Category Archives: Surveillance

The Perils of Prison Mail Digitization

The Perils of Prison Mail Digitization

"The Perils of Prison ail Digitalization with Prison Books Collective" showing bird cage broken free & bird escaping, "TFSR 12-12-21"
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Leigh Lassiter from prison books collective in Durham, North Carolina, a nonprofit project that sends zines and books to prisoners in Alabama in North Carolina prisons and jails comes on this week to tell us about recent changes by the NCDPS to use the private company TextBehind to scan all incoming and outgoing mail track, their contents surveil the outside users and mailers, and to make a profit on an already indigent population. We also talk about the work of sending literature, to incarcerated folks privatization and digitization of other services, and what literature gets rejected. More about the press books collective at PrisonBooks.Info or check out their linktr.ee

You can also check out local books to prisoners projects in your area that you could get involved with by visiting PrisonBooks.Org/PrisonBooksNetwork. There’re also a couple of really good articles from The Intercept about this and related surveillance services topics within you as prisons and jails.

Or check out the following resources:

Zine Updates

Just a reminder, a comrade’s been compiling our zines into a catalog, for easy mailing into prisons. You can check out the latest, December 2021 list at the top of https://TFSR.WTF/Zines as a pdf.

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Transcription

TFSR: Could you please introduce yourself with whatever name, pronoun, and affiliations you want to share?

Leigh Lassiter: Yeah, my name is Leigh Lassiter. I am fine with any pronouns. I work with Prison Books Collective publishing distribution, based out of Durham and North Carolina. However, I speak on my own behalf as an activist and an individual rather than a representative of Prison Books.

TFSR: Cool. And could you talk a little bit about Prison Books? How long has it been around and what y’all do?

LL: Yeah, we started in 2006. I was not there then. But we have gotten in touch with some of the people who were involved in the original starting of it. It started in someone’s garage. And it has grown, although we’re kind of in the equivalent of a garage still. But as I said, in 2006, it wasn’t recognized as a nonprofit until about a decade later. But we have been able to keep it going. We’ve just been sending books to North Carolina and Alabama, and zines across the country for all that time. We meet every week to answer the letter requests and send packages out to people and talk to each other. It’s not as anarchist as it once was at its roots, more service-based space now, there is a variety of political opinions. But as a group, we still share the vision of alleviating the tremendous cruel pressures of the prison industrial complex on the incarcerated people that we serve, and generally feel that incarceration in this country is done poorly and has overkill. If we weren’t needed, if our mission was served either by prisons or there weren’t prisons to incarcerate people, we would prefer that. But while people are locked up, we get them all the books that we can.

TFSR: And what kind of requests do you get? Is it for technical manuals, dictionaries, religious texts? There’s a lot of religious groups, for instance, that do outreach into prisons and send in materials that tend to have their specific religious bent and view on the world, because they’re missionizing? What does the normal packaging party or packaging event look like for Prison Books?

LL: In regards to what the event looks like, we just pick up the individual letters and start reading for what they request. Sometimes we do get requests for specific books and specific authors that we have in donated stocks. So it’s rare that we can answer someone’s specific request with the exact book that they want. Sometimes it happens, though. We just look around to find something usually, under 2 pounds, two books that we send, print off some zines and staple them. Fill in an invoice, send our information, write a little note, and pack it up neatly and tape it up to be taken to the post office later on.

People request all sorts of books. The most common being a dictionary or legal dictionary, and DIY sort of things and career books are often very frequently requested. A lot of people want to start food trucks or build their own houses, or learn to weld or repair cars, do plumbing and carpentry, that sort of thing. Which is extremely understandable for both jobs inside of prison and outside for whenever they get out. Those, of course, are very hard to find. We often get a lot of requests for coloring books and drawing books, lots of thrillers, biographies, and autobiographies of, particularly, African-American activists. We have everything. So we try to send everything from classics, to how to start your own business, or histories about things, rock stars’ biographies. It’s whatever we can get. As I said, this specificity of requests can vary from “please send me some books” or people misunderstanding our mission and just saying, “I’d like to sign up for your book club, just send me books every month”. Then we have to say, “Oh, you have to write it every time, we have a limit of how many books we can send, but you can request them”. We have some publishers that we dealt with who would occasionally give us a whole box of books that they want to donate for a cause. Usually, because the subject matter has to do with prison or social justice. We’ll try to send those to the people who seem interested. But a lot of it is volunteers trying to read what fits their needs most. Because we can only send so many so quickly to people. And of course, usually prisons only allow them to have so many at a time. So there’s a little bit of art to figuring out how to get them what they want. I believe in the questions you sent over, you also asked what wasn’t allowed, if you want me to talk about that?

TFSR: Yeah, that’d be super helpful.

LL: We mostly send to North Carolina state prisons. And this is true for Alabama prisons, too. However, for the state prisons, anything that can do with tattooing is not allowed. Nudity is not allowed. They say “artful” nudity like Michelangelo or something would be allowed in, but in my experience, any nudity is not allowed, because that line is gray enough that they just err on the side of “No, we’re not going to let that in”. Things that are gang-related or could enable crime in whatever way they interpret are not allowed in. Hardcovers are occasionally allowed in, but it depends on the prison, so we just don’t carry them because trying to keep track of where we can send certain books is just a real time-drain. Spiral-bound books usually aren’t because they could take the spirals out and use them for whatever. Those are the main restrictions, but we still get occasionally weird bannings and rejections very often from jails more so than state prisons. Federal prisons are at the level of state prisons in terms of what they allow. Jails have the worst policies, generally speaking, it’s just sort of determined by the warden in charge there. If you want to talk later about some of the rejections that we’ve gotten over the last couple of years, I can speak to that, because I usually handle the appeals process as it exists.

TFSR: Yeah, I would like to hear about that.

I’d also like to hear though, you’re filling a need. I get a picture that at a certain point, maybe in the 1950s or 60s or 70s, that prisons maybe didn’t always have – it is dependent on the prison – but prisons had a more robust legal library for people to research their cases, or for writing appeals, or more literature, that at some point, education as a part of the “rehabilitation” part of prisons was a bit more funded and a bit more focused. And so a project like yours may be – unless a group had a specific ideological mission of like, “we want to get more Muslim books in the prison, or we don’t want to get more pagan books in the prison” – maybe there wouldn’t be as much of a demand. But that’s changed. And I wonder if you could give a sense, as you understand it, of what prisons libraries look like, and what prisoners’ access to educational resources or reading for pleasure looks like in North Carolina prisons.

LL: I will try to the best of my abilities. I have not seen a prison library, but we hear about them pretty frequently. I should mention that doing the COVID pandemic, which is still ongoing, libraries have often been shut down. We’ve heard that across the state many state prisons have shut down their libraries, or that sometimes they shut down visiting the libraries and then had a cart they took around, but maybe the person who took the cart around died of COVID. And then no one is there to take the cart around. So some people told us we are the only access point for getting new literature right now. So right now it is in a particularly dire state in North Carolina.

However, in general prison libraries, I can’t speak to the 1950s. But given the boom of the incarcerated population, I’m not surprised by the amount of need that is not being addressed by libraries in prisons, particularly legal needs. We get a lot of requests where people are either suing the state or trying to appeal their own case or going through other cases, and they have access to almost no legal help. They can’t communicate effectively or to their satisfaction with their attorneys, if they even have one yet, they don’t understand all the terminology or what they have to do. We have an extremely limited stock, as you might imagine, and paperback up-to-date specific accessible law books are not widely provided and easily accessible by us. We try our best and the number one thing on our wish list is always the intro to criminal law and defending yourself. If anyone looks at the Prison Books wishlist that we have up, but we go through those extremely quickly. People are very poorly informed by the system about their rights and the ways that they can appeal or sue and try to protect themselves. So that’s, unfortunately, something we see a lot of, but that we, as just a small group of volunteers sending books for education, entertainment don’t really have to resources for, and there’s a huge need for legal help within the prisons.

It’s something that you mentioned before that I had forgotten, the religious outreach. I’ll say that we do get not a huge amount of requests for spiritual and religious literature. As you said, there are lots of organizations willing to provide that, and no other kinds of books but literature about that. We do get requests often for religions that do not have as many groups, who are less represented inside of prison, like Rastafarianism, paganism, satanism, that sort of thing. There’s often a pastor inside of a jail or prison, and you’re not going to have that for Rastafarianism or something.

