Friday, October 30, 2009

More of the Ryan White Act

We have big news today for both immigrants’ rights and care for folks living with AIDS. The president re-authorized four more years of the Ryan White Act (which provides care to those living with the virus) and he ended the 22-year ban on HIV positive people entering the United States.

From a Human Rights Campaign press release:

“The ban on HIV-positive visitors and immigrants was adopted through regulation over twenty years ago and codified by Congress in 1993. Under that ban, HIV-positive foreign nationals were unable to enter the U.S. unless they obtained a special waiver, which was difficult to obtain and only allowed for short-term travel, and the vast majority were unable to obtain legal permanent residency.

In July 2008, President Bush signed into law, as part of the reauthorization of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a provision that removed the ban from statute and returned regulatory authority to the Secretary of Health and Human Services to determine whether HIV should remain on a list of communicable diseases that bar foreign nationals from entering the United States. In June of this year, HHS issued a proposed rule lifting the ban and seeking public comment. “

It’s been a long time coming, but finally, this discriminatory ban has been lifted. It's perhaps fitting that this news comes just after the hate crimes bill was expanded to include sexual orientation and gender identity - slowly but surely, LGBT rights and the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS are being added to the national conversation and, more importantly, to our lawbooks.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Privacy in the DHS?

The Privacy Coalition, a group of parties concerned about the privacy of citizens and the dangers of a “surveillance society”, sent a letter Friday to the house homeland Security Committee. They were not praising the office for a job well done – they were calling for an investigation.

From an article published yesterday at the Washington Post:

In a letter sent Friday to the House Homeland Security Committee, 21 organizations and seven people belonging to the Privacy Coalition say the department's chief privacy officer has seen its role as enabling, rather than curbing, government surveillance and intelligence programs.

"The job of Chief Privacy Officer is not to provide public relations for the Department of Homeland Security," stated the coalition letter, whose signers included the American Civil Liberties Union, Gun Owners of America, former congressman Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.) and libertarians inspired by Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), a former presidential candidate. The Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public interest group in Washington, organized the coalition.”

Of course, there was a rebuttal from the DHS, “DHS spokeswoman Sara Kuban said: ‘The letter reflects a lack of understanding about the role and responsibilities’ of Chief Privacy Officer Mary Ellen Callahan and her office.

…The Privacy Office is designed to serve as an integral part -- from the earliest stages -- of the policy-making process at the Department, and to ensure that privacy protections are proactively built into the Department's systems and technologies’”

As surveillance technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, we continue to urge lawmakers and policy experts to look at the data and proceed with caution. The right to privacy is an essential element of our society – and one that we must demand that our leaders respect.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A victory for civil rights!

With the rather depressing “scorecard” that we’re keeping on the current administration’s record for restoring the rule of law and upholding civil liberties in our country, it’s a great pleasure to be able to claim a victory.

We’ll have just that tomorrow, when the Matthew Shephard Hate Crimes Bill (which was recently passed in the house and the senate) gets signed into law by president Obama.

ABC News has the scoop:

“Eleven years after Matthew Shepard’s death, President Obama will sign the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes bill into law during a White House signing ceremony Wednesday afternoon, White House officials confirm.

The long-sought hate crimes provision is part of the fiscal year 2010 defense authorization bill and will extend federal hate crimes law to include crimes motivated by a victim's gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.”

Monday, October 26, 2009

What Defines Us?

I was born and raised in Louisiana, in a suburb of New Orleans called Metairie. I saw a lot of racism growing up even though it did not define me or my friends. However, in the 80’s and 90’s, I was a repeated witness in my home state to straight out venomous hatred of someone because of their skin color to what I call “casual racism” where someone has friends of many colors but still uses derogatory words to classify strangers who fall into certain categories. In light of recent events publicized in the national news, it seems that sadly some of Louisiana still has not grown past those outdated notions that skin color defines who we are.

While the days when David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, could win a special election to the LA State House of Representatives or when laws in Arizona and Florida prohibited a Caucasian person from marrying an African American are long gone…sadly the tentacles of racism are still alive in Louisiana and all over the world today (look at every state’s racial profiling statistics or what the indigenous people of Peru recently said about their government, for a few examples). Unfortunately for us natives of Louisiana, our great State has made the national news again on the subject of racism through the actions of Louisiana Justice of the Peace Keith Bardwell who denied a marriage license to an interracial couple last month. His actions not only pronounce to the world that there are still people in positions of power who think that skin color defines your options even today (in defiance of the law even) but also give people reason to continually associate Louisiana with the heritage given to us by Jim Crow, David Duke, and many others. I am not denying that there is a history of racism in Louisiana, but I am saying while no one should ever forget the past, what should also be remembered is that many of us have in fact learned from it. So in light of Louisiana Justice of the Peace Keith Bardwell very recent discriminatory actions, the question is…what are we learning from him? I suggest two things, although I am sure there are many more.

