Congress is hellbent on passing a cybersecurity bill that can stop the wave of hacker breaches hitting American corporations. And they’re not letting the protests of a few dozen privacy and civil liberties organizations get in their way.

On Wednesday the House of Representatives voted 307-116 to pass the Protecting Cyber Networks Act, a bill designed to allow more fluid sharing of cybersecurity threat data between corporations and government agencies. That new system for sharing information is designed to act as a real-time immune system against hacker attacks, allowing companies to warn one another via government intermediaries about the tools and techniques of advanced hackers. But privacy critics say it also threatens to open up a new backchannel for surveillance of American citizens, in some cases granting the same companies legal immunity to share their users’ private data with government agencies that include the NSA.

“PCNA would significantly increase the National Security Agency’s (NSA’s) access to personal information, and authorize the federal government to use that information for a myriad of purposes unrelated to cybersecurity,” reads a letter signed earlier this week by 55 civil liberties groups and security expertsthat includes the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Freedom of the Press Foundation, Human Rights Watch and many others.

“The revelations of the past two years concerning the intelligence community’s abuses of surveillance authorities and the scope of its collection and use of individuals’ information demonstrates the potential for government overreach, particularly when statutory language is broad or ambiguous,” the letter continues. “[PCNA] fails to provide strong privacy protections or adequate clarity about what actions can be taken, what information can be shared, and how that information may be used by the government.”

Specifically, PCNA’s data-sharing privileges let companies give data to government agencies—including the NSA—that might otherwise have violated the Electronic Communications Privacy Act or the Wiretap Act, both of which restrict the sharing of users’ private data with the government. And PCNA doesn’t even restrict the use of that shared information to cybersecurity purposes; its text also allows the information to be used for investigating any potential threat of “bodily harm or death,” opening its application to the surveillance of run-of-the-mill violent crimes like robbery and carjacking.

“This is little more than a backdoor for general purpose surveillance.”

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Online speech case heads to high court – By Julian Hattem – 11/29/14 12:16 PM EST

The Supreme Court is preparing to weigh in on a landmark free speech case that raises crucial questions about the First Amendment in the age of the Internet.

Greg Nash

The high court next week will sit down to decide whether or not police need to prove that people posting threats online actually intend to carry them out.

Free speech groups warned ahead of Monday morning’s arguments that a ruling in favor of the government “runs the risk of punishing protected First Amendment expression simply because it is crudely or zealously expressed.”

“As more and more speech moves onto the Internet, the constitutional protections afforded to online speech will increasingly determine the actual scope of First Amendment freedoms enjoyed by our society,” the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Democracy and Technology and other organizations warned in a friend-of-the-court brief.

The court needs to determine that intention matters, they added, “to ensure that protected online speech is neither punished nor chilled.”

The case centers on Anthony Elonis, who posted a number of violent, expletive-laden Facebook messages after he and his wife, Tara, separated.

In one, he asked if her court protection order was “thick enough to stop a bullet.” In another, he expressed regret for not smothering her with a pillow, dropping her off in a creek and making it “look like a rape and murder.”

After the split, Elonis was fired from his job at an Allentown, Pa., amusement park over a post that some of his coworkers took to be a threat against them.

He was sentenced to nearly four years in federal prison for the threats. But Elonis says that the rants are essentially harmless and were intended to be raps in the style of Eminem or the Odd Future rap collective.

One post urging his sister-in-law to dress up his children as “matricide” on Halloween, for example, was accompanied by an emoticon of a face sticking its tongue out, his lawyers noted, “which he understood to be an indication a post is meant in jest.”

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Beat surrender: Small town police forces vanish – by Ruth Graham November 18, 2014 5:00AM ET

SALISBURY, N.H. — It’s been four years since this quiet town in central New Hampshire lost its police department. Salisbury’s population is about 1,400, and it feels even smaller: Downtown consists of a post office, a church and a gas station, with a library up the road. When both members of the town’s part-time police force quit abruptly in 2010, residents rejected a motion to restaff the department. The town sold off one of its cruisers and turned its guns over to the county sheriff’s department. Today, if a resident of Salisbury calls 911, the call goes straight to the state police, an arrangement that has led to some absurd scenarios: Recently, the state police were called in to resolve a dispute over a library fine.

