Theodoric Meyer

8 Ways Police Can Spy on You Without a Warrant

The U.S. government isn’t allowed to wiretap American citizens without a warrant from a judge. But there are plenty of legal ways for law enforcement, from the local sheriff to the FBI, to snoop on the digital trails you create every day. Authorities can often obtain your emails and texts by going to Google or AT&T with a simple subpoena. Usually you won’t even be notified. Here’s how police can track you without a warrant now:

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8 Ways Police Can Invade Your Privacy Without a Warrant

The U.S. government isn’t allowed to wiretap American citizens without a warrant from a judge. But there are plenty of legal ways for law enforcement, from the local sheriff to the FBI, to snoop on the digital trails you create every day. Authorities can often obtain your emails and texts by going to Google or AT&T with a simple subpoena. Usually you won’t even be notified. The Senate last week took a step toward updating privacy protection for emails, but it's likely the issue will be kicked to the next Congress. Meantime, here’s how police can track you without a warrant now:

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NSA Disinformation: There's No Evidence That Massive Data Collection Thwarts Terror Attacks

Two weeks after Edward Snowden’s first revelations about sweeping government surveillance, President Obama shot back. “We know of at least 50 threats that have been averted because of this information not just in the United States, but, in some cases, threats here in Germany,” Obama said during a visit to Berlin in June. “So lives have been saved.”

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What Happened After Congress Passed a Climate Change Law? Very Little

Congress did something unusual last year. It passed a bill that acknowledged that sea levels are rising — i.e., that climate change is happening.

FEMA’s first step was supposed to be to set up an advisory body, the Technical Mapping Advisory Council, that would make recommendations on how the agency could take the effects of climate change into account in its flood insurance maps.

But more than a year later, FEMA hasn’t named a single member to the council. Without any members, it has been unable to meet or make any recommendations. In July, the council missed a deadline set out in the law for submitting written recommendations for how the flood insurance program might deal with future risks related to climate change.

FEMA had developed a charter for the council by the end of August and was in the process of finalizing letters to solicit council members, according to the agency. Dan Watson, the FEMA press secretary, said he was unable to provide more up-to-date information because much of the agency’s staff has been furloughed under the government shutdown.

Few areas of the federal government are more directly affected by climate change than the flood insurance program and its maps, which determine the premiums that 5.6 million American households pay for flood insurance. The program fell deeply into the red after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Sandy last year. It’s currently $25 billion in debt.

Many of the maps are decades out of date and therefore don’t reflect the rise in sea levels since the time they were drawn.

FEMA released a report in June estimating that sea levels will rise an average of four feet by 2100, increasing the portion of the country at high risk of flooding by up to 45 percent. The number of Americans who live in those areas could double by the century’s end, according to the report.

The law requires the council to outline steps for improving the “accuracy, general quality, ease of use, and distribution and dissemination” of the maps. Josh Saks, legislative director for the National Wildlife Federation, which pushed for the legislation, said that might include figuring out how to better take into account the way new development along a river, say, worsens flooding for those who live downstream.

Jimi Grande, the senior vice president for federal and political affairs for the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies, a lobbying group, said the council would “absolutely” help make the flood maps more accurate.

“We need to know what the risks are to have an intelligent conversation as a country” about development in areas that are vulnerable to flooding, he said.

The measure was part of a broader package of reforms to the National Flood Insurance Program that phased out many of the government subsidies that had kept flood insurance premiums artificially cheap for many homeowners. The full-risk rates phased in for many policyholders on Oct. 1, despite vocal protests against them.

An operational mapping advisory council wouldn’t fix everything that’s wrong with the flood insurance program. As ProPublica has reported, some of the maps FEMA has issued in recent years have been based on outdated, inaccurate data, giving homeowners a misleading impression of flood risk and, in some cases, forcing them to buy insurance when they were not at great risk of flooding.

Taking climate change into account when setting flood insurance rates is also a complex task.

“That’s why we put the council in charge,” said Saks, from the National Wildlife Federation. “I can read the science and say storms are happening more often, and I can read the numbers and see that sea-level rise is happening. But I’m not an actuary, and I don’t know how you then translate that to” setting insurance rates.

The risk-modeling companies that private insurers rely on have struggled to take climate change into account in their models, but they are making progress.

“I wouldn’t be too surprised if within the next five years we could credibly start to incorporate climate change into aspects of the modeling,” said David F. Smith, the vice president of the model development group at Eqecat, a risk-modeling firm.

Michael B. Gerrard, director of the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, said he wasn’t surprised FEMA had been slow in setting up the council.

“It’s the rule, rather than the exception, that federal agencies miss the rule-making deadlines” set out in laws, he said. “Often they have to be sued to get back on schedule.”

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How the Patriot Act Could Bar Syrian Refugees From Living in the U.S.

Authorized by Congress, the CIA has started sending weapons to Syrian rebels. But under a legal definition of terrorism adopted by the U.S. government after the Sept. 11 attacks, those same rebel groups are considered terrorist organizations.

