The Senate Just Legalized The Sale Of Your Browsing History

The Senate voted 50-48 to do away with broadband privacy rules; allowing ISPs and telecoms to sell your internet history.

Caleb Chen
MintPress News

Despite widespread disapproval from constituents, S.J.Res 34 has passed the United States Senate with a vote of 50-48, with two absent votes. Earlier, at 12:25 Eastern March 23, 2017, the US Senate voted on S.J.Res 34, and will use the Congressional Review Act to strip away broadband privacy protections that kept Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and telecoms from selling your internet history and app data usage to third parties.

S.J.Res 34 was first introduced by 23 Republican Senators earlier this month and its blitz approval is a giant blow to privacy rights in the United States.

The resolution, which is now effectively half passed, will hand responsibility of broadband privacy regulation from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and disallow the FCC from making any rules protecting Internet privacy ever again. Continue reading

Head of U.S. police chiefs apologizes for historic mistreatment of minorities

Terrence M. Cunningham, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and chief of the Wellesley, Mass., police. On Monday he offered an apology for historic mistreatment of minorities by police. (IACP)

Tom Jackman
The Washington Post

The president of America’s largest police organization on Monday issued a formal apology to the nation’s minority population “for the actions of the past and the role that our profession has played in society’s historical mistreatment of communities of color.”

Terrence M. Cunningham, the chief of police in Wellesley, Mass., delivered his remarks at the convention in San Diego of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, whose membership comprises 18,000 police chiefs from around the world. The statement was issued on behalf of the IACP, and comes as police executives continue to grapple with tense relationships between officers and minority groups in the wake of high-profile civilian deaths in New York, South Carolina, Minnesota and elsewhere, the sometimes violent citizen protests which have ensued as well as the ambush killings of officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge.

Top police chiefs have long recognized the need to maintain good relations with their communities, of all races, and not allow an us-versus-them mentality to take root, either in their rank-and-file officer corps or in the neighborhoods where their citizens live. Cunningham’s comments are an acknowledgement of police departments’ past role in exacerbating tensions and a way to move forward and improve community relations nationwide.

“Events over the past several years,” Cunningham said, “have caused many to question the actions of our officers and has tragically undermined the trust that the public must and should have in their police departments…The history of the law enforcement profession is replete with examples of bravery, self-sacrifice, and service to the community. At its core, policing is a noble profession.”

But Cunningham added, “At the same time, it is also clear that the history of policing has also had darker periods.” He cited laws enacted by state and federal governments which “have required police officers to perform many unpalatable tasks…While this is no longer the case, this dark side of our shared history has created a multigenerational — almost inherited — mistrust between many communities of color and their law enforcement agencies.”

Cunningham continued, “While we obviously cannot change the past, it is clear that we must change the future…For our part, the first step is for law enforcement and the IACP to acknowledge and apologize for the actions of the past and the role that our profession has played in society’s historical mistreatment of communities of color.”

He concluded, “It is my hope that, by working together, we can break this historic cycle of mistrust and build a better and safer future for us all.”

Jeffery Robinson, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, applauded Cunningham’s statement. “It seems to me that this is a very significant admission,” Robinson said, “and a very significant acknowledgement of what much of America has known for some time about the historical relationship between police and communities of color. The fact someone high in the law enforcement community has said this is significant and I applaud it because it is long overdue. And I think it’s a necessary first step to them trying to change these relationships.”

After his comments, Cunningham told The Post in an e-mail that, “We have 16,000 police chiefs and law enforcement officials gathered here in San Diego and it is an important message to spread. Communities and law enforcement need to begin a healing process and this is a bridge to begin that dialogue. If we are brave enough to collectively deliver this message, we will build a better and safer future for our communities and our law enforcement officers. Too many lives have been lost already, and this must end. It is my hope that many other law enforcement executives will deliver this same message to their local communities, particularly those segments of their communities that lack trust and feel disenfranchised.”

The IACP members present for Cunningham’s speech gave him a standing ovation, IACP spokeswoman Sarah Guy said. Cunningham made the remarks on behalf of the membership, Guy said.

Cunningham’s comments came a day after FBI Director James Comey said that Americans “actually have no idea whether the number of black people or brown people or white people being shot by police” has gone up or down, or if any group is more likely to be shot by police, given the incomplete data available. Also speaking to the IACP convention, Comey praised police officers for serving during “a uniquely difficult time” and that the narrative that police are overusing force based on isolated incidents may be exaggerated. The Justice Department has never collected comprehensive data on police shootings or use of force, though it announced a plan to do so last week.

However, in 2015 Comey gave a speech at Georgetown University on law enforcement and race. His points were similar to Cunningham’s. “First,” Comey said, “all of us in law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty. At many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups.”

Comey also noted: “We—especially those of us who enjoy the privilege that comes with being the majority—must confront the biases that are inescapable parts of the human condition. We must speak the truth about our shortcomings as law enforcement, and fight to be better. But as a country, we must also speak the truth to ourselves. Law enforcement is not the root cause of problems in our hardest hit neighborhoods. Police officers—people of enormous courage and integrity, in the main—are in those neighborhoods, risking their lives, to protect folks from offenders who are the product of problems that will not be solved by body cameras. We simply must speak to each other honestly about all these hard truths.”

Here is the full text of Cunningham’s remarks Monday:

I would like to take a moment to address a significant and fundamental issue confronting our profession, particularly within the United States. Clearly, this is a challenging time for policing. Events over the past several years have caused many to question the actions of our officers and has tragically undermined the trust that the public must and should have in their police departments. At times such as this, it is our role as leaders to assess the situation and take the steps necessary to move forward.

This morning, I would like to address one issue that I believe will help both our profession and our communities. The history of the law enforcement profession is replete with examples of bravery, self-sacrifice, and service to the community. At its core, policing is a noble profession made up of women and men who have sworn to place themselves between the innocent and those who seek to do them harm.

Over the years, thousands of police officers have laid down their lives for their fellow citizens while hundreds of thousands more have been injured while protecting their communities. The nation owes all of those officers, as well as those who are still on patrol today, an enormous debt of gratitude.

At the same time, it is also clear that the history of policing has also had darker periods.

There have been times when law enforcement officers, because of the laws enacted by federal, state, and local governments, have been the face of oppression for far too many of our fellow citizens. In the past, the laws adopted by our society have required police officers to perform many unpalatable tasks, such as ensuring legalized discrimination or even denying the basic rights of citizenship to many of our fellow Americans.

While this is no longer the case, this dark side of our shared history has created a multigenerational—almost inherited—mistrust between many communities of color and their law enforcement agencies.

Many officers who do not share this common heritage often struggle to comprehend the reasons behind this historic mistrust. As a result, they are often unable to bridge this gap and connect with some segments of their communities.

While we obviously cannot change the past, it is clear that we must change the future. We must move forward together to build a shared understanding. We must forge a path that allows us to move beyond our history and identify common solutions to better protect our communities.

For our part, the first step in this process is for law enforcement and the IACP to acknowledge and apologize for the actions of the past and the role that our profession has played in society’s historical mistreatment of communities of color.

At the same time, those who denounce the police must also acknowledge that today’s officers are not to blame for the injustices of the past. If either side in this debate fails to acknowledge these fundamental truths, we will be unlikely to move past them.

