West Coast Jurisdictions Advance Community Oversight of Police Surveillance

  • This summer, two of the west coast’s largest metropolitan areas—Seattle and California—took major steps to curtail secret, unilateral surveillance by local police. These victories for transparency and community control lend momentum toward sweeping reforms pending across California, as well as congressional efforts to curtail unchecked surveillance by federal authorities.

    On July 31, the Seattle City Council adopted an ordinance requiring public participation when local police departments acquire surveillance technologies. Days before, a Los Angeles County oversight body rejected a proposed use policy governing the sheriff’s department’s use of surveillance drones. In LA, deputies have been told they may not use drones at all.

    These measures are the frontrunners for others pending before municipal and county bodies across the country, as well as at the state level in California, America’s most populous and prosperous state. S.B. 21—a bill poised to transform police oversight across California—has already passed the California State Senate and two State Assembly committees.

    Seattle Adopts a New Transparency Ordinance

    Monday’s vote in Seattle reflected a unanimous City Council agreement: the public must be involved in decisions about local police and other municipal surveillance.

    The ordinance was long overdue. In 2013, the Seattle Police Department deactivated a federally funded surveillance mesh network after The Stranger reported that the invasive system was approved without meaningful scrutiny. SPD conceded that its process was insufficient, agreeing to suspend the program “until [the] city council approves a draft policy and until there’s an opportunity for vigorous public debate."

    Seattle’s oversight ordinance requires the Council to hear from the public before a law enforcement (or any other municipal) agency mayacquire surveillance equipment. The law is “device neutral,” subjecting acquisition of any surveillance equipment to the process. According to Councilmember M. Lorena González, “this new law [will enable the] Council [to] be a check and balance on surveillance technology acquisitions because the public deserves to know how such data will be managed and for what purpose it is being collected.”

    Unfortunately, Seattle’s ordinance has crucial gaps that limit its effectiveness. For example, the law’s enforcement mechanism relies on private litigants, but unnecessarily limits their access to justice. In addition, broad exemptions carving out police body cameras and various sources of video surveillance exclude some of the most visible forms of surveillance from the ordinance’s protections. That said, the law still covers covert police spying tools like cell-site simulators, and Shotspotter audio listening devices that cities across America are already abandoning due to concerns about their effectiveness.

    Despite its gaps, Seattle’s new surveillance transparency law puts important limits on local police surveillance through public process, as opposed to legislatively specifying substantive limits on the use of a particular device. Ultimately, process and substance are interwoven in any reform addressing police procedure, and regulations in either dimension are strongest when coupled.

    For instance, the new law does not require that surveillance technology be used narrowly for the “purposes of a criminal investigation supported by reasonable suspicion.” It does, however, require agencies seeking technology to specify their policies for each device platform, including how they will collect, retain, and share data obtained through them.

    In particular, the ordinance requires law enforcement seeking any surveillance technology to develop “a clear use and data management policy,” addressing “factors that will be used to determine where, when, and how the technology is deployed…whether [it] will be operated continuously or used only under specific circumstances,” and also specifies “what processes will be required prior to each use…including…what legal standard…must be met before [it] is used….”

    By providing transparency and community control at the point of acquisition, the new ordinance enables future policymakers and activists to seek more demanding limits on these parameters, not only through future legislation, but also through the process now required before each proposed technology acquisition.

    LA County Commissioners Reject Proposed Drone Policy

    In response to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department acquisition of an unmanned aerial vehicle, concerned community members mobilized to challenge the normalization of drone surveillance. Hamid Khan from the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition argued that the sheriff’s operation of a surveillance drone “represents…the rapid escalation and militarization of police.”

    Others objected that the sheriff had previously hired a private company to conduct manned aerial surveillance of Compton in 2012 without securing permission from local policymakers. Yet others noted predictable “mission creep” and, according to the LA Times, “voiced concerns that the aircraft could someday be armed, as in North Dakota….”

    Prompted in part by those concerns, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted in January to subject the sheriff’s surveillance drone operations to civilian oversight. On July 27, the Los Angeles County Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission voted to reject the sheriff’s proposed use policy, with a majority of commissioners preferring for the sheriff not to use the device at all. According to the LA Times:

    The four members voting against the recommendations…said at the meeting and afterward that they oppose the department’s use of drones altogether….A fifth commissioner…was not at the meeting but wrote a report issued Thursday explaining her support for grounding the drone.

    Despite the commissioners’ opposition to sheriff’s plans, the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition spokesperson noted that their decision “leaves things in limbo” since it lets the Sheriff’s Department continue deploying its drone.

    Transforming Police Surveillance Across California: S.B. 21

    The measure adopted in Seattle is similar to a statewide bill pending in California that could prevent the spy-first-ask-questions-later situations we saw in Seattle, Baltimore, and also in Los Angeles, by requiring new surveillance technologies to be approved by local policymakers—informed by public comment—before law enforcement agencies gain access to them.

