Homophobic Customers Refused To Tip Waiter Because He Was Gay


Patrons left offensive, anti-gay note: “We cannot in good conscience tip you, for your homosexual lifestyle is an affront to God”


A 20-year-old waiter at Carrabbas Italian Grill in Overland Park, Kansas was subjected to an ugly anti-gay rant by customers who refused to tip him based on his sexual orientation, despite the fact that he provided them with excellent service, KCTV reported.

The incident arose after the patrons had left the restaurant, upon where the waiter found a note written on a credit card explaining clearly why the waiter would not be getting a tip – because he was gay.  The message, which began with a compliment, quickly turned nasty:

“Thank you for your service, it was excellent. That being said, we cannot in good conscience tip you, for your homosexual lifestyle is an affront to GOD. (Homosexual slur) do not share in the wealth of GOD, and you will not share in ours.  We hope you will see the tip your (homosexual slur) choices made you lose out on, and plan accordingly. It is never too late for GOD’s love, but none shall be spared for (homosexual slur). May GOD have mercy on you,” the note read.

Following the incident, Carrabas said in a statement that the company does not tolerate discrimination from employees or guests:

“We embrace diversity and believe in treating everyone with respect,” the company said.

Nonetheless, co-workers and customers have rallied behind the young server, taking to social media to spread his story and offer additional support.  Some patrons have even offered the young waiter extra tips tips as encouragement.

The server has responded to the incident, saying “The offers to help pay me back are much appreciated, but not at all needed. I’d prefer to let my work ethic and my service do the talking, nothing else,” Kake reported.


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Should It Cost Less to Get Out of Jail if You’re Rich?


Eric Amparan likes the system the way it is now. As a bail bondsman, he’s part of an industry that pulls in $2 billion in revenue every year. Eric lays out how he profits off of financial desperation in our latest video in the Prison Profiteers series:

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Here’s how it typically works: If you’re booked into jail, you can either sit in a cell for months waiting for your trial – losing your job and missing your childcare commitments in the process – or you can pay bail to the court. Bail functions like a promise; the court will return it to you when you show up for your court date.

The average bail amount is nearly $90,000. If you don’t happen to have this amount sitting in your bank account, odds are you’ll need to borrow it from a bail bondsman, like Eric Amparan. Here’s the catch: Eric will keep 10% of this amount as his non-refundable fee, even if you’re found innocent. So you pay almost $9,000 to get out of jail if you’re poor or middle class, but you pay nothing if you’re rich.

Bail is not a fine. It is not supposed to be used as punishment. The traditional purpose of bail is simply to ensure that people will return for their court date. But the commercial bail industry’s business model is to make it more expensive for people of lesser means to move through the criminal justice system.

Most states have laws saying that the default should be that people are released from jail while waiting for their trial solely based on their promise to return to court – unless there’s a really compelling reason to hold them. And these laws could work – studies show that most people can be safely released based on their promise to return without jeopardizing public safety or fleeing.

But judges often ignore these laws, and instead make people pay bail – which feeds right into the bail profiteers’ business model. When judges set higher bail amounts, bail bond companies pull in higher profits. The American Bail Coalition – a lobbying group that represents the bail bondsmen, powerful insurance companies and wealthy investors – is working hard to make sure these profits keep coming in. They spent $3.1 million dollars lobbying state lawmakers between 2002 and 2011 and drafted twelve bail bills that encourage judges to set high bail amounts and give the bail industry more leeway to profit off incarceration.

Four states – Illinois, Kentucky Oregon and Wisconsin – have abolished the bail bonding industry. Other states should do the same.

We shouldn’t have two criminal justice systems one for the rich and one for the rest of us. The commercial bail industry needs to know we’re watching.

The bail industry is just one the many powerful entities getting rich off mass incarceration. Meet the other Prison Profiteers and take action to fight their abuses at prisonprofiteers.org.

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Atheists Starts Their Own Megachurch: Is It a Religion Now?


The non-religious Assembly is perhaps the fastest growing church in the world — and it’s coming to a mall near you.

Organized Atheism is now a franchise.

Yesterday, The Sunday Assembly—the London-based “Atheist Church” that has, since its January launch, been stealing headlines the world over—announced a new “global missionary tour.” In October and November, affiliated Sunday Assemblies will open in 22 cities: in England, Ireland, Scotland, Canada, the United States and Australia. “I think this is the moment,” Assembly founder Sanderson Jones told me in an email last week, “when the Sunday Assembly goes from being an interesting phenomenon to becoming a truly global movement.” Structured godlessness is ready for export.