Overcoming this historic mistrust requires that we must move forward together in an atmosphere of mutual respect. All members of our society must realize that we have a mutual obligation to work together to ensure fairness, dignity, security, and justice.

It is my hope that, by working together, we can break this historic cycle of mistrust and build a better and safer future for us all.

For Eight Months A Private Company Flew Secret Surveillance Missions Over Baltimore


Derrick Broze
The Activist Post

Baltimore police recently held a press conference announcing new details regarding secret surveillance flights taking place over the city for eight months.

Baltimore Police have released new details on a controversial partnership between law enforcement and a private company that operates a fleet of surveillance planes. At a press conference last Friday Baltimore Police released flight logs for the plane owned and operated by Persistent Surveillance Systems.

The logs show the plane flying about 314 hours over a period of 8 months beginning in January 2016. The plane flew over the city close to 100 times and took more than a million pictures. During the months of January, February, June, July, and August the plane flew between one and five hours. The flights reportedly ended on August 7. Bloomberg Businessweek was the first organization to report on the flights, but specific details were not released until the press conference.

Over the 8-month period Persistent Surveillance Systems was able to create a visual chronological record of the city of Baltimore. PSS began working with the BPD in January under an agreement to possibly lease out the surveillance plane. The arrangement was not disclosed to Baltimore’s mayor, city council, elected officials, or the public. Popular Mechanics reports that Baltimore police stated they will use the plane again as a “terrorism prevention tool”during the Baltimore Marathon on Oct. 15 and “Fleet Week” next week.

The program is opposed by Baltimore residents, activists and groups like the American Civil Liberties Union who worry about the loss of privacy. While activists look for local and state legislation to protect them, Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis says the program is an opportunity for law enforcement to more effectively track down criminals.

“We have a real opportunity to police smarter,” Davis said. “The old days of looking at a spike in violence, and marching orders to stop everyone that moves in hoping of identifying a suspect or a witness — we have to move away from that type of policing.”

Ron McNutt, president of Persistent Surveillance Systems, told The Baltimore Sun he is considering selling aerial footage of the city to auto insurance companies to track accidents and claims. McNutt also flies up and down the East Coast to survey land before and after hurricanes. “I have an internal incentive to hold to my privacy policy,” McNutt told the Sun.

Still, the fear that a corporate entity may begin initiating surveillance measures in order to monetize the data and sell it to governments, or insurance companies is a legitimate one. How exactly this data will be protected or stored will likely depend on how much the public pushes back.  As far as Baltimore is concerned, the BPD has a history of violence, racism, and aggressive surveillance. In November 2015 Anti Media reported on internal documents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation reveal that surveillance planes the agency flew over Baltimore and Ferguson during highly-publicized protests also operated thermal imaging equipment. It was also revealed that Baltimore Police used “Stingray” cell phone surveillance technology more than 4,300 times.

Unfortunately, the issue of mass surveillance is a national problem. More specifically, the issue of surveillance planes flying over major cities and towns is increasingly becoming a major concern. As recently as March of this year, the Electronic Frontier Foundation received new records related to the U.S. Marshals aerial surveillance program. The EFF filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuitagainst the Department of Justice shortly after The Wall Street Journal revealed a cell-phone monitoring program operated by the U.S. Marshals Service. The program involved the Marshals using Cessna planes mounted with cell site simulators, also known as  “Stingrays” or “dirtboxes.”

The documents obtained by the EFF come from the U.S. Marshals, FBI, CIA, and the DOJ’s Criminal Division. Most of the information released is heavily redacted but there are some new details on how these programs are being operated. The EFF writes:

The FBI produced the majority of the records—hundreds of pages of heavily redacted material. The documents are mostly internal emails and presentations going as far back as 2009, including discussions between FBI lawyers and the Operational Technology Division (OTD), which develops and oversees the FBI’s surveillance techniques. The documents paint a picture that is similar to the one that has emerged around stingrays and IMSI catchers more generally: the FBI began testing and then using dirtboxes on planes without any overarching policy or legal guidance on their place in investigations.

In September 2015, a report from The North Star Post exposed the existence of a fleet of surveillance aircraft operated by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The planes fly over various locations within the United States, as well as across foreign destinations. The Post reported that photos of DEA planes appear to show stingray technology, or advanced imaging technology, attached to the body of the aircraft. This would confirm suspicions that these aircraft are outfitted with DRT cell site simulators, or “dirt boxes,” as they are known when installed in planes.

In June 2015, Anti Media also reported on the existence of at least 100 surveillance planes operated by the FBI — planes managed by fake front companies rarely granted judicial approval for such actions. Some of these companies include FVX Research, KQM Aviation, NBR Aviation, and PXW Services.

The American public needs to wake up to the fact that federal agencies, local law enforcement, and private companies are operating surveillance planes around the nation. The fleets of surveillance birds represent another march towards a complete Surveillance State and total, irreversible loss of freedoms. What are you willing to do to stop this?

Cops often abuse confidential databases to snoop on romantic partners, journalists and celebrities

Florida Highway Patrol Officer Donna Watts says she was harassed aftering arresting Miami Police Department Officer Fausto Lopez during a traffic stop. (AP)

Florida Highway Patrol Officer Donna Watts says she was harassed aftering arresting Miami Police Department Officer Fausto Lopez during a traffic stop. (AP)

The Associated Press

DENVER — Police officers across the country misuse confidential law enforcement databases to get information on romantic partners, business associates, neighbors, journalists and others for reasons that have nothing to do with daily police work, an Associated Press investigation has found.

Criminal-history and driver databases give officers critical information about people they encounter on the job. But the AP’s review shows how those systems also can be exploited by officers who, motivated by romantic quarrels, personal conflicts or voyeuristic curiosity, sidestep policies and sometimes the law by snooping. In the most egregious cases, officers have used information to stalk or harass, or have tampered with or sold records they obtained.

No single agency tracks how often the abuse happens nationwide, and record-keeping inconsistencies make it impossible to know how many violations occur.

But the AP, through records requests to state agencies and big-city police departments, found law enforcement officers and employees who misused databases were fired, suspended or resigned more than 325 times between 2013 and 2015. They received reprimands, counseling or lesser discipline in more than 250 instances, the review found.

Unspecified discipline was imposed in more than 90 instances reviewed by AP. In many other cases, it wasn’t clear from the records if punishment was given at all. The number of violations was surely far higher since records provided were spotty at best, and many cases go unnoticed.

Among those punished: an Ohio officer who pleaded guilty to stalking an ex-girlfriend and who looked up information on her; a Michigan officer who looked up home addresses of women he found attractive; and two Miami-Dade officers who ran checks on a journalist after he aired unflattering stories about the department.

“It’s personal. It’s your address. It’s all your information, it’s your Social Security number, it’s everything about you,” said Alexis Dekany, the Ohio woman whose ex-boyfriend, a former Akron officer, pleaded guilty last year to stalking her. “And when they use it for ill purposes to commit crimes against you — to stalk you, to follow you, to harass you … it just becomes so dangerous.”