Racism is not completely a thing of the past, in Louisiana or in America;

But it does not define Louisiana or America either.

I wonder if anyone outside of Louisiana knows how disgusted my family, friends and I are that our state is once again known for its racial discontent instead of its ability to band together and make it through tough economic, political, education, and weather related trauma which we endure every year. In light of this new negative press, should the world being reminded that we almost elected David Duke to the State governorship in 1991 or the fact that in adversity, we unite and will stay united as the People of Louisiana long after Justice of the Peace Keith Bardwell has taken his personal prejudices off the bench? I vote the latter, as I am a proud native of Louisiana who has weathered dozens of hurricanes and dozens of years of “politics as usual” in my home state, but who has seen her friends and family stand together during those times to remind each other that our actions define us, not skin color, economic level, or the actions of one Justice of the Peace.

Written by Melissa Mongogna

Friday, October 23, 2009

Dawdling over DADT

Today, president Obama is in Boston. He gave a moving speech at MIT, supporting clean energy/technology and hopefully inspiring students to pursue “green” paths.

However, his presence in the city has also sparked protest from GLBT advocates, who urge the president to make good on his campaign promise to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – the policy that makes it illegal for gay and lesbian service members to serve openly in the military.

The Boston Globe also published an excellent editorial today, entitled “Don't dawdle over don't ask”

From the site:

“ON THE campaign trail and again earlier this month, President Obama promised to end the “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ policy that imposes silence on gay men and lesbians in the military. It is past time for the president to translate his words into action. The Clinton-era law, which prohibits gay servicemen and women from disclosing their sexual orientation, represses those who serve their country and is a glaring symbol of the nation’s failure to ensure equal rights.

Early in his presidency, Obama indicated he would delay action on this policy until he consulted military officials and congressional leaders on how to go about it. But Obama is the commander in chief. He shouldn’t count on Congress to take the lead on the issue, and he shouldn’t wait for broad consensus to emerge before taking action. No amount of behind-the-scenes discussion will sway those who simply oppose the idea of letting gays and lesbians serve openly. In the meantime, the military continues to discharge qualified service members, many of whom have undergone specialized training at significant public expense.

The “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ catchphrase aside, the existing policy has been used as the basis for inquiries into the sexual orientation of thousands of people suspected to be gay. The military should be spending its energies elsewhere. Strong leadership is the best way to reform a hierarchical system, and that must come from the president.

When Obama renewed his promise recently, it was a reminder that he has yet to take action on what he himself saw as an injustice. The president needs to push for a quick end to “don’t ask, don’t tell.’’ His campaign is long over, but the battle for equal rights for gays and lesbians is far from it.”

"I'm not a racist. I just don't believe in mixing the races that way."

Perhaps you’ve heard of this – there’s a justice of the peace in Louisiana who recently refused to marry an interracial couple, based on his ideas that the “offspring” of said relationships have a harder time in life.

Yes, it’s 2009, and yes, people (with power) still have these ideas. The couple has made their story public – and there’s been a swell of media attention around the story, which many people find truly confounding in this supposedly modern era – especially considering that we currently have a biracial president.

The ACLU is on the case. Here’s an excerpt from a message sent by our executive director Anthony Romero:

“It’s almost unbelievable that in 2009, a government official is—openly and unapologetically—telling people who they can and cannot marry. What isn’t unbelievable is that when blatant bigotry and violations of the law like this occur the ACLU is often the first place people turn. And we’re taking action in this case in order to ensure that what happened to Beth Humphrey and Terence McKay won’t happen again. We’re demanding an investigation and urging that Keith Bardwell receive the most severe sanction possible.”

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Health for sale, cost: your privacy

A recent article on titled “Medical Records: Stored in the Cloud, Sold on the Open Market” ( investigates the selling of patient medical records with the help of new electronic record keeping systems. While it is perfectly normal and legal for anyone involved in patient care to have access to patient health data, third parties who manage electronic medical records also have access and are actually in some cases selling the data. While these people claim that all identifying information on the records has been erased, the director of the Data Privacy Lab at Carnegie Mellon University (back in 1997) discovered that if you cross reference the medical records with a few key identifiers (birthdays, gender, and zip codes) found in other databases, in the vast majority of cases one could easily figure out who the patient was. This not only directly violates the HIPAA Act (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) but is also a violation of our Constitutional right to privacy.

