Crossing Russia Off My Travel Plans: Thoughts on MH 17 and the Current Situation in Russia

I started my first lawsuit against the TSA almost 4 years ago because the TSA had infringed on something I love: the ability to get up, take yourself to an airport, and hours later end up anywhere in the world. Only perhaps 60 years ago was this feat impossible for the average person, and it is truly a gift that we can do so today. When the TSA conditioned that gift upon acceptance of government-sponsored sexual assault, I found it revolting and pushed back with everything I had.

Last week, for me at least, the ability to travel the world has shrank just a bit more. As best one can tell based on the evidence we’ve seen, rebels in the Ukraine armed and supported by Russia were provided with a surface-to-air missile system which they did not know how to use. While targeting what they thought was a military plane, these Russian-sponsored militants accidentally shot down a Boeing 777 passenger plane, killing nearly 300 innocent people from all over the world.

Russia is unapologetic, refusing to admit (while also failing to deny) that it provided the means to the people responsible for this tragedy. It has annexed a part of a sovereign nation, and stands ready to seize any opportunity to take over the remainder of the Ukraine (a possibility that now seems less likely due to the increased international attention brought upon Russia as a result of MH 17). And while I’m not happy about many of the things that are going on in my own government — from NSA spying to rampant police thuggery, a Congress that does nothing except when it is bought, and a President who thinks he is above the law (yes, the last president thought he was above the law, too) — the internal situation in Russia is heading from bad to worse. Reports of restrictions on free speech, criminalizing homosexuality, and violently silencing political opponents threaten to take Russia back to the olden days of Soviet oppression.

Sadly, I love Russian culture. I’ve been to Russia four times in the last 6 years (and the Ukraine several more), I’ve learned a good amount of the Russian language, made many Russian friends, and have absolutely loved my time in that country. But, the downing of MH 17 makes it impossible to ignore that Russia is not a safe place and that much of the leadership of Russia intends to do bad things to both their own countrymen and anyone who has anything that they want. With disappointment, I cross Russia off of the list of places I’m planning to travel until Russia decides to return to being a good citizen. I hope that as, one by one, people, companies, and countries stop doing business with Russia, they will eventually see that there is more to gain by being a contributor to the world than a taker.

No-Fly List Conclusion: Government Declines to Appeal, Full Order To Be Released (?)

If you’ve been following, I’ve been covering the case of Rahinah Ibrahim, the university professor who was accidentally placed on the no-fly list — which came with a whole host of other issues — because an FBI agent accidentally checked the wrong box. This woman was forced to go to court to correct this obvious mistake, because either the government was embarrassed or, perhaps, simply doesn’t care.

The case was a circus, with the government attempting to protect her inclusion on the list as a “state secret,” in addition to being classified. This argument was sternly rebuked by the judge. The government also blocked a witness for the plaintiff from entering the country. The judge’s ruling on that is largely redacted. In the end, the judge ruled in favor of Dr. Ibrahim and ordered that she be removed from any lists she found herself on as a result of the FBI’s error.

The government’s time frame to file an appeal has now expired, and so Dr. Ibrahim’s case is finally over. It has now been demonstrated that there is a right to due process with the no-fly list, and the government cannot simply take away your right to travel and say, “sorry, that’s a secret.” Those redactions may also be short-lived, and we may get a fuller story soon, as the judge found that his ruling should not be redacted and agreed to keep his conclusions a partial secret only pending appeal. It will be exciting to have the final pieces of this story laid out.

The Most Sued NYPD Officer: 28 Times in 8 Years, $884K Paid in Settlements

Det. Valentin -- NYC's Most Sued CopMeet Detective Peter Valentin. Det. Valentin makes approximately $125,000 per year, including overtime, for his role as a narcotics officer with the NYPD. In the last 8 years, this cop has been sued for violating the civil rights of the people 28 times, or about once every 3 months or so. The suits that have settled have already cost the city (read: the taxpayers) over $884,000, as exposed by the NY Daily News.