The misuse represents only a tiny fraction of the millions of daily database queries run legitimately during traffic stops, criminal investigations and routine police encounters. But the worst violations profoundly abuses systems that supply vital information on criminal suspects and law-abiding citizens alike. The unauthorized searches demonstrate how even old-fashioned policing tools are ripe for abuse, at a time when privacy concerns about law enforcement have focused mostly on more modern electronic technologies. And incomplete, inconsistent tracking of the problem frustrates efforts to document its pervasiveness.

The AP tally, based on records requested from 50 states and about three dozen of the nation’s largest police departments, is unquestionably an undercount.

Some departments produced no records at all. Some states refused to disclose the information, said they don’t comprehensively track misuse or produced records too incomplete or unclear to be counted. Florida reported hundreds of misuse cases of its driver database, but didn’t say how often officers were disciplined.

And some cases go undetected, officials say, because there aren’t clear red flags to automatically distinguish questionable searches from legitimate ones.

“If we know the officers in a particular agency have made 10,000 queries in a month, we just have no way to (know) they were for an inappropriate reason unless there’s some consequence where someone might complain to us,” said Carol Gibbs, database administrator with the Illinois State Police.

The AP’s requests encompassed state and local databases and the FBI-administered National Crime and Information Center, a searchable clearinghouse that processes an average of 14 million daily transactions.

The NCIC catalogs information that officers enter on sex offenders, immigration violators, suspected gang members, people with outstanding warrants and individuals reported missing, among others. Police use the system to locate fugitives, identify missing people and determine if a motorist they’ve stopped is driving a stolen car or is wanted elsewhere.

Other statewide databases offer access to criminal histories and motor vehicle records, birth dates and photos.

Officers are instructed that those systems, which together contain data far more substantial than an internet search would yield, may be used only for legitimate law enforcement purposes. They’re warned that their searches are subject to being audited and that unauthorized access could cost them their jobs or result in criminal charges.

Yet misuse persists.



Violations frequently arise from romantic pursuits or domestic entanglements, including when a Denver officer became acquainted with a hospital employee during a sex-assault investigation, then searched out her phone number and called her at home. A Mancos, Colorado, marshal asked co-workers to run license plate checks for every white pickup truck they saw because his girlfriend was seeing a man who drove a white pickup, an investigative report shows.

In Florida, a Polk County sheriff’s deputy investigating a battery complaint ran driver’s license information of a woman he met and then messaged her unsolicited through Facebook.

Officers have sought information for purely personal purposes, including criminal records checks of co-workers at private businesses. A Phoenix officer ran searches on a neighbor during the course of a longstanding dispute. A North Olmsted, Ohio, officer pleaded guilty this year to searching for a female friend’s landlord and showing up in the middle of the night to demand the return of money he said was owed her.

The officer, Brian Bielozer, told the AP he legitimately sought the landlord’s information as a safety precaution to determine if she had outstanding warrants or a weapons permit. But he promised as part of a plea agreement never to seek a job again in law enforcement. He said he entered the plea to avoid mounting legal fees.

Some database misuse occurred in the course of other misbehavior, including a Phoenix officer who gave a woman involved in a drug and gun-trafficking investigation details about stolen cars in exchange for arranging sexual encounters for him. She told an undercover detective about a department source who could “get any information on anybody,” a disciplinary report says.

Eric Paull, the Akron police sergeant who pleaded guilty last year to stalking Dekany, also ran searches on her mother, men she’d been close with and students from a course he taught, prosecutors said. A lawyer for Paull, who was sentenced to prison, said Paull has accepted responsibility for his actions.

“A lot of people have complicated personal lives and very strong passions,” said Jay Stanley, an American Civil Liberties Union privacy expert. “There’s greed, there’s lust, there’s all the deadly sins. And often, accessing information is a way for people to act on those human emotions.”

Other police employees searched for family members, sometimes at relatives’ requests, to check what information was stored or to see if they were the subjects of warrants.

Still other searchers were simply curious, including a Miami-Dade officer who admitted checking dozens of officers and celebrities including basketball star LeBron James.

Political motives occasionally surface.

Deb Roschen, a former county commissioner in Minnesota, alleged in a 2013 lawsuit that law enforcement and government employees inappropriately ran repeated queries on her and other politicians over 10 years. The searches were in retaliation for questioning county spending and sheriff’s programs, she contended.

She filed an open-records request that revealed her husband and daughter were also researched, sometimes at odd hours. But an appeals court rejected her suit and several similar cases this month, saying the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate the searches were unpermitted.

“Now there are people who do not like me that have all my private information … any information that could be used against me. They could steal my identity, they could sell it to someone,” Roschen said.

“The sense of being vulnerable,” she added, “there’s no fix to that.”


Violations are committed by patrol officers, dispatchers, civilian employees, court personnel and high-ranking police officials. Some made dozens of improper searches. Some were under investigation for multiple infractions when they were punished, making it unclear whether database misuse was always the sole reason for discipline.

Agencies uncover some violations during audits, or during investigations into other misconduct. Some emerge after a citizen, often the target of a search, finds out or grows suspicious. A Jacksonville, Florida, sheriff’s officer was found to have run queries on his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend after she raised concerns she was being harassed, an internal affairs report says.

The AP sought to focus on officers who improperly accessed information on others but also counted some cases in which officers divulged information to someone not authorized to receive it, or ran their own names for strictly personal purposes, including to check their car registrations.

The tally also includes some cases in which little is known about the offense because some agencies provided no details — only that they resulted in discipline.

The AP tried when possible to exclude benign violations, such as new employees who ran only their own names during training or system troubleshooting. But the variability in record-keeping made it impossible to weed out all such violations.

Agencies in California, for instance, reported more than 75 suspensions, resignations and terminations between 2013 and 2015 arising from misuse of the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, state records show. But because the records didn’t identify officers or specify the allegations, it’s unclear whether multiple violations were committed by the same person or how egregious the infractions were.

Colorado disclosed about 35 misuse violations without specifying punishment. Indiana listed 12 cases of abuse but revealed nothing about them. The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles reported about 400 violations in 2014 and 2015 of its Driver and Vehicle Information Database, or DAVID, but didn’t include the allegations or punishment.

The FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division offers training to state and local law enforcement agencies on NCIC use, and conducts audits every three years that include a sample of local departments, said spokesman Stephen Fischer.

But it doesn’t track how often NCIC information is misused. Violations, which are not required to be reported directly to the FBI, are inconsistently disclosed to the federal government. The FBI relies on local agencies to address violations that are identified, Fischer said.

The AP requested records from large police departments and state agencies tasked with administering NCIC usage within their districts. The responses included cases where officers misused motor vehicle data, including driver’s license and registration information, and also more sensitive criminal history records.

Officers are only occasionally prosecuted, and rarely at the federal level.

One recent exception is a former Cumming, Georgia, officer charged in June with accepting a bribe to search a woman’s license plate number to see if she was an undercover officer. Another involved Ronald Buell, a retired New York Police Department sergeant who received probation for selling NCIC information to a private investigator for defense attorneys.

At his July sentencing, Buell said he hoped other officers would learn “to never put themselves in the position I’m in.”

It’s unsettled whether improper database access is necessarily a federal crime and whether it violates a trespass statute that criminalizes using a computer for other than authorized purposes.