    S.B. 21, introduced by California State Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), has already been approved by the state Senate, as well as two committees of the state Assembly. It is currently pending before the Assembly’s Appropriations Committee, which it must pass in order to receive a vote from the full Assembly.

    Should S.B. 21 pass the Assembly and be signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, it would subject hundreds of law enforcement agencies at once to transparency and community control through requirements along the lines of—but even broader than—those adopted in Seattle this week.

    Neither transparency nor public participation are partisan ideals. Rather, they are principles of democratic governance long embraced across the American political spectrum.

    The alternative to S.B. 21 is continued secrecy and executive fiat, which always contradict our nation’s founding values—but never so much as when they infect local policymaking. Today, when the federal executive branch appears to have less concern than ever for the rule of law, state and local checks on executive power grow even more crucial.

    Take Action

    Tell the California Assembly to pass S.B. 21.

    In addition to supporting S.B. 21 by contacting their members of the state Assembly, we also encourage Californians who support digital rights to write social media posts and op-eds explaining in their own words why transparency and community control matter so much.

    For those who live elsewhere, bringing together neighbors to learn about these reforms presents the opportunity to champion them in other areas. Grassroots groups active in the Electronic Frontier Alliance have been integral to the policymaking process underlying S.B. 21, and if the Alliance has not yet included a group in your area, the local policing reforms embodied in S.B. 21 present a chance to raise the flag wherever in the U.S. you live.

    Transforming Surveillance Policy in Congress: FISA 702

    These opportunities at the local and state level are especially crucial this year, since Congress will consider mass surveillance by federal agencies before the end of the year, forced by the scheduled expiration of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

    Congress passed FISA 702 in 2009, attempting to legalize the NSA’s unconstitutional Internet surveillance programs (including PRISM and Upstream collection, among others) over vehement objections. EFF was fighting in federal court to stop mass spying even before the passage of 702, and while those cases continue to proceed, the only congressional action on mass Internet surveillance has been to extend a previous deadline for the statute’s expiration.

    Before considering any further extension of the NSA’s expiring authorities, however, Congress must first do the hard work of uncovering secret facts, as oversight bodies in Seattle, Los Angeles, and the rest of the State of California are finally doing at the local level.


Tmux Commands

screen and tmux

A comparison of the features (or more-so just a table of notes for accessing some of those features) for GNU screen and BSD-licensed tmux.

The formatting here is simple enough to understand (I would hope). ^ means ctrl+, so ^x is ctrl+x. M- means meta (generally left-alt or escape)+, so M-x is left-alt+x

It should be noted that this is no where near a full feature-set of either group. This - being a cheat-sheet - is just to point out the most very basic features to get you on the road.

Trust the developers and manpage writers more than me. This document is originally from 2009 when tmux was still new - since then both of these programs have had many updates and features added (not all of which have been dutifully noted here).

Action tmux screen
start a new session tmux OR
tmux new OR
tmux new-session
re-attach a detached session tmux attach OR
tmux attach-session
re-attach an attached session (detaching it from elsewhere) tmux attach -d OR
tmux attach-session -d
screen -dr
re-attach an attached session (keeping it attached elsewhere) tmux attach OR
tmux attach-session
screen -x
detach from currently attached session ^b d OR
^b :detach
^a ^d OR
^a :detach
rename-window to newname ^b , <newname> OR
^b :rename-window <newn>
^a A <newname>
list windows ^b w ^a w
list windows in chooseable menu ^a "
go to window # ^b # ^a #
go to last-active window ^b l ^a ^a
go to next window ^b n ^a n
go to previous window ^b p ^a p
see keybindings ^b ? ^a ?
list sessions ^b s OR
tmux ls OR
tmux list-sessions
screen -ls
toggle visual bell ^a ^g
create another window ^b c ^a c
exit current shell/window ^d ^d
split window/pane horizontally ^b " ^a S
split window/pane vertically ^b % ^a |
switch to other pane ^b o ^a <tab>
kill the current pane ^b x OR (logout/^D)
collapse the current pane/split (but leave processes running) ^a X
cycle location of panes ^b ^o
swap current pane with previous ^b {
swap current pane with next ^b }
show time ^b t
show numeric values of panes ^b q
toggle zoom-state of current pane (maximize/return current pane) ^b z
break the current pane out of its window (to form new window) ^b !
re-arrange current panels within same window (different layouts) ^b [space]
Kill the current window (and all panes within) ^b killw [target-window]
  • Criteo is an ad company. You may not have heard of them, but they do retargeting, the type of ads that pursue users across the web, beseeching them to purchase a product they once viewed or have already bought. To identify users across websites, Criteo relies on cross-site tracking using cookies and other methods to follow users as they browse. This has led them to try and circumvent the privacy features in Apple’s Safari browser which protects its users from such tracking. Despite this apparently antagonistic attitude towards user privacy, Criteo has also been whitelisted by the Acceptable Ads initiative. This means that their ads are unblocked by popular adblockers such as Adblock and Adblock Plus. Criteo pays Eyeo, the operator of Acceptable Ads, for this whitelisting and must comply with their format requirements. But this also means they can track any user of these adblockers who has not disabled Acceptable Ads, even if they have installed privacy tools such as EasyPrivacy with the intention of protecting themselves. EFF is concerned about Criteo’s continued anti-privacy actions and their continued inclusion in Acceptable Ads.