Health related information is important for many reasons: for the bottom line for pharmaceutical companies developing drugs to market, or it could end up in a database for companies who are trying to target a sale to your needs. This information is also relevant to potential employers, litigation proceedings, the government (for social security and workers compensation purposes), and also private insurance companies. However, more so then being an annoying side effect of electronic health record keeping, this is an invasion of our privacy as human beings. Many people work very hard to not let their health challenges limit them in life, so why should others who have nothing to do with our health care have access to such important personal information that our family or friends might not even have access to?

No matter the simplicity electronic medical recordkeeping may bring to the healthcare system or the potentially important role it may play in facilitating treatment due to emergency medical responders having access to a database of electronic records in the aftermath of a disaster, our right to privacy is one of the most jealously guarded amendments to the Constitution and must remain protected even in light of new technologies which have other benefits to patient care. To protect this right, we need to call for more strict regulations regarding who has access to our health related information and also as to what third parties can do with that information.

For more information on the benefits and pitfalls of electronic medical record keeping and on ways to help protect your medical privacy in the age of advancing technologies please visit the website devoted to Privacy Rights at to find out more information.

-Written by Melissa Mongogna

Monday, October 19, 2009

Score one for medical marijuana

While the Obama administration has underperformed according to many of our hopes (especially in terms of restoring the rule of law, see our running scorecard), today marks an occasion in which we’re onboard.

The justice department (in accordance with a policy change promised throughout the campaign) announced today that “It will not be a priority to use federal resources to prosecute patients with serious illnesses or their caregivers who are complying with state laws on medical marijuana, but we will not tolerate drug traffickers who hide behind claims of compliance with state law to mask activities that are clearly illegal”

This is coming from Attorney General Eric Holder, and it marks a huge victory in terms of drug reform. Now, instead of going after patients or distributors (oftentimes, legal distributors), federal prosecutors will instead focus on “marijuana cases which involve violence, the illegal use of firearms, selling to minors, money laundering or involvement in other crimes”, according to an NPR story.

For more on the ACLU’s views on Medical Marijuana and drug reform, check out the official site of the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project.

Friday, October 16, 2009


This Saturday, October 17th at 1pm there will be an anti-war and anti-violence rally in Copley Square. This event is sponsored by United for Justice with Peace, Stop the Wars Coalition, New England United, American Friends Service Committee, Mass Peace Action and others.

The aim of this rally is to get the American government to stop funding violence and conflict and to start focusing on funding needed social services, increasing employment, protecting human rights and civil liberties, assuring a quality education for all, and other issues in the hearts of the American people struggling to make ends meet through these hard times.

The ACLU of Massachusetts will be present - if you attend, be sure to come by our table!

Music at noon, rally at 1pm, march at 3pm

To find out more go to:

Posted by Melissa Mongogna

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Cameras on the green line

If you’re a Boston resident, you’ve likely heard of the new proposal to add cameras to the green line of the T. In this morning’s Boston Metro, the paper outlined the proposal for a pilot program to equip five green line trolleys with cameras, citing the success of similar surveillance programs on MBTA Buses.

From the Metro:

“By the end of the year, transit police hope to launch a pilot program that will test the effectiveness of cameras on board five Green Line trolleys as they travel both above and below ground. The program — funded with federal transit security grants — would relay real-time feeds from the trolley cars to transit police stations, according to MBTA Police Chief Paul MacMillan.”

Our initial response is that we need to learn more about these cameras and who is using them. Surely, no one likes crime – but as we inch closer and closer to a so-called “surveillance society”, we need to be mindful of who has the power to watch – and how to protect individual privacy.

We need to ask who will be in control of the cameras. Who is watching? Who will have access? Will there be audio capabilities? Will the information go to problematic fusion centers? What about the possibility of spying on ordinary citizens, or keeping track of the things people are reading on their commute?

Our own Nancy Murray spoke with CBS 4 News today about the story – you can tune in this evening to hear her speak on the issue.

We’ll have an update shortly!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Capitalism: A Love Story and the second Bill of Rights

Last night, I was able to attend a screening of Michael Moore’s latest documentary: Capitalism: a Love Story. While a great deal of the film pertains to issues we deal with on a daily basis here at the ACLU (and a great deal of it does not), one particular point struck me: the showcasing of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s second Bill of Rights. Using long-lost archival footage of the 1944 “fireside chat”, Moore is able to contextualize and breathe life into a long-buried idea.

