17 October 2014

The United States government continued its attack on internet activists this week, attempting to gag imprisoned journalist Barrett Brown and his defense team while forcing the shuttering of several popular secure mail services and an exit node of TOR, the internet’s most widely used anonymous proxy service.

Barrett Brown, award winning journalist and author of Flock of Dodos: Behind Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design, and the Easter Bunny, has been imprisoned for nearly a year awaiting trial on charges of facilitating credit card fraud. The charges stem from Brown's participation in a crowd-sourced journalism project called Project-Pm. Project-Pm researches the corporate national security state primarily through the lens of emails released by imprisoned hacktivist Jeremy Hammond. Included in the releases were thousands of credit card numbers belonging two employees of two companies, StratFor and HbGary, who spied for corporate entities on non-violent protest groups in the US. Despite the fact that the credit cards have never been used or released to the public by Project-Pm, Brown is facing 105 years in prison.

On August 7, the prosecution in Brown's case filed a motion to deny Brown a continuance for further discovery and sought a gag order to keep Brown and his defense counsel from speaking with the media about the case. “They are invoking the notion of a fair trial, and obviously Barrett is the one on trial. Any gag order imposed is designed to keep journalists from talking about the underlying issues which stand apart from Barrett’s actual case." Said Nancy Norelli, counsel for FreeAnons.org, an organization that supports people arrested in conjunction with activities by the Anonymous collective. When asked if he thought the gag order was designed to silence Project-pm itself, Norelli said "Yes, I do. Project-Pm has been only centralized place for journalists working on these issues to come together." As a point of disclosure, this author joined Project-Pm approximately six weeks ago.

The prosecution’s motion sought to enjoin Brown from speaking to the press and cited various conversations that Brown had with reporters in the past, as well as citing an op-ed Brown had written for the Guardian called The cyber-intelligence complex and other useful idiots. The motion particularly focused on Brown's conversations with a Rolling Stone reporter that was not named. The unnamed reporter is assumed to have been Brown's friend and colleague Michael Hastings, who was killed in a mysterious car crash in June. There has been no motion by the prosecution to deny Brown access to an Ouija board nor has Brown, and outspoken atheist, requested one.

Meanwhile the well-known provider of private, encrypted email services Lavabit closed its doors forever. Lavabit was used for secure communications by thousands of people worldwide, including whistle-blower Edward Snowden. Lavabit was founded in 2004 in response to the Patriot Act to provide the public with email services that are secured from government agencies.

Lavabit was served recently with a court order, which it fought against. Lavabit's founder, Ladar Levison may not discuss the terms of the court order with the press or his single employee. It can be inferred from Levison’s statement and how surveillance orders have worked in the past that the order would have required Lavabit to install monitoring hardware at its own expense to facilitate NSA spying.

According to statements made to the popular tech website Boing-Boing, Levison chose to go out of business immediately rather than comply. "I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people or walk away from nearly ten years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit," he stated.

Within hours of the announcement, another privacy enhanced email provider, Silent Mail, also announced that they would cease providing secure email services, although their SilentPhone and Silent Text services will continue.

Silent Mail released a statement which read in part: “We’ve been thinking about this for some time, whether it was a good idea at all. Today, another secure email provider, Lavabit, shut down their system lest they ‘be complicit in crimes against the American people.’ We see the writing the wall, and we have decided that it is best for us to shut down Silent Mail now. We have not received subpoenas, warrants, security letters, or anything else by any government, and this is why we are acting now.”

While gag orders flew and popular mail sites went dark, the FBI visited a the loft workspace of a tech collective in New York City, hoping to interview someone who ran a TOR exit node from the space. Claiming that the exit node had been used by Chinese hackers, the FBI agent claimed they would return when nobody present would speak with them. This visit follows on the heels of an attack on the TOR network aimed at gathering anonymous user data by the private military contractor SAIC.

Taken together these court orders, FBI visits and other intimidation are the face of retrenchment by the post-constitutional rulers of the United States. They are much more real than any of Obama's empty words on domestic spying, about panels, reviews, working with Congress, or transparency.