My case gets air time on WGN

Hearing at Daley Center

My attorney Matt Topic and I discuss our court case against the city for a WGN news crew Oct. 28. Thanks to Andy Thayer for the photo.

Just wanted to make you aware that our case against the city continues. We brought a civil suit against the police department (the city of Chicago, really) because they refuse to release a police-car video of teenager Laquan McDonald being shot dead by a police officer last october. Several other officers watched as one officer shot McDonald 16 times. The officer who fired remains employed by the police department on desk duty, CPD says.

WGN-TV covered our suit last week. I should have something out soon about what we’re arguing versus what the city is arguing. It should be an important case for Freedom of Information law when it deals with law enforcement.

The city is asking for the ability to withhold the video because they are “cooperating” in an “active investigation” into the matter. But they’re hardly cooperating in any meaningful way; they’re just fulfilling their legal obligations. In fact, they shouldn’t be able to investigate themselves–that’s the purpose of the so-called “Independent Police Review Authority.”

FOIA case law also holds that the body denying the public release of material has to prove that said active investigation (if you can call a 12-month process active) would be harmed by the release of that material. If you can’t prove that, you don’t get to withhold the material. And the city’s lawyer told the judge in court this week that he has yet presented no such proof.

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Why I’m suing the Chicago Police Department

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Justin Kaufmann, host of WGN Radio’s evening show “The Download,” poses for a quick shot with me after our live segment August 12 about FOIA fails and transparency in Chicago.

In case you weren’t aware, I’m all for transparency, particularly when it concerns police misconduct. As such, I’m suing the Chicago Police Pepartment. It’s an attempt to force them to release the video of an officer shooting dead a 17-year-old black teen last fall.

I recently wrote an op-ed for the Chicago Reader going into the case in greater detail, and why I think police should release the video.

Then, last night, Justin Kaufmann and his producer Pete Zimmerman have me on their talk radio show to discuss the state of transparency in Chicago. (Spoiler alert: transparency isn’t exactly alive and well here.) An mp3 of the audio is available to download at that link.

A big thanks to Justin for letting me talk about what I think is important. He gave me pretty free reign, which is so cool coming from a media company as big as the one he works for. I got to say that I think everyone can and should be filing FOIAs–maybe with the help of FOIA Machine for everyday ones and Muckrock for complex ones. Also I got to mention the case coming this fall, where the Fraternal Order of Police is attempting to force the city to destroy all records of police misconduct from 1966 to 2011.

You’ll hear more from me on that subject. I second journalist Jamie Kalven in calling for the FOP to back down from it’s position, which is at best foolish and at worst criminal. Destroying evidence of a crime is itself a crime, and for rape and murder in particular, there are no statutes of limitations.

Tales from the crypt(-oparty)

Cover photo

My story on Chicago’s CryptoParty scene appeared on the cover of the Chicago Reader last week.

Thanks for reading, folks. It’s a long piece, so if you get through it, kudos to you. And bravo if you somehow manage to not get lost as you go, with all the techno-terminology. We tried to make it as friendly to novices as we could. Especially the sidebar, about helpful tools.

I guess this makes me Chicago’s crypto educator in chief?

I’d like to paste below a few sections that got cut from the final story. The Reader editors know: people just don’t read long, meandering pieces anymore. It’s either solidly on-topic or people click away.

About the psychological science behind surveillance:

Psychological studies bear out the detriments of surveillance. Knowing or suspecting that you’re being watched definitely changes a person’s behavior, according to several controlled, peer-reviewed studies. Stress and anxiety tend to rise under surveillance, according to a 1996 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology. And job performance suffers under constant watch, according to a 1992 study in the journal Applied Ergonomics. (While anyone with a helicopter boss could tell you that, a proper study isolated that cause from other potential factors.)

And since the 1950s, psychologists have known that surveillance encourages social conformity in a person even when their larger social group is “obviously wrong,” writes the neuroscientist Chris Chambers, in an article in The Guardian.

About the applications of crypto to whistleblowing:

Conversations at CryptoParty often revolve around government transparency and corporate accountability. Many planners and attendees use freedom of information laws to demand answers from public entities. Their questions are often, but not always, about surveillance. (Institutional racism comes in at a close second.)

But as a transparency tool, the Freedom of Information Act is limited. No one can prove whether an agency is withholding something. There are no audits of FOIA offices or officers. Even if you sue, as I have, judges simply take an agency at its word that it gave you everything it found—and that it searched in all the possible places.

And what about all the things we scribes don’t think to ask, or won’t know to ask? That stuff will only see the light of day if whistleblowers choose to tell someone outside their offices. And in the private sector, forget about it—unless a whistleblower tries to tell the public about a hidden danger. Cryptography can protect whistleblowers’ identities when the government won’t.

If a whistleblower tries to tell the public about a hidden danger, cryptography can protect their identity when the government won’t. These days, governments seem a lot more interested in punishing whistleblowers than protecting them. Just ask John Kiriakou, who, when asked to be a part of the CIA’s torture program, instead blew the whistle on it. Or William Binney, who built the NSA’s surveillance apparatus after 9/11 and saw it get out of hand. Binney narrowly avoided jail. Kiriakou spent time in prison for his classified leaks. Former General David Petraeus, part of Washington’s “in crowd,” was fired for leaking classified information but has not faced any charges.

A glimpse at the ideas re-shaping building design from the science up

Passive house image

I wrote the cover story to the special September edition of “Green Building + Design,” a design-porn glossy that doesn’t shy away from hard questions about its subjects. (I, for one, balk at the consumerist trend to “be green.”)

I wrote about the mantra–and standards–called Passive House, which uses modelling and analysis to incorporate remarkable efficiencies without breaking the bank.

In choosing photos, of course, the magazine has to cater to its audience, which craves pricey aesthetics.

Here’s the PDF of the 10-page spread, but in case you want to get a feel before jumping in, I’ve pasted the leading paragraphs below.

When you’re old and frail, or maybe when your kids are old and frail, textbooks may refer back to the early 2000s as the time when we started applying the same rigorous science to the design of our built environment that for a hundred years already we had put to work in our cars, entertainment, and communication. Those future readers might wonder, “What took us so long?”

Nobody is doing more to advance building science today than the people behind Passive House. They advocate super-tight envelopers, extreme insulation and specialty windows, window placement that accounts for solar gain, and heat-exchanger ventilators and heat-recapturing appliances. They’re thoroughly mindful of thermal bridging–properly insulating I-beams from the outside, for example, since in the winter they suck heat out.

One of the Passive House movement’s most significant achievements is analytical software that ties together all these techniques and materials and provides predictive power based on real analyses of houses built before.

I helped break who Chicago police were spying on

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Kristiana Rae Colón, center with the red scarf, leads a “Brown Friday” protest in a Chicago shopping district. This reporter broke the news that Colón, daughter of an Alderman, likely had her phone surveilled by Chicago police trying to learn where the protest was headed. Photo credit: Bryant Cross.

This story of mine, published on the website Reader Supported News, first divulged the identity of protest organizer Kristiana Rae Colón, the likely target of police cellphone surveillance.

(Colón was the organizer of that day’s protests, told police as much, and police were later recorded asking one another whether they were receiving any information from the “girl” organizer’s phone.)

It served as my very quick education into the world of police surveillance technology. More stories on the subject will follow.