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Big Data Kafka: US Government Watchlists and the secrecy whose justification is a secret


In the ACLU's new paper U.S. Government Watchlisting: Unfair Process and Devastating Consequences [PDF], the group describes strange world of terrorist watchlists, including no-fly lists, where it's nearly impossible to discover if you're on a list, and nearly impossible to find out why you're on a list, and nearly impossible to get removed from a list. As the ACLU points out, this is Orwell by way of Kafka, where we're not allowed to know what surveillance is taking place or why surveillance is taking place -- and we're not allowed to know why we're not allowed to know.

The ACLU says that the national terrorism watchlist has 1.1 million names on it, and an AP report from 2012 found 21,000 people on the no-fly list. Recently, Rahinah Ibrahim became the first person to be officially, publicly removed from a no-fly list, after the government was forced to admit that she'd been placed there due to a bureaucratic error. All through the Ibrahim case, the government argued that disclosing any facts about her no-fly status would endanger national security, but ultimately it was obvious that the only potential risk was that the government's sloppiness would be disclosed. The state was willing to spend millions of dollars and ruin an innocent person's life rather than admitting that an FBI agent literally ticked the wrong box.

In the 13 years since 9/11, one person has managed to successfully challenge the system of secret and unaccountable watchlists. It's clear that she wasn't the only person who deserved to be removed, though. This is Big Data Kafka: the algorithm says you're guilty, and you're not allowed to see the data or the algorithm because it was not designed to work if the people who it judged knew about its parameters.

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TSA agents demand bag-search to look for "Bitcoins"

Davi Barker was flying from Manchester, NH when, he says, he was stopped by two men who identified themselves as "managers" for the TSA, who claimed they had seen Bitcoins in his baggage and wanted to be sure he wasn't transporting more than $10,000 worth. When he asked them what they thought a Bitcoin looked like, they allegedly said that it looked like a coin or a medallion. (via Hacker News) Cory 63

TSA not sure if DC drivers licenses are valid ID

DC resident Ashley Brandt was surprised to meet a TSA agent at Phoenix airport who didn't think that DC drivers' licenses were valid ID, because DC isn't a state. Cory 42

Hungry man defeats TSA's war on peanut butter by spreading it on crackers

An airline passenger with a medical condition requiring small amounts of food at regular intervals was stymied when the LHA TSA declared his peanut butter to be a "liquid." But he cleverly spread the peanut butter onto some saltines, whereupon it was no longer a liquid and was allowed on the flight. USA USA USA. (Thanks, Alice!) Cory 35

Brutal working conditions for Qatar Airlines's flight attendants


An article in the Swedish newspaper Expressen documents the human rights abuses suffered by the woman flight attendants on Qatar Airways. These abuses are part of a larger pattern of deplorable labor conditions in Qatar, but Qatar Airlines has the distinction of being a business through which westerners interact with women living under deplorable circumstances. The senior management of QA, including CEO Akbar Al Baker, are accused of sexual harassment, and exercise near-total control over the flight attendants' personal lives, literally locking them in overnight and setting guards on their doors. It's reminiscent of stories of the stories told by women who've escaped abusive husbands, except that the "husband" is a millionaire airline executive and the wives are the vulnerable young women who are made to simper and fetch for passengers travelling to the Qatar.

The contract mentioned in the article is reproduced in part here.

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What it's like to come home to America if your name is "Ahmed"


Ahmed Shihab-Eldin is a respected journalist who holds US citizenship. Every time he returns to his home in New York, he is detained for many hours by the DHS, subjected to humiliating questioning and detention without evidence or charge, because he fits a "profile" that seems to consist entirely of "brown dude with Arabic name who visits the middle east." He recently returned from the World Economic Forum in Davos and found himself detained for hours, despite having been assured that his name had been removed from the DHS's watch-list.

His story of harrowing treatment at JFK airport stands in sharp contrast to his experiences at checkpoints in the middle east, where security risks are much more immediate and more grave. As he points out, America has spent billions creating an aviation security system and system of border checks that have had no material impact on security, but have nonetheless enmiserated, alienated, and harassed millions of people who committed no crime and posed no threat,

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TSA whistleblower describes life in the pornoscanner room


In Jason Edward Harrington's Dear America, I Saw You Naked, he reveals that he was the anonymous TSA agent who wrote the Taking Sense Away tell-all/whistleblower blog. Harrington's piece is a shocking and eye-opening look into the world of TSA agents, especially the section dealing with the "IO room" where the nude photos of travellers who used the Rapiscan machines were displayed:

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Canadian spies illegally tracked travellers using free airport Wifi

A new Snowden leak reported on the CBC reveals that secretive Canadian spy-agency CSEC was illegally spying on Canadians by collecting information from the free Wifi service in major airports and cross-referencing it with intercepted information from Wifi at cafes, libraries and other public places in Canada.

The agency is prohibited from spying on Canadians without a warrant, but it captured data on all travellers in a Canadian airport, ensuring that it captured an enormous amount of sensitive information about Canadians. It claims that because it did not "target" Canadians (that is, it spied on everyone, regardless of nationality), they somehow weren't "spying" on Canadians.