TFSR: Can you talk a little bit about the stuff that that gets rejected? I’ve spoken with other folks that do books to prisoners and hear about books by Franz Fanon, or George Jackson, or Angela Davis getting denied because the content relates to prison and is critical of prisons. What stuff gets kicked back to you and why?

LL: I wanted to add a little bit of perspective on rejections that we had gotten. Firstly, zines, because we send zines all across the country, just as a glimpse into the reasons that institutions all over the country might reject things. One of the most recent rejections that we got was of a literary magazine Words of Fire which has publications of art and literature from incarcerated people across the country. And therefore, we think it’s very important that they also have access to read it all across the country, whether they are authors or might want to be authors. We had a rejection in Connecticut of it, because it was on printed paper and was not considered a real publication. And we’ve been doing several weeks of phone calls and some letter-writing to try to appeal this. Because they are worried that “having anything beyond what looks to be easily printed or copied paper will have inmates calling their families to send them copied paper, or printed paper, straight out of books”. And the mail then will be flooded, and they won’t be able to deal with all of the rejections and appeals of rejections. We’ve had it also rejected before, from Florida when I was trying to get it to an author we’d published because it supposedly contained commercial content, which is incorrect. Because we don’t get paid for any of our services. And they also supposedly continue to quote “disallowed content” with no description of what that would mean. That was in 2019.

Some of the other things that we’ve gotten rejected across the country include the GURPS, the General Universal Role Playing System, which we sent out, it was rejected from Texas for having fighting styles in it, which, by the pages given, was referring to rolling dice for hitting another character or doing damage or having a bomb go off as an example for this role-playing system’s damage. We’ve also had rejections for supposedly promoting insurrection or posing a threat to safety and security for things like The Lectures On Liberation by Angela Davis. Florida is definitely one state where it’s very bad to try to get things in. And we’ve had things like Tai Chi being lumped into martial arts, for example, over this. Some of the other bannings: The Art of War has been consistently requested and consistently banned in North Carolina. It’s not currently on the banned list, but we’ve still had so much trouble sending in the past that we haven’t challenged it this year, because of the number of rejections we’ve gotten over the years in the past. The New Jim Crow was banned but that was overturned in 2018 because it was a national outcry about it. And that being overturned actually got them to redo their system of how they banned books. So they looked at that list again every year, and it actually overturned, a lot of other things being banned. Although you can tell from the banned list, including Twelve Years of Slave and Malcolm X books and things like that, that they have not fully fixed the system, which some might argue shouldn’t exist.

A lot of our rejections, as I said, aren’t bannings, they are actually just blanket blocks that do not care about the content that you are trying to send. For example, we had a jail recently write that we do not accept books on a package, despite having talked to them within a month about them accepting our books, and having word given to us that they did still. Sometimes it just depends on who’s in the mailroom. There was a federal institution in the state that just rejected something and then I called them, I was just told that was probably the other post and “I understand what your packages are, we’ll take them in”. One instance, in particular, it’s really been an odyssey over something like three or four months this summer and the fall was that there was a state institution that was allegedly having issues with drugs being smuggled in in packages. So they cut off all outside packages and then re-approved vendors and distributors like ourselves on a case by case basis. And we had not yet been re-approved, so I called the captain and we had a few discussions. And he said, he went up the chain and got us re-approved after a little less than a month. And then when we sent books to the people who had written to us from there, half of them were rejected, because those inmates, in particular, hadn’t filled out a form and been approved to receive books. So we had to set up a system where every time we got a request, I called them after that person was approved to receive books or not, and sent them. Except for the two packages that we initially got in to people, every time I called the person was not on the approved list. And I asked whether maybe, since they heard from us that we have requested them and they want to receive books, maybe they could get that form to the people that I was calling about, but they told me that’s their initiative and they should know.

So that’s been a pretty frustrating time. I’ve just had a lot of detention centers and jails in particular not consider us to be legitimate or not know what zines are, or give us differing statements about whether we can get things in or not. As I mentioned, Durham jail hasn’t given us issues about us as a publisher but was just blocking books for several months because of the amount of, apparently, extra material that was built up and was a fire hazard in the cell. So there’s a lot of obstacles to face in bannings and rejections that can’t really be predicted and can apparently only be solved by weeks of phone calls. I hope this helps. Thank you.

TFSR: Do facilities ever have an approved book list that’s the inversion of the banned list?

LL: No, I have not seen an approved books list except in the case of one jail that went back and forth on a policy where I was initially told that they were going to have reading tablets and not allowing any books, any books besides the Bible or Quran, but then they said that was incorrect. And they would be allowing in certain books, but only new books, no used books, and also have e-readers. The E-Reader thing is a thing that we are extremely worried about, I say we, in this case, for all Books to Prisons groups across the country, because that is an approved list of books, that is what that is functionally because they have a catalog of books that they said, “No, these are okay for them to read. And they will pay per minute to use these expensive, breakable e-readers and not have access to any other literature”. So you can imagine people looking for specific legal help or niche interests, for example, someone looking for Rastafarianism, there’s probably not going to be a book about that listed inside of this e-tablet that they also have to pay to use.

So that’s very concerning to us because usually, in the case of prisons, digitization and technological advancements, which can look like progress in the outside world, is not progress inside of the prison. For example, changing from having in-person visitation to having a digital video visitation is not an improvement. Changing from having books sent in for free, that you can request on any topic, and having that be disallowed in favor of e-readers, is not an improvement. Or as we’ll talk about in a second, having your letters be scanned and reprinted is not an improvement of what we’re seeing with the letter. So a lot of times people will think, “Oh, things are going more digital, they’re going more virtual and online, this is advancement, this is progress.” And in the case of prisons, it isn’t.

TFSR: Yeah, and each of these steps basically shifts the whatever it be: the medical treatment, or the books, or the mail, or the phone calls, or the commissary, it shifts them into monopolies by specific corporations, that are prison industry corporations, that not only are they siphoning money out of the prisoners and of whatever supporters they have on the outside… In North Carolina, they changed the law about three years ago where people can only get money added, at least on their Jpay accounts, for spending inside of prison, they can only have people on their visiting list. Therefore people who have not, for instance, been convicted in some cases of felonies in the past. A bunch of limitations. Anyway, back on topic, as you say, you and I got in touch to talk about the changes to the North Carolina prison system that we’re snuck in a couple of months ago, we got a letter from a prisoner in the middle of the state, just sort of being like “Heads up. I can’t hear your radio but I have heard of your project and this change is coming”. Can you talk a little bit more about the privatization and digitization of prison mail in North Carolina and how it’ll affect prisoners’ communication with loved ones on the outside?

LL: Yes. On October 18, North Carolina state prisons switched for all personal mail – that’s letters, photos, and art and cards – they switched to having those be sent to the people who intended for incarcerated in state prisons, to having to send them to Maryland to be scanned by a company called TextBehind and then have copies reprinted by the prisons and redelivered. The announcement of this was subtle, I only found it because that was on the state prisons homepage looking for something else and notice the little pop-up that said: “Mail policy changing on October 18” and I happened to click on it. Otherwise, we would not have known. I should admit this doesn’t affect prison books operations so far. Although we are worried about the possible ban on physical books being sent in. Now it affects the loved ones of incarcerated people who are trying to communicate to them.

TextBehind is not alone in this. There are a couple of companies who are trying to exploit this very captive market of people who are trying to sustain relationships across the miles and across the bars and charging their money to either get their physical letters back if they send physical mail hundreds of miles away because otherwise, they’ll just be shredded. So you have to pay to get that back. Or if you want to do it easier, of course, they have an app. For using their app on TextBehind, letters are 99 cents, you can add photos to 25 cents each, greeting cards are 99 cents, and Doodle for kids. So you can draw on your computer and send that at 99 cents. And that’s only for partner facilities, it’s more expensive if the facility is not partnered with them. And you may not think that sounds like a lot but if you are trying to keep up a relationship with someone or start a relationship with someone inside, then 99 cents a letter, 99 cents a card, 25 cents for a photo – that’s very expensive. If you are sending physical mail, it’s a flat rate to get it back, I believe at around $3 or higher to get that sent back to you. So this could add up really quickly, even if you just sent one letter a week or a couple of letters a month or something like that. People don’t really have a choice in the matter if they want something that feels personal to be sent behind bars. And we just find this immensely worrying and honestly also unjustified. Because there’s really almost no data provided for why this switch is being made. But we can talk about that in a second with drug policies.