A federal appeals court last year reversed the computer-crime conviction of ex-NYPD officer Gilberto Valle, whom tabloids dubbed the “cannibal cop” for his online exchanges about kidnapping and eating women and who improperly used a police database to gather information. Valle argued that as an officer, he was legally authorized to access the database. The court deemed the statute ambiguous and said it risked criminalizing a broad array of computer use.

Misuse has occasionally prompted federal lawsuits under a statute meant to protect driver’s license data.

A Florida Highway Trooper, Donna Watts, accused dozens of officers of searching her in the state’s driver database after she stopped a Miami-Dade officer for speeding in 2011. She alleged in lawsuits that she was harassed with prank calls, threatening posts on law enforcement websites and unfamiliar cars that idled near her home.

Each unlawful access, she said in a court document, “has either caused or worsened anxiety, depression, insomnia, and other medical/physical/psychological conditions I suffer.”

Law enforcement officials have taken steps to try to limit abuse, though they say they know of no foolproof safeguard given the volume of inquiries and the need for officers to have information at their fingertips.

“There’s no system that could prohibit you from looking up your ex-wife’s new boyfriend, because your ex-wife’s new boyfriend could come in contact with the criminal justice system,” said Peggy Bell, executive director of the Delaware Criminal Justice Information System.

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety said it changed the way officers access a state driver database after a 2013 legislative audit found over half of the 11,000 law enforcement personnel who use it made searches that appeared questionable. The audit was conducted after a former state employee was charged with illegally viewing thousands of driver’s license records.

In Florida, a memorandum of understanding this year increased the amount of field audits law enforcement agencies must undergo regarding DAVID usage. Troopers in the Florida Highway Patrol sign usage warnings when they access the DAVID system and a criminal sanctions acknowledgment. Users are audited and instructed to select a reason for a search before making inquiries.

Denver’s independent monitor, Nicholas Mitchell, argued for strong policies and strict discipline as a safeguard, especially as increasing amounts of information are added to databases. His review found most of the 25 Denver officers punished for misusing databases over 10 years received at most reprimands.

Miami-Dade police cracked down after the Watts scandal and other high-profile cases. The department now does quarterly audits in which officers can be randomly asked to explain searches. A sergeant’s duties have been expanded to include daily reviews of proper usage and troubleshooting, said Maj. Christopher Carothers of the professional compliance bureau.

Even if the public is unaware of the amount of available information, Carothers said, “The idea that police would betray that trust out of curious entertainment or truly bad intent, that’s very disturbing and unsettling.”

After New York Attack, Congress Wants TSA to Secure Amtrak, Buses

A bill pushing the agency to focus more on surface transport follows a critical report and an attempted bombing near a train station.


The U.S. Transportation Security Administration is one of those federal agencies that tends to inspire intense reactions among the traveling public. It’s a bureaucracy that interacts with millions of passengers each day, requiring their shoes, jackets, laptops—and time.

Virtually all this occurs at airports, with about 80 percent of the agency’s $7.4 billion budget spent on aviation security. Only 2 percent of the TSA’s funding goes to surface transportation, according to a report by the Office of Inspector General earlier this month. Congress is looking to change that.

Several U.S. senators want the TSA to focus more attention and resources on rail, highway, and marine transportation, which would mean greater security oversight at such places as Amtrak stations and Megabus coach stops. A bipartisan bill introduced Thursday by Senator John Thune (R-S.D.) would require the TSA to use a risk-based security model for these transport modes and to budget money based on those risks. It would require a wider use of the agency’s terrorist watch list by train operators and more detailed passenger manifests along with tighter screening of marine employees. The legislation also would increase the TSA’s canine use by as many as 70 dog-handler teams for surface transportation. Continue reading

A Walking Tour of New York’s Massive Surveillance Network

Cora Currier
The Intercept

EARLIER THIS MONTH, on the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the lower tip of Manhattan was thronged with soldiers in uniform, firefighters marching with photos of lost friends pinned to their backpacks, and tourists bumbling around the new mall at the World Trade Center. Firetrucks and police cars ringed Zuccotti Park and white ribbons adorned the iron fence around the churchyard on Broadway. Trash cans were closed up, with signs announcing “temporary security lockdown.”

So it felt a bit risky to be climbing up a street pole on Wall Street to closely inspect a microwave radar sensor, or to be lingering under a police camera, pointing and gesturing at the wires and antenna connected to it. Yet it was also entirely appropriate to be doing just that, especially in the company of Ingrid Burrington, author of the new book “Networks of New York: An Illustrated Field Guide to Urban Internet Infrastructure,” which points out that many of the city’s communications and surveillance programs were conceived and funded in response to the attacks. Continue reading


The Post and Courier

Police forces across the United States are stockpiling massive databases with personal information from millions of Americans who crossed paths with officers but were not charged with a crime.

A person can end up in one of these databases by doing nothing more than sitting on a public park bench or chatting with an officer on the street. Once there, these records can linger forever and be used by police agencies to track movements, habits, acquaintances and associations – even a person’s marital and job status, The Post and Courier found in an investigation of police practices around the nation.

What began as a method for linking suspicious behavior to crime has morphed into a practice that threatens to turn local police departments into miniature versions of the National Security Agency. In the process, critics contend, police risk trampling constitutional rights, tarnishing innocent people and further eroding public trust.

Law enforcement agencies have for decades used what’s known as field interview or contact cards to document everything from sketchy activity to random encounters with people on the street. But the digital age has greatly expanded the power and reach of this tool, allowing police to store indefinitely reams of data on those who draw their interest — long after any potential link to a crime has evaporated.

“They pose a different threat than the NSA. … But they can reveal a much more invasive picture of a person’s life,” attorney Stephanie Lacambra of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a California-based digital-rights advocacy group, said in response to the newspaper’s findings. “The public should be concerned.”

Some 35,000 people — roughly equal to a quarter of the city’s population – show up in the Charleston Police Department’s database for field contacts, which includes everyone from suspected killers to toddlers and 99-year-olds. One man alone has more than 1,000 entries to his name.

If you want to know what’s in those files, it’s going to cost you. Even though these are public records under South Carolina law, Charleston police has refused to fully open them for inspection unless The Post and Courier forks over nearly $200,000 – a fee the newspaper is fighting in court. In other places, public access is blocked altogether and mired in secrecy.

In a first-of-its-kind review, the newspaper spent a year examining the field contact practices of the nation’s 50 largest police departments, along with some of the top law enforcement agencies in South Carolina. The investigation found a haphazard system with few controls and many concerns. Among the findings:

Rising concerns

Revelations about field contact practices have brought to light allegations of misconduct and invited scrutiny of police administrations. The data was central to shake-ups in New Orleans; New York City; Newark, New Jersey; Ferguson, Missouri; and Baltimore — cities whose police agencies have struggled in recent years to find a balance between fighting crime and building close ties with their communities.

In Baltimore this year, federal investigators slammed police for aggressive and discriminatory stops that unfairly targeted black residents without legal justification. Police stopped one black man 30 times in four years without an arrest or citation. And in Newark, the Justice Department in 2014 found thousands of cases in which officers did not document the reasonable suspicion needed to make stops and conduct field interviews.

