Cyberwars: FBIs Facial Recognition Database

facial_rec1This past summer, the FBI was compelled to release information about the operational facial recognition database they working on. As part of its Next Generation Identification (NGI) program, this database is part of the FBIs efforts to build a “bigger, faster and better” means of biometric identification. Earlier this month, the FBI announced that the system is now working at “full operational capability”, and many people are worried…

To break it down, the NGI database is made up of millions of stored mugshots and other photos, which are then used when analyzing footage taken by CCTV feeds or other cameras around the country. The full deployment of the program comes three months after James Comey, the bureau’s director, announced that the agency was “piloting the use of mug shots” alongside the bureau’s other databases, in order to catch wanted criminals.

FBI_NGI_Slide_WideDesigned to replace the bureau’s aging fingerprint database, the NGI is different in that it is designed to be multimodal. This means that it will link multiple forms of biometric data to biographical information such as name, address,  ID number, age and ethnicity. It’s currently focused on fingerprint and facial records, but it will also be capable of holding iris scans and palm prints, with the possibility of added voice recognition and gate analysis (i.e. how people walk).

As the FBI said in a statement on Monday, Sept. 15th, the NGI, combined with fingerprint database:

[W]ill provide the nation’s law enforcement community with an investigative tool that provides an image-searching capability of photographs associated with criminal identities.

Naturally, the worries that this database will be another step towards “Big Brother” monitoring. However, what is equally (if not more) worrisome is the fact that the details of the program are only a matter of public record thanks to a lawsuit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The lawsuit was issued in June of 2013, wherein the EFF compelled the FBI to produce records in accordance Freedom of Information Act to detail the program and its face-recognition components.

facial_recCiting the FBI documents, the EFF claims that the facial recognition technology is not very reliable and that the way the database returns results is fundamentally flawed, as well as pointing out that it will indiscriminately combine the details of both criminals and non-criminals. Based on their own interpretation, they claim it could fail 20 percent of the time, which could lead to innocent persons becoming the subject of police investigations.

Nevertheless, the bureau remains confident that the system will simplify and enhance law enforcement both locally and federally. As they said of the program when it was first announced back in 2011:

The NGI system has introduced enhanced automated fingerprint and latent search capabilities, mobile fingerprint identification, and electronic image storage, all while adding enhanced processing speed and automation for electronic exchange of fingerprints to more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies and other authorized criminal justice partners 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

fingerprint_databaseIn 2012, the NGI database already contained 13.6 million images (of seven to eight million individuals) and by mid-2013, it had 16 million images. We now know it aims to have 52 million facial records in its system by next year, and those will include some regular citizens. This is another source of concern for the EFF and civil liberties advocates, which is the estimated 4.3 million images taken for non-criminal purposes.

Whenever someone applies for a job that requires a background check, they are required to submit fingerprint records. These records are then entered into federal databases. Right now, the FBI’s fingerprint database contains around 70 million criminal profiles, and 34 million non-criminal records. With the NGI database now up and running, photographs can be submitted by employers and other sources along with fingerprints, which puts non-criminals on file.

FBI-facial-recognitionThe database, while maintained by the FBI, can be searched by law enforcement at all levels. According to Jennifer Lynch, the EFF attorney behind the lawsuit:

Your image would be searched every time there is a criminal investigation. The problem with that is the face recognition is still not 100 percent accurate.” This means that the system is liable to make mismatches with data. If a camera catches a criminal’s face and that is compared to images in the database, there’s no guarantee that it will pop up an accurate result. 

What’s more, when the database is searched it does not return a completely positive result; but instead provides the top hits, ranked by probability of match. So if your face just happens to be similar to a snapshot of a criminal caught in CCTV footage, you may become a suspect in that case. Combined with other forms of biometric readers and scanners, it is part of a general trend where privacy is shrinking and public spaces are increasingly permeated by digital surveillance.

internet-of-things-2This sort of data exchange and on-the-ground scanning will be made possible byand is one of the explicit aims ofFirstNet, the nationwide broadband network for law enforcement and first responders, colloquially referred to by some as the “internet of cops”. Much like all things pertaining the expansion of the internet into the “internet of things”, this sort of growth has the capacity to affect privacy and become invasive as well as connective.

As always, fears of an “Orwellian” situation can be allayed by reminding people that the best defense is public access to the information – to know what is taking place and how it works. While there are doubts as to the efficacy of the NGI database and the potential for harm, the fact that we know about its inner workings and limitations could serve as a legal defense wherever a potentially innocent person is targeted by it.

And of course, as the issue of domestic surveillance grows, there are also countless efforts being put forth by “Little Brother” to protect privacy and resist identification. The internet revolution cuts both ways, and ensures that everyone registered in the torrential data stream has a degree of input. Fight the power! Peace out!