The Assembly has come a long way in eight months: from scrappy East London community venture (motto: “Live Better, Help Often and Wonder More;” method: “part atheist church, part foot-stomping good time”) to the kind of organization that sends out embargoed press releases about global expansion projects. “The 3,000 percent growth rate might make this non-religious Assembly the fastest growing church in the world,” organizers boast.

There’s more to come: In October, the Sunday Assembly (SA) will launch a crowdfundedindiegogo campaign, with the ambitious goal of raising £500,000 (or, about $793,000). This will be followed by a second wave of openings. “ The effort reads as part quixotic hipster start-up, part Southern megachurch.

Like any attempt at organized non-belief, the Sunday Assemblies will attract their fair share of derision from critics. But the franchise model might dismay some followers too. For a corporate empire needs an executive board; a brand needs brand managers; a federation needs a strict set of guiding tenets—and consequences for those who stray from the fold. And isn’t that all wholly opposed to Freethought?


That’s not to say that Assembly founders are moving forward blindly. What should not be overlooked is that as the “atheist church” becomes more “Church” than ever, it is working to downplay its Atheism—opening itself up to a broader kind of irreligiosity.

As of now, Jones is still tweaking the message. But he’s confident in the model: “It’s a way to scale goodness.”



I went to my first Sunday Assembly last April. Then, we were a crowd of several hundred heathens, gathered at a crusty deconsecrated church in East London. The Assembly had a wayward, whimsical feel. At a table by the door, ladies served homemade cakes and tea. The house band played Cat Stevens. Our “priest” wore pink skinny jeans. Many attendees were modish 20-somethings, and pretty obviously hungover.

I did not need to be sold on the idea (explained nicely here by philosopher Alain de Botton). Like the Sunday Assembly’s founders, stand-up comics Pippa Evans and Sanderson Jones, I don’t think religion should have a monopoly on community. I like the idea of a secular temple, where atheists can enjoy the benefits of an idealized, traditional church—a sense of community, a thought-provoking sermon, a scheduled period of respite, easy access to community service opportunities, group singing, an ethos of self-improvement, free food—without the stinging imposition of God Almighty.

Evidently, I was not alone. A few months later, SA was boasting 400-600 regular attendees. As the hype mounted, Evans and Jones began receiving emails from all over the world from would-be Sunday Assembly founders.

Jones admits that he had aspirations to expand from the get-go. Eventually, the founders opted for a controlled unfolding, choosing to personally license and launch 22 Sunday Assembly branches within a 2-month period.

One new Sunday Assembly will launch in Los Angeles, in December. “We’ll have a godless congregation in the city of angels,” laughs Ian Dodd, a 53-year-old camera operator, and one of the chapter’s founders.

For a number of years, Dodd—a lifelong atheist, apart from “a brief period as a young adult when I went looking for that something more”— had been a member of the Unitarian Universalist Community Church in Santa Monica. And for a while, he liked that well enough. “The Unitarian Church has this idea of ‘radical tolerance.’ It respects everything. It’s all good. Well that’s fine on one level, but at some point it becomes a little diluted.” Dodd was looking for a more robust secularism. In January, he caught word of the Sunday Assembly. A few months later, he was sitting across from Sanderson Jones at a pub in Hollywood, plotting the Assembly’s LA debut.

“The church model has worked really well for a couple of thousand years,” Dodd muses. “What we’re trying to do is hold on to the bath water while throwing out the baby Jesus.”


Organized Atheism will require paperwork.

recent article by the newly-minted Sunday Assembly Everywhere (SAE) network outlines the SA affiliation process: Interested groups must apply for a Sunday Assembly charter and license agreement, “which will give you the right to use all the Sunday Assembly materials, logos, positive vibe and goodwill.” The next step is to form a legal entity, probably an “unincorporated association… which allows you to have a bank account.” And then, training from SA HQ, either in the UK or via “webinars and telecals worldwide.” If all goes well, aspiring founders will be invited to sign “A SAE Stage I Charter. This is a ‘provisional license,’ which gets you running your Sunday Assembly using our tried-and-tested formats and themes.” This is followed by a peer-review process and evaluation by other SA chapters. Nailed it? A “Stage II Charter” will be issued, granting full SAE membership. The model is inspired by TEDx.

