Category Archives: The Surveillance State

A Christmas Without Spying

Sheriff Elf“When parents and teachers bring The Elf on the Shelf into homes and classrooms, are they preparing a generation of children to accept, not question, increasingly intrusive (albeit whimsically packaged) modes of surveillance?” ask Laura Elizabeth Pinto and Selena Nemorin in an essay for the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives this December.

Dr. Pinto is a digital technology professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. Dr. Nemorin is a post-doctoral fellow at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. In their column, the two observe that interactive, imaginary play is how children learn to “make sense of their world, their place in society, … their identity, and what is right and wrong.”

But Elf on the Shelf is not interactive. Rather, it is a one-sided, authoritarian intrusion of imaginative “play” (if you can call it that) into the child’s real life:

[I]n other games, the child role-plays a character, or the child imagines herself within a play-world of the game, but the role play does not enter the child’s real world as part of the game. As well, in most games, the time of play is delineated (while the game goes on), and the play to which the rules apply typically does not overlap with the child’s real world.

 

Elf on the Shelf presents a unique (and prescriptive) form of play that blurs the distinction between play time and real life. Children who participate in play with The Elf on the Shelf doll have to contend with rules at all times during the day: they may not touch the doll, and they must accept that the doll watches them at all times with the purpose of reporting to Santa Claus. This is different from more conventional play with dolls, where children create play-worlds born of their imagination, moving dolls and determining interactions with other people and other dolls. Rather, the hands-off “play” demanded by the elf is limited to finding (but not touching!) The Elf on the Shelf every morning, and acquiescing to surveillance during waking hours under the elf’s watchful eye. The Elf on the Shelf controls all parameters of play, who can do and touch what, and ultimately attempts to dictate the child’s behavior outside of time used for play.

The gaze of the elf on the child’s real world (as opposed to play world) resonates with the purpose of the panopticon, based on Jeremy Bentham’s 18th century design for a model prison (a central tower in a circular structure, surrounded by cells).

Anthony L. Fisher writing at Reason connects the point Pinto and Nemorin are making about the Elf of the Shelf—the “creepy side-eyed gnome [who] has spied and informed on millions of kids to an unaccountable power broker at the North Pole—to the “Stasi-meets-stalker lyrics” of Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.

It is the sort of thing that makes people roll their eyes at libertarians. But consider my own experience.

“Mom, why does Santa Claus think it’s bad when kids cry?” my daughter asked a couple of weeks ago.

“Hmmm… Well…. Sometimes it can be annoying when kids are crying or being whiny and no one else can talk because the kid is taking all the attention.”

Not my proudest moment as a parent, I confess. We were in the car, the roads were slick, and I was distracted.

I was fixated on my “Santa Dilemma.” I have truthfully answered every hard question my kid has asked: how babies are made; why her parents do not live together; about religion and death.

The last one was the hardest.

But I have told vast lies about Santa, manufactured complex, extensive secondary lies in support of the claim that such a being exists. Now she is old enough to recognize that Santa’s existence is inconsistent with everything else she knows of the world; to analyze the available “evidence” for Santa, for flying reindeer, elves, a village located at the North Pole, and for Mrs. Claus.

If she asked me flat out, I would confess everything. But all she does is probe around the edges, and I cannot bring myself to utter the words.

I made it all up.

The gnawing guilt over whether I am making the right choice between destroying the magic or allowing the magnitude of betrayal to grow with each passing year got in the way of my hearing the question behind the question.

Why does Santa Claus think it’s bad to cry?

Two days later, I got it.

“Mom, if you get on the bad list, do you stay on it forever, or is it just for that year?”

My daughter’s voice was tremulous and thick with emotion. We were in the car again, on the same slick roads. But all at once, it hit me.

When she cries, it is usually over something real, something that merits tears. Someone stopped being her friend at school. Or she misses someone in her family.

Why indeed would Santa think that’s “bad?” Who is Santa to decide?

This is not a concept I have taught her. We have no “naughty and nice” lists. Our Elf gets played with like a doll. He never spies or tattles. Yet somehow my daughter has picked up on the concept.

I shut it down.

“I know some of the songs talk about that. Or maybe your friends at school talk about it. But Santa Claus does not do that in our family. We don’t have naughty and nice lists. All the kids in our family are on the nice list because all the grownups love them no matter what. Those songs are just silly things people say. It does not work that way in our family.”