Federal investigators slammed Baltimore police for aggressive and discriminatory stops that unfairly targeted black residents without legal justification. AP File Photo/Patrick Semansky

Capt. Derek Glenn of the Newark Public Safety Department said his agency is still doing extensive training, stressing to officers the importance of making proper stops and justifying their actions in reports.

“Bottom line is, if it’s not in that report, that’s what you’re going to be judged by,” he said. “If you didn’t include it, it doesn’t exist.”

Problems have been reported across the nation. In Florida, police in Miami Gardens questioned nearly 57,000 people during a six-year period without an arrest. In California, sheriff’s deputies mislabeled a special-needs student as a gang member on a field contact card. In Colorado, police in the affluent ski town of Steamboat Springs were accused of confronting people doing innocuous things, such as working out at a 24-hour gym, in their zeal to build a database of field contacts. All three departments drew lawsuits over their actions.

These incidents come at a time when civil libertarians have become increasingly concerned over the reach of police surveillance, from video cameras sweeping public spaces to license-plate scanners, facial recognition software and so-called “stingray” devices that can intercept cellphone data without search warrants.

The nation also is wrangling with a robust and divisive debate over police use of traffic and pedestrian stops to ferret out potential criminal behavior. Much of that debate has focused on so-called “pretext stops” in which officers use minor violations to stop and question someone they think might be involved in a more serious crime. But field contact data draws from an even broader field, using everything from observations to casual conversations to build voluminous storehouses of information on sketchy characters and innocents alike.

Consider that Florida’s Miami-Dade Police Department has more than 1.6 million entries in its field interview database. Fairfax County, Virginia, has another 1.3 million. In South Carolina, Charleston police have amassed a database of nearly 100,000 encounters in the past seven years.

‘Secret surveillance’

Police officials across the nation have downplayed the potential threats to privacy from this practice, defending field interviews as a critical tool for fighting and preventing crime in an age of myriad threats.

“It’s absolutely useful,” Sgt. Trent Crump of Arizona’s Phoenix Police Department told The Post and Courier. “These things help us to solve crimes.”

Crump offered no examples, but other departments did. Charleston police pointed to a field interview card that officers filled out three years ago on a suspicious man seen running near a “known narcotics location.” The card proved crucial in linking him to a murder in the area that same night. The man is now serving 38 years in prison.

Marjorie Esman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Louisiana, heard about the crime-fighting benefits of these cards while battling New Orleans police in 2010 over their extensive use of field interviews. Police there were completing about 200 field interview cards per day, netting many innocents along the way. Esman said most people have no idea of the potential ramifications of this “secret surveillance.”

“Do we want the police to, essentially, be able to follow people around?” she asked. “And that’s what this is if they know who you are, where you are, who you are with, what you are doing. What business is that of the government if you are not breaking any laws? That is very scary.”

Some law enforcement officers have rebelled against the practice as well. Dave Kleiber, a 19-year veteran, quit the Steamboat Springs Police Department and penned a public letter raising concerns about the agency’s tactics.

“In most circumstances, cities doing this have created an environment with a tremendous amount of animosity between the public and the police,” Kleiber said. “You have to look at that and say, ‘Maybe I’m getting this data, but what am I losing in the process?’ If you’re losing the faith of the community … then what’s the benefit?”

An age-old tool

The practice of filling out field contact cards has been around since at least the 1960s, when it was hailed as a novel crime-fighting device in a report by a presidential commission studying justice issues. Some departments, however, said they have had some system in place for documenting encounters with the public since the 1920s.

From the start, the premise behind the cards was fairly simple: If an officer spotted someone acting suspiciously – say, lurking around a building after dark — he jotted down the circumstances and the person’s information for future reference. If a burglary occurred at that address a short time later, the card would give a detective a starting point to look for possible suspects.

For years, officers filled out paper cards, and clerks filed them away in records departments or detective offices for analysis. Sheriff’s deputies in Charleston County still use this method, storing the cards in a filing cabinet. Once the drawer gets too full, the cards are tossed and replaced with new ones.

Sheriff’s deputies in Charleston County still use paper records to document field contacts, but Sheriff Al Cannon said he would like to convert these files into an electronic database similar to ones used by surrounding police agencies. Grace Beahm/Staff

More and more agencies, however, are turning to digital forms that can be filled out on smartphones, laptops or tablets. In Montgomery County, Maryland, it’s even easier. Officers there simply scan the barcode on a person’s driver’s license with an electronic reader and personal information pops up on a contact form, said Officer Rick Goodale, a police spokesman.

There and elsewhere, information from citizen encounters is then fed into a central database without storage constraints. With the records often just a few keystrokes away, officers in the field can peruse a person’s history of interactions with police before making contact.

That ability, officials said, provides useful context and prepares officers for what they might encounter. But critics contend this also could color an officer’s perception of an individual and lead to unnecessary distrust. In Newark, for example, Justice Department officials found that internal affairs investigators at times discredited valid complaints against officers because the person making the allegations showed up in the department’s field inquiry database, often under dubious circumstances.

“NPD officers’ unjustified stops can have long-lasting and substantial consequences for people’s lives, as well as for the NPD’s ability to hold officers accountable for misconduct,” Justice Department investigators warned in a 2014 report.

Drive for data

The drive to collect data itself has led, at times, to allegations of harassment and racial profiling in some communities.

A 2014 investigation by the Fusion television network uncovered problems with a push for field contacts in the predominantly black Florida suburb of Miami Gardens. Officers stopped and questioned 56,922 people — the equivalent of more than half of the city’s population — over a six-year stretch without a single arrest. More than 8,000 minors, including a 5-year-old boy, were detained along the way, Fusion found.

Earl Sampson, a customer and employee at a convenience store targeted by Miami Gardens police, was stopped more than 200 times for questioning in four years and arrested for trespassing 62 times, mostly for being at his place of work, a Miami Herald investigation determined in 2013. The city’s police chief resigned amid allegations of harassment and intimidation, and a federal civil rights lawsuit was filed against the city over the stops.

This 2013 photo shows Earl Sampson, who was stopped for questioning by Florida’s Miami Gardens police more than 200 times for questioning in four years during a push for field contacts. Sampson also was arrested 62 times for trespassing, mostly for being at the convenience store where he worked, pictured here. AP Photo/The Miami Herald, CW Griffin

Antonio Brooklen, the city’s current police chief, did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the episodes. But Miami-Dade County Public Defender Carlos Martinez told The Post and Courier that the number of field contacts in the city has dropped dramatically since bad press caused police to reverse a policy he described as “New York’s stop-and-frisk on steroids.”

“They were really painting the whole town as criminals,” Martinez said. “They were using the field investigation cards as a way for individual officers to rack up the number of contacts they had and make it look like they were actually doing good investigative work. In the process, they hurt a lot of innocent people who were not engaged in any sort of questionable behavior but ended up in a police database anyway.”

Similar concerns surfaced in New Orleans, where residents complained to the ACLU in 2010 that police were stopping people for no apparent reason and demanding identification. Police there were using field interview cards to judge officer performance, leading to complaints of racial profiling and implied quotas in a system that landed nearly 60,000 people in the police database without an arrest. One department veteran warned the police administration that officers were being instructed to document every contact with a citizen regardless of the reason — an order he deemed unconstitutional, The Times-Picayune newspaper reported.

