Thursday, February 25, 2010

Recognizr poses privacy risk

We’re big fans of technology here at the ACLU of Massachusetts. Half of us are running around the office on smart phones of one sort or the other, we’re huge fans of social networking (see our twitter and facebook sites), and we’re big believers in the power of new technology to communicate and educate.

With that said, not everything is a good idea – and as we’ve talked about before, technology is increasingly – and scarily – being used to infringe upon our privacy. See our recent blog post on laptops in schools for a particularly alarming example.

Today, we learned of a new app (application) called Recognizr that allows users to take a picture of someone – and automatically gather information on that person (using their social networking presence).

It sounds cool – but just imagine how this could be abused. A stranger on the subway could take your photo and “look you up” without your ever knowing it.

The implications for privacy violation are incredible, so once again, we would urge you to be careful online – use privacy controls on social networking sites and stay tuned to the Mass Rights Blog for news regarding online privacy.

Leave your thoughts about Recognizr and other facial-recognition software in the comments section.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

First Amendment Minutes 2/24/10

Our resident radio host Bill Newman has been on a roll this week, with three fresh new episodes, chronicling Google’s new deal, Fran Lee, and the case of a student who flamed her English teacher on facebook.

Give them a listen here or on our newly revamped podcast page (where you can find episodes by topic), or check us out on iTunes.


ACLU First Amendment Minute: Stepping in Dog Doo

Every time you don't step in dog doo, you owe a debt of gratitude to Fran Lee.

ACLU First Amendment Minute: Google in Bed With Spies

Google is planning to get married. Or, at least, begin an intimate, live-in relationship with a spy agency.

ACLU First Amendment Minute: Sarah Phelps

A high school senior vented about her English teacher by creating a Facebook page titled, "Miss Sarah Phelps is the Worst Teacher I've Ever Had."

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal – Make it Quick!

The national ACLU’s Blog of Rights has an excellent entry today about the repeal of the American military’s discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy (which makes it illegal for gay men and lesbians to serve and be open about their sexuality). We’re strongly in favor of getting this archaic policy off the books (and so is a majority of the American people, if recent polls are to be believed).

The post in question notes that going about the policy change quickly would be most beneficial:

Calls for repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" got an important boost Sunday when General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, endorsed the process that was outlined in the recent congressional testimony of Defense Secretary Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mullen in an appearance on "Meet the Press." He also discussed his own service alongside gay and lesbian service members and the non-issue that someone's sexual orientation really is to members of the armed forces.

Gen. Petraeus's endorsement comes just before the release of a study on today of foreign militaries that now allow openly gay and lesbian service members. Researchers have concluded that a speedy implementation, rather than a long, drawn-out, "go slow" approach, is the best course and is not disruptive.”

It’s time to stop this legal discrimination – and time to do it quickly.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Force Feeding Hunger Strikers - Right or Against One's Rights

A hunger strike is a method of non-violent resistance in which participants fast as an act of political protest in order to bring attention to an injustice. Many nationalities, including Sri Lankans, Cubans, Tibetans, and Americans have used hunger striking as a form of protest in the past, with the tradition being most prominent in the Irish, especially in the last century with Irish Republicans (a group of whom memorably went on a hunger strike in 1981 that claimed the lives of 10 Irish Republican prisoners in Northern Ireland) using the tactic to combat British hegemony. Individuals have begun hunger strikes for many different reasons, from political to financial to personal, but the most notable cause in the recent past were to protest the inhumane treatment of people in detention (which also served to shed light on the cause that imprisoned them in the first place) which include the startling strikes we have seen in the past 30 years in Guantanamo Bay, Turkey, and Ireland (

