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FBI Surveillance Vendor Threatens to Sue Tech Reporters for Crime of Journalism (gizmodo.com)
112 points by mindgam3 on Jan 11, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 37 comments

> In warning the site not to disclose the brochure, SSG’s attorney reportedly claimed the document is protected under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), though the notice did not point to any specific section of the law, which was enacted to regulate arms exports at the height of the Cold War.

We really need an overhaul of all these old laws that were enacted for a completely different era, which are now being misused. Another example is 200 year old laws being used to get companies to break encryption.

ITAR has many absurdities to it. For example, many items that are imported into US, cannot be re-exported because of ITAR. This is especially amusing when the country of origin is China.

Also, the article is somewhat misleading when it says that the law "encompasses a wide range of actual military equipment that can’t be replicated in a home garage, such as space launch vehicles, nuclear reactors, and anti-helicopter mines". I mean, it's true that the law does encompass all of these - but it also applies to many things that can be replicated in a home garage. For example, wood furniture (handguard or pistol grip) for any firearm is an ITAR-controlled item.

The combination of these two is why there are a lot of small businesses in Europe and Asia that import firearm accessories and other "tactical" products into the US, but US exports are all done by large corporations that can go through the regulatory hurdles.

Your comment violates the FCRA, delete it immediately.

It’s easy to make claims like this, but is it really a problem with the law if someone is making frivolous claims?

The general problem is power imbalance. Imagine I'm a journalist and want to report on crimes committed by a big company, or the government. Then I get a letter "you're on our radar, notice that we have a decently financed legal team and believe reporting to be a violation of <long list>". Do I continue or do I drop the case?

The only ones that can actually pull through now are media powerhouses with their own legal team (WaPo, NYT) - but small operations like local papers, small radio stations, bloggers, they rather retreat than to lose their existence.

And it's not just about the money for lawyers that the losing party ends up with - it's also a huge loss of time and in case of actual criminal accusations (e.g. libel, or fraud if I go undercover as a journalist) the risk of jail time or a criminal record.

Journalists need better financing and the legal system a reform. As long as the standards of decent journalism are adhered it should not be a crime in any way or even carry the risk of that.

> The only ones that can actually pull through now are media powerhouses with their own legal team (WaPo, NYT)

And these are large organizations that also have financial relationships with and ownership of the big companies and governments that need to be reported on. WaPo is an extreme example of links to massive corporations, obscenely wealthy oligarchs, and heavy government contracting, but similar can be said about other large media companies (the number of which could be counted on your fingers.)

They're not going to save us from anything.

I fully appreciate that it can be very hard for smaller operations to deal with legal threats, but is this really a legislative problem as rahuldottech suggests?

I have a really hard time imagining any reasonable legislative solution to this problem.

Abuse of the legal system is definitely a legislative problem - the law has to work reasonably in the real world, not in some idealized, frictionless vacuum.

As for a solution - non-prejudicial defensive trials (I made that phrase up). Under this system, if someone sues you, you can at first ignore it. You'd get assigned a public defender, that would try to do a reasonably acceptable job defending you. You could cooperate with this defender, or ignore him. This defender will conduct a sort of mock trial. If you're found not guilty in this trial, then the lawsuit can't proceed, and you've lost no time or money. Only if you're found guilty (or infringing, or whatever outcome you don't like), can it then proceed to a real trial.

A sort of enhanced filter on whether a lawsuit has merit.

The legal system wasn’t even involved here, it’s just a letter.

What you’re proposing would make civil suits vastly more expensive, making them even less accessible for the little guy.

The very real threat of the legal system was used, backed up by the terrifying financial reality of a good legal defense. You can't honestly say that means the legal system wasn't involved. An easy test is - if the system were different, could the threat be less severe?

And I don't see why a preliminary ruling would mean 'vastly' more expensive - you can mostly re-use your work in the real case. And if it turns out to be without merit, you've saved yourself a lot of money. In the very, very worst case scenario, this system would cost 2x as much for the offense, and be vastly cheaper for the defense side. Definitely preferable to the current reality, where you can be forced to spend an arbitrary amount on legal defense.