Sources: motherboard.com, arstechnica.com, singularityhub.com

Cyberwars: Latest Snowden Leaks

FRANCE-US-EU-SURVEILLANCE-SNOWDENThe case against the NSA’s program of cyberwarfare and espionage has become somewhat like an onion. With every new revelation, the matter becomes more stinking and fetid. Certainly, the first release of classified NSA documents – which dealt with the US’s ongoing cyberwarfare against China and other nations – was damaging to the agency’s image. But it has been the subsequent publication of documents that deal with domestic surveillance that have been the most damning.

According to Snowden, he was motivated to leak this information because of the troubling case of hypocrisy inherent in the NSA programs. And in the lastest leak, Snowden has now confirmed that at least five Muslim-Americans – including prominent lawyers, a civil rights leader and academics – were the subject of years’ worth of surveillance by both the FBI and the National Security Agency.

under_surveillance_full_v2Among the targets were Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations – the top Muslim-American civil rights organization in the United States – and Faisal Galil, a longtime Republican operative and former Bush Administration official who worked for the Department of Homeland Security and held a top-secret security clearance during the time he was under surveillance.

Also among the American targets was Asim Ghafoor, an attorney for the al-Haramain Islamic Foundation who who has represented clients in terrorism-related cases . He is also the man who famously discovered in 2004 that he and his clients were under surveillance after the Treasury Department mistakenly released to him a document listing calls he’d made to his clients.

wire_tappingOther targets include Hooshang Amirahmadi, an Iranian-American professor of international relations at Rutgers University and Agha Saeed, a former political science professor at California State University who champions Muslim civil liberties and Palestinian rights. All of the targets appear to have been singled out because of their Muslim backgrounds and their activities either defending Muslim clients or on behalf of various causes.

The individuals appear on an NSA spreadsheet in the Snowden archives called “FISA recap”—short for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Under that law, the Justice Department must convince a judge with the top-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that there is probable cause to suspect of an American of being engaged in or abetting terrorism, espionage, or sabotage against the US.

FILE PHOTO  NSA Compiles Massive Database Of Private Phone CallsThe authorizations must be regularly renewed by the court for the surveillance to remain in effect, usually every 90 days for U.S. citizens. In none of these cases were the individuals singled out for surveillance because they were suspected of committing or planning a crime. And six years after the period the document covers, none of them has been charged with any crime related to the surveillance.

Greenwald says the revelations offer a more detailed look at who the government is targeting. Although there are some Americans on the list who have been accused of terrorism, the five highlighted in The Intercept piece have all led what appear to be law-abiding lives. As Greenwald explained:

This is the first time that there’s a human face on who the targets are of their most intrusive type of surveillance. [H]ere you really get to see who these people are who are the people worthy of their most invasive scrutiny. I think it’s important for people to judge—are these really terrorists or are these people who seem to be targeted for their political dissidence and their political activism?

 

faisal_gillAll of these five individuals identified in the article has gone on record to vehemently deny any involvement in terrorism or espionage. Outside of their ancestry, there appears to be no justification whatsoever for the surveillance. Faisal Gill, whose AOL and Yahoo! email accounts were monitored while he was a Republican candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates, had this to say when interview by The Intercept:

I just don’t know why. I’ve done everything in my life to be patriotic. I served in the Navy, served in the government, was active in my community—I’ve done everything that a good citizen, in my opinion, should do.

Ghafoor was also of the opinion that profiling had everything to do with him being targeted for electronic surveillance. When told that no non-Muslim attorneys who defended terror suspects had been identified on the list, he replied:

I believe that they tapped me because my name is Asim Abdur Rahman Ghafoor, my parents are from India. I travelled to Saudi Arabia as a young man, and I do the pilgrimage. Yes, absolutely I believe that had something to do with it.

https://i0.wp.com/media.nj.com/ledgerupdates_impact/photo/2012/06/muslim-lawsuitjpg-88e364e9b8e195f4.jpgCivil liberties groups have expressed anger that the five appear to have been targeted largely for having Muslim backgrounds. One such group is the Muslim Advocates, which released the following statement shortly after the story was published:

This report confirms the worst fears of American Muslims: the federal government has targeted Americans, even those who have served their country in the military and government, simply because of their faith or religious heritage. Muslim Advocates calls on the President and Congress to take steps immediately to reform the NSA surveillance program to uphold basic privacy rights and civil liberties that the Constitution guarantees to every American, regardless of faith.

The new revelations confirm for the first time that the government targeted U.S. attorneys, sometimes without warrants. Crucially, the revelations also give targets of the domestic surveillance legal standing to sue. Snowden indicated to Greenwald last year that he included the target list in the cache of leaked documents because he wanted people who had been under such surveillance to have evidence to challenge the spying in court.