In response to this peaceful form of protest, and documented almost as long as the practice of hunger striking has been in existence, has been the practice of force feeding these protesters. Depending on your point of view, this technique is either used to A) save the strikers’ lives or B) to mediate the publicity and empathy garnered by the protest. However, many deaths have been documented from the act of force-feeding just as there have been deaths caused from the starvation due to the hunger strike itself. Currently, this controversy over force feeding is at the forefront of American politics and social consciousness due to the confirmation of the practice being used on hunger strikers at Guantanamo Bay; and more disturbing, that this act was deemed to be compliant with Geneva conventions on the treatment of detainees which bar “humiliating and degrading techniques” by the Bush administration (per the Walsh report). Many in the political, medical, and human rights world were outraged over these revelations (

This outrage is due to the fact that there is little doubt that hunger striking is a form of peaceful protest (Gandhi is included in the list of people who used this method as a form of nonviolent resistance), and that force feeding, regardless of whether it is “saving” a life, falls under the definition of “cruel and unusual” as it is both involuntary, violent, undignified, and not something done under normal circumstances (a determination agreed upon by the medical community). In defiance of its own laws, however, the US continues to claim that force feeding is not only legal but should be considered a humanitarian act, as doctors are intervening in order to save a life. A February 23rd forum “Hunger Strikes and Physicians” at the Boston University School of Public Health plans to weigh in on this topic. Far less an expert then those on the panel, but certainly a competent adult who knows right from wrong, cruel from necessary, and dignified from demeaning, allow me to weigh in on the legal, moral, and precedent setting historical facts which should lead to the conclusion that force feeding is not a humane, much less legal, way to treat a peacefully protesting prisoner, much less an illegally held, uncharged and untried detainee (also illegal under the US system of law…but that is a separate debate).

First, taking the morality of any “life saving” justification out of the debate (which is what we should do as in America laws should not legislate morality) we are left with a clear consensus: Legally, Americans past and present have already weighed in on this issue of protest (especially in regards to peaceful protesting) and amelioration. This right to protest is covered in the US constitution (Freedom of Assembly-1st Amendment) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR-Article 20, of which the US is a signatory) as is the right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment (8th Amendment of the US Constitution and Article 5 of the UDHR). Additionally, the United States Supreme Court “in Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Department of Health, "assume[d]" that a competent person has a constitutionally protected right to refuse life-saving hydration and nutrition” also of which “a majority of the Justices separately declared that such a liberty interest exists.” So while never specifically addressing the issue of force feeding, and drawing the line at legally condoning one’s active participation in a suicide, the US Supreme Court reached the conclusion that refusing nutrition is the same as refusing other forms of medical treatment (a human right in the US) and thus reaffirmed the legality of passively allowing someone to die.

Those who are in the position of saving lives (and who have an intricate code of ethics which defines what falls within their right to do) have also weighed in and agree. The World Medical Association recently revised its once qualified position on hunger strikes and physician’s role in force feeding to definitively state that "force feeding is inhuman and degrading treatment” (Article 21, Other medical groups such as Doctors without Borders, American Medical Association and the New England Journal of Medicine also see the practice as degrading and inhuman, as do human rights groups such as the International Committee of Red Cross.

Filtering into an argument based on morality is our well defined value system and our very nature as humans: As humans, free will is what defines us from other animals and as adults, if we chose to put our life in danger for a cause, whether that is in the act of war or in protest of injustice, we should have that choice. As Americans, freedom of choice and protest is what forged this nation from its inception and on to circumstances over 200 years later surrounding such topics as abortion and the debate over same sex marriage. In his 1941 State of the Union address US president Roosevelt called for the protection of the "essential" Four Freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom from fear and freedom from want ( Thus, as history shows, for Americans (and most humans), right to protest and be free of fear is integral to our national consciousness and disrespecting it is akin to disrespecting our integrity as a nation.

This is not to diminish the moral and emotional issues at hand. Allowing anyone to die is unconscionable to most, right, left and center. And certainly, the emotional turmoil for the families, community, and individual going through the hunger strike is unimaginable. But this is not the point. The point is, in the US we have the right to protest, to be treated with dignity even in captivity, and to refuse medical treatment, and we have signed international treaties stating just the same. Force feeding someone is simply not legal or justifiable any way one spins it. Furthermore, the motives the decision makers at Guantanamo Bay have in promoting force feeding as a viable amelioration to hunger strikers must be called into question as being far from moral, charitable, or humanely based considering they continue to disregard the fact that the prison system they created is itself illegal under American law.