As a prison book volunteer, I have received countless letters telling us how important it is to have a lifeline to the outside where they can hold on to that letter that someone else wrote and see the signature and look at this and say it someone out there wrote this for me and intended it for me. Not to mention if it’s a kid’s drawing or something like that, it’s going to mean so much more if you’re holding the crayon drawing that your son or your daughter, your child drew for you. And it’s one of the things that sort of keep them sane in there. If correctional facilities, as they’re titled, were truly invested in making people more connected to humanity, kinder and more willing to invest in society, they would absolutely not be supporting this cut off from the people who are trying to keep relationships going across the bars, because it’s incredibly dehumanizing. Not to mention probably riddled with errors. Wisconsin also just announced that they are using TextBehind as of December 1. They put in their announcement that they’ve experimented a lot with TextBehind and there have been errors, they admitted cut-off letters where you can’t read the whole thing.

I know from my own experience of keeping records in prison books, that a lot of things don’t scan so great if someone wrote in blue pen, or on white paper with pencil, it just doesn’t scan correctly. The number of letters that TextBehind must be handling, I don’t think that it’s going to be 100% accuracy rate, which looks fine on their numbers, but for the person who gets a messed up, cut off or barely scanned letter or drawing, it’s going to be devastating because that matters so much. The people who wait for the mail, there’s a huge emotional investment in it. And it’s just really saddening to think about that being taken away from them. Not surprising, but extremely saddening. And unfortunately, it looks like North Carolina is going to be continuing that policy for the foreseeable future, despite so many people protesting it.

TFSR: TextBehind is a new project to me, but for the last few years, I’ve noticed that Pennsylvania prisons use a company in Florida called Smart Communications to scan and email their letters to print on-site at the facility. The Federal Bureau of Prisons, according to an article recently by Lauren Gill of The Intercept, appears to be moving forward from just scanning mail in-house to having a company called Mailed Guard do the same service for them. We’ve already mentioned this trend generally in the proliferation of private companies that are profiting from incarceration. This seems to be a rather frightening and growing pattern to capture that data and increase the costs.

LL: Smart communications is another one. And I just want to mention that the Pennsylvania ban initially also banned physical books, but there were enough protests that they changed that. So it’s only mail right now. And so there was some worry from Books to Prisoners groups that the ban on mail is going to continue to try to ban books as well.

TFSR: That’s quite frightening. I have to admit that I’m not very knowledgeable about drugs in prisons. I’ve heard that you can get many things if you have money and resources inside of prisons, especially depending on what state you’re in. But most ellicit items I’ve heard about prisoners getting a hold of have come through corrupt guards and other staff as they shore up their personal accounts because they don’t get as much scrutiny as generally incoming mail or visitors and loved ones who are coming in. When PA started using Smart Communications, it was after mail staff, screws on the inside, basically, were supposedly dosed by letters containing the drug K2 in the paper. But then again, this other Intercept article about the privatization of prison mail references talking to a director of toxicology at a major medical institution in Pennsylvania. And that person saying basically, you can’t get high off of that, it’s not like Angel Dust where it’s going to just go into your skin by touching it, you have to increase the temperature, and you have to inhale smoke, basically, for that K2 to get into your system. So it seems like an unrealistic expectation that was a major source of drugs coming in.

LL: Yes. North Carolina, in their announcement about TextBehind included a couple of sentences saying “the new mail process will also prevent drugs from entering the prisons in the form of paper coated in Fentanyl, K2, Suboxone or other dangerous drugs, these are harmful to breathe or even touch. This is something you would expect to have a citation. It doesn’t. The only spot of data that is mentioned in the announcement of this switch to TextBehind is the sentence “In the year following use of TextBehind in North Carolina’s four women’s facilities infractions for drug use, and possession dropped by 50%. Now, 50% is a pretty round and impressive number but there’s a lot of missing context here. They say the number of infractions for drug use and possession dropped. They don’t mention actual numbers, for example. This was also taking place during the pandemic for most of that year. Because most of that was 2020, so the number of people in prisons across North Carolina went down by a lot, you might think that would potentially affect the numbers of infractions, not to mention the staff being able to investigate that sort of thing. And they also did not provide any numbers for cases of drugs causing any hazards to the people inspecting the mail. There was no citation for that. And as you said, there’s been medical pushback from people saying that K2 and Fentanyl don’t come into the skin. I looked this up a little before the interview, and the American College of Medical Toxicology and American Academy of Clinical Toxicology agreed in a 2017 statement that you can’t inhale and get high from Fentanyl without really high, really long exposure to it, and that you can’t just absorb it through small unintentional skin exposure, it would not affect people. So I am almost impressed by the boldness of NCDPS just stating that flat out as a reason without citations in the announcement.

We have a Freedom of Information request that is making its way through the bureaucracy right now in trying to get any information about the hazards to people in the mail-room and how many drugs have come in through the mail. But, like you, I am skeptical about that being the way that most drugs make their way in. Texas saw a ban on mail for the same reasons, but their drug infractions didn’t go down because, as it turned out, they were mostly coming in through guards still. Some people say there’s a connection between that and guards having lower pay and they can make a lot on the side by carrying in drugs. When I went to a prison in person and got the tour when I was in college, I was told by a Captain that they mostly have to be careful about the guards bringing in contraband, that was just stated outright to the group. So this policy seems to be not only dehumanizing, but also not based on fact, and to make this huge of a change, there’s a burden of proof that they should make. But this wasn’t a law. This was simply a new departmental policy. People started commenting on our social media posts, when they put this out, like let’s call the lawmakers or something, but this was just something that was handed down and decided. The fact that privatizing prisons and prison services is just getting more and more popular, is very concerning to me. Because they can’t negotiate. And also the poverty of incarcerated people and their loved ones on the outside is statistically much higher than the general population. So they don’t really have alternatives other than to go to these services.

That’s my thoughts on that, but there are plenty of things to read about, particularly, the drug claims, investigating whether Fentanyl can actually give you an overdose just from touching it, or where drugs come through. There are lots you can read online, I suggest at least starting with the Prison Policy Initiative because they’re a good resource to keep track of the different policies going on around the country and their factual bases.

TFSR: That’s super helpful. Thank you. I do have another question about the implications of the privatization and tracking of mail coming in and out. But you did mention that when people started commenting on your social media page saying, “Hey, call politicians chant, challenge it,” the NCDPS is a part of the executive branch. So I guess you could put pressure on the Governor and Lieutenant Governor, but how do you suggest that people try to apply pressure, whether they’re in North Carolina or in any of these other states that are being affected by similar policies and some of the same corporations across the country?

LL: Well, we haven’t had success yet, it is my addendum. But I would find at least one phone number, one email, and one physical address to call or to write to to express your opinion, I’ve usually heard that phone calls are the best political weapon out of those three. But I know from personal experience that trying to get through the phone trees and the various extensions you have to press and voicemails you have to leave can be extremely confusing. So an email or a letter could also work.

Prison Books is not as an organization calling for people to do this push because we have to keep our services separate from this. However, I can say as an activist, that I would love it if people started writing to, for example, the Commissioner of Prisons, Todd Ishee, who is quoted in a lot of articles about the digitization policy change, to express your opinion, or writing to the general NCDPS mailbox, the address of which is at the bottom of every page of the NCDPS website, in Raleigh. What you basically want to do is make it obvious that it’s a lie to say people don’t care about this or that this is fine, this doesn’t affect people. You want to get the voices that are shouting out individually to be able to unify and be heard together. And we’re still working on that. But anyone who wants to be involved in the Free the Mail movement that has started forming between Wisconsin and North Carolina activists, because we’re both being affected by TextBehind in these most recent months, then they should, first of all, start looking through the hashtag of #FreeTheMail, and second of all, potentially email just to get the information where to go prisonbooks@gmail.com. Prison Books is not organizing this, but has information of people that you can get connected with to try to organize something against this,

TFSR: I have to say that a hashtag is confusing and also very catchy, since a lot of us use the #FreeThemAll. And those two look very similar.

LL: Yeah, I would suggest even for screen readers, you should be capitalizing letters for hashtags because otherwise, it’s gonna be a jumble of letters. It does look like that, but I looked it up on Twitter to do a little research about it, it was used for the Pennsylvania issue as well. There were some ideas thrown around of “don’t jail the mail”, but it’s prisons, not jails, that’s incorrect. Hashtags are going to leave some meanings out, unfortunately.