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Late last summer, the shooting of an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and the protests that ensued, sparked a national conversation about the militarization of American police departments. “American policing has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized,” a major American Civil Liberties Union report issued in July declared, “in large part through federal programs that have armed state and local law enforcement agencies with the weapons and tactics of war.” The town of Keene, about an hour’s drive from Salisbury, secured a $286,000 armored personnel carrier to defend itself against terrorist attacks in 2012, for example.

As many police departments stock up on showy weaponry, however, others are quietly disappearing. The number of state and local law-enforcement agencies with fewer than 10 officers dipped by more than 2 percent between 2004 and 2008, according to the latest figures from the Department of Justice. The department is currently preparing an updated report. John Firman, the director of the research division of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, is helping with the survey, and he says the number of small departments is likely to decline again. “We’ve called at least 20 state associations,” he said, “and every one said, ‘We’re losing smaller departments. They’re shutting down.’ ”

Big-city police work attracts the overwhelming majority of news coverage, academic research and depictions in TV and movies. That’s in part because a wide variety of citizens live cheek-to-cheek in cities and crime is more frequent and more dramatic than it is in sleepy rural areas. In Salisbury, a community about 15 miles northeast of the state capitol of Concord, most calls to police have to do with domestic violence, theft, motor-vehicle accidents and “neighbor complaints,” according to state police Sgt. Ron Taylor. Salisbury’s biggest policing need in recent years occurred during a manhunt last winterthat ensued when a man fled into the woods after a domestic violence incident. He surrendered within hours. (New Hampshire has one of the lowest violent-crime rates in the country.)

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Voucher programs for panhandlers aim for ‘real change, not spare change’ – by Tom Marcinko October 24, 2014 5:00AM ET

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FLAGSTAFF, Arizona — “Willing to accept verbal abuse and disgusted looks in exchange for money,” reads the hand-lettered cardboard sign on a downtown sidewalk.

Yet the sign’s owner, who gives only the name Dave, cheerfully accepts another option: a booklet of five $1 coupons redeemable for food at a handful of local stores and one restaurant.

The weeks-old voucher program is this mountain town’s latest attempt to deal with a frequent and unwelcome sight: panhandlers. The Better Bucks program, launched by the Flagstaff Police Department and a local nonprofit, the Shadows Foundation, is intended to give residents, tourists and university students an alternative to handing out cash to people in need.

Flagstaff made national headlines last year after police arrested a woman for begging. A lawsuit filed against the city by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona led a U.S. district court to declare Arizona’s anti-panhandling law unconstitutional. Police in this city of 65,870 made about 140 arrests under that law from April 2012 to April 2013, according to police chief Kevin Treadway.

Some Flagstaff merchants, like used-book store owner Evan Midling, note a rise in panhandling since that ruling — “Yes, even in a bookstore,” he said. Panhandlers with signs asking for help are a common sight near highway ramps and busy intersections.

Shadows Foundation director Vicki Burton, whose organization provides financial assistance for families with medical problems and other needy people, including the homeless, said the police approached her about seven months ago for a better way to discourage panhandling. With Treadway’s blessing and the tacit support of the City Council, Better Bucks is the result.

The vouchers forbid the purchase of “anything containing alcohol” — including mouthwash, cough syrup and hair spray — alleviating concerns that some panhandlers spend cash handouts to support drug or alcohol habits, Burton said, adding that the vouchers make possible “giving without enabling.” To discourage hoarding or reselling, only one booklet’s worth of coupons can be used for each visit to participating merchants.

Burton said that, just as important, each booklet includes a pass to Flagstaff’s Mountain Line bus system, plus the addresses and phone numbers of about a dozen local charities.

