that the NSA does not collect the private information of ordinary Americans. Those statements simply are not true. We now know that the agency regularly intercepts and inspects Americans’ phone calls, emails, and other communications, and it shares this information with other federal agencies that use it to investigate drug trafficking and tax evasion. Worse, DEA and IRS agents are told to lie to judges and defense attorneys about their use of NSA data, and about the very existence of the SOD, and to make up stories about how these investigations started so that no one will know information is coming from the NSA’s top secret surveillance programs.

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SF Weekly on Central Subway: “The Canary is Dead”

Joe Eskenazi of SF Weekly blasts the SFMTA’s Chinatown Central Subway project as a budget-busting (and foot-busting) nightmare:

A map and chart obtained from Muni via a public records request breaks down this journey into what may well be the world’s longest transfer — from Union Square/Market Street to Powell… This trip, Muni calculated, will take an able-bodied person seven minutes and six seconds.

The one piece of the project that has come in under-budget? The art in the proposed subway tunnel’s concourses. Don’t celebrate too loudly, though, until you hear the reason why.

Eskenazi continues:

Finding artists to decorate the Central Subway project has been a project of its own. In 2011, a furor erupted when it was revealed that sculptor Tom Otterness — recipient of a $750,000 contract to create art for San Francisco General Hospital and the Central Subway — shot a dog to death on film as a work of “art” in 1977…

In San Francisco, you can ram through a logistically nightmarish transit project of questionable worth even as the estimated ridership and price tags cross each other headed in the wrong directions. But you’re not going to decorate it with the work of someone who did something awful to a dog in the 1970s.

Eskenazi’s piece is a fantastic read, and a great overall analysis of the sad state of urban politics in San Francisco.

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My Response to Rand Paul’s Anti-Abortion Push

Earlier today, Rand Paul sent a form letter from what he’s calling the ‘Pro-Life Alliance’. I found the letter so alarming that I had to publicize its existence more widely and share my response.

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The Metadata Surveillance State

The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald broke a massive story this week by publishing a blatantly unconstitutional, secret court order that directed Verizon Wireless to disclose daily records of every phone call made by every single one of its customers. The administration has responded, claiming that it has the need and the right to monitor everything you do for no reason at all, so long as the government’s own secret courts agree it might prevent a terrorist attack. A lot of the reporting since has focused on the distinction between phone records (“metadata”) and calls themselves (“content”). That distinction isn’t worth the (classified) paper it’s printed on.

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The Fed is Killing Small Banks

Today, four years since the official bottom of the 2007-2009 recession and financial crisis, you can add a surprising voice to the list of those still waiting for a recovery: America’s small banks. As CNNMoney’s Stephen Gandel notes, the banking recovery has been uneven; small lenders are still in trouble, and some continue to fail even as loan quality at larger institutions has rebounded sharply. The U.S. banking sector is becoming a two-class system: big banks are getting bigger, and small local banks are dying. Large banks are driving a Wal-Martization of the banking sector. As with Wal-Mart, the implications for Americans’ standard of living are not good.

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Leave Self-Driving Cars Alone, NHTSA!

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has proposed new federal rules for autonomous (aka “self-driving”) vehicles, far in advance of any automaker’s plans to introduce even one of these vehicles into the market. It is a statement to the extent of the United States Government’s overgrowth that detailed regulation of unmarketed and unannounced products is not immediately rejected as an absurd waste of tax dollars. Such regulation should almost always be rejected on principle, and this case is a great example.

NHTSA’s proposed rules are likely to delay the arrival of promising technology that could eliminate or substantially reduce whole categories of traffic accidents and driving complexity. In the process, NHTSA will, ironically, make our roads less safe, rather than more. Residents of urban centers will be denied the promise of cheaper, more efficient car sharing, and people with disabilities will continue to be virtually denied access to the roadway in droves. Meanwhile, taxpayers will continue to flush billions of dollars down the drain to subsidize inefficient, money-losing, poorly-maintained mass transit systems.

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Aaron Swartz’ Tragedy and Thuggish Prosecutors

For those who didn’t know of Aaron Swartz, or haven’t heard this very sad story, the world lost an incredible talent this week. Sadly, Aaron committed suicide on January 11, at 26. Even in his brief life, Aaron’s accomplished such an incredible contribution to the world that no blog post could do it justice. Among other things, Aaron founded Demand Progress, an activist organization incredibly influential in bringing down awful legislation like SOPA/PIPA; he developed RSS, the syndication technology that eventually spurred services like Google Reader; and was active in Creative Commons, the widely used licensing framework known for its simple rules around redistribution and attribution. Cory Doctorow’s tribute is wonderful, and captures how truly unique Aaron was as a person.

This was a piece of news that felt like a punch to the gut. I didn’t know Aaron, but I know the wonderful things he created. Many of us see and use them every day, even if we don’t realize that we do. I also have a better understanding than most of exactly what we lost when Aaron’s life ended. At 26, Aaron was not even a year older than I, but he was many times more brilliant. Aaron accomplished such great things in his first 26 years, and I feel very cheated that we won’t we have him around for fifty or so more.

Aaron was steadfast and unwavering in his commitment to his principles and his high expectations of people (himself included). As Doctorow notes, that steadfastness got him into trouble from time to time. He faced criminal prosecution for one such effort: reposting public domain articles from the JSTOR academic database, making them available for anyone to read as the authors intended. Even as JSTOR declined to pursue legal action against Aaron, a Federal prosecutor made it his objective to make an example of Aaron. Larry Lessig’s blog post details the hyperbole and smears the government lobbed at Aaron. That smear campaign, combined with the possibility of imprisonment for following his beliefs, no doubt contributed to Aaron’s untimely end.

The question of what, if anything, we might have missed in Aaron’s behavior that could have helped us prevent his untimely death is a difficult one that I’m not in a position to answer.

Two conclusions about Aaron’s story are not difficult, however:

  1. Observing that this prosecutor’s behavior, whatever may have motivated it, was thuggish, ignorant and wrong.
  2. We cannot afford to have prosecutors quite literally destroying the lives and reputations of innocent Americans, in their (alleged) pursuit of justice.

Prosecutors (particularly federal prosecutors) start with a deck stacked heavily in their favor. They start with the resources of an entire nation-state behind them, and that same nation-state writes the laws they prosecute to. Often, the defendants are ordinary people of limited resources. Even when they aren’t, the government’s allegations are given significant airplay and inherent credibility. On top of that stacked deck, prosecutors as individuals are generally given broad immunity for questionable conduct; instead, it is the government as a whole (i.e., taxpayers) that are liable for prosecutors’ misconduct.

In today’s society, when the government can make any allegation about any person nationwide news in a matter of minutes, merely being accused of a crime is potentially ruinous to one’s reputation and livelihood. It’s time for our laws to reflect that, and force prosecutors to act with some discretion. Prosecutors are public servants, with an obligation to protect and serve the interests of the people in justice. Qualified immunity incentivizes prosecutors to act not as servants of justice and safety but as soulless machines with an eye toward their own conviction rates and political records.

I’ve created an open letter to my representative (Pelosi) and my senators (Boxer and Feinstein) asking them to set rules for prosecutors’ official statements, to discourage the brand of thuggish behavior the U.S. Attorney practiced in this case. I’d appreciate your help in distributing it (or something like it) to yours as well.

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