TFSR: We’ve been talking about the limitations that people on the inside experience with their mail getting scanned and sent to them and not being able to physically touch a picture that your child or that your sibling or whatever drew, getting an actual picture, these sorts of things, very sentimental, very charged with emotional energy and feeling, smelling a piece of paper that someone else has touched… Prisons are all about cutting people off from the outside and making money off of them.

The other side of this, as you say, the majority of people that are inside of prisons, or that are inside of a part of the carceral system, tend to be poor. And whether that’s because of survival crime, or because people have less access to lawyers or bail to be able to get themselves out, to be able to make a better argument to avoid charges, or because police tend to hang out in poor people’s neighborhoods – all sorts of reasons. And these industries, like Smart Communications or TextBehind are literally siphoning money out of poor people’s families when they’re trying to keep those connections.

And surveillance inside of prison, the panopticon idea, that’s a pretty common idea. But when you download an app on your phone that you’re paying for, and there’s the chance in this Lauren Gill article on the Federal Bureau of Prisons talking about them switching over to this privatized scanning and emailing of letters, talks about the amount of metadata that gets also put into the database of that private corporations so that they can market more stuff or sell that information if they want to to another third party that provides other “services to prisoners”, or that information is also available to the BOP or to whatever prison administration there is for tracking and surveilling the person on the outside that’s keeping track. Suddenly, there’s a permanent digital copy of this letter that somebody wrote to someone that could be used in some case in the future or to build a case or something like that. Can you talk a bit about the concerns of surveillance when people aren’t even necessarily committing crimes, but just trying to stay in communication with friends behind bars?

LL: Well, I think the article writers are probably more informed about that than I am, but I do know that TextBehind on their Services page does advertise a variety of their investigative tools and that includes communications, monitoring and looking for gang connections, and they keep the records. Not just the pictures, but the scanned text and the addresses and names of those who sent mail in their system for years, to possibly give away to other prison systems, the federal system, things like that. Yeah, they are using the people that they already have under their thumb and can watch with this panopticon set up to extend surveillance outside and try to make connections and look for patterns in a way that they probably think is very efficient, but which is frightening to any of us who are concerned about our right to privacy. But because it’s a human connection to people who are incarcerated being held hostage, people are going to have to make the choice about do I want to be able to talk to this person or do I not want to be put on a list of possible contacts to a third or fourth party to something that they think exists within the prison system. Having to choose between those two, that’s our choice that should exist, that should not be something that writing a letter to someone starts for you. That’s very concerning.

I’m always concerned about the privacy of people incarcerated as well. But I think a lot of people maybe aren’t aware of this extension of surveillance to those who were just in contact with and care about the people who are incarcerated. As you mentioned, Jpay’s changes, now you can’t send money unless you’re in the visitation approval. That requires getting approved, but also giving them information about you. This data harvesting and surveillance is really getting hooked on people on the outside as well.

TFSR: Well, is there anything that I didn’t ask about that you want to mention, or that you want to broach as a subject, Leigh?

LL: I would like to mention, for people who are looking for what they can do, that jails are often where a lot of bad policies will be implemented first because they have far less oversight. They are county institutions, so they don’t even have the state looking out at them. So if you’re concerned about privacy, education, cruel and unusual punishment, pay attention to a local jail, the sheriff, the warden, their policies, and if they make changes like “no one can send books here anymore,” or a lot of jails in North Carolina now have to send your letters to Texas to get scanned, call them, and deluge them because they have even fewer resources to dedicate to supporting what I suspect to be a lie of the danger that letters and books pose. In your elections, vote for a sheriff who has concern to incarcerated people, if that’s possible. And keep an eye on your local jail. And then also keep an eye on state policies. But if you want to start somewhere local, that’s where to start.

TFSR: And if you’re not much of a voter, you can still apply pressure during the period when there’s more scrutiny on what sheriff is running for office. Or if they’re working with ICE are just a couple of the potential…

LL: Yeah, that’s a big one. Everyone who’s closer is easier to reach. Make some noise when you can, when these policies get implemented near you.

TFSR: In my understanding, a lot of the Books to Prisoners projects are pretty independent and they keep in touch with each other and share news and resources from time to time. The project that you’re involved with covers North Carolina and Alabama, the prison books here actually, I can’t even speak to what APBP covers… But for the most part, don’t cover national stuff. And they pass off things in other states to people that are closer to them. Tranzmission Prison Project covers a lot of the US but mostly is in the southeast, as I understand. How can people find a prison books project where they’re at if they want to start getting involved in this sort of way?

LL: People can find local Books to Prisoners groups by looking at https://prisonbookprogram.org/prisonbooknetwork/ and searching for their state. If there isn’t one serving their state, then perhaps they can start their own. It’s not that difficult. Contacting really any of those listed on the directory will get you some advice on how to start up. Luckily, books are something that a lot of people want to donate. It takes not as much effort as you might think, I would say particularly X Books in Georgia started up about a year ago and have been doing very well and probably have a lot of advice for newcomers. For supporting us and particularly for Prison Books Collective, I have to say probably what a lot of nonprofits say, which is that money is our first need. Postage, in particular, is what costs us money, sending those packages out and every year the rate goes up. So if you have money to donate, donate it. If you don’t have money, then give us your time, if you can. We just started accepting volunteers again, as long as everyone is vaccinated and masked and we are still limiting the number of people that can come in.

And if you can’t do either of those, there’s probably online work that you could do if you got involved, whether it’s social media, applying for grants, reaching out to bookstores for partnership, helping with email. There is a lot of activism that you can do remotely, that isn’t just discourse on Twitter, necessarily, but actively working behind an organization to help them enhance their capabilities and do reaching out and things like that for them. Of course, we also take books for Prison Books Collective. You can email us if you have books to donate. However, I have to say we’re doing pretty well in terms of books right now. And we have most genres pretty well stocked. But as usual, law and DIY stuff is always in demand. If you have any books on homesteading, farming, fishing, or trying to appeal your case in court, then send them our way. We have a PO Box:

Prison Books
PO Box 625
Carrboro, NC 27510

You’re welcome to reach out to us on our Facebook or Instagram or Twitter, or through our email prisonbooks@gmail.com to ask us for more things you can do. A lot of people have come in with new ideas that have been very exciting to us. We hope that people can engage remotely or in person again, because we are an organization that works as a collective and we’re only as strong as the collective is. So we’re excited to have new people join us. And of course, I personally would advocate for everyone to just keep their ears and eyes to the news and look for a variety of news sources, not just the mainstream news sources about what’s going on, and to advocate for the destruction of the prison industrial complex as we know it. Thank you.

Uncovering Spy Cops in the UK

Uncovering Spy Cops in the UK

A collection of posters from the #SpyCops campaign
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This week, I spoke with Dónal O’Driscoll, an animal rights activist and anarchist from the UK talking about the work of the Undercover Research Group to investigate possible SpyCops in the UK, share resources by those harmed by the lies of long term undercovers in activist communities and the current Inquiry that activists are using to unearth the legacy of police infiltration since the 1960’s.

Helpful sites:

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Track Heard In This Episode:

SpyCops by Armoured Flu Unit from Crusading Nations

Cora Borradaile on Phone Extraction, Cloning and Keyword Warrants

Cora Borradaile on Phone Extraction, Cloning and Keyword Warrants

image of a cop holding a cellphone
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This week on the The Final Straw you’ll hear me speaking with Cora Borradaile, who sits on the advisory board of the Civil Liberties Defense Center and works around issues of tech security in movements and is an associate professor at OSU.

We discuss the use of phone cloning by US Marshall’s and other law enforcement while engaging protestors in Portland, OR. We talk about UpTurn’s recent report concerning widespread use of cellphone extraction tools to copy and search the contents of cell phones captured during interactions with cops. Finally, we talk about Keyword Searches, where (often without warrants) google hands over information from peoples google searches to law enforcement.

Sean Swain Update

We’ll also be presenting a segment by Sean’s fiance, Lauren, about his current silencing and the injustice of his case. More on president-in-exile Sean Swain can be found at Swain2020.Org and SeanSwain.Org.

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Transcription of the conversation with Cora Borradaile

BOG: So I’m speaking with Cora Borradaile who is on the advisory board of the Civil Liberties Defense Center or CLDC and we spoke before about a range of issues in May of this year, and before the George Floyd uprising and the resulting ACAB Spring. During the uprising researchers, journalists, and activists saw that applications of new, or new to us, surveillance methods were being used by security forces against the populace in the so called US, so I was hoping to pick Cora’s brain a bit about this and see, especially since upcoming months in the US also might get a little spicy with the election and all. Thank you Cora very much for taking the time to have this conversation.

