News Digest: Court Order Reveals Dramatic Extent Of U.S. Surveillance Activity

The Information Program works to increase access to knowledge and protect civil liberties in the digital environment. The following is a roundup of news and analysis that the program team has been watching in the past week. This week’s top story involves revelations surrounding a secret U.S. electronic surveillance program.

U.S.: NSA collecting phone records of millions of Verizon customers daily

The Guardian reports on a court order it has obtained which requires leading U.S. mobile operator Verizon to hand over call records and location data of millions of U.S. citizens to the U.S. National Security Agency: “The document shows for the first time that under the Obama administration the communication records of millions of U.S. citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk—regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing.” According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, whose public suspicions about the conduct of routine dragnet communications surveillance are confirmed by this development, “There is no indication that this order to Verizon was unique or novel. It is very likely that business records orders like this exist for every major American telecommunication company, meaning that, if you make calls in the United States, the NSA has those records. And this has been going on for at least seven years, and probably longer.”
Guardian | EFF

UN free speech expert calls for scrutiny of government wiretapping
In a separate but related development, the Washington Post details a new report produced by United Nations Special Rapporteur on Free Expression Frank La Rue, which calls for closer scrutiny of government wiretapping efforts around the world. The report makes several suggestions for how states can ensure use of communications surveillance was proportionate and respected due process.

Iran: Authorities accused of censorship and hacking to sway presidential poll
This report for the Guardian details the website- and SMS-blocking, denial-of-service, and malware attacks that are skewing the information landscape in the run-up to Iran’s presidential elections, showing how the color of the censorship reflects the country’s internal divisions.

U.S.: Supreme Court rules against genetic privacy
The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) report on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision this week to allow “warrantless DNA searches”—the collecting and logging of DNA samples of individuals arrested, but not yet convicted of crimes. In a statement, the Council for Responsible Genetics (CRG) said the decision “fails to protect the privacy of Americans’ DNA and is a serious blow to human rights in the United States.” Writing for Bloomberg, Noah Feldman argues the decision—on which the Supreme Court judges were split 5–4—brings the country one step closer to the stratified and authoritarian society portrayed in the sci-fi film Gattaca.
EPIC | CRG | Feldman

Taiwan: Authorities back away from web blocking plans following netizen protests
Focus Taiwan reports that “Taiwan’s authorities in charge of intellectual property protection have decided to give up a plan to block overseas internet services that violate copyright laws amid opposition to the plan from free-speech advocates.” Groups opposed to the plans included Wikimedia Taiwan, who planned to stage a web black-out day. Public comparisons of the proposed blocking to China’s Great Firewall were thought to have swayed the opinion of the authorities.

U.S.: Publishers propose public–private partnership to support “access” to research
The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on a “distributed”, “clearing house”-style public–private research access partnership that “seems like very much of a restatement of the status quo” and is being put forward by the American publishing industry in response to the recent Obama administration executive order that all publicly-funded research should be publicly available. As Open Access advocate Heather Joseph of SPARC states in the article, the initiative, which has yet to be outlined in detail: “doesn’t offer a solution for a stable, sustainable long-term archive, or do much of anything to facilitate reuse of the full corpus of publicly-funded research.”

Singapore: Popular websites forced to operate under license from government
The Electronic Frontier Foundation reports that Singapore’s press oversight agency now require websites with more than 50,000 readers publishing news about Singapore to register for a license, paying a reported $40,000 registration fee.

WIPO urged to “Stand with the Blind”
Avaaz.org are hosting a petition urging delegates to the World Intellectual Property Organization’s diplomatic conference later this month to defy last-minute copyright industry lobbying and support a Treaty for the Visually Impaired that “make[s] it easy to share books in formats designed for blind and visually impaired readers with minimal barriers.” The U.S. petitions site We The People is hosting a similar petition asking the U.S. President “to compel U.S. negotiators to fight for a strong Treaty that gives blind people equal access to books and doesn’t burden those who want to provide them.”
Avaaz | We The People

Obama’s covert trade deal
In this Op-Ed for the New York Times, Public Citizen’s Lori Wallach and Ben Beachy demand that the U.S. administration open up the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) process, secretive trade negotiations they warn “would set new rules for everything from food safety and financial markets to medicine prices and internet freedom.” Meanwhile, in the Washington Post, Harold Meyerson asks what the TPP (and other “free trade” agreements such as TAFTA) do for ordinary American citizens, and argues against the extension of “fast track” provisions that would prevent U.S. legislators from scrutinizing such treaties on behalf of U.S. citizens’ interests. Aside from the U.S., the TPP’s negotiating parties include Chile and Mexico: Chile’s ONG Derechos Digitales have launched a new platform this week for tracking the progress and implications of the TPP from a Latin American perspective.
NYTimes | WaPo | TPP Abierto

WeChat: Learning from the Chinese internet
Ethan Zuckerman highlights a new paper examining clusters of audiences online that argues that culture is a more powerful force in internet balkanization than government regulation. He goes on to detail his encounter with a Chinese social networking platform outside of his “cultural cluster.”

Data protection in the EU: the certainty of uncertainty
Cory Doctorow calls on the best computer science research to debunk the idea that data can ever be truly “anonymized.” The article takes as its starting point the “feeding frenzy of lobbying” happening in the EU over new data protection legislation—the LobbyPlag tool tracks the influence this lobbying is having on the actions of individual European Parliament members in respect of the legislation.
Doctorow | LobbyPlag

Not impossible: The story of Daniel and his six completed Coursera courses
The father of a severely autistic child tells the story of the role massive open online courses (MOOCs) have played in educating his son in this post on the Coursera blog. Family friend and occasional compiler of this digest Wendy M Grossman placed Daniel’s story in a wider context in one of her regular net.wars columns last year.
Coursera | Grossman

Data Expedition: Why garment retailers need to do more in Bangladesh
The Open Knowledge Foundation and School of Data staged their first “Data Expedition” at the end of last month, an online data wrangling weekend to explore issues in the garment industry. In this blog post Data Journalist Anders Pederson reports on the process, and reveals some of the findings: “The team used a crowdsourced database on garment factories to expose questionable standards and highlight the need for open supplier lists from all retailers.”

Interview: Alek Tarkowski
Richard Poynder talks to Alek Tarkowski, director of Centrum Cyfrowe Projekt: Polska and project lead of Creative Commons Poland about Poland’s Open Public Resources Act.

Audio: Ron Deibert on “Black Code”
Nora Young talks to Ron Deibert about his new book “Black Code”, which draws on his experience as director of Canada’s Citizen Lab, to explore issues in the control and exploitation of cyberspace, including industrial espionage and politically-deployed malware.

You can keep up to date on the latest stories to catch the Information Program team’s attention on our Pinboard page.

Add your voice