Defense has the right to the horse’s mouth


DNA reportAll too often in criminal cases, a demand is made for discovery of lab reports prepared by government crime lab employees, only to wind up getting instead a report prepared by a “supervisor” who signed off on the work. This government efficiency move saves the crime lab some cycles, but it places an unnecessary barrier between the defense and the actual scientists who performed the work in question. When I serve a subpoena for a DNA report, I’m not interested in the supervisor’s “sign off” of the lab scientist’s work, I want to see the particular employee’s work and assess their methodology and conclusions myself (or through my expert).

The D.C. Court of Appeals agrees and ruled that the Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause requires production in court of the crime lab employee who did the actual work. The Court found that it was substance of the testimony, not its presentation, that mattered, and that the supervisor in this case provided “critical testimonial hearsay” that prevented the defendant from realizing his right to confront the actual witness against him. Because the supervisor was not personally involved in the process that generated the DNA profiles in the case, she had no personal knowledge of how or from what sources the profiles were obtained.

This makes sense. There is no point to cross examining a “supervisor” who has no knowledge of the critical processes that determine the outcome in a laboratory procedure. Only the person actually performing that procedure is going to have the knowledge necessary to satisfy the rigors of what the Supreme Court has characterized as “the crucible of cross examination”.

For more, read here.

– RP

Crowd Scanning

FRWant to get lost in the crowd? Good luck. The federal government is developing a surveillance system that uses computer software and video cameras to scan crowds and automatically detect people by their faces. The purported use, as always, is benign and is centered on the ability to identify terrorists on the watch list. Presumably, if the Boston Marathon bombers had been under suspicion and this technology had been used at the site of the marathon, the government might have been able to monitor their actions. That’s the premise. The reality, unfortunately, is different. Just as Aaron Alexis, a person with known mental illness and prior arrests for violence, was allowed to purchase automatic weapons and obtain a pass onto the Naval Yard grounds in D.C. prior to his mass murder rampage, and just as one of the Boston Bombers had been called to our attention by Russian security agents, even when we have this kind of advance information we don’t use it. How can we? Can you imagine how many people in this country could be “identified” as potential future nutcases that could go off the deep end? Every one of these guys is described after the fact by friends as “the last person you would expect to do this kind of thing”. We are caught between the ideals of personal and individual freedom, and protection from all threats. You can’t have both and the question will always be where to draw the balance.

The answer does not lie in being able to monitor all Americans, “just in case”. Even if it were possible to identify potential threats in this manner, is the benefit worth the cost? More Americans die falling from ladders every year than are killed by terrorists. Our country was founded (meaning, we killed our oppressors and threw them off forcefully) with the united purpose of establishing a nation based on the core principles of individual freedom, and that essential character has never changed. Why, then, would we give this up in order to gain modest-to-non-existent levels of additional security from sporadic threats?

This technology was originally developed in order to support the military in their detection of potential suicide bombers and other terrorists overseas at “outdoor polling places in Afghanistan and Iraq,” . But in 2010, the effort was transferred to the Department of Homeland Security to be developed for use instead by the police in the United States. The Constitution does not authorize a national police force or a domestic military. Yet this is exactly what the Department of Homeland Security is creating (if not deliberately, certainly by default) as it arms local police agencies with technologies that are ultimately going to be used primarily against law-abiding citizens in the hopes that a big enough net will drag in the bad guys with everyone else.

Read more about it here.

– RP

Smiling Not Allowed

This is how the government breaks your face.

Ever wonder why you are told NOT to smile for your Passport or Driver’s License picture (or your booking photo, for that matter, but that probably narrows down the number of you who can identify with the question)? There’s a reason. It’s called Facial Recognition Software and it’s a technology that analyses photos of faces and breaks them down into unique numeric codes that claim to individually identify a person. The software essentially scans a face, breaks it down into various regions (cheekbones, eyes, etc.) and assigns numeric values to each of these regions. The resulting numerical value is claimed to be unique for every face scanned and technologists claim they are able to identify people based simply on a photograph of the person.

This is not some futuristic scenario, this is happening today. It’s why you might get a notice from Facebook that you have appeared in someone’s posted photo. Facebook actually uses Facial Recognition Software to scan every face in every photo on its site and uses it to help identify people for just this reason. You should keep in mind that the State Department also uses this software and tracks every face on every passport and driver’s license, but probably for very different reasons. All of those faces are available to law enforcement across the nation for whatever purposes they come up with.

Police in New York, for example, have started taking images caught on surveillance cameras around town and on social media and are sending them through Facial Recognition Software in order to locate suspects. At least, that’s what they’re telling us at this point. What else they are doing with your picture is anyone’s guess.

The software does not work well with smiles or profiles. So next time you have your photo taken at the Department of Motor Vehicle Licensing, or send in a picture for a passport, and are told not to smile, you’ll know why.

Read about the NYPD’s usage here.