Cora Borradaile: Yeah, it’s great to talk to you.

BOG: So just to list off a few things, like this summer we saw the use of military drones surveilling and sharing information with law enforcement in Minneapolis, lots of militarized gear being brought out in the streets across the US, or for late May at least protests against police violence, and collusion with para-state white supremacists have been ongoing in Portland, Oregon. In July we saw the deployment of federal officers from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) including Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), and the Department of Justice (DOJ) sent out to fight against protesters in the streets of Portland and attack and kidnap people. Including journalists from that and other cities. the US Marshalls also had their own aerial surveillance to track crowds in Portland, it came out this summer. On the tech side of things, the public got wind, apparently from leaks within the department of homeland security, that DHS had been cloning activists’ cell phones. Could you talk a little bit about this and what cell phone cloning is?

CB: Yeah, from that report their were very few details so a lot of it is guesswork as to what could possibly be going on. I could imagine two different ways in which their cloning cellphones- One which is scarier than the other. The more likely I think, is the less scary version which is if they manage to physically get your cell phone, like if you’re arrested and your cell phone is confiscated from you. Even if it’s confiscated temporarily, then they’re copying everything from your cell phone and possibly making a new cell phone that behaves just like your cell phone. So it would allow them to intercept calls possibly receive messages that you were intended to receive.

The scarier version but probably less likely, is the ability for them to be able to do the same thing without having the need to confiscate your phone to do so. That feels unlikely to me that they were doing that. If it was some sort of remote cloning I would gather that they were just cloning the sort of network ID of your phone, and not the contents of your phone. This would still allow them to do things like intercept calls, and intercept data, but in both scenarios I think end-to-end encryption (E2E) apps that you use like Signal or Keybase or Wire, that enable E2E encryption, I think the messages you’re receiving there would still be safe and that the cloned device shouldn’t be able to have the keys enabled to decrypt those messages that were intended for you. And even traffic that is encrypted – if you are visiting a website on your phone that your accessing via HTTPS, where the S stands for Secure – I think that even they wouldn’t be able to see the contents of that web page either because there is a key exchange that happens between you and the web server that they would have to play man in the middle on. Which is more complicated to do in a way that you wouldn’t be able to tell that something was going wrong.

All that’s to say, it’s still scary and I think if you have poor encryption practices like keeping your phone in an unlocked form, they have access to all of your encryption keys for things like Signal and Keybase and whatever other secure messaging apps you might be using. You should do whatever you need to do to alert everyone you contact with to delete your contact from their messages, groups, and so on. And if you have a phone that is confiscated – and certainly in an unlocked form – I would not trust that phone again. If your phone is confiscated but it was locked at the time and presumably you have a good password so they can’t easily unlock your phone, I would still maybe do a factory reset of your phone and start fresh by installing everything over again.

BOG: So, I’m not sure what the basis of this is, but conversations that I was having with friends when we were talking about the latter of the two instances that you were talking about- the hypothetical that remotely the cloning of the network ID or SIM connection could be done. It would be similar to you getting a new phone but having the same number, and that if Signal was installed on that device and it was connecting to the same phone number, by a Man in the Middle attack via a cloned SIM, it would appear that the interception could still be happening but that everyone would see a notation that there had been a change in safety number. Is that maybe what would happen?

CB: Yes. That is perfectly said. Right, so for them to be able to both clone your phone and intercept messages without those “safety number has changed” messages happening would be very, very difficult. So yeah, certainly if there are reports of anybody who’s had a confiscated phone and then all of a sudden all of their contacts are noticing that their safety number has changed with them, that would be super interesting to find out. —

BOG: –Or they stopped getting messages.

CB: Also horrifying.

*Laughter

BOG: Yeah. You know, they noticed that they stopped getting messages, everyone notices that the safety number changed, then that means that hypothetically the cloned phone or whatever would now be in those chats.

CB: So I don’t know if it’s as simple as that, because when you add a new device on Signal all the other devices get a notification of that.

BOG: Oh I see. So if I had a desktop and at least one cell phone that was getting messages… Yeah, but if that device was no longer getting new messages because the traffic was being routed to a different device, you wouldn’t like –

CB: Right so, your contacts should at the very least get the notification saying that the safety number has changed. If it’s a remote clone I think the only way in which the cloned phone would be able to read the messages in preexisting groups, for example, would be if the device was physically confiscated and copied. Because there are encryption keys that are used to start those conversations which are needed.

BOG: Do you mean the messages that were in loops before?

CB: No, to continue to receive messages from conversations that had already been going on. If someone started a new conversation after the cloning then the other people in the conversation might not be able to notice, but if you were continuing a conversation that had started before the cloning I don’t think you would be able to get that information without having physical access to the device and being able to copy over the encryption keys that were used to start those conversations.

BOG: Because they’re being stored on the phone and not on the server.

CB: That’s right, yeah. So for example, when you add a new Signal device part of what happens is copying over the encryption keys needed to continue conversations. And there’s a QR code that, say if you have Signal on your phone and you start using Signal on your desktop, you link those 2 devices so that both devices are able to receive and decrypt messages that go to you as an identifier.

BOG: If you know that if someone in your group or one of your friends has changed their number, whats a good verification?

CB: Don’t message them on Signal, and ask them, right? Because who knows who’s answering. Try to find a different form of communication even if its via friend or via a regular phone call, but ideally via email or some other band that is unrelated to your phone would be perfect to ask them, ‘Hey, I noticed your Signal safety number’s changed, what went on?’ Most of the time, or every time this has happened to me, the answer’s been ‘Oh, I had to reinstall my operating system on my phone’ or ‘I dropped my phone in a pool and had to get a new phone’. That’s usually the reason for a safety number changing, but definitely what you want to do is find a different way to ask that, other than using Signal and ideally other than using the phone. Especially if we are worried about cloned phones. Because if you just use a normal SMS text message to send to your friend and your friends phone has been cloned, then it could be the cops responding saying ‘Oh, yeah I had to get a new phone’.

BOG: I’ve seen some people do a thing where they ask someone in a group, when their safety number changed, ‘Hey could you leave a voice memo with your name and current time that you’re recording the memo and send it into the loop?’ And that way everyone hears this person’s voice, and it’s the time when they specifically get asked to record the memo so it’s outside of Enemy-Of-The-State-level NSA level operation that’s probably not somebody compiling an automated voice message in that person’s voice.

CB: Yeah, that’s a pretty good method for doing that. As you point out, synthesizing peoples’ voices can be done, but taking into account what your threat level is – are you someone who they’re going to be throwing everything at and be able to synthesize your voice in a very short time? For the protest movements we’ve seen, probably not. However if you are the leader of a protest group, hmm… If you are someone that they’re really going to be going after because they think that going after this one person will completely destroy the movement – which I don’t think is the kind of movement time that we are in right now which is good, to avoid those specific people who could really destroy a movement – that’s a pretty good method.

BOG: If you could speak to that prior scenario, is that actually copying the contents of a phone? I think that was the subject of the recent article by Upturn called Mass Extraction —

CB: That’s right.

BOG: If you could talk a little bit about what the findings were there. I was kind of surprised yet kind of not surprised to see the local law enforcement here in Asheville spent at least $49,000, according to their studies, on cell phone extraction tools. But what are mobile device forensic tools, and what do you know about them, how widespread and what kind of stuff do they do?

CB: So these things have existed for a long time. We’ve been talking about them at CLDC for a long time but this Upturn report is really wonderful for just as you say, how widespread they are. Small police departments have them, medium police departments spend hundred of thousands of dollars on access to this over the course of 5 years, and some of the capabilities were actually, I suppose, not really surprising. But reading them all in one place and knowing how low cost access to that technology is was sobering.

So these cell phone extraction devices, they come in different forms but the kind that is most popularly seen is a small stand alone device that you plug a cell phone into and that stand alone device either tries to break into that phone if it’s locked or otherwise just copies all of the content of that phone for later analysis. Some of the things that were surprising to me was how much was available even when the phone was locked and encrypted. There’s a lot of data that is existing in an unencrypted form on your phone.