As Pinto and Nemorin observe:

Under normal circumstances, children’s behaviour (i.e., what is “naughty” and what is “nice”) is situated in social contexts and mediated by human beings (peers, parents, and teachers) where the child conceptualizes actions and emotions in relation to other people and how they feel.

 

Through play, children become aware about others’ perspectives: in other words, they cultivate understandings about social relationships. The Elf on the Shelf essentially teaches the child to accept an external form of non-familial surveillance in the home when the elf becomes the source of power and judgment, based on a set of rules attributable to Santa Claus.

… Broadly speaking, The Elf on the Shelf serves functions that are aligned to the official functions of the panopticon. In doing so, it contributes to the shaping of children as governable subjects.

Christmas listBefore a certain age, children’s behavior is either genetic or it is learned from their environment. Manipulating them with an omniscient, omnipotent “daddy” overseer—a god-power with a jolly laugh and a bag full of rewards for conformance—is just passing the buck.

I prefer to let my daughter learn right and wrong by interacting with real people, not under threats from imaginary spies. I prefer to let her enjoy the magic of the season.

Sarah Baker is a libertarian, attorney and writer. She lives in Montana with her daughter and a house full of pets.

This Advice Could Save Your Life and Preserve Your Liberty

garner

The fact that the police can get away with killing an individual who presented no threat to anyone with the whole incident caught on camera is quite disturbing. A grand jury decided not to indict a NYPD officer by the name of Daniel Pantaleo who used a choke-hold banned by his own department which resulted in the death of Eric Garner. Unlike the incident in Ferguson which contained conflicting testimony and forensics which support Darren Wilson’s version of the event, this event in New York was caught on video from at least two different camera angles (and available on YouTube for the whole world to see). This seems pretty cut and dry at least for an indictment.

So how is it that almost any accused individual brought before a grand jury is indicted unless the accused individual happens to wear a government issued costume? Are grand juries really that biased toward the police? After reading a few dozen comments on threads responding to the grand jury decision, I’m afraid the answer is yes (if you want to lose all hope for humanity, read the comment section to any article of consequence). I reach this conclusion because these are the sort of people who serve on juries and decide that it’s perfectly okay for the police to kill someone if the suspect had any criminal record of any kind, resisted in any way, or even “disrespected” the police on the scene.

The truth is that reforming the way police do things is going to take time as changing people’s attitudes is going to take time. There are things that we as individuals can do here and now so that we don’t become victims of the police, however. Many of these perfect, law abiding specimens of humanity who like to share their wisdom with the rest of us on the internet say that if Eric Garner hadn’t resisted (at all) he would never have been put in the choke hold that contributed or caused his death. On this point, I grudgingly have to agree.

I don’t say this because I believe the use of force against Garner was appropriate but because far too many people do (and juries are composed of people who aren’t always very reasonable).

One common thread in many of these viral videos where the police overreact is that the individual either resists (however mildly), makes a sudden move, or is perceived as being armed [1]. The worst thing you can do is give the cops a reason to use force and an excuse for jurors who will normally give the police the benefit of the doubt a reason to doubt.

So how does one increase one’s odds of surviving an encounter with an overzealous cop? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Before you end your session on the internet today, watch Flex Your Rights’ “10 Rules for Dealing With Police.” I have the entire series and a summary of the rules posted here. If you know how you can respectfully but firmly assert your constitutional rights before the next time you are confronted by the police, you will have advantages most people do not and you will reduce the chances that the encounter will escalate to violence.

2. Act as if the encounter is being recorded and your actions will be scrutinized in front of a judge, jury, and/or the general public. For better or worse, cameras have become ubiquitous, so the chances the encounter is being recorded increase everyday. Use this to your advantage. Better yet, if you have a camera phone, record the encounter yourself. Recording the police in public is legal almost everywhere in the U.S. Follow this link to be sure of the specific legalities of your state. Once you have the camera rolling, follow the aforementioned “10 rules” and be the kind of person a judge, jury, and the general public would be sympathetic toward. If you act like a jerk or are disrespectful in any way (regardless of how the cop acts) this could all backfire.