I have actually proposed just that in my last sentence: blanket whitelist journalist work, similar to whistleblower protection.

Combined with real punitive fines (for corporations, let's say 10% of gross yearly income before any deductions and for government bodies removal from office and loss of electability for ten years for the person at the top) fot intimidating journalists this should work out pretty well.

Additionally the amount of lawyer fees that can be awarded to the losing side should be capped. In Germany you're free to charge your client whatever you want as a lawyer (there are minimums to prevent dumping though)... but if your client wins, your client will only get a (highly capped) amount of these costs from the losing side and be on the hook for the rest.

Journalists aren’t special. They’re not a protected class and their job isn’t sacred. Freedom of the press meant freedom to use a printing press, not membership of a profession.

Whistleblower protection doesn’t exist in practice.


> Since Barack Obama entered the White House in 2009, his government has waged a war against whistleblowers and official leakers. On his watch, there have been eight prosecutions under the 1917 Espionage Act – more than double those under all previous presidents combined.


> Joshua Wilson

> Wilson and Major Jeremy Gordon exposed the malfunctioning oxygen system on board the F-22 Raptor systems that were causing pilots to become disoriented, first to superior officers and then to CBS 60 Minutes. As a result, Wilson's superiors cancelled his promotion to Major, took him off flying duty and threatened to take away his wings. Wilson was also forced out of his desk job at Air Combat Command. No such actions faced Major Gordon.

> Carmen Segarra

> Carmen Segarra discovered that Goldman Sachs did not have a conflict of interest policy when it advised El Paso Corp. on selling itself to Kinder Morgan, a company which Goldman Sachs owned a $4 billion stake. She was forced by her superiors at the Federal Reserve to falsify her report, but stated that her professional view of the situation had not changed. She was shortly thereafter fired.[216] The New York Federal Reserve disputes that she was fired in retaliation.

> John Crane

> Crane built up the DoD IG office over his 25 years there to become the "gold standard" within the government but had his career destroyed for his support of government whistleblowers. Edward Snowden went public rather than reporting within the system due to severe reprisal against earlier NSA whistleblowers.

How do you decide who is and isn’t a journalist? Can journalists really do no wrong?

In the context of a lawyer of a threatening to sue to stifle a legitimate news story that their client wants suppressed, yes, that really seems like a problem.

But is it a problem with the old laws (e.g. ITAR)?

I don't know how I feel about hidden surveillance cameras in public. I know I shouldn't have any expectation of privacy in public and all that, but CCTV cameras in plain view are a different matter.

Are we going to live in a world where we're constantly being recorded and analysed by hidden cameras? This makes me very uneasy. Whatever happened to the idea that democratic governments should be for the people?

I'm sure there's no way that this can ever possibly be misused /s.

If agencies are using these for surveillance on specific targets then that's maybe okay, but as far as I'm aware, there is not much regulation regarding hidden cameras in public - at least, not in many parts of the world.

>Are we going to live in a world where we're constantly being recorded and analysed by hidden cameras?

Yes. Worse - the governments don't even have to spend the time and money setting up these cameras, the consumer is buying and setting up more and more surveillance devices on themselves and those around them (Cellphones, Google Home, Alexa, Nest cameras, Ring cameras, etc. etc.) than ever.

All of it piped into communications networks we know they have untapped access to. All of it being stored and analyzed in places like the NSA's data warehouses, the output of which gets added to things like our XKeyscore profiles. Rise high enough on their undefined terms and they'll make extra effort to analyze your appearance in that network traffic.

Might sound dystopian but that's how it is. It's for our own good, don't you know?

That's the thing that perplexes me?

People buy internet connected cameras and microphones for everything from their phones, to their tv's, to their door bells, and then they get upset that their activities are law enforcement accessible on whatever company's servers? I mean, what did people think would happen? That's just the natural way to use that data. How else would such data be used? Maybe to find workman comp fraudsters? Could be used pretty liberally in family courts? Once non technical people begin to realize the data is out there and family court accessible. But it's not like it's gonna be used to get you your next promotion. (Maybe to prevent you getting your next promotion, but that's another thing entirely.)

