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The Silent Invasion
The Speculative Foundation of Surveillance Behind the Ongoing Privacy Erosion
In a glaring examination of the delicate balance between national security and personal privacy, recently revealed records have exposed a collaboration between the Department of Homeland Security and the University of Alabama at Birmingham back in 2018. This partnership gave rise to a venture known as Night Fury, aimed at scrutinizing and assigning risk assessments to social media profiles.
As our lives increasingly intertwine with the digital realm, where our discussions, browsing patterns, and even intimate photographs are exposed, the specter of government surveillance looms uncomfortably near. Night Fury stands as a prime example of the tools employed by authorities that erode the fundamental rights and liberties of individuals.
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The revelation of this surveillance technique walks a treacherous tightrope between the perceived necessity for national security and the sacred domain of civil liberties.
Through a public records request, the Brennan Center for Justice managed to obtain these documents, which subsequently came to light thanks to Motherboard's pioneering reporting.
The ambitious undertaking known as Project Night Fury seeks to harness the power of automation in order to identify and assess social media profiles with potential ties to terrorism, illicit distribution of opioids, as well as disinformation campaigns. By delving into the vast expanse of online interactions, Night Fury aims to discern patterns and connections that might otherwise elude human scrutiny.
The repercussions of efforts to counter alleged foreign disinformation on Twitter exemplify how such initiatives have been turned into weapons against American citizens.
According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) document, the contracted party was tasked with developing specific attributes to formulate a methodology for assigning risk scores or rankings to the identified social media accounts.
Additionally, Project Night Fury had envisaged collaboration with multiple entities, including Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. This collaboration aimed to provide a comprehensive operational context across various missions, as stated in one of the disclosed documents.
Throughout history, governments have grappled with the challenge of ensuring national security while upholding civil liberties. Nevertheless, the widespread use of social media today, combined with the advancements in AI-driven analytics, has given rise to strategies that possess the potential to erode civil liberties on a magnitude surpassing even the aspirations of the Stasi.
On the surface, the idea of assigning risk scores to social media accounts, as pursued by Project Night Fury, might seem innocuous to some observers. The initial objectives of targeting counterterrorism efforts, combating illegal opioid networks, addressing transnational crime, and countering foreign disinformation campaigns may even appear commendable to those who remain oblivious to the underlying implications.
However, closer examination of the methodology, scope, and potential applications of these risk scores has raised significant concerns and triggered warning signals among critics.
Experts have aptly cautioned about the lack of concrete definitions for characteristics like “pro-terrorist” and the potential repercussions of automating judgments based on vague criteria. Such an approach could have troubling implications for the rights of U.S. citizens.
Firstly, there is the critical concern of false positives. Given the imprecise nature of assigning risk scores, innocent individuals run the risk of being wrongly identified as potential threats. In these instances, individuals could have their freedoms restricted based on algorithms that neither they nor the public fully comprehend or have the ability to challenge.
This scenario bears resemblance to the dark era of McCarthyism in the 1950s, when individuals were often unjustly accused of disloyalty or branded as communists on flimsy evidence. This led to severe consequences such as loss of employment, social isolation, and, in some cases, imprisonment. The potential for history to repeat itself in a digital context is deeply concerning.
A second crucial issue revolves around the potential for socioeconomic biases to manifest. It is widely acknowledged that machine learning models can inadvertently perpetuate biases inherent in the data they are trained on. This raises the alarming possibility of certain racial, ethnic, political, or socioeconomic groups being disproportionately targeted or unfairly impacted by the automated risk assessment system.
Furthermore, there is a significant concern regarding the violation of privacy rights.
The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution safeguards citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures. However, the broad scope employed by automated systems to analyze social media accounts for risk assessment purposes could be viewed as an infringement on individuals' privacy rights. This echoes the controversial practices of the NSA's bulk collection of telephone and internet records, which were exposed by Edward Snowden in 2013 and subsequently deemed illegal by the courts. This does not mean it stopped, it accelerated—just better hidden.
The potential erosion of privacy rights and the indiscriminate targeting of specific groups further compound the apprehensions surrounding Project Night Fury and its implications for civil liberties.
The unrestrained scrutiny of social media platforms has the potential to unintentionally gather information on innocent individuals, ushering in a dystopian surveillance state reminiscent of Orwell's writings. In such a state, the pervasive fear of constant surveillance leads to self-censorship and a chilling effect on the freedom of expression.
The risk score system proposed by Project Night Fury bears some resemblance to China's social credit system, where individuals are assigned numerical values based on their behaviors. Introduced by the Chinese government in 2014, the social credit score encompasses a wide range of activities, including traffic violations and online shopping habits.
These scores wield significant influence over various aspects of people's lives, from their travel opportunities to their children's educational prospects.
The disclosure about Project Night Fury adds to a series of revelations, such as the utilization of an AI-powered tool called Babel X by Customs and Border Protection for scrutinizing the social media presence of travelers.
These developments raise valid concerns about the encroachment on personal privacy and the potential consequences of such surveillance practices on civil liberties and individual autonomy.
Despite receiving minimal media attention and largely flying under the radar, these revelations hold significant importance. It is concerning that the tool in question, Babel X, was not only employed to scrutinize refugees and immigrants but also used to analyze the social media presence of U.S. citizens and those who seek to visit the country.
This raises the possibility of a potential infringement upon the First Amendment rights, which may warrant judicial examination.
Crafted by Babel Street, Babel X is an exceptionally perceptive tool capable of delving into a vast array of data using minimal input such as a name, email, or phone number. Once provided with such information, it swiftly unveils a wealth of details, including social media posts, associated IP addresses, employment history, and even unique advertising identifiers linked to mobile phones.