In his press release, Jones refers to “hundreds and, if all goes to plan, thousands” of new SA communities.

Eventually, Jones and Evans hope their Assemblies will offer more church-like services: Sunday school, weddings, funerals. Nicole Steeves, a 36-year-old librarian who is launching Sunday Assembly Chicago, told me that since becoming a mother, “I have keenly felt the absence of what I think are the best parts of a church: friendships built on common beliefs; a built-in network of helpers for child care, sickness, etc.” Stuart Balkham is launching Sunday Assembly in Brighton, with his wife Anita. Balkham, a 31-year-old trained architect who now works as a music festival organizer, was inspired by his Church of England upbringing. “The Sunday Assembly is unabashedly copying a lot of established Church traditions, but removing what many people feel uncomfortable with if they aren’t religious.”

As the atheist church becomes more church-like, however, it seems to be deliberately downplaying its atheism. Where the Assembly once stridently rejected theism (at April’s Assembly, Jones poked fun at the crucifixion), it is now far more equivocal. “How atheist should our Assembly be?”, Jones wrote in a recent blog post. “The short answer to that is: not very.”

“‘Atheist Church’ as a phrase has been good to us. It has got us publicity,” Evanselaborated. “But the term ‘atheist’ does hold negative connotations. Atheists are often thought to be aggressive, loud and damning of all religion, where actually most atheists, in the UK anyway, are not defined by their non-belief.” At a recent assembly, Jones opined: “I think atheism is boring. Why are we defining ourselves by something we don’t believe in?”

… Because that’s what atheism is?

Evans and Jones must clearly tread softly. Their model is not about de-converting the religious, or bashing theists, or decrying the lunacy of faithfulness. And indeed, their “radically inclusive” model was always going to appeal to atheism’s cagier cousins: humanism, unitarianism and agnosticism.

Yet I wonder if the Assembly risks diluting its brand if it continues to shed its muscular non-belief. Might it become McAtheism: a Secular Lite version of its former self? The Sunday Assembly refusing the “atheist” label seems akin to Ms. Magazine deciding that “feminist” is a bad word after all.

Still, the timing is certainly ripe. There is a growing openness to viewing religion/irreligion as a spectrum, rather than a dichotomy—and to institutionalizing faithlessness. Look at Harvard University’s wildly successful Humanist Community. Or Florida’s first publicmonument to atheism. Or efforts to hire secular army chaplains.

Ronald Dworkin’s forthcoming (and posthumous) Religion Without God promises to be an erudite commentary on this trend. “The familiar divide between people of religion and without religion is too crude,” Dworkin wrote in an excerpt published in The New York Review of Books. Dworkin argues for a more religious irreligiosity, a “religious atheism.” To this end, he quotes Albert Einstein, a noted atheist:

“To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men.”


There are a lot of ways this could flop. For starters, atheists might not like it. “One challenge in the discussion that’s occurred on the rise of atheist churches so far,” explains Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, “is that it tends to overlook the fact that the majority of involved atheists and humanists aren’t actually interested in personally being involved in a congregation atmosphere.”

Even amongst followers, it could be that the Atheist Church model is only palatable when it is decentralized and hyper-local. I wonder if the original Assembly’s draw was, in part, its rookie vibe: its mistakes, its silliness, its earnestness, its East London-ness.

There are lots of fun ways to play this out. Imagine that Sunday Assembly Everywhere does take of with rip-roaring success. Will London become secularism’s answer to Vatican City? Might the Atheist Church subdivide into Orthodox, Conservative and Reform branches of godlessness? Will Atheism have its own Great Schism? Its own Martin Luther, touting a new and better way to not believe? Or might the Sunday Assembly go the way of the American megachurch: migrating from young urban centers to prefab suburban main streets?

Either way, Sanderson Jones is confident that the model will spread. “We have the most natural human urge to do this,” he insists: to organize ourselves around institutions of meaning. I am inclined to agree that “Live Better, Help Often, and Wonder More” is a lovely motto to build around.

And as for detractors? “I don’t expect much objection from religious communities. They are happy for us to use their church model,” Jones muses. “I think it’s more aggressive atheists who will have an issue with it.”