Groups that appear on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations have long been banned from entering the U.S. But two antiterrorism laws, the Patriot Act and the Real ID Act, also bar members of armed rebel groups that aren’t specifically designated as terrorist organizations.

The provisions, sometimes known as terrorism bars, apply to all armed rebel groups — even ones the U.S. is actively supporting.

The bars also deny entry to anyone who has given any kind of “material support” — transportation, shelter, money — to such groups.

The U.S. has accepted only 64 Syrian refugees in the last two years, according to a State Department spokeswoman. But it’s unclear how many, if any, Syrians have run afoul of the terrorism bars to date.

Few Syrians have been resettled overall since the conflict began there in 2011. Instead, the United Nations — which refers refugees for resettlement — has focused on aiding the refugees who are still flowing out of Syria into Lebanon, Turkey and other bordering countries.

But the U.N. is preparing to resettle up to 2,000 Syrians in the coming months, said Larry Yungk, senior resettlement officer for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Washington, and the terrorism bars could be a hurdle to resettling them in the U.S.

“We do foresee that there could be issues with some of these cases,” Yungk said.

David Garfield, a Washington lawyer who has represented immigrants caught up by the terrorism bars, was more blunt.

“For Syrians, I think it’s going to be a major problem,” Garfield said. “The thing about this law that’s so bizarre is that it doesn’t matter who you’re trying to overthrow.”

A U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman, Christopher Bentley, said in a statement to ProPublica that “any Syrians who do apply for refugee or asylum status could be subject” to the bars.

The Citizenship and Immigration website makes clear just how sweeping the laws are: “Significantly, there is no exception under the law for ‘freedom fighters,’ so most rebel groups would be considered to be engaging in terrorist activity even if fighting against an authoritarian regime.” The website also states that refugees can be barred for “providing food, helping to set up tents, distributing literature, or making a small monetary contribution” to rebel groups.

“Material support” is defined so broadly that immigrants can be turned away for giving members of rebel groups “a bowl of rice or a few dollars,” said Melanie Nezer, senior director for policy and advocacy with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

More than 3,500 applications from those around the world seeking to come to or remain in the U.S. are currently on hold because of the terrorism bars, according to the government.  And that likely doesn’t capture the full effect of the bars. The U.N. often doesn’t try to resettle refugees in the U.S. if officials think they might be turned away because of the terrorism bars.

In 2007, Congress gave the secretary of homeland security more authority to grant exemptions to rebel groups that don’t pose a threat to the U.S. But putting the exemptions in place has proved to be a slow process that often takes years.

A proposed exemption “has to circulate through the whole alphabet soup of agencies in Washington,” said Thomas K. Ragland, a former Justice Department lawyer who has represented immigrants caught up by the terrorism bars.

Exemptions typically must be reviewed by, among others, the Citizenship and Immigration Services, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Department of Homeland Security’s general counsel and Office of Policy. If no objections are raised, exemptions eventually get sent to the secretary of homeland security, who must consult the secretary of state and the attorney general before they’re made official. “It moves at a glacial pace,” Ragland said.

Eighteen groups have received exemptions to date, including seven Burmese groups, three Iraqi groups and two Vietnamese groups. The Department of Homeland Security has also issued several broader exemptions, including for individuals who supported rebel groups “under duress.”

Citizenship and Immigration would not say whether any exemptions for Syrian groups were in the pipeline.

Granting exemptions for certain Syrian groups wouldn’t mean that refugees affiliated with them could automatically enter the U.S. — it would simply remove the legal barrier to letting Syrians who have aided the rebels into the country.

The government reviews the case of each refugee, and it would still have the authority to reject applicants with ties to groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a rebel group with ties to Al Qaeda. (The State Department has already designated the Al Nusra Front, another group with Qaeda ties, as a terrorist organization, preventing anyone affiliated with it from entering the country.)

The government can also exempt individuals from the terrorism bars.

In 2008, the Washington Post ran a front-page story on Saman Kareem Ahmad, a client of Ragland’s who had worked as a translator for the Marines in Iraq but had been turned down when he applied for U.S. permanent residency. The reason: He had served in the militant arm of the Kurdish Democratic Party, which was considered a terrorist group because it had tried to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

Ahmad was granted an individual exemption after the story ran, Ragland said. (Homeland Security later issued a group exemption for refugees affiliated with the Kurdish Democratic Party.) But Ragland said such exemptions are rare.

“They’re really, really the exception to the rule,” Ragland said. Citizenship and Immigration declined to say how many individual exemptions have been granted.

The Department of Homeland Security could issue a general exemption for all Syrians who provided nonviolent support to Syrian rebels, said Anwen Hughes, the deputy director of the refugee protection program at Human Rights First.

“There’s an opportunity right now for DHS to fix this and process an exemption that would resolve it,” she said, “before it becomes a crisis.”

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New Study Finds High Levels of Arsenic in Groundwater Near Fracking Sites

A recently published study by researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington found elevated levels of arsenic and other heavy metals in groundwater near natural gas fracking sites in Texas’ Barnett Shale.

