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Today in OpenGov: These are not the Stingrays you’re looking for

Friday, May 6, 2016 12:18
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(Before It's News)

By The Sunlight Foundation

TOP NEWS: In a letter to the Senate, the Archivist of the United States declined to formally designate the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s interrogation practices as a “federal record.” The Sunlight Foundation is part of a coalition of non-governmental groups that sent the Archivist a letter asking him to make the designation in the other direction. [FAS]

WHAT STINGRAYS? If David Simon had kept writing seasons of “The Wire,” the federal government instructing local cops to use parallel construction of evidence to hide secret surveillance gear would have been a plot line. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is telling local police departments to use evidence obtained through using its cellphone tracking equipment — the cell site simulators known as “Stingrays — only as a lead in investigations. The nondisclosure agreement was obtained by Oklahoma Watch, a nonprofit investigative journalism outlet, and contradicts what the Department of Justice has said in the past. [The Intercept]

This is the first time I have seen language this explicit in an FBI nondisclosure agreement,” Nate Wessler, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, wrote in an email to The Intercept. “The typical NDAs order local police to hide information from courts and defense attorneys, which is bad enough, but this goes the outrageous extra step of ordering police to actually engage in evidence laundering. Instead of just hiding the surveillance, the FBI is mandating manufacture of a whole new chain of evidence to throw defense attorneys and judges off the scent. As a result, defendants are denied their right to challenge potentially unconstitutional surveillance and courts are deprived of an opportunity to curb law enforcement abuses.

PROGRESS: The White House is touting the Obama administration’s efforts on financial transparency and anti-corruption, putting them in the context of the Panama Papers. The White House blog post linked to the U.S. Treasury’s announcement that it was sending Congress a draft of legislation on beneficial ownership and issuing a final rule on customer due diligence for financial institutions. (Neither the final rule nor draft bill were available today.) Treasury Secretary Jack Lew sent Speaker of the House Paul Ryan a letter regarding the former. Separately, the U.S. Justice Department announced that it will send Congress proposed amendments on transnational corruption offenses.


  • The Sunlight Foundation joined 50 other organizations calling on Congress to pass the OPEN Government Data Act. You can sign up for alerts regarding this legislation on Scout. [Center for Data Innovation]
  • Demand Progress policy director Daniel Schuman laid out the next steps for Congressional openness, reporting back from the Bulk Data Task Force Meeting. [Congressional Data]
  • According to The New York Times, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates sent an internal memorandum stating that the Justice Department would issue a directive soon that will clarify the rights of agency inspectors general (IGs) to access sensitive documents. Restoring such access has been a sore spot for IGs, and a significant issue for internal transparency and accountability for watchdogs. [Government Executive]
  • The Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), the federal Freedom of Information Act ombudsman, published further findings on the use of “still interested” letters. Their conclusion after reviewing 7 programs?
    Similar to our results from Part 1, we found that despite the fact that we targeted FOIA programs whose use of still interested letters might have the greatest effect on requesters and that we included requests that were likely not closed using still interested letters in our data, the FOIA programs we reviewed closed relatively few requests possibly using these letters. Of the 46,019 requests the FOIA programs we reviewed processed in FY 2014, about 5.5 percent (2,535 requests) were closed using a method that might be related to a still interested letter.

    Further: “All of the FOIA programs we interviewed informed us that their current use of the letters is in line with guidance issued by the Office of Information Policy (OIP) at the Department of Justice (DOJ).” [OGIS]

If your experience with the use of these letters differs, please tell us — and contact OGIS to make sure they know.

  • Here comes the Sidewire Campaign! Jokes aside, the app’s slick, mobile-first approach to hosting and publishing threaded conversations around politics between influential political operatives and journalists has gained attention in no small part due to the success of its creators in recruiting influential people to use it to discuss. According to Fast Company, Sidewire has now signed up “more than 500 of what they believe are 3,000 U.S. politicos who can be considered newsmakers.” In many ways, the emergence of messaging apps and “velvet rope” social networks like this are a reaction to the tenor of conversations on Facebook and Twitter. [Fast Company]
  • The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office launched a beta version of an open data portal. [USPTO]
  • The U.S. Department of Defense should update its website.

