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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."

Transparency and Public Shaming: Pakistan Tackles Tax Evasion

In Pakistan, where only one in 200 citizens files their income tax return, authorities published a directory of taxpayers' details for the first time. Officials explained the decision as an attempt to shame defaulters into paying up.


wednesday >

Facebook Seeks Approval as Financial Service in Ireland. Is the Developing World Next?

On April 13 the Financial Times reported that Facebook is only weeks away from being approved as a financial service in Ireland. Is this foray into e-money motivated by Facebook's desire to conquer the developing world before other corporate Internet giants do? Maybe.


The Rise and Fall of Iran's “Blogestan”

The robust community of Iranian bloggers—sometimes nicknamed “Blogestan”—has shrunk since its heyday between 2002 – 2010. “Whither Blogestan,” a recent report from the University of Pennsylvania's Iran Media Program sought to find out how and why. The researchers performed a web crawling analysis of Blogestan, survey 165 Persian blog users, and conducted 20 interviews with influential bloggers in the Persian community. They found multiple causes of the decline in blogging, including increased social media use and interference from authorities.


tuesday >

Weekly Readings: What the Govt Wants to Know

A roundup of interesting reads and stories from around the web. GO

Russia to Treat Bloggers Like Mass Media Because "the F*cking Journalists Won't Stop Writing"

The worldwide debate over who is and who isn't a journalist has raged since digital media made it much easier for citizen journalists and other “amateurs” to compete with the big guys. In the United States, journalists are entitled to certain protections under the law, such as the right to confidential sources. As such, many argue that blogging should qualify as journalism because independent writers deserve the same legal protections as corporate employees. In Russia, however, earning a place equal to mass media means additional regulations and obligations, which some say will lead to the repression of free speech.


Politics for People: Demanding Transparent and Ethical Lobbying in the EU

Today the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) launched a campaign called Politics for People that asks candidates for the European Parliament to pledge to stand up to secretive industry lobbyists and to advocate for transparency. The Politics for People website connects voters with information about their MEP candidates and encourages them to reach out on Facebook, Twitter or by email to ask them to sign the pledge.


monday >

Security Agencies Given Full Access to Telecom Data Even Though "All Lebanese Can Not Be Suspects"

In late March, Lebanese government ministers granted security agencies unrestricted access to telecommunications data in spite of some ministers objections that it violates privacy rights. Global Voices reports that the policy violates Lebanon's existing surveillance and privacy law, Law 140, but has gotten little coverage from the country's mainstream media.


friday >

In Google Hangout, NYC Mayor de Blasio Talks Tech and Outer Borough Potential

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio followed the lead of President Obama and New York City Council member Ben Kallos Friday by participating in a Google Hangout to help mark his first 100 days in office, in which the conversation focused on expanding access to technology opportunities through education and ensuring that the needs of the so-called "outer boroughs" aren't overlooked. GO