Then president FDR proposed an entirely new bill of rights to the constitution in 1944 – a set of rules that no doubt would have improved the conditions and quality of life for countless American citizens. While he wanted this second set of rights to be implemented “politically”, and not by federal judges, he was adamant about their usefulness. “Roosevelt's stated justification was that the "political rights" guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights had "proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.”

The rights in question, as proposed by Roosevelt’s January 11, 1944 address:

The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;

The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;

The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

The right of every family to a decent home;

The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;

The right to a good education.

All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.

America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for our citizens.”

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Day against the Death Penalty

Just this weekend (on October 10th, 2009, to be precise) saw World Day Against the Death Penalty, an occasion marked by a “global call” to abolish the practice.

Two excellent statements were listed on the ACLU blog of rights last Friday to commemorate the event:

“Ambassador John Bruton, the head of EU delegation to the U.S., stated: “The EU not only considers capital punishment to be cruel and inhumane, but it also fails to deter criminal behavior and represents an unacceptable denial of human dignity and integrity. Miscarriages of justice are inevitable in any legal system – and any miscarriage of justice that results in the death penalty is irreversible.”

“John Holdridge, Director of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project noted:

The need to end this barbaric practice is underscored by the fact that eight men were released from death row in 2009 and that new evidence has come forward that a man executed in Texas in 2004 could not have set the lethal fire for which he was condemned to die, meaning that an innocent man almost certainly has been put to death at the hands of the state.”

For further damning evidence against capitol punishment, consider the case of Cameron Todd Willingham – a man who was executed in 2004. Very recently, forensic experts were able to establish his innocence – five years after he was wrongfully put to death.

Listen to the ACLU First Amendment Minute about the case here.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Patriot Act back in Action

Today, the USA Patriot Act (which is up for renewal) passed the senate judiciary committee – without most of the reforms presented in the ACLU-supported JUSTICE Act.

From an Electronic Frontier Foundation write-up:

Instead of adding more protections to the bill, as EFF and the Times have been urging (along with many other Americans who have been organizing Facebook and Twitter activism around PATRIOT reform), the Committee this morning voted to accept seven Republican amendments to the USA PATRIOT Act Sunset Extension Act to remove the few civil liberties protections left in the bill after it was already watered down at last Thursday's Committee meeting. Surprisingly and disappointingly, most of those amendments were recommended to their Republican sponsors by the Obama Administration.”

This is clearly disheartening news. The Patriot Act was – and still is – an assault on civil liberties. What’s most unsettling is the margin by which it passed: 11 to 8.

There is still a ray of hope, however:

“we need the help of concerned citizens like you: if you haven't already, please contact your Senator now to support the reforms in the JUSTICE Act, which may still be attached to the bill when it is debated by the full Senate. This fight isn't over by a long shot.”

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Next Steps for Google Book Search

Yesterday, The ACLU, along with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and several other partners, sent a letter to Google urging the company to include privacy protections, since the recent settlement gives it more time to do so.

We’ve touched on the importance of privacy protections (and the implications of Google Book Search without said protections) before, but the letter articulates their importance far better:

As you know, the failure of the settlement to ensure that readers using the Google Book Search services will have their privacy protected as much as readers using physical books has been a key concern for many authors, libraries and the reading public. It is the basis for some objections to the settlement, but has also been raised as a concern by those who support the settlement. As author Jonathan Lethem put it, “now is the moment to make sure that Google Book Search is as private as the world of physical books. If future readers know that they are leaving a digital trail for others to follow, they may shy away from important but eccentric intellectual journeys.”

While we appreciate the statements made in the privacy policy released in early September, that policy does not go far enough. We believe that it is vital that Google commit to additional privacy protections and that such commitments be enforceable by the court presiding over the settlement.”

You can read the full letter here.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in the House Tonight

This evening, Representative Patrick Murphy is organizing house members to give “special order speeches” on the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, which makes it illegal for gay and lesbian Americans to serve in the military openly. Murphy is an Iraq war veteran himself (and the first to be elected to congress), and clearly one of the fiercest opponents of the discriminatory policy.

According to an item posted on the Human Rights Campaign’s site:

Rep. Murphy is the first Iraq War veteran elected to Congress and is leading the effort to repeal the military’s ban on gay and lesbian servicemembers. Currently 176 members of the House are co-sponsors of the Military Readiness Enhancement Act (H.R.1283).”

Interested folks can watch the speeches live at 9 pm this evening on C-SPAN.