Some of President Obama’s most controversial and lauded campaign promises were to close Guantanamo Bay within a year and end the practice of torture. Obama was sworn in on January 20th, 2009, over a year and a month prior to the date of this writing. Guantanamo still remains open and the debate over whether force-feeding competent hunger strikers amounts to torture and flies in the face of our laws, international treaties, and our way of life still rages. When something is so black and white and whose underlying rationale is interwoven so tightly within our nation’s foundation, I should simply let one of our founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, have what I think should be the final word on this debate…”Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.”

Written by Melissa Mongogna, 2/21/10

Friday, February 19, 2010

New First Amendment Minutes – and a brand new podcast index.

The First Amendment Minutes – short podcasts that highlight civil liberties issues in the news – are one of our most popular features on the ACLU of Massachusetts site. We’re incredibly proud of them – and of our resident radio host, Bill Newman – for making them stand out.

In fact, we have so many that we decided to index them all by subject – interested in one particular issue (say, freedom of the press, for example)? Then just scroll through our list of topics and get listening!

We’ve also got a batch of brand-new episodes for you:

ACLU First Amendment Minute: The First Gigolo

The first legal American gigolo is now hard at work in Nevada.

ACLU First Amendment Minute: Terrorists' Rights? Some prominent Republican senators are screaming at the top of their electoral lungs that President Obama is granting new rights to terrorists. Today's question: Is he?

ACLU First Amendment Minute: Paying Attention If you're not really concerned about the state of civil liberties in America, respectfully, you are just not paying attention.

Let us know what you think of this week’s offerings (and the new organization) in the comments section!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Big Brother – wait, I mean, the principal – is watching you.

This gave us pause this afternoon – we read a very scary story at boingboing (a science and technology blog) about a Pennsylvania school that has installed webcams on students’ computers to spy on them at home and at school.

From the blog:

“According to the filings in Blake J Robbins v Lower Merion School District (PA) et al, the laptops issued to high-school students in the well-heeled Philly suburb have webcams that can be covertly activated by the schools' administrators, who have used this facility to spy on students and even their families. The issue came to light when the Robbins's child was disciplined for "improper behavior in his home" and the Vice Principal used a photo taken by the webcam as evidence. The suit is a class action, brought on behalf of all students issued with these machines.”

This is such a grievous privacy violation that it seems almost satirical – this sort of story belongs in a sci-fi film, not in modern day America.

See the actual legal complaint here.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The legacy of poverty

The following was written by ACLU blogger Melissa Mongogna:

As his momentous contribution to the campaign to ensure civil rights for all Americans was coming to fruition, Dr. Martin Luther King began to move his attention to eradicating poverty in the US, something he considered to be equally dividing to people as racial discrimination was. Shortly before his assassination, he said in a 1967 address:

"Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice. Let us be dissatisfied until those that live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security." (

This quote also characterizes the relationship between the Global South and the Global North and just as Dr. King was motivated to correct this relationship within the US, we should also be motivated to rectify it globally. It is not only a moral obligation we should shoulder as citizens of the world, but as we saw through the January 12th earthquake in Haiti, poverty is “contagious” thus making its impact that much more devastating to the world beyond its reach. There are many examples of cascading effects of poverty which many countries in the Global South teeter on, the following are but a few: Poverty and a lack of opportunity which allows one to wrestle from its grip lead many to live in unstable housing on unstable plots of land so they can be near the only jobs or food sources that exist (in urban areas), both of which exponentially increasing damage and loss of life when tragedy strikes; A lack of a stable government whose goal is to provide for its people which are often found in impoverished countries ultimately leads to failing infrastructure, health systems, job markets, and school systems which leaves vulnerable citizens open to the elements and without assistance or a future; Sometimes, well intentioned international aid exacerbates a poverty related problem, as when food aid is flooded into an area on the verge of famine which then also plunges the surrounding areas into famine as struggling (but surviving) farmers can no longer compete with free food aid supplies. This leads to long lasting consequences as it destabilizes the entire food producing capability of an area who once subsisted independently.