The fact that these suits were settled means that the city found them to be credible. New York doesn’t simply settle lawsuits to get rid of them if it thinks they can win, and as you may have noticed on my blog, goes through great lengths to convince the courts (often successfully) of some very creative defenses. Yet, despite the fact that the city has plenty of reason to believe that this cop routinely violates the citizens, Det. Valentin is still a member of the NYPD.

Although Det. Valentin holds the record for “most sued officer,” he is hardly alone. The top 12 most sued NYPD officers were involved in a total of 231 cases and have cost the taxpayers at least $7,709,071. All of them are still employed. And there’s another interesting anomaly: of the top 12, nine of them are narcotics officers. The “war on drugs” is, of course, responsible for the rise of the American police state moreso than any other factor, and brings us all of these “no-knock warrants” that leave 80 year old men shot in their beds, searches authorized by dogs rather than warrants, and “I smelled marijuana!” as the universal justification for police assholery.

Why is it that these men are allowed to continue to victimize the population? Possibly because despite costing the city $7.7M, in addition to their salary, narcotics officers bring the city significant revenue in the form of civil forfeitures. Perhaps the NYPD looks at these lawsuits, and the beatings and false arrests doled out to innocents caught up in the dragnet, as “the cost of doing business.” After all, despite the fact that these cops are sued personally, the city still picks up the tab, so there is zero reason for these officers to behave as long as they keep bringing in the dollars.

Sad.

A Quick “Thank You!” To My Bitcoin Donors

Most of the donors, who generously support my work against intrusive government agencies, do so by PayPal, which allows me to send a “thank you” for funds received. But, the beauty of Bitcoin is that it is anonymous, so I have no idea who these supporters are unless they have also contacted me by e-mail. So to you, anonymous donors, thank you so much!

My “‘Change We Can Believe In’ Donation Drive” (where I will be paying the NYPD $820.15 in court fees with loose change) has been a huge success so far, and the NYPD will be receiving a care package around Christmas. :) If you’d still like to help…

  • Coins: Mail to Jonathan Corbett, 228 Park Ave. S. #86952, New York, NY 10003
  • PayPal: Donate here!
  • Bitcoin: 15ftA2938sp7Mnsi8U7wYVmEtd4BRbFnkT
  • Check: Make out to Jonathan Corbett and mail to the address above

This is my coin collection so far (a little under $400… about half way there!)…

Coins

Fun fact: The U.S. mint no longer circulates half-dollars! They still print them and sell them at a small markup to collectors, so I’ve purchased a few of them to sprinkle in. :D

#StopWatchingUs NSA Protest in DC Last Saturday

NSA Protest in DC 10/26/2013I made the trip down to DC for the StopWatching.Us protest. SWU is a coalition of a large group of civil rights advocates, including some big names like the ACLU and EFF. The rally was personally endorsed by Edward Snowden — how could I say no to that?!

Several hundred protesters marched from Union Station to the reflecting pool at the National Mall and stayed for hours with one simple demand: no more mass spying on the American people. Speakers included the legendary Bruce Schneier, information security guru and general badass in the name of privacy, and the beautiful October day was the perfect day to be out in DC.

Being Halloween week, I couldn’t resist going in costume, and, of course, the AP caught me (I’m the red monster :D):

Monsters Protest

It was great to see so many faces out there demanding change. We definitely need more of these events! If you find one that’s within your reach, please make the time to attend.

Life Lesson for a Civil Rights Advocate: You Can’t Fix Everything

One of the most difficult things I’ve found about doing civil rights advocacy is this: there are so many things wrong in this country, and you can’t make time to fight them all. Once you learn that it is, in fact, possible to challenge the injustices in this world (and that many times, if you don’t challenge them, no one else does), it becomes far too tempting to just take on another issue. When Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA came out, for example, it took all my willpower to not write up a lawsuit. (I couldn’t resist having a little fun, and created a Web site for people to request their NSA file called My NSA Records, but no legal challenges from me.)