Another officer who was disciplined for speaking out on the policy later sued then-Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas, alleging that the chief’s push for statistics “led the NOPD to cast a dragnet over all individuals having contact with the agency.”

New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Ronal Serpas, left, drew scrutiny after a widespread field interview program landed nearly 60,000 people in a police database without an arrest. Serpas, who retired in 2014, is seen here at a 2011 news conference to announce the findings of a U.S. Department of Justice report into the New Orleans Police Department. AP/File Photo

The department has since shifted away from these widespread stops following a federal consent decree and Serpas’ retirement in 2014, ACLU leaders said. New Orleans police also joined a White House effort to increase police transparency with data, and they now publish regular reports about field contact stops on the department’s website for the public to review.

In 2004, the ACLU also challenged field interview policies in Jackson, Tennessee, after a college student alleged that racial profiling led an officer to question him on his grandmother’s front porch, according to Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee.

Other residents also complained to the local newspaper about being stopped, questioned and photographed by police during field interviews. Statistics later showed 76 percent of the photos taken were of black residents.

“Field contact cards can be a useful tool for ensuring police accountability when they are used to gather information on police activity, but not when they violate civilians’ privacy,” the ACLU’s Weinberg said in an email to The Post and Courier.

Suspicions linger

Law enforcement officials insist the personal data collected is kept private and that suspicions alone won’t land anyone in jail. Still, those suspicions can haunt a person for years after the initial encounter.

In Santa Cruz, California, a school resource officer in 2003 filled out a field interview card that identified a special-education student as a gang member without evidence to prove that, according to a lawsuit filed by the boy’s mother. The officer based his suspicions on the teen’s choice of clothing and the fact he was seen talking with classmates who were suspected gang members, according to court papers. The card landed the boy in a gang database, and soured his relationship with teachers and administrators, causing his grades to plummet, according to the lawsuit. The two sides settled the suit in 2005, with sheriff’s officials agreeing to remove the teen from the database.

Last year, a team of criminologists released a report on the Boston Police Department‘s field interrogation, observation and stop-and-frisk policies. They raised concerns about officers placing people in that department’s database just because they had been seen with others deemed suspicious, saidJack McDevitt, director of the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University.

The so-called “FIO report” database had been primarily used to monitor gang activity, and it had been an effective tool in that regard, McDevitt said. The problem was, others were getting drawn into that web solely due to their association or proximity to a gang member. The study found many of those interviewed and catalogued by police had no records or further encounters with police.

“They realized what the police were doing was FIOing a gang member and the four or five kids he had with him, and that was seen as a gang database,” he said. “They were taking people who just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Boston police did not respond to a request for an interview but supplied reports and data to show they had made tactical changes as a result of the study. Among them: purging files from their database within five years if those named haven’t been stopped again by police. Before, those records were kept indefinitely.

“That’s the way it was historically done in the department, and clearly it’s wrong,” said McDevitt, who has been working with police to craft changes from the study’s findings. “Just because someone had an incident or a bad encounter doesn’t give police the license to continue treating them with disrespect.”

Still, only a handful of the law enforcement agencies surveyed by The Post and Courier had policies in place for removing data after a set time period. For most, the records were permanent.

That’s why Charleston’s database has an entry for two men questioned by police after they were spotted loading construction supplies into a truck on Daniel Island in 2012. Their personal information remains on file four years after police determined they were simply a pair of contractors getting ready for work. Similar examples were found in other departments’ files.

North Charleston Deputy Police Chief Scott Deckard said field contact entries lose value over time, but they still provide police with somewhere to start when an investigation gets rolling. “You don’t know the value of that information until you really need it,” he said.

But others maintain that convenience comes with too high a risk of impugning reputations and invading personal privacy.

Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist with the University of Missouri, said he sees no reason for police to hold on to citizens’ private information if that person has not been tied to a crime within three to six months.

“To put it bluntly,” he said, “the police have no business compiling and retaining indefinitely information on persons innocent of any wrongdoing.”

The risk of misperceptions has only multiplied, critics contend, as police departments have turned to the contact forms to document a whole range of things beyond suspicious activity.

While police in El Paso, Texas, use the forms primarily to monitor criminal gang activity, their counterparts in San Francisco fill out cards when they spot new homeless people or are asked to check on people’s welfare. Charleston’s database includes abandoned cars. And North Charleston police sometimes use theirs as a tickler file of sorts for neighborhood contacts, entering a person’s information with no accompanying narrative to explain how they ended up there.

Inviting scrutiny

In some cities, including Charleston, landing in such a database can be an invitation for greater scrutiny in the future. More than 1,200 people in the Charleston police database had 10 or more entries; 64 showed up more than 100 times.

Charleston police officer John Saunders does field interviews with 52-year-old Nathan Gagnon (left) and 59-year-old John Francis Morgan on Aug. 9 after reports of a disturbance at the One80 Place homeless shelter on Walnut Street. Andrew Knapp/Staff

Police officials insist such encounters are generally benign and not intended to place average citizens under suspicion. They point out that no law prevents an officer from striking up a conversation, and nothing prevents a citizen from just walking away if police lack reasonable suspicion to detain them. They are under no obligation to supply their information during consensual encounters.

Still, given the increasingly sophisticated technology available to store and manipulate the information, many civil rights advocates, defense attorneys and experts in police accountability have grave concerns about this widespread collection of data.

“You’re not entering their information in the McDonald’s favorite customer system,” said Tim Kulp, a Charleston defense attorney and former FBI agent. “You are entering them in the police system. And there is a flag of stigma attached to that.”

Gerry Morris, former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said it’s naïve to think that people don’t feel compelled to answer questions when approached by police. And most probably have no idea that police are warehousing information culled from what might have been a casual conversation on the street, he said.

“When they approached, was the citizen fully aware of what that data was going to be used for and that it would be maintained possibly indefinitely?” he asked. “And knowing that, would the citizen have volunteered that information?”

Others question who protects the information from being misused.

An oversight agency found three instances last year in which Denver police officers misused a restricted law enforcement database, including one incident in which an officer looked up personal information on a man suspected of having an affair with his friend’s wife.

A New York City police sergeant was convicted this year of accepting cash to furnish confidential information from a federal database to a private detective. In Connecticut, an officer was accused of giving a friend records from a criminal database to harass her ex-boyfriend’s pregnant girlfriend. And in Charleston in June,a former Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent was charged with illegally accessing personal information about co-workers, his wife and her divorce attorney from a state database of motor vehicle records.

U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, is an attorney and a House Judiciary Committee member who speaks often about privacy rights and the shifting parameters of policing in the digital age. She said the law has yet to catch up with technological advances and the potential threats to privacy and government intrusions into people’s lives.

“The question is, does the old doctrine of ‘plain sight’ really work in the digital age?” she said. “You know, it’s one thing in the 1950s to stop a person, you write it down, they go on their way. It’s not going to be data-mined for something else. It’s not going to be cumulative in a different way that’s very intrusive.”

Challenges to access

Of particular concern to many advocates is the lack of standards and transparency associated with the use of field inquiries. They exist outside of stringent incident reporting guidelines set by the FBI and, in some places, aren’t considered public documents at all. In others, police have worked to put up barriers to sidestep scrutiny.