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The NSA Black Hole: 5 Basic Things We Still Don’t Know About the Agency’s Snooping

Last week saw revelations that the FBI and the National Security Agency have been collecting Americans’ phone records en masse and that the agencies have access to data from nine tech companies. 

1. Has the NSA been collecting all Americans’ phone records, and for how long?

It’s not entirely clear.

The Guardian published a court order that directed a Verizon subsidiary to turn over phone metadata -- the time and duration of calls, as well as phone numbers and location data -- to the NSA “on an ongoing daily basis” for a three-month period. Citing unnamed sources, the Wall Street Journal reported the program also covers AT&T and Sprint and that it covers the majority of Americans. And Director of National Intelligence James Clapper himself acknowledged that the “collection” is “broad in scope.”

2. How long has the dragnet has existed? At least seven years, and maybe going back to 2001.  

Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and vice chair Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said last week that the NSA has been collecting the records going back to 2006. That’s the same year that USA Today revealed a similar-sounding mass collection of metadata, which the paper said had been taking place since 2001. The relationship between the program we got a glimpse of in the Verizon order and the one revealed by USA Today in 2006 is still not clear: USA Today described a program not authorized by warrants. The program detailed last week does have court approval.

3. What surveillance powers does the government believe it has under the Patriot Act?

That’s classified.

The Verizon court order relies on Section 215 of the Patriot Act. That provision allows the FBI to ask the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for a secret order requiring companies, like Verizon, to produce records – “any tangible things” – as part of a “foreign intelligence” or terrorism investigation. As with any law, exactly what the wording means is a matter for courts to decide. But the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court’s interpretation of Section 215 is secret.

As Harvard Law Professor Noah Feldman recently wrote, the details of that interpretation matter a lot: “Read narrowly, this language might require that information requested be shown to be important or necessary to the investigation. Read widely, it would include essentially anything even slightly relevant — which is to say, everything.”

In the case of the Verizon order -- signed by a judge who sits on the secret court and requiring the company to hand over “all call detail records" -- it appears that the court is allowing a broad interpretation of the Patriot Act. But we still don’t know the specifics.

4. Has the NSA’s massive collection of metadata thwarted any terrorist attacks?

It depends which senator you ask. And evidence that would help settle the matter is, yes, classified.

Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., told CNN on Sunday, “It's unclear to me that we've developed any intelligence through the metadata program that's led to the disruption of plots that we could [not] have developed through other data and other intelligence.”

He said he could not elaborate on his case “without further declassification.”

Sen. Feinstein told ABC that the collection of phone records described in the Verizon order had been “used” in the case of would-be New York subway bomber Najibullah Zazi. Later in the interview, Feinstein said she couldn’t disclose more because the information is classified. (It’s worth noting that there’s also evidence that old-fashioned police work helped solve the Zazi case — and that other reports suggest the Prism program, not the phone records, helped solve the case.)

How much information, and from whom, is the government sweeping up through Prism?

It’s not clear.

Intelligence director Clapper said in his declassified description that the government can’t get information using Prism unless there is an “appropriate, and documented, foreign intelligence purpose for the acquisition (such as for the prevention of terrorism, hostile cyber activities, or nuclear proliferation) and the foreign target is reasonably believed to be outside the United States.”

One thing we don’t know is how the government determines who is a “foreign target.” The Washington Post reported that NSA analysts use “search terms” to try to achieve “51 percent confidence” in a target’s “foreignness.” How do they do that? Unclear.

We’ve also never seen a court order related to Prism -- they are secret -- so we don’t know how broad they are. The Post reported that the court orders can be sweeping, and apply for up to a year. Though Google has maintained it has not "received blanket orders of the kind being discussed in the media."

5. So, how does Prism work?

In his statement Saturday, Clapper described Prism as a computer system that allows the government to collect “foreign intelligence information from electronic communication service providers under court supervision.”

That much seems clear. But the exact role of the tech companies is still murky.

Relying on a leaked PowerPoint presentation, the Washington Post originally described Prism as an FBI and NSA program to tap “directly into the central servers” of nine tech companies including Google and Facebook. Some of the companies denied giving the government “direct access” to their servers. In a later story, published Saturday, the newspaper cited unnamed intelligence sources saying that the description from the PowerPoint was technically inaccurate.

The Post quotes a classified NSA report saying that Prism allows “collection managers [to send] content tasking instructions directly to equipment installed at company-controlled locations,” not the company servers themselves. So what does any of that mean? We don't know.

For more on mass surveillance in America, read our timeline of loosening laws and practices

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8 Ways Police Can Spy on You Without a Warrant

The U.S. government isn’t allowed to wiretap American citizens without a warrant from a judge. But there are plenty of legal ways for law enforcement, from the local sheriff to the FBI, to snoop on the digital trails you create every day. Authorities can often obtain your emails and texts by going to Google or AT&T with a simple subpoena. Usually you won’t even be notified.The Senate last week took a step toward updating privacy protection for emails, but it's likely the issue will be kicked to the next Congress. Meantime, here’s how police can track you without a warrant now:

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