The conundrums which make up the relationship between the Global South and the Global North are complex (paternal, maternal, patronizing, abusive, collaborative, one-way, etc), and whose outcome often depend on context (disaster response, civil war, border stability, regional politics, national vs. foreign policy, historical legacy, etc). So what is the answer? I would say, in general, the answer to achieving global equity is sustainable development, not simply aid. Collaboratively teaching people ways to help themselves and setting up infrastructure which allows for natural community/country level resources to be utilized (over adopting one size fits all outside materials/methods) and which provides opportunities for community members to grow personally and professionally in order to help themselves and their country, is vital. This participatory response provides a way that will allow for a community/country to eventually stand on its own two feet and direct its own destiny, without further foreign assistance.

Written by Melissa Mongogna, 4-15-2010

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

My Hope for Haiti

While the ACLU of Massachusetts is primarily concerned with civil liberties in the Commonwealth and in the US, we certainly care very much about the welfare - and the rights of those abroad. Our guest blogger Melissa Mongogna wrote the following on the recent devastation in Haiti.

The Earthquake that decimated Haiti on January 12th also managed to effectively wipe clean the slate for them to rebuild from a legacy of foreign intervention, foreign policy interference in their growth, bad government, colonialism, slavery, and the unfulfilled hope of independence. The mental legacy of domination and poverty will linger, but there is more room for development and hope, albeit one bathed in despair and loss, than ever before. The culture and people of Haiti are strong, so shoring up the country through participatory development is indeed possible. With that lens in mind, these are a few things that I wish for Haiti (not ever having been there, keep in mind):

*That the money pouring into Haiti goes to development of infrastructure, health and social services, a solid educational system, employment sectors, etc - and not simply providing finite material items. Obviously food and medical assistance is needed, but let’s make sure to also provide something they can exploit long after the non-profits handing out rations are gone. Developing opportunity for Haitians to take control of their country, by cultivating opportunity for personal and professional sustainable growth in the country, should be a priority.

*That, within reason, the children will be left with relatives in Haiti rather than be shipped off to foreign countries if possible. Although richer countries have a lot more opportunity and stability then Haiti currently does, the power of family, community, and culture which these children are a part of is just as valuable as long as development is forthcoming for their future. It is important to not drain the country of its future.

*That once the dust settles, Haiti will be left to direct its own destiny, without foreign intervention or pressure to be an ally, port, or consumer base to those who assisted it in its time of need.

*That the country that was the first independent nation in Latin America and was the first black led republic in the world (after it successfully threw off the shackles of slavery in the 1800’s) reclaims its position as a global example through sustainable development of its resources.

* That the poverty that has shadowed Haiti since Columbus “discovered” it in 1492 will be a legacy no more. Achieving equity in the world should stay at the forefront of all policy in countries in both the Global North and Global South which exist in these challenging times that we inhabit today.

Written by Melissa Mongogna

February 16th, 2010

Friday, February 12, 2010

Wrapping up 2.12.10

We're at the tail end of another week at the ACLU of Massachusetts - a surprisingly busy one, post conference. We had some major news this week - see our release "ACLU and Amnesty International Question State Oversight of Tasers" right here.

We've also been picking up with all the new connections we made at the conference. We took plenty of pictures, so check out for a sampling!

Finally, be sure to have a look at our latest First Amendment Minutes, right over on our podcast page.

Stay safe and free this weekend, everyone!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

New First Amendment Minutes Feb 10

We have some brand new First Amendment Minutes ready for you today. First, we discuss President Obama’s resolution to end the discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Then, Bill shows us a new definition for “CBS”. Finally, Bill asks “Can you really end up in prison for exercising your First Amendment rights?”

Listen here or on our podcast page!