Access to the data is as varied as the states that keep it. Residents in New York’s Suffolk County, for instance, can get copies of their field contact cards for 25 cents a page while Los Angeles police require a court-issued subpoena before they will hand them out. Officers in Boston can call up the information in their cruisers, while Las Vegas police limit its distribution to hand-picked officials with special clearance.

In South Carolina, some police agencies surveyed released limited information that revealed race and age data and showed where in their cities people were most often encountered for field contacts. But police mostly withheld crucial details that could show why people were being stopped for field interviews, whether officers were properly documenting them and how the authorities are using the information they gather.

Charleston police refused to provide full access to its field contact database unless The Post and Courier paid for a city official to review the files and redact sensitive information. The newspaper has filed a lawsuit against the city, seeking to open that information to the public.

Police in North Charleston and the capital city of Columbia threw up similar roadblocks and proposed charging tens of thousands of dollars for access to their field contact files.

Susan Dunn, legal director for the ACLU of South Carolina, said this secrecy can fuel fear that police are creating a list of people to target for suspicion and action.

“It’s almost having the same effect as creating an unknown, do-not-fly list,” she said. “You have to wonder what they are keeping it all for. What is the purpose of keeping it if the community can’t access it and see what is going on?”

In most cases, officials argued they had no easy way to scrub out people’s personal information and intelligence that could be used to solve crimes. But other agencies in the country have found ways to gather crucial details of public interest without compromising those sensitive details.

The only way to provide a check on this type of police activity is to make it public, said Bill Nettles, who recently stepped down as South Carolina’s U.S. attorney. This data allows citizens to see what’s happening and assess whether they can support what the police are doing. Information gathered with taxpayers’ money, he said, should be available to the taxpayers.

“I think the community has a right to know what is happening,” Nettles said. “That is how a democratic society should work.”

Government is now tracking your medications … No privacy or escape from tyranny

J.D. Heyes
Natural News

The digital age is leading to the end of centuries-old constitutional privacy guarantees, as evidenced by the growth of Internet cloud-based data storage and electronic records, both of which are too easily accessible to prying eyes enabled by power-hungry politicians.

For instance, most Americans are unaware that state and federal governments are tracking – and accessing – your prescription medication records. Dozens of states allow federal and state law enforcement agencies free, warrantless access to databases that contain your drug history. What’s more, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency is scrambling for authority to search databases in states where there are pharmaceutical privacy protections, reports Scripps News.

At present, 31 states grant authorities this kind of carte blanche access; only one state – Missouri – and the District of Columbia do not have prescription drug marketing programs. But these protections are likely to fall as well; Missouri’s program is currently on target for state approval, while D.C. officials say theirs will be up and running by year’s end.

Scripps News noted further that very often disclosures to police agencies of a person’s prescription drug history are done without actually notifying that person, thereby denying them any opportunity to object to the warrantless search or consult a lawyer. No court ever approves the records release that divulges medical histories that most people rightfully want to keep private.

State programs are in place to help track and analyze information that assists healthcare providers and pharmacists limit abuse of addictive medications like opioid painkillers. But patchy state statutes have left many privacy loopholes, giving police ready access to your records.

During a five-month investigation, Scripps News discovered that law enforcement officials gained access to at least 344,921 prescription histories of American citizens between 2014 and 2015 in states that do not require a court-ordered warrant, as per the Fourth Amendment. That’s more than six times the number of searches conducted by police in states that have enacted better privacy measures. But the access without court oversight – or any other oversight, really – is what concerns privacy advocates because it paves the way for abuse.

Why are police and elected officials okay with this?

Marlon Jones, an assistant fire chief with the Unified Fire Authority of Salt Lake County, Utah, told Scripps News that he could have lost his career and his family after he was falsely charged with felony crimes associated with doctor shopping, all because of a warrantless search by local police.

Police were investigating the theft of prescription drugs from regional ambulance services. Though they had no suspects, probable cause or warrant, an officer working the case logged onto the state’s controlled substances database and searched through prescription records for all 480 fire department workers.

“I had no idea that a police officer, just on a whim, could go into my medical records and then determine what’s appropriate, in his opinion,” Ryan Pyle, a firefighter paramedic whose prescription records were also accessed in the same warrantless search, toldScripps News.

Officers did not make any arrests in the theft of drugs, but rather focused on prescription histories of both Jones and Pyle, charging them with purchasing controlled substances under false pretenses – charges that had nothing at all to do with their investigation.

“It impacted every bit of our lives,” Jones noted, adding that he was put on suspension just a few months after having been promoted. “What (the investigator) did threatened to take everything I held dear.”

Pyle’s arrest came right as he and his wife were in the middle of adopting two boys. He said that when he was charged his immediate thought was that he was going to lose those two kids.

Fishing expeditions

What’s really scary – and offensive – is that local officials had no problem with searching the prescription drug database without a warrant. So much for standing up for the Constitution.

“We would not do anything that would go beyond the bounds of what the law allows,” said Cottonwood Heights mayor Kelvyn Cullimore, Jr., hiding behind the state law that permitted the search. While he admitted that the search could have been more narrow, he claimed that if state law allows it, then it’s fine.

Except that it’s not alright. And there is – rightfully – a legal battle now brewing over the treatment of Jones, Pyle and many other Americans whose Fourth Amendment rights are being trampled on a daily basis.

Scott Michelman, an attorney for Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C.-based legal watchdog representing Pyle and Jones, said that allowing police to go on warrantless “fishing expeditions” through personal information, then making untrained medical judgments, has the potential to destroy people’s lives, and it ought to be stopped.

He’s right, of course.


Scripps News

Fourth Amendment

Police are routinely building up private DNA databases

Lauren Kirchner
Propublica via Tech Insider

The five teenage boys were sitting in a parked car in a gated community in Melbourne, Florida, when a police officer pulled up behind them.

Officer Justin Valutsky closed one of the rear doors, which had been ajar, and told them to stay in the car. He peered into the drivers’ side window of the white Hyundai SUV and asked what the teens were doing there. It was a Saturday night in March 2015 and they told Valutsky they were visiting a friend for a sleepover.

Valutsky told them there had been a string of car break-ins recently in the area. Then, after questioning them some more, he made an unexpected demand: He asked which one of them wanted to give him a DNA sample.

After a long pause, Adam, a slight 15-year-old with curly hair and braces, said, “Okay, I guess I’ll do it.” Valutsky showed Adam how to rub a long cotton swab around the inside of his cheek, then gave him a consent form to sign and took his thumbprint. He sealed Adam’s swab in an envelope. Then he let the boys go.

Telling the story later, Adam would say of the officer’s request, “I thought it meant we had to.”

Over the last decade, collecting DNA from people who are not charged with — or even suspected of — any particular crime has become an increasingly routine practice for police in smaller cities not only in Florida, but in Connecticut, Pennsylvania and North Carolina as well.

While the largest cities typically operate public labs and feed DNA samples into the FBI’s national database, cities like Melbourne have assembled databases of their own, often in partnership with private labs that offer such fast, cheap testing that police can afford to amass DNA even to investigate minor crimes, from burglary to vandalism.