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Destroying the Right to Be Left Alone


The NSA Isn’t the Only Government Agency Exploiting Technology to Make Privacy Obsolete

This piece was originally published at TomDispatch, where it includes an introduction by the editor.

For at least the last six years, government agents have been exploiting an AT&T database filled with the records of billions of American phone calls from as far back as 1987. The rationale behind this dragnet intrusion, codenamed Hemisphere, is to find suspicious links between people with “burner” phones (prepaid mobile phones easy to buy, use, and quickly dispose of), which are popular with drug dealers. The secret information gleaned from this relationship with the telecommunications giant has been used to convict Americans of various crimes, all without the defendants or the courts having any idea how the feds stumbled upon them in the first place. The program is so secret, so powerful, and so alarming that agents “are instructed to never refer to Hemisphere in any official document,” according to a recently released government PowerPoint slide.

You’re probably assuming that we’re talking about another blanket National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance program focused on the communications of innocent Americans, as revealed by the whistleblower Edward Snowden. We could be, but we’re not. We’re talking about a program of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), a domestic law enforcement agency.

While in these last months the NSA has cast a long, dark shadow over American privacy, don’t for a second imagine that it’s the only government agency systematically and often secretly intruding on our lives. In fact, a remarkable traffic jam of local, state, and federal government authorities turn out to be exploiting technology to wriggle into the most intimate crevices of our lives, take notes, use them for their own purposes, or simply file them away for years on end.

“Technology in this world is moving faster than government or law can keep up,” the CIA’s Chief Technology Officer Gus Hunt told a tech conference in March. “It’s moving faster I would argue than you can keep up: You should be asking the question of what are your rights and who owns your data.”

Hunt’s right. The American public and the legal system have been left in the dust when it comes to infringements and intrusions on privacy. In one way, however, he was undoubtedly being coy. After all, the government is an active, eager, and early adopter of intrusive technologies that make citizens’ lives transparent on demand.

Increasingly, the relationship between Americans and their government has come to resemble a one-way mirror dividing an interrogation room. Its operatives and agents can see us whenever they want, while we can never quite be sure if there’s someone on the other side of the glass watching and recording what we say or what we do — and many within local, state, and federal government want to ensure that no one ever flicks on the light on their side of the glass.

So here’s a beginner’s guide to some of what’s happening on the other side of that mirror.

You Won’t Need a Warrant for That

Have no doubt: the Fourth Amendment is fast becoming an artifact of a paper-based world.

The core idea behind that amendment, which prohibits the government from “unreasonable searches and seizures,” is that its representatives only get to invade people’s private space — their “persons, houses, papers, and effects” — after it convinces a judge that they’re up to no good. The technological advances of the last few decades have, however, seriously undermined this core constitutional protection against overzealous government agents, because more and more people don’t store their private information in their homes or offices, but on company servers.

Consider email.

In a series of rulings from the 1970’s, the Supreme Court created “the third-party doctrine.” Simply stated, information shared with third parties like banks and doctors no longer enjoys protection under the Fourth Amendment. After all, the court reasoned, if you shared that information with someone else, you must not have meant to keep it private, right? But online almost everything is shared with third parties, particularly your private e-mail.

Back in 1986, Congress recognized that this was going to be a problem. In response, it passed the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). That law was forward-looking for its day, protecting the privacy of electronic communications transmitted by computer. Unfortunately, it hasn’t aged well.

Nearly three decades ago, Congress couldn’t decide if email was more like a letter or a phone call (that is, permanent or transitory), so it split the baby and decreed that communications which remain on a third party’s server — think Google — for longer than 180 days are considered abandoned and lose any expectation of privacy. After six months are up, all the police have to do is issue an administrative subpoena — a legal request a judge never sees — demanding the emails it wants from the service provider, because under ECPA they’re considered junk.

This made some sense back when people downloaded important emails to their home or office computers and deleted the rest since storage was expensive. If, at the time, the police had wanted to look at someone’s email, a judge would have had to give them the okay to search the computer where the emails were stored.

Email doesn’t work like that anymore. People’s emails containing their most personal information now reside on company computers forever or, in geek speak, “in the cloud.” As a result, the ECPA has become a dangerous anachronism. For instance, Google’s email service, Gmail, is nearly a decade old. Under that law, without a judge’s stamp of approval or the user ever knowing, the government can now demand from Google access to years of a Gmail user’s correspondence, containing political rants, love letters, embarrassing personal details, sensitive financial and health records, and more.