The CBC article features a brilliant and incandescent Ron Diebert (who runs the Citizenlab centre at the University of Toronto and wrote one of the best books on Internet surveillance, Black Code), and an equally outraged Ann Cavoukian, the Ontario privacy commissioner, who is one of the most savvy privacy advocates in any government.

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Autonomous multicopter made from pool noodles

Mark Harrison made a quadcopter body out of sections of pool noodle, producing a UAV that's cheap, rugged and great for practicing on. As he points out on Make, the beauty of multicopters is that they don't have to be aerodynamic and their bodies don't have any moving parts, giving you lots of flexibility in design. Plus: "Let's face it, it's just funny to think of flying pool noodles!"

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Judge rules TSA no-fly procedures unconstitutional

Despite a series of disgraceful dirty tricks, the TSA has lost its case against Dr Rahinah Ibrahim, a Malaysian academic who had been wrongly put on the no-fly list. The DHS engaged in witness tampering (denying Dr Ibrahim and her witnesses access to the courtroom by putting them on the no-fly list) and argued that neither Dr Ibrahim nor her lawyers should be allowed to see the evidence against her (because terrorism).

Lowering the Bar does a great job of summing up the ruling, which held the no-fly list unconstitutional because citizens are "entitled to a remedy that requires the government to correct its lists and records... and to certify under oath that such correction(s) have been made."

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Flute virtuoso's rare instruments destroyed by US customs

When Canadian flute virtuoso Boujemaa Razgui flew to JFK en route to Boston, his 13 handmade flutes, made from rare reeds, did not arrive with him. They had been mistaken for bamboo by a US customs inspector who opened Razgui's luggage in transit, removed the instruments, and destroyed them. Razgui's been told to write a letter to the Department of Agriculture in DC if he has any further queries. (via Naked Capitalism) Cory 84

TSA's "12 Banned Items of Christmas"

Reason's video enumerating the TSA's "12 Banned Items of Christmas" is a perfect, acerbic and funny list of the most egregiously stupid and arbitrary rules for American fliers. And as they point out, the TSA has never stopped a terrorist attack. But so long as we're prevented from carrying on guacamole (but permitted to carry on avocados) and permitted to carry on pies (but not pie filling(, I'm sure we'll be safe. And never forget this pro-tip: you can carry on as much liquid as you'd like so long as it is labelled "breast milk."

The TSA's 12 Banned Items of Christmas (via Reddit)

TSA confiscates photographer's blower because it could be filled with gunpowder and used as a missile


In a photography forum, Surapon recounts the sad story of how the TSA took away his Giottos AA1900 Rocket Air Blaster, a blower for removing dust from equipment, at an airport in New York.

According to him, he was on his way back to North Carolina from Greece when the TSA flagged his camera-case for manual inspection. The TSA agent reportedly produced the rocket-shaped blower, and then he and a colleague grimly pronounced the dangers of this object, should it be filled with gunpowder and then launched like a rocket through the cockpit.

Since then, Surapon assiduously sliced the decorative fins off his blowers, and has had no further trouble from the TSA.

My New and Improve GIOTTOS Blower-for safety. (Thanks, Visionrouge!)

TSA seize tiny, itsy-bitsy gun from sock-monkey


The sock monkey above is called "Rooster Monkburn," and he was created by Phillis May, who makes a sells sock monkeys. When Ms May and her husband traversed the TSA checkpoint at SEA-TAC St Louis airport, an eagle-eyed TSA operative noticed that Rooster was sporting a sub-two-inch toy pistol, which she seized, threatening to call police. Altogether, now, everyone: U! S! A! U! S! A! U! S! A!

May said the TSA agent went through the bag, through the sewing supplies and found the two-inch long pistol.

“She said ‘this is a gun,’” said May. “I said no, it’s not a gun it’s a prop for my monkey.”

“She said ‘If I held it up to your neck, you wouldn’t know if it was real or not,’ and I said ‘really?’” said May.

The TSA agent told May she would have to confiscate the tiny gun and was supposed to call the police.

“I said well go ahead,” said May. “And I said really? You’re kidding me right, and she said no it looks like a gun.”

“She took my monkey’s gun,” said May, who has retained her sense of humor.

TSA agent confiscates sock monkey's toy pistol [Susan Wyatt/King 5 News]

(Thanks, Gary!)

(Image: Phyllis May)

DHS stalls no-fly list trial by putting witness on no-fly list

Phil writes, "Edward Hasbrouck of the Identity Project is doing a fantastic job of reporting on-site from Ibrahim v. DHS, the first legal challenge of United States government's no-fly list that has ever seen a courtroom. On the first day of trial, the judge learned that the plaintiff's daughter, scheduled to testify, was delayed because she had been denied boarding of her flight because she was put a Department of Homeland Security no-fly list. DHS staff deny this. The government's lawyers told the judge that the daughter is lying. The airline provided documentation of the DHS no-fly order. The subject matter of this trial is intense---restriction of movement based on blacklists---but there's no sign of an end to the jaw-dropping entertainment."

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