If one takes on too many challenges, sufficient focus to complete any of the challenges will be lost. Indeed, sufficient focus to maintain the rest of your life can become lost as well, especially if you’re working a full-time job in addition to fighting the man (if anyone would like to sponsor a full-time civil rights advocate, let me know!).

The same goes for continuing current cases when they’ve lost meaning. My case against NYPD stop-and-frisk was dismissed last month after a judge ruled that I couldn’t prove that I was dealing with actual police officers. Four men, who looked like cops, in a dark sedan that looked like an undercover cop car (complete with console electronics) identified themselves as police, detained me, searched me with neither consent nor cause, and then let me go without taking anything. I didn’t ask for a badge because I thought I’d get a face full of sidewalk and because I had no doubt that these men were real cops, but the city claims they have no record of cops being there.

It makes no sense that these men were just random troublemakers looking to pat down random people on the street, and I believe the judge made a clear error in determining that no reasonable jury could find that the NYPD was responsible for my constitutional injury. But, taking that argument to the Court of Appeals, I believe, will take my focus off of the cases that are more important to me — my work against the TSA — and in light of the fact that stop-and-frisk was recently ruled unconstitutional in another case, I’ve decided it would be a distraction with minimal benefit. The war on stop-and-frisk has, hopefully, already been won.

The people who are the best at what they do are the best because they have the sharpest focus. They know what they want and they work every day to get it. I shall continue to sharpen my focus on the issues that are really important to me.

NSA Database Only for Terrorists? Hardly. Database Used for Years to Track Drug Suspects

Breaking this morning is a story that the DEA uses the databases of other law enforcement agencies, including the NSA’s vast phone and Web databases, to identify potential criminals. Then, when they find someone, they’ll look for a way to search the person without giving away that they used those databases, which they’ve coined “parallel construction.”

Parallel construction is a euphemism made up by the government for conducting an unlawful search and then unlawfully concealing that fact from both the courts and defense attorneys, in violation of the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, various federal statutes (perjury being the most significant), and the rules of every court. When an illegal search is conducted, it cannot be “made right” by using the bad info and figuring out another way to nab the guy. It’s called using the “fruit of the poisonous tree” and it has been dismissed by every court for about 80 years.

The government will always start its illegal searches with those repulsed by society — terrorists, child pornographers, drug cartel members — and slowly work its way back to “garden variety” criminals. The courts will say, “well, we made it legal for the terrorists, why not for the guy who failed to use his turn signal?” If we don’t stand up for everyone’s rights — even the rights of the most despicable — the rights will be gone for all, and we’ll have deserved it for so easily giving them away. Or instead, we can demand now that the government catch everyone — even terrorists — using investigations that follow the law, followed by a trial that affords them full due process, and only then followed by a jail cell that they justly deserve.

Consumer Finance Protection Bureau: Protecting Consumers or Banks?

A bit off topic, but I just can’t resist blogging about any useless or counterproductive federal agency.

A couple weeks ago, my gym membership dues hit one of my debit cards and overdrafted one of my checking accounts (the perils of having more than one account, it seems, is that occasionally one ends up empty… but I digress…). This shocked me, since federal rules that went into effect in 2010 bar debit overdrafting and associated fees without an explicit opt-in, which there’s not a chance I would give. I called my bank and asked if they enjoyed flouting federal rules, to which they replied that these rules only apply to “one-time” transactions and my gym membership doesn’t count.

A quick review of the rules shows that they are correct that these rules apply only to “one-time” transactions, but there’s no definition of “one-time.” Debit card transactions aren’t “scheduled” with the banks or anything — merchants process them as agreed whenever they get around to it, so really, every transaction, in my opinion, is “one-time.” So where is the line drawn? If I go to a restaurant twice and use the same card, is that no longer one-time? Does it have to be on regular intervals or a specific number of instances?