And that shouldn’t be acceptable now that email has become an intimate repository of information detailing who we are, what we believe, who we associate with, who we make love to, where we work, and where we pray. That’s why commonsense legislative reforms to the ECPA, such as treating email like a piece of mail, are so necessary. Then the police would be held to the same standard electronically as in the paper-based world: prove to a judge that a suspect’s email probably contains evidence of a crime or hands off.

Law enforcement, of course, remains opposed to any such changes for a reason as understandable as it is undemocratic: it makes investigators’ jobs easier. There’s no good reason why a letter sitting in a desk and an email stored on Google’s servers don’t deserve the same privacy protections, and law enforcement knows it, which is why fear-mongering is regularly called upon to stall such an easy fix to antiquated privacy laws.

As Department of Justice Associate Deputy Attorney General James Bakerput it in April 2011, “Congress should also recognize that raising the standard for obtaining information under ECPA may substantially slow criminal and national security investigations.” In other words, ECPA reform would do exactly what the Fourth Amendment intended: prevent police from unnecessarily intruding into our lives.

Nowhere to Hide

“You are aware of the fact that somebody can know where you are at all times, because you carry a mobile device, even if that mobile device is turned off,” the CIA’s Hunt explained to the audience at that tech conference. “You know this, I hope? Yes? Well, you should.”

You have to hand it to Hunt; his talk wasn’t your typical stale government presentation. At times, he sounded like Big Brother with a grin.

And it’s true: the smartphone in your pocket is a tracking device that also happens to allow you to make calls, read email, and tweet. Several times every minute, your mobile phone lets your cell-phone provider know where you are, producing a detail-rich history of where you have been for months, if not years, on end. GPS-enabled applications do the same. Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell for sure how long the companies hang onto such location data because they won’t disclose that information.

We do know, however, that law enforcement regularly feasts on these meaty databases, easily obtaining a person’s location history and other subscriber information. All that’s needed to allow the police to know someone’s whereabouts over an extended period is an officer’s word to a judge that the records sought would aid an ongoing investigation. Judges overwhelmingly comply with such police requests, forcing companies to turn over their customers’ location data. The reason behind this is a familiar one: law enforcement argues that the public has no reasonable expectation of privacy because location data is freely shared with service or app providers. Customers, the argument goes, have already waived their privacy rights by voluntarily choosing to use their mobile phone or app.

Police also use cell-phone signals and GPS-enabled devices to track people in real time. Not surprisingly, there is relatively little clarity about when police do this, thanks in part to purposeful obfuscation by the government. Since 2007, the Department of Justice has recommended that its U.S. attorneys get a warrant for real-time location tracking using GPS and cell signals transmitted by suspects’ phones. But such “recommendations” aren’t considered binding, so many U.S. Attorneys simply ignore them.

The Supreme Court has begun to weigh in but the issue is far from settled. InUnited States v. Jones, the justices ruled that, when officers attach a GPS tracking device to a car to monitor a suspect’s movements, the police are indeed conducting a “search” under the Fourth Amendment. The court, however, stopped there, deciding not to rule on whether the use of tracking devices was unreasonable without a judge’s say so.

In response to that incomplete ruling, the Justice Department drew up two post-Jones memos establishing guidelines for its agents and prosecutors regarding location-tracking technology. When the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a Freedom of Information Act request for those guidelines, the Justice Department handed over all 111 pages, every one of them redacted — an informational blackout.

The message couldn’t be any clearer: the FBI doesn’t believe Americans deserve to know when they can and cannot legally be tracked. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor drove home what’s at stake in her concurring decision in the Jones case. “Awareness that the Government may be watching chills associational and expressive freedoms,” she wrote. “And the Government’s unrestrained power to assemble data that reveal private aspects of identity is susceptible to abuse… [and] may ‘alter the relationship between citizen and government in a way that is inimical to democratic society.'”

The ability of police to secretly track people with little or no oversight is a power once only associated with odious police states overseas. Law enforcement agencies in the United States, however, do this regularly and enthusiastically, and they do their best as well to ensure that no barriers will be thrown in their way in the near future.

Sting(ray) Operations

During one of his last appearances before Congress as FBI director, Robert Mueller confirmed what many insiders already assumed. Asked by Senator Chuck Grassley whether the FBI operates drones domestically and for what purpose, Mueller responded, “Yes, and for surveillance.” This was a stunning revelation, particularly since most Americans associate drone use with robotic killing in distant lands.

