Blog of Rights

Jay
Stanley
Jay Stanley (@JayCStanley) is Senior Policy Analyst with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, where he researches, writes and speaks about technology-related privacy and civil liberties issues and their future.  He is the Editor of the ACLU's "Free Future" blog and has authored and co-authored a variety of influential ACLU reports on privacy and technology topics. Before joining the ACLU, he was an analyst at the technology research firm Forrester, served as American politics editor of Facts on File’s World News Digest, and as national newswire editor at Medialink. He is a graduate of Williams College and holds an M.A. in American History from the University of Virginia.
Ignorant Armies Eavesdropping By Night?

Ignorant Armies Eavesdropping By Night?

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 10:11am
As revelations continue to pour forth about how the talents of thousands of brilliant math and computer experts are being utilized by the National Security Agency, we also saw last week the release of a report to Congress that attempts to defend the importance of the humanities. I thought this Scientific American piece by John Horgan on the report was especially good. A science writer who teaches at the Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan says many of his science and engineering students question why they should have to take a humanities class. “They don’t see the point of reading all this old impractical stuff that has nothing to do with their careers,” he notes.
Some Thoughts on DMV Image Databases and the Police

Some Thoughts on DMV Image Databases and the Police

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 2:28pm

The Washington Post has an excellent, in-depth article today on the growing use of driver’s license photo databases combined with face recognition analytics by police.

There are two ways to think about this. First, it is yet another long…

SPOT Off

SPOT Off

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 3:58pm

Lost in all the news about the NSA program this week was the release of a devastating report by the DHS Inspector General on the TSA’s SPOT program (first reported by the New York Times on Sunday). The new report underscores what a waste of money that program has been. After hiring 2,800 full-time staff and spending an estimated $878 million since FY 2007, the program remains deeply misguided not only in its very concept, but also in how it has been implemented.

SPOT (which stands for Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques) is the program that places “Behavior Detection Officers” (BDOs) near airport security lines, where by intrusively chatting with fliers, they will supposedly be able to detect “something amiss” that might suggest a passenger is planning a terrorist attack.

The program has always been ludicrous. In testimony at a 2011 congressional hearing on SPOT, psychologist Dr. Maria Hartwig summarized the decades of empirical research on the detection of deception, which is basically

Who Decides?

Who Decides?

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 9:32am

I’d like to make one major point about the NSA surveillance scandal that many people have made indirectly, or implicitly, or seem to have assumed, but have not stated baldly and explicitly. That point is how this incident has laid bare the arrogance of our national security officials.

Because there are really two separate issues behind last week’s revelations. The first is, how much surveillance of the American people should the government conduct? The second is, who should decide how much surveillance of the American people the government should conduct?

And on that second question, the government has arrogated to itself the power to make that decision, unilaterally, in secret, on behalf of the American people.

In his only comments on this scandal, President Obama said,

Simple Dataset About American Colonists Shows Power of Metadata

Simple Dataset About American Colonists Shows Power of Metadata

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 1:16pm

In the best tradition of educators who manage to be both entertaining and enlightening, Duke sociology professor Kieran Healy has posted “Using Metadata to Find Paul Revere”—a fascinating demonstration of just how revealing metadata can be when subject to certain quite simple but powerful number-crunching techniques. Using simple information about 260 colonists in the years before the American Revolution (what organizations they belong to), he shows step by step how the lowest analyst at the “Royal Security Agency” could use that data to build powerful insights into what might be going on among the rebellious colonists.

The scariest thing about this is just how small and simple the starting data set is. Healy concludes:

I must ask you to imagine what might be possible if we were but able to collect information on very many more people, and also synthesize information from different kinds of ties between people! For the simple methods I have described are quite generalizable in these ways, and their capability only becomes more apparent as the size and scope of the information they are given increases. We would not need to know what was being whispered between individuals, only that they were connected in various ways. The analytical engine would do the rest!

In other words, this demonstration has just show us a hint of what an organization like the NSA can probably do with metadata.

More evidence that (as we have argued at greater length elsewhere) those downplaying the intrusiveness of metadata are way behind the times.