Remarkably, Babel X transcends linguistic barriers, proficiently navigating data in more than 200 languages. Its capabilities are not hindered by language constraints, further enhancing its efficacy in extracting information.
Babel X delves not only into the public web, but also explores the enigmatic realms of the dark and deep webs, uncovering hidden information. The AI-driven nature of Babel X, alluded to on Babel Street's website, further emphasizes its remarkable capabilities.
Interestingly, the CBP document references commercially available records amassed by private entities, which reportedly include social security numbers.
Expanding its repertoire, Babel X demonstrates proficiency in sentiment analysis, enabling it to potentially discern the underlying tone and emotion within text.
Since the tragic events of 9/11 and the implementation of the Patriot Act, boarding a flight has served as a pretext for extensive surveillance measures. This invasive scrutiny extends not only to physical personhood, but also encompasses digital and online scanning.
Regrettably, the act of taking a flight, even within the confines of domestic travel, has been utilized as a justification to compromise Fourth Amendment protections, all in the name of security. This erosion of privacy is a concern that deserves careful attention.
As the intricate machinery of monitoring and surveillance expands, a concerning sense of security paranoia emerges. Merely carrying cash or engaging in last-minute bookings or short trips now raises suspicion and places individuals on watchlists.
Recently unsealed documents provide further substantiation to previous reports, confirming that government agencies actively employ travel records for surveillance purposes. These practices are carried out in collaboration with airports and entities known as Global Distribution Providers (GDS).
A court order dating back to 2015 reveals the pivotal role played by these GDS companies as valuable sources of data for law enforcement agencies. The unsealing of these documents came as a result of legal action initiated by Forbes and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in the previous summer. In December, they were granted access to some documents, shedding light on the extent of this surveillance operation.
Global Distribution Systems are designed to enhance convenience for travelers by providing a comprehensive database of diverse travel-related information. This data is utilized by airlines, hotels, cruise organizers, and other entities to facilitate streamlined and improved booking processes.
However, it appears that the convenience offered by these databases extends beyond traveler satisfaction. Government agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are leveraging the capabilities of GDS for contemporary, real-time surveillance of individuals.
The report references a 2015 warrant issued under the authority of the All-Writs Act, a law dating back to 1789. Approved by a court, the warrant granted the FBI access to SABRE, a prominent GDS with access to a significant portion of global travel bookings.
The objective of the warrant was to locate and monitor an undisclosed individual, described as a known fugitive in the unsealed documents. The FBI compelled SABRE to disclose records of the individual's travel activities over a two-year period.
It is noteworthy that the legal justification for this order, the All-Writs Act, is an ancient law signed by George Washington himself over 230 years ago.
The interpretation of the All-Writs Act by U.S. authorities has been far-reaching, even encompassing modern technologies like encryption. A notable example was the 2016 case where Apple contested an order to unlock an iPhone belonging to a suspect involved in the San Bernardino shooting.
Albert Fox Kahn, the Executive Director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, expressed concerns about the broad application of this act by the courts. He highlighted the minimal requirement of probable cause from the government under the All-Writs Act. According to him, this raises chilling implications, particularly when it grants three-letter agencies access to data stored by entities like SABRE.
Kahn further noted that airport surveillance has experienced unrestricted expansion over the years, justified as a means to enhance passenger security. However, once these surveillance methods and technologies are established, they become potent tools that can be employed to scrutinize almost anyone chosen for examination.
Moreover, agencies do not always necessitate formal court approval to access passenger records. A DEA warrant filed in January, regarding the confiscation of cash at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, exposes this reality. Although the seizure itself required a warrant, the selection of travelers exhibiting behavior deemed potentially suspicious did not.
Among the activities deemed suspicious by the DEA are last-minute bookings and short return flights, which they interpret as potential indicators of involvement in drug trafficking.
To gather information about individuals' travel patterns, the agency simply accessed records held by the airport. In the case mentioned, the Minneapolis airport declined to comment, citing an ongoing investigation.
The rationale behind such surveillance practices appears to be speculative in nature. The DEA claims that drug traffickers often cannot anticipate the availability of their suppliers well in advance. Therefore, last-minute bookings are seen as suspicious behavior. Similarly, individuals traveling to a destination and returning within a two-day timeframe are typically considered as expediting drug transactions while minimizing the risks associated with carrying substantial quantities of illicit substances.
Whether based on guesswork or not, these practices, along with others of a similar nature, have transformed U.S. borders into zones lacking privacy, where one's movements and personal data can be monitored with limited oversight.
The use of surveillance technology and the stretching of legal interpretations by law enforcement agencies raise important questions about the balance between security measures and individual rights. The case in Minneapolis, as reported by Forbes, highlights the potential pitfalls and risks associated with such practices.
According to court records, there was no additional evidence to suggest that the individual carrying the cash was involved in drug sales. As of the publication of the report, the person had not faced any charges. This raises significant concerns about the accuracy and reliability of the dystopian technology employed in these surveillance efforts.
Instances where the technology yields false or misleading results are not only an infringement on privacy rights but also a reflection of the potential flaws and shortcomings of such intrusive systems. The repercussions of such errors can have far-reaching consequences for individuals' reputations, freedom, and overall trust in the systems implemented by law enforcement.
These incidents underscore the importance of maintaining a careful balance between security measures and protecting civil liberties. It prompts us to question whether law enforcement agencies can effectively carry out their work without overstepping boundaries and pushing the limits of surveillance technologies. Striking this delicate balance is crucial to ensure that innocent individuals are not wrongly targeted or subjected to undue scrutiny, preserving the principles of justice, fairness, and individual rights in our society.
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