And, Grassley followed up, had the FBI developed drone guidelines to ensure that American privacy was protected? The Bureau, Mueller replied, was in the beginning phase of developing them. Senator Dianne Feinstein, hardly a privacy hawk, seemed startled by the answer: “I think the greatest threat to the privacy of Americans is the drone, and the use of the drone, and the very few regulations that are on it today,” she said.

The senator shouldn’t have been shocked. The government’s adoption of new intrusive technologies without bothering to publicly explore their privacy implications — or any safeguards that it might be advisable to put in place first — isn’t an aberration. It’s standard practice. As a result, Americans are put in the position of secretly subsidizing their own surveillance with their tax dollars.

In July, for example, the ACLU published a report on the proliferating use of automatic license-plate readers by police departments and state agencies across the country. Mounted on patrol cars, bridges, and overpasses, the cameras for these readers capture the images of every license plate in view and run them against databases for license plates associated with stolen cars or cars used in a crime. Theoretically, when there’s a hit, police are alerted and someone bad goes to jail. The problems arise, however, when there’s no hit. Most police departments decide to hang onto those license-plate images anyway, creating yet another set of vast databases of innocent people’s location history that’s easy to abuse.

Since technology almost always outpaces the law, regulations on license plate readers are often lax or nonexistent. Rarely do police departments implement data-retention time limits so that the license plates of perfectly innocent people are purged from their systems. Nor do they set up rules to ensure that only authorized officers can query the database when there’s evidence that a particular license plate might be attached to a crime. Often there aren’t even rules to prevent the images from being widely shared with other government agencies or even private companies. These are, in other words, systems which give law enforcement another secret way to track people without judicial oversight and are ripe for privacy abuse.

As is often the case with security technology — for instance, full-body scanners at airports — there’s little evidence that license plate readers are worthwhile enough as crime fighting tools to compensate for their cost in privacy terms. Take Maryland. In the first five months of 2012, for every million license plates read in that state, there were just 2,000 “hits.” Of those 2,000, only 47 were potentially associated with serious crimes. The vast majority were for minor regulatory violations, such as a suspended or revoked vehicle registration.

And then there’s the Stingray, a device first used in our distant wars and so intrusive that the FBI has tried to keep it secret — even from the courts. A Stingray mimics a cell-phone tower, tricking all wireless devices in an area to connect to it instead of the real thing. Police can use it to track suspects in real time, even indoors, as well as nab the content of their communications. The Stingray is also indiscriminate. By fooling all wireless devices in an area into connecting to it, the government engages in what is obviously an unreasonable search and seizure of the wireless information of every person whose device gets caught up in the “sting.”

And when the federal government isn’t secretly using dragnet surveillance technologies, it’s pushing them down to state and local governments through Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grants. The ACLU of Northern California has, for example, reported that DHS grant funds have been used by state and local police to subsidize or purchase automated license plate readers, whose images then flow into federal databases. Similarly, the city of San Diego has used such funds to buy a facial recognition system and DHS grants have been used to install local video surveillance systems statewide.

In July, Oakland accepted $2 million in federal funds to establish an around-the-clock “Domain Awareness Center,” which will someday integrate existing surveillance cameras and thermal imaging devices at the Port of Oakland with the Oakland Police Department’s surveillance cameras and license plate readers, as well as cameras owned by city public schools, the California Highway Patrol, and other outfits and institutions. Once completed, the system will leverage more than 1,000 camera feeds across the city.

Sometimes I Feel Like Somebody’s Watching Me

What makes high-tech surveillance so pernicious is its silent, magical quality. Historically, when government agents invaded people’s privacy they had to resort to the blunt instruments of force and violence, either torturing the body in the belief it could unlock the mind’s secrets or kicking down doors to rifle through a target’s personal effects and communications. The revolution in communications technology has made such intrusions look increasingly sloppy and obsolete. Why break a skull or kick down a door when you can read someone’s search terms or web-surfing history?

In the eighteenth century, philosopher Jeremy Bentham conceived of a unique idea for a prison. He called it a “panopticon.” It was to be a place where inmates would be constantly exposed to view without ever being able to see their wardens: a total surveillance prison. Today, creating an electronic version of Bentham’s panopticon is an increasingly trivial technological task. Given the seductive possibilities now embedded in our world, only strong legal protections would prevent the government from feeling increasingly free to intrude on our lives.