For example say your phone is locked, you receive a phone call and the name of your contact still shows up, right? It’s not the name that your contact is sending you, its not metadata associated with that contact. if your mother is calling you, it probably shows up “Mom” in your phone, and the reason it says that is because your address book has an entry with that phone number and the name “Mom” attached to it. So your address book entries are existing in an unencrypted state, for example.

Some of the other things that were sort of surprising that were pointed out, that exist in this unencrypted state even though your phone was in a locked condition, were Telegram files and Discord files, and files associated with Google mail. I think a lot of this stuff could just be from bad decisions that the app developer made. Like Telegram is not necessarily focused on security, and so for convenience or speed they may just not be hiding that information behind the device encryption.

There was definitely some reporting in that Upturn report about being able to brute force guess passwords and so there are some things that you can do to protect yourself from that, which is to have a long enough password. Or if you have an Apple device you can enable your phone to self-wipe if you have 10 incorrect guesses, for example. Which if you have a small child at home maybe you don’t want to do because I almost guarantee you will end up with a wiped phone by the end of the week.

BOG: With encrypted files, if there are messages or what-have-you that are saved in an encrypted section on the phone would that just get copied and saved, and tested against decryption later? Is that the idea?

CB: I think what’s happening in most cases is they’re taking a copy of encrypted information, possibly in the hopes that they could decrypt it later or in the hopes that they would be able to get the unlock password from you by other means, like a court order for example. You know, they did point to instances where they were still able to bypass security features like encryption because of security flaws, which is very common. If your phone is badly out of date and you haven’t been keeping up with installing security updates, always install your security updates. That’s a common thing in computer security, that there are flaws that can be taken advantage of that can allow bad actors to break through otherwise strong encryption. But I think if you’re keeping an up-to-date phone, I think that’s the best that any of us can do.

BOG: Another point that was interesting in the article, and I’m glad that they pointed it out, was the sorts of instances when this is being applied to people. You hear about Apple being pressed to give up encrypted information or give a back door when there’s a mass shooting, or a sort of incident that may involve multiple conspirators and the loss of life – something very serious. But in the Upturn article they talk about how through their research and requesting of records it showed that a lot of law enforcement agencies, even local law enforcement agencies, are attempting either to pressure people whose devices they get a hold of or apply for warrants to copy peoples’ contents of their phones for minor things that they’re being accused of.

Like if it’s something like shoplifting or graffiti or public intoxication, petty drug charges, sex work, these are a few of the examples that they give. Considering the way that policing works in the United States, and this shouldn’t surprise anyone in the listening audience, police tend to focus their attention on poor and racialized parts of the population. So if law enforcement gets people’s data, whether by asking for it and pressuring people into it or by using devices, and then saves it for a later investigation and there’s no sort of oversight of this, it seems very likely that the sorts of data that they’re collecting could be used to build future cases or for building profiles on people for things they haven’t actually been accused of so far.

CB: Yup. Phishing for data. Maybe they’re just trying to justify the purchase of this stuff. In Oregon they spend half a million dollars on cellphone extraction technologies, Portland alone spent a quarter of a million in a period of 4-5 years. That’s a lot of money to justify, right? If you’re only using it 3 times a year for homicide cases then maybe you can’t justify actually spending that money and you would just farm out, whenever you do need it for something like that, either to a fusion center or a pay-per-service from one of these companies. So it might just be they’re partially covering their asses and saying ‘Oh yeah, we use it 10 times a week’.

But we’ve also seen examples of law enforcement agencies that just collect so much data, almost for the purpose of just having data. The LAPD famously uses Palantir which is a horrible company, to do all sorts of data analytics for their region collecting data on pizza purchases and parking passes and all sorts of things that don’t seem relevant at all to law enforcement, but it’s almost a compulsion to just collect the data and see what they can do with it.

BOG: Another thing that I had seen was Google was recently in the news when court documents were unsealed in Detroit relating to witness intimidation and arson by an associate of R. Kelly, and this in regards to keyword warrants. Are you familiar with this case and could you talk a little about keyword warrants and what they are?

CB: Yeah, so keyword warrants. I hadn’t heard about them before this news story came out earlier this month, but it’s not surprising. I certainly was familiar with just how many requests for data Google gets and responds to, affecting hundreds of thousands of user accounts every year in the US. So it wouldn’t surprise me if Google, instead of just getting requests saying ‘Hey, I’d like to have all of the emails associated with email address thefinalstraw@gmail.com’, which seems to be the more straight forward type of request related to a specific account that might be included in a law enforcement issue… probably not though. To expand that to ‘Hey, I want to know all of the information you have about people who searched for ‘The Final Straw’ ’. So that’s the keyword warrant or the keyword search request that happened in this case. We’ve seen examples of Geofencing warrants happening for Google Maps asking for anybody who has searched for an address within a given region, that there were a few stories about over the last year. So yeah of course, the data is there why not ask for it? Google is not going to say no, why would they?

BOG: Basically, again by collecting information based on its availability then attempting to apply it. So in this case with the arson, they asked for people who had searched for the address of the house where a car got set on fire within a certain period of time and then cross-referenced that to a Geofence of what phones were in the area within a period of time, and were able to pinpoint and place charges. And not all of the information came out from that, some of the court records are still sealed. It’s kind of a frightening application of technology and as you say, a very happy-to-oblige industry.

CB: Yeah. I think the potential for false arrests and harassment of people, like say you happen to find someone in that area who you don’t like for one reason or another you can arrest them and hold them for a while even if you have no evidence. Harassment arrests are used all the time by law enforcement and have been for decades, centuries probably.

BOG: So I guess… use DuckDuckGo if you’re going to be committing an – – – – ?

*Laughter

CB: I would avoid Google, I definitely use DuckDuckGo. I prefer DuckDuckGo for selfish reasons, I find the personalized search aspect of Google to be somewhat infuriating. When I search for something I don’t want to find what Google thinks I want to find, I want to find the documents related to my search. It’s hard to avoid these tools, but I think DuckDuckGo, anything but g-mail for email please, and there are alternatives to Google Docs as well. Cryptpad seems to be getting better. Every month there are improvements. It offers collaborative online editing to documents, all E2E encrypted.

BOG: I am going to presume with this question that you are not a lawyer, am I correct in that?

CB: I am not a lawyer, no.

BOG: It seems things like intercepting phone calls, peoples text messages, or getting deep into their cellphones and all of the information that’s collected in them for arguably unrelated topics, might overstep into the realm of FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act), or might overstep into the realm of one of those amendments that protects our rights against unfair search and seizure. That just doesn’t seem to be the case? Or in these instances is it that these methods haven’t been brought before courts to be challenged?

CB: Everything I know about the law I learned from CLDC, and Law & Order in a previous lifetime. So what I do know about these from reading various news articles and conversations with CLDC is, as pointed out by Upturn, a lot of the extraction of data from cellphones was based on consent and not a warrant. It was about a 50/50 split depending on jurisdiction. So this was probably the case of intimidation by a cop to a person with a cellphone, to say ‘Oh, well let us check your cellphone”. I’m not sure if they give full disclosure of what they mean by ‘let me check your cellphone’, right? (laughs) ‘Let me copy everything there is on your cellphone off your cellphone, if you’re not guilty of this minor misdemeanor’. You know, they’re just asking permission.

That’s one of the things CLDC shoves down the throats of everyone at their trainings, which is don’t consent to searches. Just don’t do it! Even if they’re going to go ahead and do the search, even if you’re not consenting to it, say over and over again ‘I do not consent to this search’. Have a sticker on your phone that says ‘I do not consent to this search’. Because then it can’t be used in the court of law at least. The other thing that we’ve seen over the years is, parallel reconstruction. I don’t know if I’ve seen a well researched example of this but certainly people have hinted that this a common practice, where they’ll find out something via methods that wouldn’t be admissible in the court of law and then they figure out a way to reconstruct what they know using admissible methods.

BOG: Oh like in The Wire.

CB: Yeah, exactly. So that’s something that might be why they’re getting information that they can’t necessarily use. The other part is just general intelligence work. It’s not necessarily going to be used to arrest anyone, it’s not necessarily going to be used in a court of law, but they just want to know what’s going on, and so are going to collect as much data as they can. Unless you find out about it and unless you prove harm in a court of law, then how are you going to stop it from happening? Which is why this report about the Google keyword searches and Google Geofencing searches is so important. If we can find out about that and we can get a case brought forth and have it deemed unconstitutional to do this kind of search then that would stop those kinds of requests from happening. Then you could put pressure on a company – even a company like Google – you could put public pressure on them to say ‘Don’t respond to these requests, they’ve been deemed illegal’.