Why Government Access to Metadata is More Than a 'Modest Encroachment' on Privacy

Why Government Access to Metadata is More Than a 'Modest Encroachment' on Privacy

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 12:56pm

Metadata is back in the news, following The Guardian's extraordinary revelation on Wednesday revealing that the National Security Agency...

Should Facebook Censor Misogynistic Material?

Should Facebook Censor Misogynistic Material?

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 9:57am

The New York Times ran an article yesterday about pressure that is mounting on Facebook to censor websites full of awful misogynistic material. The company said it was reviewing its processes for dealing with content under its hate speech policy.

As…

"Drones" vs "UAVs" -- What's Behind A Name?

"Drones" vs "UAVs" -- What's Behind A Name?

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 9:00am

Representatives of the drone industry and other drone boosters often make a point of saying they don’t like to use the word “drones.” When my colleague Catherine Crump and I were writing our drones report in 2011, we talked over what terminology we should use, and decided that since our job was to communicate, we should use the term that people would most clearly and directly understand. That word is “drones.”

Drone proponents would prefer that everyone use the term “UAV,” for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or “UAS,” for Unmanned Aerial System (“system” in order to encompass the entirety of the vehicle that flies, the ground-based controller, and the communications connection that connects the two). These acronyms are technical, bland, and bureaucratic. That’s probably their principal advantage from the point of view of those who want to separate them from the ugly, bloody, and controversial uses to which they’ve been put by the CIA and U.S. military overseas.

I suppose there is a case to be made that domestic drones are a different thing from overseas combat drones. Certainly, there’s a wide gulf separating a $17 million Reaper drone armed with Hellfire missiles and a hand-launched hobbyist craft buzzing around somebody’s back yard. But drone proponents themselves would be the first to say that drones are a tool—one that can be used for many different purposes. They can be used for fun, photography, science, surveillance, and yes, raining death upon people with the touch of a button from across the world. Even the overseas military uses of drones vary, including not just targeted killing but also surveillance and logistics.

Putting aside well-founded fears that even domestically we may someday see the deployment of weaponized drones, in the end, the difference between overseas and domestic drones is a difference in how the same tool is used. Regardless of whether you’ve got a Predator, a Reaper, a police craft, or a $150 backyard hobby rotorcraft, that tool is what it is. What it is is a drone.

I can’t touch on this subject without quoting from George Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” in which Orwell argued that bland and needlessly complicated language was a political act—a symptom of attempts to cover up

The Asymmetry Between Past and Future, and Why it Means Mass Surveillance Won’t Work

The Asymmetry Between Past and Future, and Why it Means Mass Surveillance Won’t Work

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 11:39am

Former Senator Joseph Lieberman recently charged that mistakes by U.S. security agencies were responsible for failing to stop the Boston Marathon bombing. I recently wrote about how mass surveillance makes this kind of recrimination inevitable, because once a government agency spies on a person, they become in a sense responsible for any actions that that person takes. To paraphrase Colin Powell, we might sum it up as “You surveil him, you own him.”

I recently came across a good analogy for why it’s deceptively hard for security agencies to detect and stop out-of-nowhere terrorist attacks like the Boston bombing—and why mass surveillance isn’t likely to help. It comes from the book The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, by the physicist and writer Leonard Mlodinow, in a discussion of Brownian motion.

Brownian motion, you may recall, is the random jiggling of molecules in a liquid or other substance. A dye molecule floating in a seemingly still glass of water will randomly move about, covering about an inch in three hours, buffeted by random collisions with the smaller water molecules that surround it.

What would it take to actually explain the motion of that molecule? This is where the parallel to anti-terrorism efforts comes in. Mlodinow points out, “In any complex string of events in which each event unfolds with some element of

How Social Networks Short-Circuit Our Inborn Privacy Intuitions

How Social Networks Short-Circuit Our Inborn Privacy Intuitions

By Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project at 12:58pm

A few years ago, one of our ACLU state affiliates received a request for help from a man who had set up a marijuana grow operation in his home. He was apparently quite proud of what he built, because he bragged about it not only to his friends, but also to his Facebook “Friends.” Unfortunately, one of his Friends was Friends with a police officer a thousand miles away in Florida. That police officer called up his colleagues in

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