If anything, though, our legal protections are weakening and privacy is being devalued, which means that Americans with a well-developed sense of self-preservation increasingly assume the possibility of surveillance and watch what they do online and elsewhere. Those who continue to value privacy in a big way may do things that seem a little off: put Post-it notes over their computer cameras, watch what they tweet or post on Facebook, or write their emails as if some omnipresent eye is reading over their shoulders. Increasingly, what once would have been considered paranoid seems prescient — self-defense and commonsense all rolled into one.

It’s hard to know just what the cumulative effect will be of a growing feeling that nothing is truly private anymore. Certainly, a transparent life has the potential to rob an individual of the sense of security necessary for experimentation with new ideas and new identities without fear that you are being monitored for deviations from the norm. The inevitable result for many will be self-censorship with all its corrosive effects on the rights of free speech, expression, and association.

The Unknown Unknowns

Note that we’ve only begun a tour through the ways in which American privacy is currently under assault by our own government. Other examples abound. There is E-Verify’s proposed giant “right-to-work” list of everyone eligible to work in the United States. There are law enforcement agencies that actively monitor social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. There are the Department of Homeland Security’s research and development efforts to create cameras armed with almost omniscient facial recognition technology, not to speak of passports issued with radio frequency identificationtechnology. There are networked surveillance camera feeds that flow into government systems. There is NSA surveillance data that’s finding its way into domestic drug investigations, which is then hidden by the DEA from defense lawyers, prosecutors, and the courts to ensure the surveillance data stream continues unchallenged.

And here’s the thing: this is only what we know about. As former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once put it, “there are also unknown unknowns — there are things we do not know we don’t know.” It would be the height of naïveté to believe that government organizations across this country — from the federal to the municipal level — aren’t engaged in other secret and shocking privacy intrusions that have yet to be revealed to us. If the last few months have taught us anything, it should be that we are in a world of unknown unknowns.

Today, government agencies act as if they deserve the benefit of the doubt as they secretly do things ripped from the pages of science-fiction novels. Once upon a time, that’s not how things were to run in a land where people prized their right to be let alone and government of the people, by the people, and for the people was supposed to operate in the open. The government understands this perfectly well: Why else would its law enforcement agents and officers regularly go to remarkable lengths, sometimes at remarkable cost, to conceal their actions from the rest of us and the legal system that is supposed to oversee their acts? Which is why whistleblowers like Edward Snowden are so important: they mount the last line of defense when the powers-that-be get too accustomed to operating in the dark.

Without our very own Snowdens working in the county sheriff’s departments or big city police departments or behemoth federal bureaucracies, especially with the world of newspapers capsizing, the unknowns are ever more likely to stay unknown, while what little privacy we have left vanishes.

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JP Morgan Slammed with $920 Million Fine Over Trading Loss – But Where Are the Charges Against Senior Bankers?


In a rare admission of wrongdoing, US’s biggest bank admits fault in major trading bungle — but still no top-level executives are punished.

JP Morganhas agreed to pay about $920m in penalties to US and UK regulators over the “unsafe and unsound practices” that led to its $6.2bn London Whale losses last year.

The US’s biggest bank will pay $300m to the US office of the comptroller of the currency, $200m to Federal Reserve, $200m to the securities and exchange commission (SEC) and £137.6m ($219.74m) to the UK’s financial conduct authority.

JP Morgan admitted wrongdoing as part of the settlement, an unusual step for a finance firm in the crosshairs of multiple legal actions.

“JP Morgan failed to keep watch over its traders as they overvalued a very complex portfolio to hide massive losses,” co-director of the SEC’s division of enforcement, George Canellos, said.

“While grappling with how to fix its internal control breakdowns, JP Morgan’s senior management broke a cardinal rule of corporate governance and deprived its board of critical information it needed to fully assess the company’s problems and determine whether accurate and reliable information was being disclosed to investors and regulators.”

In a statement the OCC blamed “unsafe and unsound practices related to derivatives trading activities conducted on behalf of the bank by the chief investment office (CIO)”, for the fine.

The OCC said its inquiries had found inadequate oversight and governance to protect the bank from material risk, inadequate risk management, inadequate control over pricing of trades, inadequate development and implementation of models used by the bank, and inadequate internal audit processes.