We applaud Murphy’s efforts – and all lawmakers and brave service people who are actively working to promote fairness and equality in the US military.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Forget Medical Privacy?

In the latest issue of Wired Magazine (now posted at, there is a feature story entitled “12 Shocking Ideas that Could Change The World”. Among them: doing away with medical privacy.

Jamie Heywood wants consumers to be able to access their medical records easily – and open them up in general to allow for better, freer flow of information. He argues that this sort of freedom and easy access will help doctors treat patients better, and keep patients better informed about their own health and medical decisions.

The downside? Well, the obvious abuses that can easily come from breaches in privacy, not to mention the violation of such a basic civil right.

Heywood admits that there may be pitfalls—the prospect, for example, that employers could weed out workers with rare diseases. But by his estimate, tens of thousands of lives are lost each year because health data doesn't flow freely. "You're talking an entire Vietnam War annually," he says, "versus a couple of lost jobs."

Shocking, yes. Could it change the world? Most definitely. But we ask whether this would be a positive change – or if it would cause far more damage – and violate the very principles we stand for.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Seeing through walls

We often discuss issues of technology and privacy with regards to the work we do here at the ACLU, but a recent story posted at Gizmondo really takes the cake. Researchers at the University of Utah recently found a way to use wireless signals to literally see through solid walls. The device can detect movement from about a meter away, using “signals from a 34-node IEEE 802.15.4 wireless network”.

Here’s an excerpt from the report:

The basic idea is straightforward. The signal strength at any point in a network is the sum of all the paths the radio waves can take to get to the receiver. Any change in the volume of space through which the signals pass, for example caused by the movement of a person, makes the signal strength vary. So by "interrogating" this volume of space with many signals, picked up by multiple receivers, it is possible to build up a picture of the movement within it.”

This is pure science fiction turned science fact. If you’ll pardon a recent pop culture reference, this is just like the device used in the film “The Dark Knight” last year – and when technology from a superhero movie becomes reality, you know that things are about to get a bit weird.

More seriously, the implications for surveillance and privacy are astounding. Imagine the sort of grievous violations of privacy rights would be possible if this becomes available in any sort of widespread way.

Though it’s still in early development, it’s a safe bet that a device that uses this technology will come to light.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Online Privacy and Generation Y

Upon reading an insightful, articulate post on the generation gap in feelings about online privacy on (written by Center for Democracy & Technology policy analyst Heather West), I was struck by how much the conversation about privacy in social media has changed in just the last two years – and by the misinformation regarding the generation gap and feelings about online privacy.

Often, people remark that members of the “millennial generation” do not care about their personal privacy – that they share any and all information online freely, without thinking about the consequences. According to West, this is largely untrue:

Digital immigrants tend to think about privacy as the ability to conceal information from others. Digital natives instead share information within certain contexts, and with granular privacy controls on that information. And according to a new study on behavioral advertising, it is precisely the 18-24 year old age bracket that cares most about how information is used to make decisions about them to deliver news, advertisements, or discounts. In fact, one of the survey’s authors told the New York Times that it’s likely that young adults care more about their privacy and how companies use their information than expected.”

This is good news – though there is still a great deal of misinformation about just how safe and free you are online. The internet is still a largely unregulated realm – and major companies and government organizations can still keep tabs on folks in ways that infringe upon civil liberties.

West goes on to argue that the sophisticated privacy controls in social networking sites like Facebook allow users to have real control over their personal information, granting true freedom and full privacy for users.

“Rather than an all-or-nothing public or private paradigm, we expect to be able to choose levels of privacy and levels of exposure to the public. Most teens restrict access to their online profiles and do not think that sharing their information with a specific set of people means that the information is in the public domain. This allows them to both gain the benefits of sharing and communicating online, but also protecting their privacy and remain empowered in their choices about their own information.

These expectations of granular control over information, both in the Pew studies on privacy controls and the more recent study on tailored content and advertising, seem to reflect the expectations of the Fair Information Practices (FIPs) that form the basis of most privacy law.”

Unfortunately, these privacy controls are imperfect – see the recent facebook quiz debacle, in which users’ information can be leaked to third party “quiz” developers regardless of privacy settings. Thankfully, Facebook has amended its privacy policy yet again – and will reportedly fix this particular issue.

Regardless of age or “digital native” status, we all need to hold companies and government entities accountable for privacy violations – and continue to be vigilant about the information that we choose to share. Safe and Free is our motto – and we believe that this should extend fully into all aspects of life – including the digital realm.