3. Don’t make any sudden moves and keep your hands visible at all times. If you are pulled over keep your hands on the steering wheel and turn on the dome light if its dark out. When the cop asks for your license and registration, say something like “My license is in my wallet” and very slowly reach for it and hand it over. Then say “My insurance card and registration is in the glove box” then slowly open the glove box and retrieve the documentation. Better yet, have the documentation ready before the cop comes to your window; its less movement and you know you will be asked to produce these items anyway. Had this man followed similar advice, he might not have been shot by a South Carolina State trooper.

4. Understand that you are NOT in control. If the police have decided to put cuffs on you and/or arrest you, do not physically resist, attack, or run. If you do, the results will not end in your favor. Whatever injustice has befallen you will not be settled until later. Also, keep your mouth shut and only speak of the event with your attorney.

Its my hope that these cases which have scandalized us all will lead to better understanding of how we can peacefully resist the growing police state. Its not my intention to blame the victims such as Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Kelly Thomas and countless others but to do my part in not creating new victims of overzealous cops afraid of their own shadows.

[1] Its become a pet peeve of mine seeing headlines that state that the police shoot an “unarmed” man. For one, unarmed does not mean harmless. Also, its probably safe to say that most of the time when the cops shoot an unarmed person, it was unclear if s/he was armed at the time. While we can and should scrutinize the police when they use force, we cannot expect them to have perfect knowledge in real time.

Police should wear body cameras to protect themselves when they’re accused of wrongdoing

camera

President Obama has just proposed $263 million for police body cameras in an effort to improve police relations in the communities they serve. My co-contributor at United Liberty Matthew Hurtt argues that this is an overreaction and cautions that this is “further federalizing local law enforcement.” To this, I have to respectfully disagree.

The federal government has already “federalized” local police if by federalization he means providing military grade toys at a discount. I don’t quite understand how providing tools which can actually protect the public such as body cameras “further” federalizes the police. As long as these departments receive these toys, the public damn well has the right to review in HD quality video and audio how these toys are being used (along with the normal police activities).

The following post was originally published on 8/18/2014 @ United Liberty

 

It sems that there is at least one area of agreement (with caveats) between some in law enforcement and some civil libertarians: cops should wear body cameras. The how, when, and where is still a question for all concerned but at least there seems to be some agreement on the broad outlines.

PoliceOne.com‘s editor-in-chief Doug Wyllie argues that police departments should embrace the idea of body mounted cameras on almost every police officer. Wyllie writes:

In the week following the officer-involved shooting in Ferguson (Mo.), many have asked me for a comment and/or my commentary on the matter. My reply has generally been, “What, precisely, might that comment be? We know very little detail regarding the incident itself, so any ‘analysis’ on my part would be tantamount to irresponsible speculation. Further, analysis of the rioting and looting (and police response to same) would be redundant — we’ve got reams of columns on crowd control tactics and strategies.”

One thing, however, merits mention in this space. It’s directly related to the first thought that came to my mind when news of this tragedy broke: “Man, I hope that officer was wearing a body camera.”

By now, we can correctly surmise that he was not, and it’s a reasonable contention that if he had been wearing a body camera — and that video was examined by agency leadership and released responsibly to the public — Ferguson would probably have been spared the violence and unrest.

Wyllie anticipated that there would be some cops, departments, and PoliceOne members who would disagree with this notion. From there he offered 3 reasons why the upsides outweigh the downsides:

1. Officers’ fears about “Big Brother” are crushed by good, sound policy collaboratively created by all stakeholders — administrators, police unions, civil rights groups, local lawmakers, and others. Citizens’ fears about Fourth Amendment issues — for victims, witnesses, and other uninvolved persons — are similarly crushed by that same policy.

I must interject here. We have street cameras on just about every major intersection in every major city in America. If its good enough to place you and I under constant surveillance, its good enough for the police. The police should also be reminded that they do indeed work for us. Any time the police are on duty and in public, there is a chance that they are being watched by the public. They do not have a right to privacy when they interact with the pubic. This is especially true when the actions of the police have the potential to take freedom or life away from individuals concerned.

Wyllie continues with his other 2 points:

2. Concerns over budgeting for the investment in new gear (and training for same) are quelled by the statistical data suggesting that the outlay in cash is far less than the cost of settling frivolous (and baseless) lawsuits over alleged officer misconduct when no such misconduct occurred.