Listen to the latest Episodes:


ACLU First Amendment Minute: Don't Ask, Don't Tell The Obama Administration has decided to change policy and right a longstanding wrong.

ACLU First Amendment Minute: CBS "C.B.S. - Corporate Bullsh*t, Corporate Bullsh*t"

ACLU First Amendment Minute: Your First Amendment Rights Can you really end up in prison for exercising your First Amendment rights?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Facebook and privacy, round three

If you’re on Facebook, you’ll know that once again, sweeping changes have been made to the interface. This seems to occur every so often, as the platform evolves and grows.

However, as is generally the case, these changes will affect your privacy. The national ACLU’s Blog of Rights recently posted:

now other users can easily find out which applications you use, whether that’s a popular game, a dating app, or our Facebook quiz. Just like the changes that made Friends Lists and Fan Pages part of your “Publicly Available Information” (PAI) that could not be restricted or made private in any way (though Facebook later relented and allowed you to hide your Friends List on your profile—but only if you hide it from everyone!), this takes information that was hard to find and puts it front and center.”

While the company has certainly moved towards offering better privacy controls – this is still a major problem. Thankfully, there’s a way to protect yourself:

“To change your own settings, go to the Applications and Websites privacy page and use the bottom control for “Activity on Applications and Games Dashboard.” You can choose one of the basic options, or the “Custom” option that allows you to share this information with only selected friends, to block certain friends from seeing this information, or to let nobody else see it at all.”

As always, we encourage everyone to be mindful of his/her posting habits online. Facebook is a wonderful communication tool (we certainly use it and like it quite a bit), but until the privacy controls are truly comprehensive, keep your dotrights in mind.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Thanks to all

We at the ACLU of Massachusetts just want to send out a heartfelt "thank you!" to everyone who attended and participated in our statewide conference on Saturday. While we're still getting our bearings here on Monday morning, the staff felt that the event was quite a success - thanks to the passionate folks who asked questions at our workshops, gave their stories via video, and took action via our action table.

Personally, I'd like to thank those who attended the "Social Media: Blogging for Liberty, Tweeting for Justice" panel - and remind you that the open invitation to become an ACLU blogger still stands. Contact me at if you're interested.

Thanks again to all!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Conference Eve!

We’re made it to what we’re dubbing “conference eve” here at the office. Tomorrow is the big day – and we’ve got “Sunlight On Surveillance” on the brain.

This week, we were focused hard on getting ready for our workshops (see yesterday’s post for a preview), though there’s been plenty of important civil liberties news.

Our new US Senator, Scott Brown was sworn in. Check out our First Amendment Minute on Brown here.

The President pledged to repeal the military’s anti-LGBT “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which has recently been in the news, with a hearing earlier this week.

The Super Bowl is coming right up, and there’s a real free speech debate going on regarding some controversial ads slated to air during the game. Read the national ACLU’s take here.

We also have a fresh batch of five new First Amendment Minute episodes up for you. We hope to see you tomorrow at UMass Boston (remember, you can register at the door!), and we wish you a safe and free weekend no matter how you choose to spend it!

Listen to our latest episodes here, or on our Podcast Page!


ACLU First Amendment Minute: Howard Zinn

A true American Hero, Howard Zinn, has died. But how can someone who is known as a radical, as Zinn was, also be known as an American Hero?

ACLU First Amendment Minute: Close Guantanamo

In late January 2009, President Obama pledged to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility within one year. That year has come and gone.

ACLU First Amendment Minute: The FBI and Your Phone Records

An FBI agent who wants to surveil and inspect telephone records doesn't go to court to get a warrant and doesn't have probable cause or even reasonable suspicion to conduct the surveillance. The FBI agent doesn't get the telephone records, does he?

ACLU First Amendment Minute: Tariq Ramadan

You may recall the story about Tariq Ramadan, the Muslim scholar prevented from taking his job as a professor at Notre Dame by the Bush Administration in 2004. This story has a new conclusion.

