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Interesting Links: Apr 8, 2016

April 8, 2016 4 comments

Here are links to a few interesting articles I came across recently. They are all about how “law enforcement” agencies left to their own devices will always screw over their host societies.

Link 1: CIA’s Venture Capital Arm Is Funding Skin Care Products That Collect DNA

Skincential Sciences, a company with an innovative line of cosmetic products marketed as a way to erase blemishes and soften skin, has caught the attention of beauty bloggers on YouTube, Oprah’s lifestyle magazine, and celebrity skin care professionals. Documents obtained by The Intercept reveal that the firm has also attracted interest and funding from In-Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the Central Intelligence Agency. The previously undisclosed relationship with the CIA might come as some surprise to a visitor to the website of Clearista, the main product line of Skincential Sciences, which boasts of a “formula so you can feel confident and beautiful in your skin’s most natural state.”

The article, which is no longer available on the fund’s website but is preserved by a cache hosted by the Internet Archive, argues that advances in medical research into biomarkers can be leveraged by intelligence agencies for a variety of uses, from airport security to next-generation identification tools. A diagram in the article calls human skin the body’s largest organ and a “unique, underutilized source for sample collection.” The author, Dr. Kevin O’Connell, then a “senior solutions architect” with In-Q-Tel, notes, “The DNA contained in microorganisms in a person’s gut or on a person’s skin may contain sequences that indicate a particular geographical origin.”

Link 2: L.A. Activists Want to Bring Surveillance Conversation Down to Earth

Khan’s coalition works to track, publicize, and ultimately dismantle the highly intrusive ways the Los Angeles Police Department surveils the area’s citizens, using an infrastructure of advanced intelligence gathering linked to federal government counterterrorism initiatives. The LAPD uses big data for “predictive policing,” street cameras with highly accurate facial recognition capabilities, Stingrays, and DRT boxes — which imitate cellphone towers to track nearby phones or jam signals — automatic license plate readers, body cameras, and drones. “How many different ways are our bodies being constantly tracked, traced, and monitored, not just online?” Khan asked in a phone interview.

Many of the policies adopted in L.A., he says, were originally developed to fight terrorism overseas — including predictive policing methods first funded by the U.S. military to track insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now they’re “becoming a part of local policing,” Khan said. The coalition discovered that the National Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative, launched in 2008, gives LAPD license to “write up secret files on individuals based on speculation and hunches.” The group learned from an LAPD inspector general report in 2014 that over 30 percent of these reports are written about black people in L.A. — where less than 10 percent of the entire population is black.

Link 3: Spies in the Skies

Each weekday, dozens of U.S. government aircraft take to the skies and slowly circle over American cities. Piloted by agents of the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the planes are fitted with high-resolution video cameras, often working with “augmented reality” software that can superimpose onto the video images everything from street and business names to the owners of individual homes. At least a few planes have carried devices that can track the cell phones of people below. Most of the aircraft are small, flying a mile or so above ground, and many use exhaust mufflers to mute their engines — making them hard to detect by the people they’re spying on. The government’s airborne surveillance has received little public scrutiny — until now. BuzzFeed News has assembled an unprecedented picture of the operation’s scale and sweep by analyzing aircraft location data collected by the flight-tracking website Flightradar24 from mid-August to the end of December last year, identifying about 200 federal aircraft. Day after day, dozens of these planes circled above cities across the nation.

But most of these government planes took the weekends off. The BuzzFeed News analysis found that surveillance flight time dropped more than 70% on Saturdays, Sundays, and federal holidays. “The fact that they are mostly not flying on weekends suggests these are relatively run-of-the-mill investigations,” Nathan Freed Wessler, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Project on Speech, Privacy, and Technology, told BuzzFeed News. The government’s aerial surveillance programs deserve scrutiny by the Supreme Court, said Adam Bates, a policy analyst with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C. “It’s very difficult to know, because these are very secretive programs, exactly what information they’re collecting and what they’re doing with it,” Bates told BuzzFeed News.

What do you think? Comments?