Tech and tracking: Warrantless wiretapping, spying software, police and social, Apple’s new patent

Today we’re rounding up some spying-related news:

• Earlier this month, a federal appeals court ruled that the government may carry on warrantless wiretapping on Americans without fear of being sued, Wired reported. Now the American lawyers whose conversations with their clients in Saudi Arabia were wiretapped are asking the court to hear the case again, this time with 11 judges instead of three. In a filing this week, again according to Wired, the lawyers’ lawyer wrote: “Whether the federal government can violate FISA with impunity is a question of exceptional importance to the nation.” The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act requires court approval for wiretapping but was amended in 2008 to legalize a warrantless-wiretapping program started by the Bush administration after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Also Thursday, the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation sued the Department of Justice, asking it to release information regarding allegations reportedly made public by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., that the National Security Agency’s spying is going beyond what the FISA Amendment Act permits.

“It’s time for the government to come clean and tell us about the NSA’s unconstitutional actions,” EFF Open Government Legal Fellow Mark Rumold said in a press release.

• Then there’s the use of software to track dissidents instead of fight crime. The New York Times reports about FinSpy, an elusive — hard to detect by antivirus software — surveillance tool that can log keystrokes, grab computer-screen images, record chats and more. It has reportedly been found in servers in countries such as Turkmenistan, Brunei and Bahrain, which have been accused of human-rights abuses. The software is supposedly sold only to track criminals, says the British company that sells it, but has been found to be tracking activists.

CNN has a story on how the police use social media and other technology to track crime, how social networks cooperate or in some cases resist, and the constitutional questions that arise from these practices. While some criminals rat themselves out because they overshare on social networks, the story also talks about how some police set up fake profiles to nab criminals. Fake profiles are against Facebook rules, but in some cases the evidence gathered in this way can still “hold up” in court, according to the article.

• And finally, Apple this week reportedly was granted a patent on a feature that brings up interesting issues: the ability to disable phone and video functions on a mobile device depending on location. When the New York Times wrote about the patent in June, the article focused on how this feature could help the entertainment industry, which prohibits filming of concerts or movies. But the feature does limit key functionality on a device one buys and expects to use freely. And who would decide when cameras and videos would be disabled? Boing Boing’s Mark Frauenfelder writes: “The paranoid side of me imagines governments using it to prevent citizens from communicating with each other or taking video during protests.”


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  • Jim

    One good thing from Apple’s patent may be more thought into how to control texting while driving…..possibly a near field communicator in the steering wheel to tell the phone to turn off texting while driving – when the care is not off or in Park. I think NFC is already in some cell phones for electronic payments.

  • RedRat

    Sorry to say this but this is the slippery slope that began when FISA was enacted. Thank you Sen. Diane Feinstein from California, I hope that you enjoy your name being on the Wall of Shame. Also, keep in mind that this is happening under the Obama Administration and not George W. Bush.