    Safari Shuts out Third Party Cookies…

    All popular browsers give users control over who gets to set cookies, but Safari is the only one that blocks third-party cookies (those set by a domain other than the site you are visiting) by default. (Safari’s choice is important because only 5-10% of users ever change default settings in software.) Criteo relies on third-party cookies. Since users have little reason to visit Criteo’s own website, the company gets its cookies onto users’ machines through its integration on many online retail websites. Safari’s cookie blocking is a major problem for Criteo, especially given the large and lucrative nature of iPhone’s user base. Rather than accept this, Criteo has repeatedly implemented ways to defeat Safari’s privacy protections.

    One workaround researchers detected Criteo using was to redirect users from sites where their service was present to their own. For example, if you visited wintercoats.com and clicked on a product category, you would be first diverted to criteo.com and then redirected to wintercoats.com/down-filled. Although imperceptible to the user, this detour was enough to persuade the browser that criteo.com is a site you chose to visit, and therefore a first party entitled to set a cookie rather than a third party. Criteo applied for a patent on this method in August 2013.

    …And Closes the Backdoor

    Last summer, however, Apple unveiled a new version of Safari with more sophisticated cookie handling—called Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP)—which killed off the redirect technique as a means to circumvent the cookie controls. The browser now analyzes if the user has engaged with a website in a meaningful way before allowing it to set a cookie. The announcement triggered panic among advertising companies, whose trade association, the Interactive Advertising Bureau, denounced the feature and rushed out technical recommendations to work around it. Obviously the level of user “interaction” with Criteo during the redirect described above fails ITP’s test, which meant Criteo was locked out again.

    It appears that Criteo’s response was to abandon cookies for Safari users and to generate a persistent identifier by piggybacking on a key user safety technology called HSTS. When a browser connects to a site via HTTPS (i.e. a site that supports encryption), the site can respond with an HTTP Strict Transport Security policy (HSTS), instructing the browser to only contact it using HTTPS. Without a HSTS policy, your browser might try to connect to the site over regular old unencrypted HTTP in the future—and thus be vulnerable to a downgrade attack. Criteo used HSTS to sneak data into the browser cache to produce an identifier it could use to recognize the individual’s browser and profile them. This approach relied on the fact that it is difficult to clear HSTS data in Safari, requiring the user to purge the cache entirely to delete the identifier. For EFF, it is especially worrisome that Criteo used a technique that pits privacy protection against user security interests by targeting HSTS. Use of this mechanism was documented by Gotham City Research, an investment firm who have bet against Criteo’s stock.

    In early December, Apple released an update to iOS and Safari which disabled Criteo’s ability to exploit HSTS. This led to Criteo revising down their revenue forecasts and a sharp fall in their share price.

    How is Criteo Acceptable Advertising”****?

    "… w__e sort of seek the consent of users, just like we had done before_."__1_ - Erich Eichmann, CEO Criteo

    _"Only users who don’t already have a Criteo identifier will see the header or footer, and it is displayed only once per device. Thanks to [the?] Criteo advertisers network, most of your users would have already accepted our services on the website of another of our partner. On average, only 5% of your users will see the headers or footers, and for those who do, the typical opt-out rate is less than .2%._" - Criteo Support Center

    Criteo styles itself as a leader in privacy practices, yet they have dedicated significant engineering resources to circumventing privacy tools. They claim to have obtained user consent to tracking based on a minimal warning delivered in what we believe to be a highly confusing context. When a user first visits a site containing Criteo’s script, they received a small notice stating, _"_Click any link to use Criteo’s cross-site tracking technology." If the user continues to use the site, they are deemed to have consented. Little wonder that Criteo can boast of a low opt-out rate to their clients.

    Due to their observed behaviour prior to the ITP episode, Criteo’s incorporation into the Acceptable Ads in December 2015 aroused criticism among users of ad blockers. We have written elsewhere about how Acceptable Ads creates a clash of interests between adblocking companies and their users, especially those concerned with their privacy. But Criteo’s participation in Acceptable Ads brings into focus the substantive problem with the program itself. The criteria for Acceptable Ads are concerned chiefly with format and aesthetic aspects (e.g. How big is the ad? How visually intrusive? Does it blink?) and excludes privacy concerns. Retargeting is unpopular and mocked by users, in part because it wears its creepy tracking practices on its sleeve. Our view is that Criteo’s bad behavior should exclude its products from being deemed “acceptable” in any way.

