Beneath the Headlines

TeleSur English, January 3, 2014

The government isn’t listening to your phone calls, except when it is

Often it’s the “oh by the way” stories or sources buried at the end of a news article or report or in the endnotes or hyperlinks of an essay or book that knock you out – and help you realize that things are even worse than you thought.

A Quiet Change

Take the New Years’ Eve broadcast of the “Public” Broadcasting System’s Newshour. Near the end of her brief opening summary of the day’s news, the Newshour’s monotonous newsreader Gwen Ifill briefly reported that the United States Commerce Department had “quietly begun allowing US oil companies “to export crude [oil, that is] for the first time in nearly 40 years.”

As Ifill might have added, US oil companies now have an oil surplus for export because of the environmentally disastrous practice of hydraulic fracturing (fracking).  Also unreported in the Newshour summary: the Obama administration’s move – a volley against OPEC in the war to control global oil and gas markets – could well signal an imminent full end to the export ban, which has existed since the OPEC-induced oil shock of the 1970s.  This is something that the powerful US oil and gas lobby has been pushing very hard for in recent years.

As “P”BS might have further elaborated but did not, environmental groups last year warned that easing of the ban on crude oil exports would lead to the release of billions of tons of additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, significantly escalating the ongoing catastrophe that is anthropogenic global warming. The increased profits garnered from exporting crude oil will incentivize corporations to drill more in the US, leading to significantly increased contamination of the US environment and to more carbon emissions when that oil is burned.

The rollback and repeal of the ban is a recipe for ecological calamity. No small matter, but hardly the stuff of headline news at “P”BS, where the “P” often seems to stand for “Petroleum” given the “public” network’s heavy sponsorship by leading oil corporations – and where chilling reports about what amounts to full-on capitalist ecocide are commonly mentioned in the most nonchalant, secondary, and “oh, by the way, in other news” kind of way.

“….If We Hear Anything”

Here’s another example. It came when I clicked on one of the forty-nine hyperlinks in a recent excellent TeleSur English essay – a hyperlink embedded in the following phrase: “Chicago police are apparently spying on the phone conversations of protesters.”  Being a native Chicagoan and a cell phone user who has been involved in more than a few protests in that city, I naturally followed the link, which took me to a report in the progressive Chicago-based magazine In These Times.  Courtesy of local activists and the online activist group Anonymous, the report contains a smoking gun.  It has a transcript of a police radio conversation between a Chicago police officer who was patrolling a Ferguson-related Black Friday Boycott demonstration and the city police department’s “fusion center” last November. The “fusion center” is an intelligence and surveillance facility (technically named the Crime Prevention and Information Center) that collaborates and coordinates between the Chicago Police Department and the FBI, the federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and other agencies. The conversation, captured live by an activist monitoring a city police radio band, went as follows:

Officer: “Yeah, one of the girls, she’s kind of an organizer here, she’s been on her phone a lot. You guys picking up any information, uh, where they’re going, possibly?”

Crime Prevention and Information Center: “Yeah, we’re keeping an eye on it. We’ll let you know if we hear anything.”

Note how routine the conversation sounds and reads.  In the Chicago Police Department, it is no big thing, internally speaking, for the police to listen in on the phone conversations of activists engaged in supposedly constitutionally protected (First Amendment) free speech rights of public assembly and protest. The eavesdropping is an egregious violation of US citizens’ purported constitutional protection (Fourth Amendment) against warrantless and “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

I recommend the In These Times report (investigative journalism at its best) and a recent short report in the Christian Science Monitor’s online feature “Passcode” (covering cyber-security and electronic privacy issues)  for more details on: the specific technology – the StingRay (also known as an “ISMI catcher”) – that  allows police to (among other things) listen to track private cell phones (without the knowledge of cell phone companies); how the technology works; the military manufacturer (the Harris Corporation) that sells the technology to US metropolitan police departments; activists’ longstanding suspicion that such technologies have been deployed by local police; the struggle of activists and the ACLU to obtain public information about the eavesdropping; the manufacturer’s efforts to protect itself against legal liability for abuse of civil liberties; and the number of police departments who have purchased the snooping technologies with DHS grants handed out in the name of fighting Islamist terrorism after 9/11/2001.

An Old Problem: From Imperial to Homeland Policing

Here’s how the StingRay/ISMI catcher works: it imitates a cellphone tower, inducing wireless devices in the area to link to it. From there, it accesses various forms of data on a phone, from location to phone and text logs. “In combination with other devices and software,” In These Times reports, StingRays “allow real-time listening to cell calls.”

It’s nothing new. “Until 2006,” Passcode reports, “stingrays were used mostly in the war on terrorism. That is when police departments began acquiring them with grants from the US Department of Homeland Security.”

Yet another post-9/11 example of a problem that US Founder and Bill of Rights champion James Madison warned about way back in 1799: “the fetters imposed on liberty at home have ever been forged out of the weapons provided for defense against real, pretended, or imaginary dangers from abroad.”

According to Passcode, reporting data form the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the problem is nationwide: “The ACLU has identified 47 agencies in 19 states and the District of Columbia that own StingRays….In Tallahassee, Fla., the ACLU determined through public records requests that police deployed StingRays more than 250 times between 2007 and 2014. It said that the Los Angeles Police Department used StingRays at least 340 times in 2011. In Tacoma, Wash., the News Tribune reported that police there used them 179 times between 2009 and 2014. The Charlotte Observer recently reported that police officials there used StingRays more than 500 times in a five to seven year span.”

“The Government is Not Listening to Your Phone Calls”

This, one might think, should be a leading story on CNN, at the New York Times, and in other leading US “fourth estate” outlets including “P”BS: many metropolitan and state police departments in the self-declared global headquarters freedom and democracy possess and utilize the capacity to directly eavesdrop on activists’ and others’ private cell phone calls.  Remember US president Barack Obama’s repeated statements to the American people after the chilling Edward Snowden surveillance revelations of 2013? Again and again, while making no secret of the White House’s desire to capture and punish Snowden, Obama told “We the People” that “their” government is “not listening to your phone calls” (it was only collecting supposedly innocuous metadata on calls between US citizens and overseas “bad guys” suspected of terrorist plotting). If you were like me (and many others less informed than an ACLU cyber-security specialist), you responded to that assurance with a shrugging “yeah, right, sure” and let it go, lacking hard evidence to the contrary.  Well, here’s your evidence, as clear as day, consistent with many US activists’ longstanding assumption that their calls are monitored by authorities.

Yet more confirmation that we live in a Big Bother police state.

The government is not listening to your phone calls, except when it is.

The Chicago (and national) police eavesdropping story ought to be a headline item, at the top of the major newspaper, network and cable news cycle. Instead it’s a small item in a marginal left magazine and in a relatively unknown online feature of the Christian Science Monitor.

In any event, fellow US citizens and workers, beware of the StingRay when you try to organize against escalated exports of eco-cidal US crude oil to China and others destinations on our dying, overheated planet – or against any other number of evils (including ubiquitous police surveillance) that have come to seem close to banal in the Deep State Superpower’s “homeland.”

There is some good news, recently sent me by a cyber-savvy comrade in Madison, Wisconsin: a new cell phone app designed specifically for detecting StingRay cell phone trackers.  The app, called “SnoopSnitchers,” was developed by the German security researchers Alex Senier, Karsten Nohl, and Tobias Engel from SRLabs. You can read more about it here.

Stay as safe as you can fighting back in 2015.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

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By | 2015-01-06T11:58:17+00:00 January 6th, 2015|Articles|