– RP


Police now using “Xray vision” to see through walls

Think you can hide behind walls? Think againI am not making this up. The latest development in TWS or “Through-the-Wall-Surveillance” (bet you didn’t know this was a known acronym) is called “Standoff Through-the-Wall Imaging Radar” and was developed by a company that has just been granted a waiver by the federal government to start selling this to law enforcement agencies for “emergency use” and “training”. The Department of Justice helped fund this system, so these are your tax dollars at work.

The system uses radar to detect motion through interior or exterior building walls. You heard me right. It can “see” through walls made of brick, sheetrock, wood, fiberglass, even reinforced concrete and other common structural materials (we are still private behind solid metal, they’re still working on that). The technology is touted as being able to track individuals inside a building during a hostage rescue crisis, for example. That would seem a great application of this technology, but you know how that goes: give a man a hammer and he will see nails everywhere he looks, so don’t be surprised to see litigation pop up as police start “training” by watching homes of “suspected drug dealers” or other “suspicious characters” hiding behind enclosed walls, of all things.

The devices authorized for use by law enforcement can be used either up close or from a distance so police could monitor human activity on the other side of a wall while sitting in the comfort of a police cruiser traveling up and down the street looking for “suspicious activity”. Seriously, the technology provides a great new tool for those times when it really is needed. But it’s honestly hard to imagine that something this sophisticated will only be hauled out in those relatively few ideal situations. The temptation is going to arise to apply this to many new scenarios previously considered to have a reasonable expectation of privacy. And that’s a problem. Because the notion of a “reasonable expectation of privacy” is in danger of “evolving” alongside of the growth of these emerging technologies. The effect of this will be an erosion of our Fourth Amendment protections to the point where there no longer is any such thing as a “reasonable expectation of privacy”.

Read the story here.

– RP


“Predictive Policing” – Geographical Profiling?


They’re calling it Predictive Policing, but is it really just another form of statistical profiling? Police in New York and Los Angeles are using software called (predictably) “PredPol” as part of their daily briefing to help locate crime “hot spots” for the day. The software creates a map of the city being watched, marking it up with small red 500-by-500 feet squares where crimes are “likely” to happen. The software claims to use more than just a database of past crimes and adds what it calls “sociological information” to help forecast likely spots where cars may be stolen, houses burglarized or people mugged. The company does not elaborate on what kind of “sociological information” is worked into the algorithms, but the term “sociological” implies that assumptions about the behaviors of people are being woven into the mix at some point.

At first blush, this sounds like a reasonable way to gain insights from past data about where crimes are “likely” to happen. And to the extent that police presence deters crime, this could have beneficial effects. But it’s also true that arrests can only occur where police are present, which suggests that any area where police are concentrated is going to have more arrest activity. Over time, will this become a self-fulfilling prophecy as police make more and more arrests in the areas that have been targeted based on “sociological information”, which will in turn give more statistical weight to these areas as crime “hot spots”?

When applying for search warrants (which must be based on “probable cause”), police often cite as a basis that the area to be searched is in a “high crime area”. Don’t be surprised to see search warrants start reciting that the area to be searched was targeted by PredPol as an area where crimes are “likely” to occur. When that happens, we will be one step closer to diluting the notion of a “detached magistrate” and relying on computers to make the independent judgments that need to be made in these highly subjective calls.

And just wait till real estate agents start using this data to steer people away from crime “hot spots”. Think about that next time you consider reporting a crime to police.

For more, see this story.


It’s not just the NSA

We're always watching all of youOmnipresence. Complete Surveillance. How would you define “Big Brother”? Would your definition include the collection of information regarding where you live, work, your political and religious beliefs, your social and sexual habits, your visits to family, friends, even doctors? The ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have filed suit against the LAPD and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department for doing just that. If you’re already following this blog, that won’t come as a surprise.

After hearing about the increased use of automated license plate readers (ALPRs) by law enforcement to scan and record the license plates of cars all around the country, the ACLU and the EFF asked the LAPD and the LASD for all the data and information it had collected and their policies on retaining and disseminating the information. Not surprisingly, law enforcement declined the request citing the information constitutes “investigative material” and the ACLU and EFF filed suit.

The sheriff’s department has 77 vehicles equipped with plate readers. There are also 47 cameras in fixed locations. One car can scan up to 1,800 license plates per minute, day or night, allowing one car to record more than 14,000 plates during the course of a single shift.

According to the LA Weekly, LAPD and LASD together already have collected more than 160 million “data points” (license plates plus time, date, and exact location) in the greater LA area—that’s more than 20 hits for each of the more than 7 million vehicles registered in L.A. County.

Law enforcement argues that ALPRs are an easy way to find stolen cars — the system checks a scanned plate against a database of stolen or wanted cars and can instantly identify a hit, allowing officers to set up a sting to recover the car and catch the thief.  But even when there’s no match in the database and no reason to think a car is stolen or involved in a crime, police keep the data. Law enforcement officers also have access to private databases containing hundreds of millions of plates and their coordinates collected by “repo” men.

The ACLU says: Amassing data on the movements of law-abiding residents is a violation of our freedom and provides speculative benefits.

I say this is just another step down the road in a post-privacy world.

– RP