3. Any argument alleging that “the technology just isn’t there yet” is flat out false. Five years ago, such a statement may have held some water, but companies like TASER International, Digital Ally, L-3 Mobile Vision, and VIEVU now offer rugged, patrol-ready products with high-definition recording capabilities in light, wearable form factors.

Doug Wyllie sees the writing on the wall; he points out that the White House petition for the “Mike Brown Law” which says “all state, county, and local police [should be required] to wear a camera” already passed 100k signatures. Wyllie is probably correct arguing that there would be fewer misconduct lawsuits with the cameras. One PoliceOne member added:

Personally I look forward to being able to show the jury exactly what the POS I arrested was doing, saying and what he looked like when I arrested him; rather than the cleaned up chap in a borrowed suit that the defense brought to court.

I think its also fair to say that cops would be discouraged from being involved with any misconduct in the first place. If we lived in a world where everyone involved in a police encounter is being recorded, everyone involved has every reason to be on his or her best behavior.

Another posted:

I’m all for body cameras. Yet, when they go against what people want them to say, it will be: “The police fixed the cameras.”

To this concern I have two answers. First the technology is already available to determine if a video has been tampered with. If the video shows the video at the 5:07:29 minute mark and then it suddenly skips to the 8:10:12 minute mark, most people are going to understand that there is some missing footage. The second answer is to policy of how, when, and where body cameras will be used.

Will cameras solve all questions of misconduct? Of course not. Cameras certainly have their limitations. But having a video of an event presented to a jury is certainly better than relying solely on conflicting eyewitness testimony.

Point of clarification: One person who commented on the Face Book link mentioned “And audio might be nice.” I assumed Doug Wyllie meant that audio should be part of the video recording as well. After re-reading his article, I realize that he never mentioned anything about audio. Perhaps this too will become a very important part of the debate. It’s my position that audio should be included. Video alone might be helpful in very clear cut cases but distort the meaning of what the viewer sees in other cases.

Oath Keepers Protect St. Louis Until Being Disbanded By The Police They Effectively Replaced

Oath-keeper-patch-in-english

In response to the looting that has damaged numerous businesses in Ferguson, MO since last Monday’s announceemnt that former police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for killing Michael Brown, a group called the Oath Keepers descended onto Ferguson to protect businesses from being damaged or destroyed by rioters, oftentimes by setting up armed sentries on rooftops. Over the long weekend, St. Louis County’s police officers demanded that the group disperse.

Threatened with arrest for operating without a license, the volunteers argued but eventually left their positions early Saturday, Rhodes said.

“We are going to go back as protesters,” Rhodes said Saturday afternoon.

(…)

“We thought they were going to do it right this time,” Rhodes said of government response to the grand jury decision released Monday in the Michael Brown case. “But when Monday rolled around and they didn’t park the National Guard at these businesses, that’s when we said we have got to do something.

“Historically, the government almost always fails to protect people,” he added.

The Oath Keepers were started in 2009 as a militia-like force that advocates military and law enforcement personnel disobey orders that are in violation of the Constitution of the United States. Despite accusations of racism, they were started in 2009 by a Mexican-American, Stewart Rhodes, who graduated from Yale Law School and once worked for Ron Paul. They have dodged criticism for years and are regarded by some as extremists or domestic terrorists, though they maintain a 30,000 strong member base and are highly regarded among libertarian parts of the Tea Party movement.

I am personally sceptical of the Oath Keepers because I feel their tin-foil, Alex Jones-like views on the government are extreme to say the very least. Any group that gains traction due to the election of one man and finds common cause with the birther movement tends to draw scrutiny. With that said, I find it very hard to blame anyone locally for being very happy to see them. Whatever one’s views on Michael Brown’s killing – I was very dim on the “no indictment” ruling – the fact is that St. Louis County has handled the entire situation in Ferguson and surrounding areas in an illegal, borderline evil fashion. They instigated an already edgy populace from moment one, turning military-grade weapons on the citizens they “police” in a method of crowd control so poorly conceived it raised legitimate questions as to whether or not the police were intentionally trying to rile their citizens.