BOG: There are a couple of other, I guess not insights but points in that Upturn article that I thought were useful. Like if someone deletes information on their phone, are they actually deleting information off of their phone, and are there appropriate or useful, good tools for actually wiping data off of phones or does it just kind of sit there?

BOG: –MAGNETS–

CB: I don’t know of a good tool. I think that if you do a factory reset of your phone that’s most likely to help make that data inaccessible. Even then, is it actually getting completely deleted? It might not be. You have memory on your computer or on your cellphone, and when you delete something it just kind of takes the index away… I’m trying to use an analogy that people would remember. Do people remember libraries and card catalogs? (laughs) All of my analogies are too old.

BOG: I think it’s fair, go ahead.

CB: You think people will remember?

BOG: I think so, or they’ve heard the analogy enough they’ll recognize what a card catalog is.

CB: They’ve seen a movie with an old-timey library and card catalogs?

BOG: Ghostbusters

CB: So. you have a big library with books on all the shelves and the way you know where to find a book is to go to the card catalog. You look up the book that you want and you find its listed location on the shelf and then you go to the shelf and you find the book. Well now, when you delete a file from a computer, really all you’re deleting is the card from the card catalog. So when it comes time to put a new photo in the memory of your computer or cellphone, you go to the shelf and you find out ‘Oh, there’s supposed to be space here because according to the card catalog there’s nothing stored here, so this old data must be something that I don’t need anymore, now I’m going to delete that old stuff.’ Right, ‘I’m going to remove that book from the shelf whose existence was deemed not there anymore by the card catalog, I’ll throw it away now and put my new one in.’ So it’s not until you use the memory again that the old information actually gets deleted.

BOG: At least on computers there’s – for instance I had to reinstall my operating system recently. And when I installed it I went to encrypt the home folder and the file system and it asked ‘Do you want to overwrite everything else on the hard drive?’ Is that what you’re talking about?

CB: Yeah, so that would be the equivalent of actually going to all the shelves of the old library and removing all of the old books. So that’s pretty common when you’re setting up on a computer but I’ve never seen that option on a phone. I’m wondering, does a factory reset actually delete all of that information? I haven’t noticed that myself.

BOG: Microwaves. I mean I saw –

*Laughter

BOG: Yeah, I got nothing.

CB: Drop your phone in the pool, start over.

BOG: They invented this thing called rice though, where if you put your phone into a bag of rice it extracts the water… and the data…

*Laughter

BOG: Well are there any other things you’d like to share with the audience concerning digital tech or any insights?

CB: I did want to share one thing. You asked about them getting this data, and is this illegal search and seizure. There are still strange laws that date back to the 80’s, for example e-mail can be accessed by law enforcement form somewhere like Google with just a subpoena and not a warrant, necessarily. For a law enforcement agency to get information that would otherwise be deemed illegal search and seizure, they need to get a warrant from a judge that proves probable cause for them to get that data or that physical item. But if it’s email on a server held at Google then they don’t need to prove probable cause and they just need a subpoena which is essentially just a ‘Please can I have this information’. I think that’s where these keyword searches are coming in, I’m not sure that they actually need to have a warrant for those. So that’s maybe one extra detail on that front.

BOG: In those instances it’s in one centralized place, although if your doing a keyword search… Yeah I don’t know– I guess I don’t know how Google works on the inside and if it’s just constantly categorizing what people are typing into its different services for later use and then providing that in easily digestible pills to law enforcement. If you’re sending email and it’s unencrypted, it’s probably getting Hoovered up somewhere and fully readable anyway.

CB: Depends on who your adversary is. I don’t think the Portland police department has access to a big Hoover of data on a global scale, but they certainly can ask Google for all of the emails of the activists whose email addresses they’ve extracted from the phones they confiscated during protests.

BOG: Cora, thank you so much. Cora is an associate professor of Computer Science at Oregon State University with a focus on Security State and The Adoption of More Secure Apps, and also is on the board of the CLDC. Thanks again for having this chat.

CB: It was wonderful talking to you, as always.

 

Prison By Any Other Name: Vikki Law on Toxic Reforms

Prison By Any Other Name: Vikki Law on Toxic Reforms

Book cover of first, hardback edition of "Prison By Any Other Name"
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This week we speak with author and activist, Vikki Law about the book Prison By Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms, just out from The New Press and co-authored by Maya Schenwar.

We talk about how reform and so-called ‘more humane’ ‘alternatives’ to incarceration such as electronic monitoring, drug courts and probation in fact extend the carceral net. We also talk about alternatives to the ‘Punishment Paradigm’ in responding to harm, police and prison abolitionism and resisting recuperation in our struggles to imagine and birth a new world.

More of Vikki’s writings can be found at https://victorialaw.net

You can find all of our interviews with Vikki at our website.

Sean Swain Silenced

We got word that Sean Swain has had his email, phone and mail blocked, likely in response to his “An Open Letter to Annette Chambers-Smith,” available via DetroitABC, as well as his soon-to-be-published book, “Ohio” (parts 1-3 of the first half available here in zine form, soon via LBC). Pass it on…

Digital Security Tools for Organizing with the CLDC

Digital Security Tools for Organizing with the CLDC

 

Radio Possum by Beehive Collective
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We’re happy to share the rest of our conversation with Michele Gretes, director of the Digital Security project at the Civil Liberties Defense Center, and Cora Borradaile, who is on the board of the CLDC. For this podcast special, you’ll hear the two discuss different tools for more secure, encrypted communication that is available on various platforms to folks organizing. They publish guides on CLDC.org/Security. We discuss the end-to-end encrypted alternative to Slack (Keybase) **, pgp email encryption (particularly the enigmail tool), Signal Messenger, problems with Whatsapp, Cryptpad, Jitsi, Wire, VPNs and The Onion Router,the TorBrowser, OnionShare, Zoom, Protonmail and some of the challenges of running longstanding movement infrastructure such as the RiseUp collective does (plus their file sharing and pad services). Check our show notes for links to some of these projects.

** Keybase was just purchased by Zoom. See the CLDC article.

(image lifted from the amazing Beehive Collective)

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featured tracks:

Bojkez – Snap Your Fingers – Instrumental EP vol. 1

Glutton For Insurrection – V!RU$ 5TR!K3

Tracking Technology and Food Distro in Pandemic

Tracking Technology and Food Distro in Pandemic

Tucson Food Share logo
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This week, we feature two conversations. Cora Borradaile and Michele Gretes, folks involved in the Digital Security Project of the Civil Liberties Defense Center, speak about contact tracing apps and surveillance. Then, Se speaks about Tucson Food Share’s grocery distribution program.

Contact Tracing Apps

First up, we hear Michele Gretes and Cora Borradaile. Michele is the Digital Security Coordinator of the Civil Liberties Defense Center and also does digital security for an environmental non-profit. Cora is a co-founder of the CLDC Digital Security Program and is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Oregon State University with a focus on the security state and the adoption of more-secure apps. They talk about surveillance and the use of apps for tracing folks contact with people infected with covid-19 to slow the pandemic spread. This is a segment of a larger conversation we’ll be releasing in the middle of this week as a podcast in which Cora and Michele talk about and compare tools for online organizing that engage encryption and offer alternatives to the google and other “free” products that often surveil their users. We speak about Jitsi, Wire, Zoom, RiseUp, Signal, vpns, The Onion Router, TAILS, KeyBase, Riot.IM, pgp and other mentionables. More at CLDC.org/Security/

  • Apple & Google announced this approach toward contact tracing we didn’t really cover in detail / by name in this  conversation. Here’s an article from Wired about it.
  • The White Paper referenced by Cora references from the EU with cryptographers is here.
  • GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) laws, European restrictions on the collection and longtime storage of data on private individuals has been in place since 2016.
  • An article from VOX speaking about ICE using private phone data to seek out and arrest undocumented people in the US. Another talking about current tracking by phone companies of our movements.

Tucson Food Share

After that, we’ll hear from Se of Tucson Food Share, based in Arizona. We talk about their project, how it scaled up from Tucson Food Not Bombs to deliver groceries and hand out burritos publicly, multi-lingual engagement, resisting burnout and finding joy in feeding people. More at TucsonFoodShare.Org . You should get in touch if you’re thinking of setting up a food distribution project and have any questions.