ACLU First Amendment Minute: The Highest Court in Texas

The presiding justice of the highest criminal court in Texas refused to keep the courhouse open late in order to receive a request for a stay of execution to which an inmate on death row was entitled. The result of the ethics complaint is what?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Sunlight on Surveillance – the Workshops

As you may know, our statewide conference is just around the corner. This Saturday, we’ll be presenting over 30 speakers across six interactive workshops, along with a special keynote address by National ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer and a very special film session.

We’re all about activism and empowering ordinary folks to use their voices, and that’s why we’ve put together the program we have.

Here’s a quick preview: we have something for every taste, and urge you to come out and get involved.

Taking on Big Brother: Post 9/11 Surveillance

JAMEEL JAFFER, Director of the ACLU’s National Security Program CHRISTOPHER PYLE, Professor of Politics, Mt. Holyoke College

JOHN REINSTEIN, Legal Director, ACLU of Massachusetts

Moderator: LISA H. THURAU, Attorney and ACLU of Massachusetts Board

Liberty and Security in the 21st Century: Can We Have Both?

CHRISTOPHER CALABRESE, Legislative Counsel, ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Program

LAURA RÓTOLO, Staff Attorney, ACLU of Massachusetts

ROBERT ELIS SMITH, Publisher, Privacy Journal

Moderator: ANN LAMBERT, Legislative Counsel, ACLU of Massachusetts

Confronting the New McCarthyism: Post 9/11 Guilt by Association and Dissent

MALICK GHACHEM, Attorney and ACLU of Massachusetts Board


NANCY MURRAY, Director of Education, ACLU of Massachusetts

Moderator: BILL NEWMAN, Director of the ACLU of Massachusetts’ Western Regional Law Office

Piercing the Code of Silence: Race, Secrecy and Law Enforcement

DICK LEHR, Author, The Fence and Black Mass

Respondent: HECTOR PIÑEIRO, Attorney

Moderator: SARAH WUNSCH, Staff Attorney, ACLU of Massachusetts

Social Media: Blogging for Liberty, Tweeting for Equality

HOPE LEWIS, Northeastern Law School and ACLU of Massachusetts Board CHRIS OTT, Communications Director, ACLU of Massachusetts

DANIELLE RIENDEAU, Online Communications Coordinator, ACLU of Massachusetts

Shake the System: Civil Liberties Activism in Congress and The State House

CAROL ROSE, Executive Director, ACLU of Massachusetts

BYRON RUSHING, State Representative and ACLU of Massachusetts Board

GAVI WOLFE, Legislative Counsel, ACLU of Massachusetts Moderator:

STEVE HURLEY, Director of Development, ACLU of Massachusetts

You can download the full program here!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

First Amendment Minutes update 2.3.10

We’ve been busy building up for the 2010 Statewide conference, which is just around the corner – in fact, it’s this Saturday, Feb. 6th at Umass Boston. If you’re in the area, you should definitely join us – particularly if you’re interested in blogging and social media.

Until then, we have a fresh batch of podcast episodes ready for you. Listen to them here or on our dedicated podcast page! And be sure to let us know what you think.


ACLU First Amendment Minute: Canada's Largest Trading PartnerAmerica is Canada's largest trading partner, and that country recently imported something from The United States that should make us proud.

ACLU First Amendment Minute: Senator Scott BrownHere's the ACLU's take on the new senator from Massachusetts, Scott Brown.

ACLU First Amendment Minute: Texting While Driving A law that prohibits a motorist from text messaging while driving clearly is an unconstitutional, government-imposed restriction on free speech. Or is it?


ACLU First Amendment Minute: Cold Winter of the Great Recession In this cold winter of this Great Recession does the Constitution do the hungry and the homeless any good?

ACLU First Amendment Minute: Life Without ParoleAlmost all of the 100 people in the world serving a sentence of life without parole for crimes committed as a juvenile in which no one was killed are locked up in one country.

ACLU First Amendment Minute: A Venerable DemocracyToday's freedom of speech question: In a venerable democracy, when a citizen posts online a video of a government official lying, what's the likely result?