An illustration picture shows the logo of the U.S. National Security Agency on the display of an iPhone in BerlinIn the past, journalists and attorneys have tried to challenge the constitutionality of the government’s surveillance activities in court. But since the defendants did not have proof that they in particular had been targeted, the courts were forced to rule that they did not have standing. The spreadsheet, however, provides evidence of targeted surveillance for those who have now been identified.

In short, this latest revelation has provided Americans, and not just those of Muslim descent, with the means to hold the NSA and the FBI accountable for the first time. Since the historic episode known as the “war on terror” began, revelations have led to challenges and promises for reform. But in all cases, the crucial issue of whether or not these programs would be allowed to continue has been carefully sidestepped.

cyber_security2Whether it was the failure of FISA reform to reign in domestic wiretapping and data mining, or the Obama administrations endorsement of “transparent” surveillance, it seems obvious clear that an administrative solution was not in the works. But opening the way for successive lawsuits for wrongful surveillance might just prove to be more effective.

What is certain, though, is that the battle between civil liberties and surveillance in the “Digital Age” is nowhere close to being resolved. As the daily volume of data sent around the world continues to grow – from terabytes to petabytes to exabytes – there will continually be a need for monitors to watch for sinister things. And as long as they are willing to push the boundaries in the name of security, there will continue to be challenges.

Sources: wired.com, firstlook.org

Cyberwars: ACLU and NSA ex-Director to Debate Tomorrow!

keith-alexander-nsa-flickrIn what is sure to be a barn-burner of a debate, the former head of the National Security Agency – General Keith Alexander – will be participating tomorrow in a with ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero. The televised, surveillance-themed debate, will take place tomorrow –  June 30th, 10:30am Eastern Time – on MSNBC. The subject: whether or not the NSA’s vast surveillance and data mining programs are making American’s safer.

While many would prefer that the current head of the NSA be involved in the debate, General Alexander is a far better spokesperson for the controversial programs that have been the subject of so much controversy. After all, “Emperor Alexander” – as his subordinates called him – is the man most directly responsible for the current disposition of the  NSA’s cyber surveillance and warfare program.Who better to debate their merit with the head of the ACLU – an organization dedicated to the preservation of personal freedom?

Edward-Snowden-660x367And according to classified documents leaked by Edward Snowden, General Alexander’s influence and power within the halls of government knew no bounds during his tenure. A four-star Army general with active units under his command, he was also the head of the National Security Agency, chief of the Central Security Service, and the commander of the US Cyber Command. It is this last position and the power it wields that has raised the greatest consternation amongst civil-libertarians and privacy advocates.

Keith Alexander is responsible for building this place up between 2005 and 2013, insisting that the US’s inherent vulnerability to digital attacks required that he and those like him assume more authority over the data zipping around the globe. According to Alexander, this threat is so paramount that it only makes sense that all power to control the flow of information should be concentrated in as few hands as possible, namely his.

NSA_fort_meadeIn a recent security conference held in Canada before the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Alexander expressed the threat in the following, cryptic way:

What we see is an increasing level of activity on the networks. I am concerned that this is going to break a threshold where the private sector can no longer handle it and the government is going to have to step in.

If this alone were not reason enough to put people on edge, there are also voices within the NSA who view Alexander as a quintessential larger-than-life personality. One former senior CIA official who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, claimed:

We jokingly referred to him as Emperor Alexander—with good cause, because whatever Keith wants, Keith gets. We would sit back literally in awe of what he was able to get from Congress, from the White House, and at the expense of everybody else.

And it is because of such freedom to monitor people’s daily activities that movements like the February 11th “The Day We Fight Back” movement – an international cause that embraced 360 organizations in 70 countries that were dedicated to ending mass surveillance – have been mounted, demanding reform.

us_supremecourtIn addition, a series of recent ruling from the US Supreme Court have begun to put the kibosh on the surveillance programs that Alexander spent eight years building up. With everything from cell phone tracking to cell phone taps, a precedent is being set that is likely to outlaw all of the NSA domestic surveillance. But no matter what, the role of Snowden’s testimony in securing this landmark event cannot be underestimated.

In fact, in a recent interview, the ACLU’s Anthony Romero acknowledged a great debt to Snowden and claimed that the debate would not be happening without him. As he put it:

I think Edward Snowden has done this country a service… regardless of whether or not what he did was legal or illegal, whether or not we think the sedition laws or the espionage laws that are being used to possibly prosecute Snowden are too broad, the fact is that he has kick-started a debate that we did not have. This debate was anemic. Everyone was asleep at the switch.