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OVERNIGHT TECH: Websites plot net neutrality protest – By Julian Hattem – 09/08/14 06:40 PM EDT

THE LEDE: More and more Internet companies are looking to Wednesday to pressure the Federal Communications Commission into writing strong net neutrality rules.

Netflix, Meetup, Reddit and Etsy are among the websites taking part in Wednesday’s symbolic “Internet Slowdown” by using the “loading” symbol to raise alarms about the perils of “fast lanes” online. The protest was organized by activist groups Demand Progress, Engine, Free Press Action Fund and Fight for the Future. Other organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, MoveOn and Greenpeace are also taking part, though none of the sites will actually be slowing the loading speed of their pages.

“The FCC’s current proposal surrounding the issue of net neutrality threatens the concept of a free and open Internet,” Meetup general counsel David Pashman said in a statement. “The FCC’s proposal would create a two­-tiered Internet with slow lanes (for most companies) and fast lanes (for those willing and able to pay for it). This two­-tiered system fundamentally alters the nature of the Internet as an open platform for innovation and entrepreneurship and threatens the economic growth that it has supported.”

Craig Aaron, CEO of the Free Press Action Fund, said that Wednesday would be “the day to stand with Internet users everywhere and demand real net neutrality.”

Pressure is building on the FCC to ban deals between Internet service providers and websites to speed up users’ traffic, even while cable companies warn that tough regulations would undermine the freedom of the Internet.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told the commission on Monday to reclassify broadband Internet providers so that they can be regulated like traditional phone companies, a controversial step that would almost certainly draw a lawsuit. Companies like Netflix and many consumer advocacy groups have also said that the FCC should reclassify broadband.

“If the FCC fails to preserve the net neutrality rules that have been the norm in this country for most of the Internet’s existence, the continued viability of the U.S.’s robust technology sector will be in jeopardy,” said Evan Engstrom, policy director for the startup advocacy group Engine. “The FCC must reclassify broadband as a Title II service if it wants an Internet without slow lanes and fast lanes.”

Matsui to hold net neutrality forum: Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) is bringing two Democratic FCC commissioners to Sacramento later this month for a forum on net neutrality. Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel will attend the Sept. 24 event, which Matsui said will help bring the country’s voice to the FCC.

“I believe that it is essential that the FCC listen to and engage with Americans outside of Washington,” she said in a statement announcing the forum. “I am very pleased that FCC Commissioners Clyburn and Rosenworcel will be joining me in Sacramento to participate in this forum on net neutrality.  Their leadership will be crucial moving forward on this important issue facing our innovation economy.”

Advertisers tell Senate to change channel on TV bill: Advertising industry trade groups told the Senate Commerce Committee in a letter on Monday that they have “serious concerns” with the panel’s bill to overhaul the current way that people get TV channels. The bill, which would introduce an “a la carte” model to buying broadcast channels like NBC and CBS, would be a “radical transformation” that could “erode the entire national system for audience measurement that is essential to the economics of the current system,” wrote the American Advertising Federation, the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers.

“We would encourage you to proceed with caution before reaching agreement on this proposal and specifically to invite the views of the national and local advertising and media buying organizations to better understand how they and the system for providing financial support for programming would be affected,” they added.

The bill, which committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and ranking member Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) attached to the reauthorization of an otherwise uncontroversial satellite TV law, has been the subject of fierce debate since it was unveiled a month ago. Despite the opposition from some quarters, Rockefeller on Monday said he was sticking by his measure. “It is the future,” he told The Hill, while declining to give odds on whether it could get done this year. “It’s unstoppable.”

FCC commissioner heads to Wiley Rein: Former FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell joined the Wiley Rein law firm to focus on communication practice. At the Washington firm, McDowell will join three other former FCC commissioners, including former Chairman Richard Wiley, who led the agency from 1970 to 1977. In a statement, Wiley lauded McDowell’s “distinguished record of service at the FCC” noting his work on Internet governance and spectrum management.