Announcements

New Station: KODX Seattle

We’d like to mention that we’re now airing on Monday mornings at 2am on KODX in Seattle. You can check out that station’s schedule up at kodxseattle.org or hear them in north eastern Seattle on 96.9 on the FM dial.

Recent Release: Bomani Shakur and Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin

Just a headsup, if you’re looking for more content for your ears, we released a small segment of Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin talking about prisoner organizing in the 1970’s and today. This was paired with a longer chat with Lucasville Uprising survivor and death row prisoner Bomani Shakur aka Keith Lamar. For a little over an hour, Bomani talks about his youth, the uprising in 1993, his case and being railroaded. He has an execution date set by the state of Ohio for November 16, 2023.

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Naughty By Nature – Hip Hop Hooray (instrumental) – Hip Hop Hooray

Leslie Fish – Bella Ciao – Smoked Fish and Friends

Playlist

Error451 #14: Leap Encryption Access Project on VPNs and Psuedonymity

Leap Encryption Access Project

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This week, we’d like to share a conversation had a little bit ago with Kali Kaneko, from LEAP.  Leap Encryption Access Project, like pEp featured in our prior Error451 interview, is an open-source project meant to ease… access to encryption (and it’s a project).  At a point in the past, LEAP had an interest in shifting paradigm of email but is now focusing mainly on distribution, upkeep, and improvement of it’s VPN service, Bitmask.  Bitmask is partnering with Riseup Black and Calyx (and hopefully other trustworthy projects) to expand access to free, psuedonymized web traffic with ease.

Here’re a few links Kali sent my way for sharing and further investigation:

The song for this episode was “Crashing The System” by ¡Tchkung! from the album Post World Handbook.

 

A Jailhouse Lawyer Speaks About #PrisonStrike 2018

A Jailhouse Lawyer Speaks About #PrisonStrike 2018

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This week, we feature three segments. First, we’ll feature a statement about recent doxing of a number of anti-racists in the Asheville area by far-right keyboard warriors.

After that, we feature an interview with Dee, an anonymous incarcerated organizer affiliated with Jailhouse Lawyers Speak. In this conversation we ask about the effectiveness of the #August21 2018 Nationwide Prisoner Strike, the push to move prisoners under storm threat as these increase under climate change, repression and changes in response to the strike, mail limitations in PA prisons, standardization of increased security in Ohio, outside support and organizing, critiques of the methods of NPS2018, and more. Check our show notes for links to more info concerning the strike.

If prisoners want to communicate with and/or join JLS, Dee suggests in some words near the end of the show that they reach out to:

Jailhouse Lawyers Speak
P.O. Box 1076
Knightdale, NC 27545

And you can find JLS on fedbook or twitter to keep up with their organizing

Hambach Forest Updates

In our final section of the show, you’ll hear a report by audio comrades in Germany about the recent resistance to the destruction of the Hambach Forest by authorities. The clearing of the ancient forest is to create the largest open-pit lignite coal mine in Europe on behalf of the corporation RWE, which sells to Netherlands, Germany & the UK. Lignite has a carbon content of around 60-70%, has a low energy yield, and is responsible for 1/3 of CO2 emissions in Germany. This segment shows up in the November 2018 episode of B(A)DNews, Angry Voices from Around The World from the A-Radio Network, of which we’re a proud member. Keep an eye on our podcast stream and website for a link to this episode coming out in the next couple of days.

Local Doxxings

Within the last week, over 15 people were doxxed by white supremacists in our community. Here is most of a collective statement released a day or two after the fact by some of those folks:

They’ve targeted more than twenty people they believe are involved in anti-racist organizing in North Carolina. They’ve posted information such as our home addresses, places of work, family members, license plates, social media profiles–whatever information they could find. They seem to be fixating on trans and nonbinary people in particular, and delight in trying to deadname and misgender us whenever possible. Some of us, and some of our family members, have received harassing messages.

They wrote about us like it’s some big secret that we oppose fascism, that we oppose racism, that we oppose all forms of bigotry and oppression. It’s not a secret. We weren’t hiding. We are not ashamed.

This isn’t a plea for sympathy. Our friends and immediate community have been amazing. Rather, this is a message to let you know that if you ever find yourself targeted by neo-Nazis and the far right, you are not alone. None of us need to face this rising tide of fascist scum alone. We have each other.

Robert Bowers, the Pittsburgh Synagogue shooter, actively and publicly chatted with alt-right trolls who had doxxed anti-racist activists. He even discussed violence against anti-racists in our region. This is probably a good time to think seriously about your online security and that of your family members and friends. But staying safe isn’t just a matter of changing your Facebook settings or making your Instagram private. It’s a matter of us showing up for each other. Of us not letting them intimidate us, not letting them isolate us. Not letting them stop us from our work. Especially when the work is stopping fascism.

To read the full statement, you can visit https://ashevillesolidarity.tumblr.com/ , where you can also see a list of bands and businesses which have been included in the current harassment. And of course, there are ways to donate and send support!

For an article about this (released just as our radio show was airing), including a statement by Firestorm Books contextualizing the specific harassment they’ve received, you can visit The Asheville Blade, which you can donate to here! To support Firestorm Books, our local anarchist community space and bookstore, you can join their Community Sustainer’s Program or leave them a positive review on Facebook, Yelp, wherever you can.

Additionally, for a really excellent walk through of how to help prevent this kind of thing happening to you or your crew, you can visit the Smiling Face Collective guide to preventing doxxing. This site can be easily adapted into an interactive workshop, because let’s face it, wiping your presence off the internet is a tedious, upsetting, and grueling process which is designed to wear you down. It’s always better to do this in groups! You can write to us about your experiences with internet hygiene, good, bad, or whatever, at tfsradioshow@protonmail.com

Rural Organizing Against Racism Benefit

For those in the Western NC area, there will be a Fall Fundraiser to benefit rural organizing and resilience on Friday November 30th at 6pm at the Marshall Container Co. which is located at 10 South Main Street, Marshall, NC. The event will center around a cornbread and chili dinner and will include several surprise musical guests!

Support Anti-Fascist Protestors in Philly

And finally, if you are in the position to donate to those injured yesterday fighting the Proud Boys in Philly and elsewhere, you can go to this rally.org page. Remember that if you donate to do so anonymously!

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Playlist here.

Error451: #12 (Efail w/ Micah Lee)

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This week, Bursts spoke with Micah Lee.  Micah is, according to his bio at The Intercept: ”

a computer security engineer and an open source software developer. He writes about technical topics like digital and operational security, encryption tools, whistleblowing, and hacking using language that everyone can understand, but without dumbing it down. An avid user of Qubes and Linux, he develops security tools such as OnionShare.”

Micah is kind enough in this conversation to break down the Efail scandal that rocked security-minded folks in mid-May.  A weakness in the way that many email clients handled PGP & S/MIME came to light months after it was discovered by a team of security investigators.  Micah explains how this encryption works, what was found out, safer approaches to encrypted messaging. We also talk a little about threat modeling and quantum computing.

Send encrypted text messages to Micah using Signal Messenger at (415) 964-1601.  Here’s a link to a cool article Micah published at The Intercept about a method of cheaply creating a second signal account, so you can give out a signal # without giving away your personal phone number.

Check out past episodes of Error451 and hit us up if you have ideas for segments or guests you’d like to hear from.  Check out our contact page!

featured track: “I Did It For The Kids But They’re Gonna PAY” by Spook Rat.

Error451: #11 (CLOUD Act)

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A change of plans: instead of airing the interview with comrades in Yogyakarta about May Day repression of anarchists there, we’re including that in the radio show for next Sunday.  So, instead, kick back with this new issue of #Error451 !

The CLOUD Act (Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data Act) got passed by the U.S. Congress earlier this year and signed into law by President Trump.  It’s a revision of the 1986 Stored Communications Act.  Basically, it allows U.S. cops from local up to Federal to request data belonging to persons of interest that is stored on overseas servers from the private corporations or organizations storing it. If the U.S. executive makes an agreement with the foreign power where the data is stored, that power also gets a degree of access to the data of persons of interest to the overseas powers.  Basically, governments can more easily spy on folks around the world!

We talk a bit about the implications of the Act, how it came to pass and the types of practices and services folks can engage to help protect themselves from some of these government excesses.

Check out past episodes of Error451 and hit us up if you have ideas for segments or guests you’d like to hear from.  Check out our contact page!

featured track: “Bob Ross remixed by Symphony of Science’s John D. Boswell for PBS Digital Studios