One can only imagine what outcome this debate will have. But we can rest assured that some of the more predictable talking points will include the necessities emerging out of the War on Terror, the rise of the information revolution, and the dangers of Big Brother Government, as well as the NSA’s failure to prevent such attacks as the Boston Marathon Bombing, the Benghazi Embassy bombing, and a slew of other terrorist incidents that took place during Alexander’s tenure.

Do I sound biased? Well perhaps that’s because I am. Go ACLU, stick to Emperor Alexander!

Sources: engadget.com, democracynow.org

Reinstating Net Neutrality: New Bill Before US Congress

cap-hillA new “net neutrality” bill is on its way towards Congress, one which seeks to reinstate the free and open nature of the net – something that has been under fire in recent years. And one week ago, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Representative Doris Matsui of California took another decisive step when they announced that they will propose a bill to stop the Federal Communications Commission from allowing paid “fast lanes” on the internet.

In short, the proposed bill demands that the FCC to use whatever authority it sees fit to make sure that Internet providers don’t speed up certain types of content (like Netflix videos) at the expense of others (like e-mail). It wouldn’t give the commission new powers, but the bill – known as the Online Competition and Consumer Choice Act – would give the FCC crucial political cover to prohibit what consumer advocates say would harm startup companies and Internet services by requiring them to pay extra fees to ISPs.

Wireless-Internet-1And this past spring, after a federal court struck down the FCC’s existing net neutrality rules – which sought to ensure that ISPs didn’t discriminate against certain internet traffic – the commission proposed a new set of rules that has left many worried that ISPs could start charging web companies like Google and Netflix to deliver their content at faster speeds. Such an arrangement, these sources say, would squeeze out newer and smaller operations that can’t pay the fees.

Leahy and Matsui, both Democrats, are part of a widespread effort to ensure that all web companies, from Google to Netflix to Snapchat, are treated equally on the internet. On the other side, big-name internet service providers such as Comcast and Verizon are fighting to maintain control over how their networks operate. Caught in the middle are internet users who stand to lose if the ISPs create a new internet where its harder for certain services to reach them.

https://i2.wp.com/img.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-switch/files/2014/06/Screen-Shot-2014-06-16-at-18.12.56.jpgAfter holding a hearing on net neutrality in Vermont this past summer, Leahy came to an invariable conclusion:

Americans are speaking loud and clear. They want an Internet that is a platform for free expression and innovation, where the best ideas and services can reach consumers based on merit rather than based on a financial relationship with a broadband provider.

Though FCC chairman Ted Wheeler has claimed that internet fast lanes would be “commercially unreasonable” and therefore forbidden under its own proposed new rules, critics worry that the rules are too broad and would allow for loopholes as to what counts as commercially reasonable activity. Since the new rules were proposed, protests have taken place in front of the FCC’s offices, massive internet petitions have been mounted, and an epic rant was made by Last Week Tonight host John Oliver.

https://i1.wp.com/www.wired.com/images_blogs/threatlevel/2014/01/topic_net-neutrality.pngThe new bill would provide a mandate regarding how the FCC deals with any sort of paid prioritization, but it wouldn’t reclassify providers. Also, the new bill would only apply to connections from internet service providers to customers’ homes, commonly referred to as last mile connections. It wouldn’t pertain to “peering”, the deals governing the ways that internet service providers connect with each other or with content providers like Netflix and Google.

Despite these limitations, Public Knowledge supports the proposed legislation. As vice president of government affairs Chris Lewis said in a statement:

This bill sends a clear signal to the FCC that fast lanes and paid prioritization could endanger the internet ecosystem as we know it. The reason we have seen so much financial investment and innovation online is because the playing field for new entrepreneurs is level. As the FCC continues to evaluate new net neutrality rules, it’s important they understand that Americans want an internet that everyone can succeed in, not just the companies with enough money to pay a toll to ISPs.

https://i1.wp.com/www3.pcmag.com/media/images/425188-net-neutrality.pngThe bill may face serious challenges, however. Republicans control the House and have proposed their own bill to block the FCC from reclassifying internet service providers. In this respect, net neutrality is dividing lawmakers along partisan lines, and Republicans are not expected to support the proposed Leahy-Matsui bill. But in theory, a bipartisan agreement could be reached, especially since the Leahy-Matsui bill leaves reclassification off the table.

And given the level of public pressure on law makers and regulators to protect the function of the internet, it’s too early to count this or any other legislation that addressing the issue of neutrality out. Network neutrality has become a hot button issue, much like domestic surveillance and data collection. And the people are sending a clear message: they want the internet to be a level playing field and won’t rest until the rules clearly reflect that.

Sources: wired.com, washingtonpost.com