Y Combinator gets some lobbyists: Startup funder Y Combinator is dipping its toe in Washington. The Silicon Valley venture capital giant hired Venture Politics to lobby on immigration reform for high-skilled workers, according to a new lobbying disclosure report. The filing mentions the concept of a startup visa, a proposed new way to allow entrepreneurs to come to the U.S.

House Judiciary to mark up trade secrets bill: The House Judiciary Committee will take a crack at the Trade Secrets Protection Act on Wednesday morning, the panel announced. The bill comes from a bipartisan group of six committee lawmakers and would give companies additional legal room to go after thieves that steal their secrets.

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Exactly How Often Do Police Shoot Unarmed Black Men? – —By Jaeah Lee | Fri Aug. 15, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

The killing in Ferguson was one of many such cases. Here’s what the data reveals.

Jeff Roberson/AP

The killing of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri, was no anomaly: As we reported yesterday, Brown is one of at least four unarmed black men who died at the hands of police in the last month aloneThere aremany more cases from years past. As Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Missouri chapter put it in a statement of condolence to Brown’s family, “Unarmed African-American men are shot and killed by police at an alarming rate. This pattern must stop.”

But quantifying that pattern is difficult. Federal databases that track police use of force or arrest-related deaths paint only a partial picture. Police department data is scattered and fragmented. No agency appears to track the number of police shootings or killings of unarmed victims in a systematic, comprehensive way.

Here’s some of what we do know:

Previous attempts to analyze racial bias in police shootings have arrived at similar conclusions. In 2007, ColorLines and the Chicago Reporter investigated fatal police shootings in 10 major cities, and found that there were a disproportionately high number of African Americans among police shooting victims in every one, particularly in New York, San Diego, and Las Vegas.

“We need not look for individual racists to say that we have a culture of policing that is really rubbing salt into longstanding racial wounds,” NAACP president Cornell Williams Brooks told Mother Jones. It’s a culture in which people suspected of minor crimes are met with “overwhelmingly major, often lethal, use of force,” he says.

In Oakland, California, the NAACP reported that out of 45 officer-involved shootings in the city between 2004 and 2008, 37 of those shot were black. None were white. One-third of the shootings resulted in fatalities. Although weapons were not found in 40 percent of cases, the NAACP found, no officers were charged. (These numbers don’t include 22-year-old Oscar Grant, who was shot and killed by a transit authority officer at the Fruitvale BART station on New Year’s Day of 2009.)

The New York City Police Department has reported similar trends in itsfirearms discharge report, which shows that more black people have been shot by NYPD officers between 2000 and 2011 than have Hispanics or whites.

When you look at the racial breakdown of New Yorkers, black people are disproportionately represented among those targeted as criminal shooting suspects, firearms arrestees, and those fired upon or struck by police gunfire.

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NYPD Firearms Discharge Report, 2011

Often, the police officers do not get convicted or sentenced. Delores Jones-Brown, a law professor and director of the Center on Race, Crime, and Statistics at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, has identified dozens of black men and women who have died at the hands of police going back as far as 1994. She notes that while these incidents happen regularly, it often takes a high-profile case, such as Brown’s, to bring other recent incidents to national attention.

“For whatever reason, juries are much less likely to convict” police who kill.

“Unfortunately, the patterns that we’ve been seeing recently are consistent: The police don’t show as much care when they are handling incidents that involve young black men and women, and so they do shoot and kill,” says Jones-Brown, a former assistant prosecutor in Monmouth County, New Jersey. “And then for whatever reason, juries and prosecutor’s offices are much less likely to indict or convict.”

Between 2003 and 2009, the DOJ reported that 4,813 people died while in the process of arrest or in the custody of law enforcement. These include people who died before an officer physically placed him or her under custody or arrest. This data, known as arrest-related deaths, doesn’t reveal a significant discrepancy between whites, blacks, or hispanics. It also doesn’t specify how many victims were unarmed. According to the FBI, which has tracked justifiable homicides up to 2012, 410 felons died at the hands of a law enforcement officer in the line of duty.*

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