As the grand jury’s announcement approached, the mistakes continued. It was announced at 8PM CST, with advance warning and a preemptive call for National Guard support. They gunned for a fight, prepared for a fight, and then stoked a fight. Since then, the overly militarized police, and the actual military, guarded the police station but left local businesses to burn. After blaming the failure to indict a man who shot at an unarmed teenager twelve times on social media, they proceeded to protect their own stuff while totally abandoning any pretense of protecting anyone locally. The failures of the Ferguson and St. Louis County police departments are so legion, so flagrant, and so damaging that multiple people involved in them should never hold jobs in authority again. Their treatment of those doing their job for them only exemplifies what has been a clown car.

In light of that, is it any wonder that the Oath Keepers – at heart, an anti-government organization that is convinced martial law is imminent – would show up? This isn’t just why they were conceived; it proves all of their fears, all of their statements, and all of their actions to be legitimate, or at the very least to have a degree of truth to them. “The government is against the people!” isn’t just the cry of a guy who failed Western Civ; in this case, it’s a provable fact. The police in this area have shown more effort in going after football players than they have in any form of police work.

In striking down the Oath Keepers, the local authorities might have made them more powerful than they could ever imagine. I expect membership to spike, hard.

Christopher Bowen covered the video games industry for eight years before moving onto politics and general interest. He is the Editor in Chief of Gaming Bus, and has worked for Diehard GameFan, Daily Games News, TalkingAboutGames.com and has freelanced elsewhere. He is a “liberaltarian” – a liberal libertarian. A network engineer by trade, he lives in Derby CT.

Senator Rand Paul Will Oppose USA Freedom Act

Rand PaulThe Senate is poised to vote, as early as this week, on its version of the USA Freedom Act. On Friday, however, one of Senator Rand Paul’s aides told The Hill that there are significant problems with the Senate’s bill, and Paul does not intend to support it.

An earlier analysis by the ACLU suggests the bill’s treatment of “specific selection term” will prevent broad collection of all records or the records of entire cities or service providers. The ACLU further approves of language designed to ensure that government abuses will be made public and provisions for a special privacy advocate in Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) proceedings.

To be sure, the ACLU is not fully satisfied with the bill:

Improvements need to be made to further narrow the definition of SST, provide strict time frames for destroying all data on innocent people, eliminate loopholes that could be exploited to avoid disclosing relevant information in FISC opinions, and grant the special advocate greater authority to proactively participate in intelligence court proceedings.

The bill also focuses entirely on Section 215; it doesn’t even touch the abuses occurring under Section 702, Executive Order 12333, or other authorities. In other words, we’re running a marathon and this bill only gets us to mile five.

Nevertheless the ACLU supports the bill as “the first time since passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 1978 that the chamber has taken action to constrain the intelligence community, and the first time Congress has a real shot at restoring the crucial privacy protections lost in the Patriot Act.”

The bill has also received the support of Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who may run against Rand Paul in a bid for the 2016 presidential nomination. So what is Senator Paul’s beef?

4th-amendmentIt is that the bill extends the Patriot Act through December 2017—after the next election.

Rand is right to object on this basis. Politicians’ job, their raison d’être, is to represent us—not to insulate themselves from difficult political questions until the next election.

Then again, Dave Nalle, writing American Broadside, suggests the choice may not be so simplistic:

The question for those of us who are paying attention, is whether a watered down USA Freedom Act is worth the price of renewing the PATRIOT Act, or should we push our Senators to vote it down and wait for the new Congress to take another look at it and maybe pass something closer to the original House version of the legislation which was much more substantial in its reforms.

The problem is that if the USA Freedom Act is voted down there is no guarantee that the PATRIOT Act will not be renewed next year. There may not be enough new Senators or enough who are tired of it and want to rein in the NSA so we’d be rolling the dice and the result of waiting could be worse than passing the USA Freedom Act. It might be better to take the sure but inadequate thing than wait for a better solution that never comes.

Fodder for thought…

The image of Ron Paul is via the Taking Note blog at the New York Times and attributed to William Deshazer/The Commercial Appeal, via Associated Press.

Sarah Baker is a writer, libertarian and attorney, living in Bozeman, Montana, with her daughter and a houseful of pets. She can be found on Facebook or Twitter.

Sarah Baker is a libertarian, attorney and writer. She lives in Montana with her daughter and a house full of pets.
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