  •   State and Local  


    • The disclosures of Washington State’s tax breaks to corporations mandated by a 2013 law are starting to go online. (They’re currently structured as HTML, too, which is … not bad!) As a result, The Seattle Times reported that Boeing saved $217 million in state taxes in 2014 and $305 million in 2015. [KUOW]
    • A ruling by the Texas Supreme Court, which lowered the standard under which businesses can claim public records should be shielded from disclosure due to competitive advantage, “blew a hole in the Texas Public Information Act,” say critics. Who could have predicted it? [Houston Chronicle]
    • Open government advocates in California argue that the CAL-Acess system outage shows why it needs to be modernized. [Daily News]
    • The Electronic Privacy Information Center is urging the California Supreme Court to overturn a lower court’s decision that blocked the release of records about license-plate scanners used by police. [EPIC]
    • Matthew Albright: “A bill supported by high-ranking General Assembly members would give Delaware regulators more power to revoke or suspend teacher licenses and make those sanctions more transparent.” [Delaware Online]
    • Speaking of the next generation of social networks, Nextdoor can help law enforcement with community policing, but it can also reflect bias and social stigma. (The fact that this issue that keeps coming up is no accident.) The Seattle Police Department joined Nextdoor in the interests of transparency and more effective policing, but what’s happened since has been complicated. [The Atlantic]
      This February, Nextdoor hosted Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole for the first-ever online “town hall” on the platform: Residents asked the police chief questions and had a chance to hear directly from her. But when local journalist Erica Barnett reported on the event, Nextdoor booted her from the site for violating its terms of service for publicly posting users’ questions. It wasn’t until after she wrote about the incident on her website that her account was reinstated.

    Barnett’s reporting was fiercely critical of the echo-chamber effect of the local, private community pages, many of which have hyperactive “crime and safety” sections. Indeed, in a recent interview with Barnett, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray derided an atmosphere of “paranoid hysteria” he’d witnessed on the message boards of some of Seattle’s more upscale neighborhoods.

    That hysteria, Barnett reports, tends to focus on complaints about property crimes and homelessness. That’s because some of the most active communities on Nextdoor are in Seattle’s wealthier areas. “The neighborhoods where most of the social-media complaints are coming out of are not even the neighborhoods that have significant crime problems, which tend to be our communities of color in the south part of the city,” Murray told KUOW, the local NPR affiliate, in February. “If it’s simply about creating a sense of paranoia or if it’s about stigmatizing folks in our city that are struggling, then I have to think about why we’re in that kind of partnership.”   International  


    • A whistleblower behind the Panama Papers came forward to explain his or her motivation behind leaking the massive trove of shell companies. “Shell companies are often associated with the crime of tax evasion. But the Panama Papers show beyond a shadow of a doubt that although shell companies are not illegal, by definition they are used to carry out a wide array of serious crimes,” the source wrote. “Income inequality is one of the defining issues of our time.”  [Guardian]
    • The U.K.’s Open Government Network is asking what impact the government’s proposal to privatize the Land Registry would have on transparency and soliciting help writing its response. This is important: Please help them out! [Open Government UK]
    • The Australia Capital Territory is considering a major update of its freedom of information law. [Canberra Times]
    • A story about the team of journalists who work on Facebook’s “What’s Trending” section has drawn attention because of the reporting working conditions of those staff, but the element worth considering is what stories the world’s biggest social network is deciding to draw attention to and why. “We choose what’s trending,” said one unidentified souce. “There was no real standard for measuring what qualified as news and what didn’t. It was up to the news curator to decide.” [Gizmodo]
      One reason Facebook might want to keep the trending news operation faceless is that it wants to foster the illusion of a bias-free news ranking process—a network that sorts and selects news stories like an entirely apolitical machine. After all, the company’s entire media division, which is run by Facebook’s managing editor Benjamin Wagner, depends on people’s trust in the platform as a conduit for information. If an editorial team is deliberating over trending topics—just like a newspaper staff would talk about front-page news—Facebook risks losing its image as a non-partisan player in the media industry, a neutral pipeline for distributing content, rather than a selective and inherently flawed curator.



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    The Sunlight Foundation is a non-profit, nonpartisan organization that uses the power of the Internet to catalyze greater government openness and transparency, and provides new tools and resources for media and citizens, alike.


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