The US authorities are still pursuing JP Morgan. The Justice Department is pursuing criminal charges against some of the bankers responsible for the massive loss. In an indictment unsealed in federal court this week Javier Martin-Artajo, who oversaw trading strategy at the bank’s London office, and Julien Grout, a trader who worked for him, were charged with securities fraud, conspiracy, filing false books and records, wire fraud and making false filings to the SEC.

Grout’s lawyer said this week that his client was being “unjustly played as a pawn in the government’s attempt to settle its highly politicized case against JP Morgan Chase”.

The bank also faces another fine from the commodity futures trading commission which is still investigating whether the bank is guilty of market manipulation.

Jamie Dimon, the bank’s chairman and chief executive, initially dismissed the mounting losses at the bank’s London offices as a “tempest in a teapot”. In a statement Dimon said: “We have accepted responsibility and acknowledged our mistakes from the start, and we have learned from them and worked to fix them. Since these losses occurred, we have made numerous changes that have made us a stronger, smarter, better company.”

This week in a letter to staff he warned: “Unfortunately, we are all well aware of the news around the legal and regulatory issues facing our company, and in the coming weeks and months we need to be braced for more to come.”

The admission of wrongdoing is a major victory for the SEC. US judges in recent years have questioned fines where banks were allowed to neither admit nor deny wrongdoing. Judge Jed Rakoff blocked a 2011 SEC settlement with Citigroup because he said the lack of an admission of wrongdoing made it impossible for him to determine whether the fine was “fair, reasonable, adequate and in the public interest”.

John Coffee, Adolf A Berle professor of law at Columbia Law School, described the fine as “somewhat less than satisfactory.”

“The victims of this enormous loss were the shareholders of JP Morgan and the remedy is for those shareholders to pay $900m-plus in fines. It’s not just adding insult to injury, it’s adding injury to injury.

He said no senior bank official had been charged with wrongdoing and described the those indicted so far as “relatively small fish.”

“Ideally the regulators should fine actual individuals who are responsible. But time and again the SEC settles for large penalties and gives virtual immunity to some officers.”


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VanishingRights.com: A Conduit for Change


As the scope and depth of NSA’s spying continues to grow—and the ACLU continues to fight for Americans’ privacy—we cannot forget about similar privacy violations committed by state and local law enforcement. Today the ACLU and other advocacy groups and like-minded organizations are launching an online site, Vanishing Rights, to support legislation to do just that.

As we have written about time and time again, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), the main statute governing privacy online, is seriously outdated. It was passed in 1986 by well-meaning legislators who intended to put strong privacy protections in place for emerging technologies like email. However—unlike technology which has evolved at a breakneck pace—ECPA has stagnated and become woefully out of date, leaving our online lives vulnerable to local, state, and federal law enforcement.

The good news is that a major update to the legislation is possible right now.  States are acting. Texas recently passed a law requiring law enforcement to get a warrant before accessing email. A similar bill passed in California and is awaiting the governor’s signature. Massachusetts has a bill pending that would create warrant requirements for phone, internet, and location tracking. And many other states are considering similar legislation.

We are also making headway at the federal level. In April, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the Electronic Communications Privacy Act Amendments Act of 2013, a bill that would grant all online communications warrant protections. This bill would not only secure email, but would also guarantee the privacy of social network posts, personal contacts, photos, online journals, and sensitive health or financial information. And possibly even more noteworthy, the bill passed with huge bipartisan support.

The coalition of groups behind Vanishing Rights is now working to push support for a similar bill, the Email Privacy Act, in the House of Representatives. The bill already has an impressive 137 co-sponsors—96 Republicans and 41 Democrats—so we are well on our way to securing a majority. VanishingRights.com is a great tool that will give you details on the bill and what protections it offers. It will also let you know if your member of Congress supports it.

The Fourth Amendment was written to protect our “persons, houses, papers, and effects” from unwarranted government surveillance. The Founders of our country knew that individuals’ personal privacy was the cornerstone of a free and healthy democracy. We cannot allow law enforcement at any level abrogate this key protection.

Please visit www.VanishingRights.com and contact your member of Congress and urge them to support the Email Privacy Act and restore the basic privacy rights of Americans.

Click here for a more detailed version of the graphic above, which details some of what law enforcement can access without a warrant.

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