The agency responsible for the rule gets the first pass at defining the ambiguous (that is, courts give “deference” to an agency as to the interpretation of their own rules, so long as that interpretation isn’t absurd). So I asked the agency responsbile for the rule: while original the rule was issued by the Federal Reserve, authority for the rule was passed on to the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau upon its creation in 2011. So I e-mailed the agency asking for their interpretation of “one-time,” and was surprised to get a fast response from an attorney for the agency who asked me to call him to discuss. I politely declined, explaining that I’d prefer it by e-mail such that I could forward a copy on to my bank if the interpretation was useful for the return of my $35 overdraft fee.

nowrittenHere’s where it gets weird (well, weirder than a government agency that’s actually responsive other than when they want your money): The CFPB attorney refused to tell me the agency’s interpretation in writing. At first I’m told that “informal” guidance can’t be given in writing, and upon asking how to get formal guidance, I was told that individuals can’t.

So if consumers can’t get informal guidance in writing or formal guidance at all, who is this “Consumer” Finance “Protection” Bureau protecting? Is this another one of those, “we’ll protect the people by protecting the financial institutions” type things? Too big to fail, too big to jail, and too big to talk about in writing (unless, of course, they request it). Naturally, they picked the wrong person to refuse — I’ll be continuing my query via Freedom of Information Act requests until I have my answer.

Stay tuned tomorrow for the start of our 30-part series, “No Surveillance State Month,” where daily for the month of June I’ll be posting ways to avoid invasion of your privacy in the digital age.

Reddit: Pictures of Kittens, Inteviews with Makeup Artists = Good, Civil Rights Advocacy = Spam

I’m a little bit bitter. When news of my video last year broke, the story topped Reddit for at least 2 full days. Little did I know that during those two days, I was actually banned from the site because an automated spam filter decided I must be a spammer since I was focused on one topic. I say “little did I know” because when you’re banned from Reddit, they don’t tell you and everything appears as normal, but your posts aren’t visible to anyone but you. I figured it out a year later — a year’s worth of my posts there went down the memory hole.

When I figured it out and contacted Reddit’s admins about it, they fixed it and told me it was a mistake, but I got no apology and was told it could happen again. Sure enough, today I was doing an officially scheduled “Ask Me Anything” (a Reddit mainstay where people who have done something interesting are essentially interviewed by the community) to promote awareness of the public comment period now open regarding the TSA’s nude body scanners and my post was deleted, again silently. For hours I checked my computer for questions from the community to respond to before trying from another device to see that my post had been vaporized. I was told that my post was “mistakenly” deleted, but told to repost only if I didn’t include the words “We need your help.”

Reddit, your priorities are misaligned when photos of cats and AMAs with make-up artists dominate, but a civil rights advocate can only do an AMA if he doesn’t advocate. Your culture of silent bans and deletions unnecessarily make legitimate posters waste countless hours interacting with a site that will never post those interactions and making people feel like their contributions are of no value to your community. Please remove the ability of subreddit (forum) moderators to silent delete and remove the ability of the automated spam filter to silent ban. It’s worth a little more spam to avoid missing out on the contributions of your legitimate users.

Feel free to share on Reddit. :)

June is “No Surveillance State Month” …plus Catch Me on Reddit IAmA!

Databases, technical gadgets, electronic payment, and cameras everywhere mean that each person can be tracked like never before. Where once the government had to use scarce human resources, thereby limiting its ability to spy to worthy targets only, computers make it possible to spy on everyone at all times.

June is my birth month, and to celebrate, I’ll be posting one way to avoid the constant intrusion on your privacy — whether that intrusion is effected by governments, corporations, or mere fraudsters — each day for the entire month. These 30 tips will highlight some more obvious, some less obvious, things that most of us do (or fail to do) that help our watchers to watch us, and what we can do instead to “opt-out” with minimal time and effort.

Also, this Tuesday, May 28th, 2013, at 11:00 AM ET, I’ll be doing an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit. Reddit sent literally hundreds of thousands of hits to my blog back when my video was released and consists of a community that is largely interested in and aware of privacy issues and government overreach. Register an account and come chat with me then! :-D

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