And to compile samples for comparison, some jurisdictions also have quietly begun asking people to turn over DNA voluntarily during traffic stops, or even during what amount to chance encounters with police. In Melbourne, riding a bike at night without two functioning lights can lead to DNA swab — even if the rider is a minor.

“In Florida law, basically, if we can ask consent, and if they give it, we can obtain it,” said Cmdr. Heath Sanders, the head of investigations at the Melbourne Police Department. “We’re not going to be walking down the street and asking a five-year-old to stick out his tongue. That’s just not reasonable. But’s let’s say a kid’s 15, 16 years old, we can ask for consent without the parents.”

In Bensalem Township, Pennsylvania, those stopped for DUI or on the street for acting suspiciously may be asked for DNA. Director of Public Safety Frederick Harran credits the burgeoning DNA database Bensalem now shares with Bucks County’s 38 other police departments with cutting burglaries in the township by 42 percent in the first four years of the program. Plus, Bensalem pays for the testing — which is conducted by a leading private lab, Bode Cellmark Forensics — with drug forfeiture money, making it essentially free, Harran added.

“This has probably been the greatest innovation in local law enforcement since the bulletproof vest,” Harran said. “It stops crime in its tracks…. So why everyone’s not doing it, I don’t know.”

While Harran tells his officers to be careful not to push people to consent, civil rights advocates see a minefield in cases that morph from stop-and-frisk to stop-and-spit.

There are clear precedents for obtaining DNA from people who have been convicted of crimes and from those under arrest. Under the Fourth Amendment, law enforcement must have a reasonable suspicion that a person is involved in a crime before requiring a search or seizure.

But the notion of collecting DNA consensually is still so new that the ground rules remain uncertain. Who can give such consent and what must they be told about what they’re consenting to? Who decides how long to keep these samples and what can be done with them? Maryland’s Supreme Court is the highest to rule on such a case, saying in 2015 that law enforcement could use DNA voluntarily provided to police investigating one crime to solve another, but that case didn’t take on DNA collected outside of an investigation, in chance street or traffic stops.

More challenges seem inevitable, said Jason Kreag, a University of Arizona law professor who’s written about local law enforcement’s expanding use of DNA. Police interviews that lead to DNA collection — particularly involving juveniles—have the potential to create “a coercive environment,” he said. “The laws and the legislatures just haven’t caught up with this type of policing yet.”

Harran echoed that. “There’s no laws, there’s nothing,” he said. “We’re in uncharted territory. There’s nothing governing what we’re doing.” He wants for private database programs to establish their own best practices.

Private DNA databases have multiplied as testing technology has become more sophisticated and sensitive, enabling labs to generate profiles from so-called “touch” or “trace” DNA consisting of as little as a few skin cells. Automated “Rapid DNA” machines allow police to analyze DNA right at the station in a mere 90 minutes. Some states allow “familial searching” of databases, which can identify people with samples from family members. New software can even create composite mugshots of suspects using DNA to guess at skin and eye color.

Strict rules govern which DNA samples are added to the FBI’s national database, but they don’t apply to the police departments’ private databases, which are subject to no state or federal regulation or oversight. Adam’s DNA, for example, was headed for a database managed for Melbourne by Bode Cellmark Forensics, a LabCorp subsidiary, which has marketed its services to dozens of small cities and towns. The lower standards for DNA profiles included in private databases could lead to meaningless or coincidental matches, said Michael Garvey, who heads the Philadelphia Police Department’s office of forensic science, a public lab.

“No one knows what the rules are about what they’re going to upload into these private DNA databases or not,” Garvey said. “Mixtures, partials — what’s their criteria? It varies.”

When Adam’s father found out the police had taken his son’s DNA, he immediately contacted the Melbourne Police Department to ask what the department intended to do with the sample and on what legal basis it had been taken. As a doctor, he understood what had happened could have far-reaching implications.

“My concern, being in the medical field, is that it’s not just Adam’s DNA,” he said. (ProPublica is withholding his name to protect the privacy of his son.) “It’s my DNA, it’s my wife’s DNA, and our parents. Not to sound bad, but you just get nervous. There’s some collateral damage there.”

Sanders explained that Adam had given his consent, making the sample usable under department policy, though it had not yet been sent to the lab for testing. He said that as long as Adam didn’t get into trouble, the family had nothing to fear.

Unsatisfied and determined to get the sample destroyed, Adam’s dad took the only other step he could think of — he called a lawyer. It was attorney Jason Hicks’ first encounter with a stop-and-spit case. He quickly realized he and his clients were on the edge of a legal frontier.

“First, I was just shocked that it had happened,” he said. “Then I was frustrated by the lack of a vehicle to challenge it.”

Traditionally, certified local, state and federal forensic labs have tested DNA collected for law enforcement purposes, funneling these profiles into the FBI-run Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS.

The FBI’s standards for profiles uploaded to CODIS are rigorous. CODIS will only accept “partial” profiles under certain circumstances, and all samples must be tested by FBI-approved labs. The national database includes DNA from convicted offenders and arrestees in some states, but not from people merely suspected of crimes. State law dictates when databases linked to CODIS must toss out DNA profiles.

Private databases do not have any such constraints. FBI agent Ann Todd said that the DNA profiles stored in private databases would not be eligible for inclusion in the national database because “those profiles do not meet the strict eligibility, quality, and privacy standards set forth in the federal law.”

Smaller jurisdictions used to rely on larger ones for DNA testing, but many public labs have become backlogged as demand for their services has risen. In 2012, New York became the first state to require DNA collection from those convicted of any crime, not just violent ones, and at least 29 states now authorize collection from anyone arrested for certain crimes. Many states have also passed laws requiring DNA evidence from rape cases to be tested within a certain amount of time, increasing pressure on public labs.

Private operators have stepped in to meet the appetite for testing in cities and towns that can’t afford their own labs and have few violent crimes that would rise to the top of a public lab’s priority list. Bode Cellmark Forensics charges about $100 to $150 a swab — little enough for cops to swab everything from the steering wheel of a stolen car to the nozzle of a spray-paint can used for vandalism — and boasts a 30-day turnaround time for results.

Palm Bay, Florida, launched the nation’s first private DNA database program about a decade ago, working in partnership with DNA:SI, a private lab in North Carolina founded by Amway executive Bill Britt. The lab offered its services for free for the first year in exchange for Palm Bay’s spreading the gospel to other police departments. The program’s aim was for high-volume collection and testing to help solve the area’s high-volume crimes, which were mainly property crimes.

Sure enough, the first “match” solved a string of break-ins at the gated community where the city’s then police chief, William Berger, resided. The burglar even hit Berger’s house, slicing through a screen and stealing a couple of floats from his swimming pool. Berger brought in a canine team, which tracked the floats to the woods, then had the floats and the screen door latch swabbed for DNA. Five days later, a young man was caught attempting to shoplift at Wal-Mart. The Palm Bay police officer called to the scene didn’t make an arrest (the store declined to press charges), but the shoplifter consented to a voluntary DNA test. Turned out the shoplifter was also Berger’s burglar.

Encouraged by that success, Palm Bay police collected over 800 reference swabs from crime suspects in the first 10 months of the program, plus over 1,600 crime-scene items and evidence swabs. Five years later, the database contained profiles from about 3,500 people. “We were way ahead of the game,” said Berger.

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