For me, it just sounds like a really good reason not to be buying cameras and microphones and slapping them up all over the place. When people come to your home, they should feel they can speak and act freely. Especially since they won't be able to do so in public much longer.

>For me, it just sounds like a really good reason not to be buying cameras and microphones and slapping them up all over the place.

It's being sold as convenience and we can expect a lot more of it. The last decade has shown that the general populace will trade almost anything for the perception of convenience.

As as I was driving, yelling at Google Maps because too many reasons to list, I realized that many people I know have a megacorp that intermediates their lives, it chooses the music, the movies, the news, the restaurants, it knows the music we like, when we eat, what we like to eat, when we get home, how hot we like to keep the house and what books we are reading.

Knowing what I am doing is one thing, but subtly guiding what we do and see throughout the day is kinda wrong.

This is probably the last generation of TVs that will be sold without onboard microphones for the "smart" functionality. LG's 2020 lineup will have them and it'll be trickling down to lower models and other brands.

Like, it's already got microphones in the remote for the digital assistant functionality but you can't leave a remote sending 24/7 because it'll flatten the batteries.

> I mean, what did people think

They didn't, and they don't. We are conditioned to buy whatever's on offer.

"But think of the children". This is an excuse that always work when the governments get even more in the lives of the citizens; with it you can ban anything, you can monitor, search, decrypt, forbid, etc.

> I know I shouldn't have any expectation of privacy in public and all that, but CCTV cameras in plain view are a different matter.

Perhaps we need to define a new right: the right to obscurity. There are places and times when you can't expect privacy but still should be able to expect that your location and actions won't be linked to your identity for all eternity.

I imagine perspective explains a lot of the behavior. San Diego's police department has been getting flack for streetlights with cameras in them for example, but San Diego's police department has also been having trouble hiring enough police officers. From the perspective of the PD the cameras probably /are/ for the people because the people are making the (currently) impossible demand that the police force be both effective and also configured in a way that has led to a staffing shortage. Not that I give the same benefit of the doubt to the FBI, but it seems like the Occam's Razor explanation for why LEO would do something that from the outside looks hostile.

Law enforcement often does things that make their job easier. Said things just as often encroach upon our rights as citizens. We shouldn’t allow them to exist for that reason.

> I don't know how I feel about hidden surveillance cameras in public.

Me either. I mean, once people get used to just having cameras on them all the time, they'll basically just ignore the camera and act however they want. No real need for hidden cameras, just have to be patient.

I mean, the issue with cameras on everyone is that they all require small batteries, meaning always recording with them isn't really practical. There is already early-stage research into long-range wireless charging https://youtu.be/gn7T599QaN8 so maybe 15+ years in the future it would be practical to have always-recording devices.

SLAPP normally means a strategic lawsuit against public participation.

In a significantly less expensive variant here, it means strategic letter against public participation.

It's not like they compromised SSG's website to get it. It was produced in response to at least two FOIA requests. So if anyone's culpable, it's arguably whoever produced it.

Time for the Streisand effect https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Streisand_effect

Eh. Does it even matter? The way news cycles work right now, and with just how much information gets put out there daily, this will barely reach any percentage of the population, and those who do read the article will forget about it in a day or two.

Calling Gizmodo a part of the news cycle is pretty generous. If the story was coming from somewhere mainstream like the AP, Reuters, or even CNN or Fox it'd likely stick around for a bit. Gizmodo is mostly niche articles for tech enthusiasts that like bite sized intrigue articles.

What I meant was that even if it gets picked up by more mainstream media outlets, it still won't have any impact.

Seriously, what kind of a company will design "Tombstone Cam" for surveillance in cemetery ? To catch a pervert or predator or human-eater? This is bizarre.

Funerals of 'bad guys' are a good way to learn about who is affiliated and has connections, and probably to also pick up on juicy gossip of one form or another

There have been instances of religious/ethnic motivated vandalism before. I'd guess this is the target market.

Example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Westlawn_Cemetery#Vandalism

They might bet a criminal will visit his parents' graves every so often.

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