Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

First POST: Precognition

BY Micah L. Sifry | Friday, August 30 2013


  • In a NYTimes oped, privacy advocate Ginger McCall warns that rapid advances in facial recognition technologies being developed by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI must be addressed by new legal safeguards to insure "some degree of anonymity in public" or else "mission creep [will turn] crime-fighting programs into instruments of abuse."

  • In related news, Reuters reports that "Facebook is considering incorporating most of its 1 billion-plus members' profile photos into its growing facial recognition database."

  • Earlier this week, Facebook revealed that in the first six months of 2013, it had received more than 25,000 inquires on more than 38,000 users from 71 governments around the world. The greatest number of requests and accounts affected came from the US.

  • The classified "black budget" isn't a black box anymore, thanks to a new story by Barton Gellman and Greg Miller in the Washington Post. Based on documents leaked by Edward Snowden, they report that for fiscal 2103, $52.6 billion is paying for 107,000 employees spread over 16 spy agencies--double what America's spooks were getting in 2001. The news includes: "aggressive new…'offensive cyber-operations'," "priority targets" include not just adversaries like China, Russia and Iran but also Israel; blind spots include details on Hezbollah, questions about Pakistan nuclear security, and facts about the capabilities of China's new fighter planes.

  • A little more than a quarter billion of that budget goes to pay telephone companies for the costs of assisting with government access to their networks, Craig Timberg and Gellman also report. "“It turns surveillance into a revenue stream, and that’s not the way it’s supposed to work,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based research and advocacy group. “The fact that the government is paying money to telephone companies to turn over information that they are compelled to turn over is very troubling.”

  • NBC News says Snowden's job as a systems administrator enabled him to impersonate NSA staff with higher security clearances than his own, and thus obtain documents by using their office accounts surreptitiously. “Every day, they are learning how brilliant [Snowden] was,” said a former U.S. official with knowledge of the case. “This is why you don’t hire brilliant people for jobs like this. You hire smart people. Brilliant people get you in trouble.”

  • Buzzfeed reports that rather than fix reported computer security flaws, the Department of Defense makes soldiers who report such problems sign non-disclosure agreements.


  • The New York Times asks: Is an 11-year-old son of Syrian president Bashar Assad taunting the United States on Facebook?

  • Related: Facebook's Richard Allan confirmed to the Turkish press that the company has closed the accounts of Kurdish politicians for posting content expressing approval of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is considered a terrorist group. "“It is against our rules to praise a person or an organization that is listed on the international terrorism list. The use of images of flags or other symbols of terrorist organizations is also banned. The Irish Republican Army (IRA), Colombia's Marxist FARC, Spain's ETA and in Turkey, the PKK, are among those organizations,” Allan said.

  • Can you place Damascus on a world map? Most people can't.

In other news around the web

  • The RNC's new CTO, Andy Barkett, shares some of his priorities with the Ace of Spaces blog. Among his ideas: "to move the needle and do a little better with the under-30 crowd," to do better with "niche markets" like "Filipino people who speak Tagalog in Daly City, California," and to improve the RNC's ability to micro-target to individual voters. Also, he notes, compared to his last job at Facebook, "I'm not used to having such a big office."

  • Joe Trippi predicts that with the rise of micro-targeted advertising, local TV broadcasters longtime bonanza from political advertising is likely to collapse by 2016: “Running the old Internet model, where it’s used only to raise money, at a time when messaging can pinpoint targeted individuals is an invitation to defeat. What we’re seeing already in terms of targeting pre-rolls, for example, or other messaging paths directly to someone interested is just barely scratching the surface of what’s going to be possible.”

  • In the Atlantic, Ron Fournier argues that the millennial generation is giving up on traditional government. Quoting PDM friend Nicco Mele:

    "These kids are starting their own things at a rapid rate -- in part because there isn’t much of a job for them in the old institutions,. If you’re a super-talented, super-smart 22-year-old and it looks like you need to take an unpaid internship and lick envelopes to get into a field you’re interested in, forget it. Better to start something new.”

  • Fedscoop profiles PDM friend Greg Elin, who is stepping down from his post as the FCC's chief data officer to launch a startup called GitMachines with funding from the Knight News Challenge.

  • Your weekend must-read: Sami Ben Gharbia, the co-founder of, a leading Tunisian pro-democracy group, explains how Chelsea Manning helped spark the Arab Spring, detailing how a critical leak of State Department cables on Tunisia got into his hands and, from there, into the hearts and minds of his countrymen. He writes:

    "…the release of the cables started with Private Chelsea Manning, alone in the Iraqi desert. She, like Assange and Snowden and many less famous and mostly anonymous activists, are the deities of a new mythology that no prison can ever detain. The battle for a transparent and accountable world is spreading, despite all the measures of repression and surveillance. It’s being carried by a worldwide movement exposing secrecy, corruption and human rights abuses, for which Chelsea Manning will be an inspirational and iconic figure, as free as her ideas and dreams while her body is behind walls and bars. After she was sentenced to 35 years in prison Chelsea Manning said in her statement that “Sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society.” I don’t know if she knows that she helped us, in this part of the world, to move toward that noble goal. Closing a cell door on a prisoner with a free mind has opened a thousand and one doors for a free society."

News Briefs

RSS Feed thursday >

NY Study Shows How Freedom of Information Can Inform Open Data

On New York State's open data portal, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation has around 40 data resources of varying sizes, such as maps of lakes and ponds and rivers, bird conservation areas and hiking trails. But those datasets do not include several data resources that are most sought after by many New York businesses, a new study from advocacy group Reinvent Albany has found. Welcome to a little-discussed corner of so-called "open government"--while agencies often pay lip service to the cause, the data they actually release is sometimes nowhere close to what is most wanted. GO

Responding to Ferguson, Activists Organize #NMOS14 Vigils Across America In Just 4 Days

This evening peaceful crowds will gather at more than 90 locations around the country to honor the victims of police brutality, most recently the unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, on Saturday. A moment of silence will begin at 20 minutes past 7 p.m. (EST). The vigils are being organized almost entirely online by the writer and activist Feminista Jones (@FeministaJones), with help from others from around the country who have volunteered to coordinate a vigil in their communities. Organizing such a large event in only a few days is a challenge, but in addition to ironing out basic logistics, the National Moment of Silence (#NMOS14) organizers have had to deal with co-optation, misrepresentation, and Google Docs and Facebook pages that are, apparently, buckling under traffic.


wednesday >

NDI Launches Open Source DemTools for International Development

Yesterday the National Democratic Institute launched a suite of web-based applications created for their partner organizations, mostly pro-democracy groups and political parties around the world. These “DemTools,” which are ready-to-use but can also be customized, will give organizations in developing countries some of the capabilities that political activists and parties in the United States have had for years. Moreover, since the National Democratic Institute (NDI) is making the promise to host partner organization's applications in the cloud essentially forever, they hope these applications will help usher in a period of more sustainable tech.