    The fact that the Acceptable Ads Initiative has approved Criteo’s user-tracking-by-misusing-security-features ads is indicative of the privacy problems we believe to be at the heart of the Acceptable Ads program. In March this year, Eyeo announced an Acceptable Ads Committee that will control the criteria for Acceptable Ads in the future. The Committee should start by instituting a rule which excludes companies that circumvent explicit privacy tools or exploit user security technologies for the purpose of tracking.

    1. http://criteo.investorroom.com/download/Transcript_Q3+2017+Earnings_EDITED.pdf


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  • Have you ever sent a motivational text to a friend? If you have, perhaps you tailored your message to an activity or location by saying “Good luck in the race!” or “Have fun in New York!” Now, imagine doing this automatically with a compuuuter. What a great invention. Actually, no. That’s not a good invention, it’s our latest Stupid Patent of the Month.

    U.S. Patent No. 9,069,648 is titled “Systems and methods for delivering activity based suggestive (ABS) messages.” The patent describes sending “motivational messages,” based “on the current or anticipated activity of the user,” to a “personal electronic device.” The patent provides examples such as sending the message “don’t give up” when the user is running up a hill. The examples aren’t limited to health or exercise. For example, the patent suggests sending messages like “do not fear” and “God is with you” when a “user enters a dangerous neighborhood.”

    The patent’s description of its invention is filled with silly, non-standard acronyms like ABS for “activity based suggestive” messages or EBIF for “electronic based intelligence function.” These silly acronyms create an illusion of complexity where plain, descriptive language would reveal the mundane nature of the supposed invention. For example, what the patent grandly calls EBIF appears to be nothing more than standard computer processing.

    The ’648 patent is owned by Motivational Health Messaging LLC. While this may be a new company, at least one of the people behind it has been involved in massive patent trolling campaigns before. And the two named inventors have both been inventors on patents that trolls have asserted hundreds of times. One is also an inventor listed on patents asserted by infamous patent troll Shipping and Transit LLC. The other named inventor is the inventor on the patents asserted by Electronic Communication Technologies LLC. Those two entities (with their predecessors) brought over 700 lawsuits, many against very small businesses. In other words, the ’648 patent has been issued to Troll Co. at 1 Troll Street, Troll Town, Trollida USA.

    We believe that the claims of the ’648 patent are clearly invalid under the Supreme Court’s decision in Alice v. CLS Bank, which held abstract ideas do not become eligible for a patent merely because they are implemented in conventional computer technology. Indeed, the patent repeatedly emphasizes that the claimed methods are not tied to any particular hardware or software. For example, it states:

    The software and software logic described in this document … which comprises an ordered listing of executable instructions for implementing logical functions, can be embodied in any non-transitory computer-readable medium for use by or in connection with an instruction execution system, apparatus, or device, such as a computer-based system, processor-containing system, or other system that can fetch the instructions from the instruction execution system, apparatus, or device and execute the instructions.

    The ’648 patent issued on June 30, 2015, a full year after the Supreme Court’s Alice ruling. Despite this, the patent examiner never even discussed the decision. If Alice is to mean anything at all, it has to be applied to an application like this one.

    In our view, if Motivational Health Messaging asserts its patent in court, any defendant that fought back should prevail under Alice. Indeed, we would hope that the court would strongly consider awarding attorney’s fees to the defendant in such a case. Shipping & Transit has now had two fee awards made against it for asserting patents that are clearly invalid under Alice. And the Federal Circuit recently held that fee awards can be appropriate when patent owners make objectively unreasonable argument concerning Alice.

    In addition to the problems under Alice, we believe the claims of the ’648 patent should have been rejected as obvious. When the application was filed in 2012, there was nothing new about sending motivational messages or automatically tailoring messages to things like location. In one proposed embodiment, the patent suggests that a “user walking to a hole may be delivered ABS messages, including reminders or instructions on how to play a particular hole.” But golf apps were already doing this. The Patent Office didn’t consider any real-world mobile phone applications when reviewing the application.

    If you want to look for prior art yourself, Unified Patents is running a crowdsourcing contest to find the best prior art to invalidate the ’648 patent. Aside from the warm feelings that come from fighting patent trolls, there is a $2000 prize pool.

    Despite the weakness of its patent, Motivational Health Messaging LLC might still send out demand letters. If you receive such a letter, you can contact EFF and we can help you find counsel.

    We have long complained that the Patent Office promotes patent trolling by granting obvious and/or abstract software patents. The history of the ’648 patent shows how the Patent Office’s failure to properly review applications leads to bad patents falling into the hands of trolls.

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