Archive for April, 2013

Legislation expanding privacy for data stored in the cloud is heading to consideration by the U.S. senate, and while it enjoys general support of industry and senators, the U.S. Department of Justice has not endorsed or even addressed the measure.

Supporters are positioning the legislation as an attempt to ensure consistency in privacy and access practices. The Senate Judiciary Committee last week the bill, which brings privacy protections currently in place for personal systems to Web-based email and other digital communications.

Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), one of the authors of the bill, said the legislation is necessary to “better protect Americans’ digital privacy” and iron out some inconsistencies in the protections afforded to materials that are stored on a desktop computer and those that reside in the cloud.

Under the current statute, law enforcement authorities have been able to obtain access to emails stored with a cloud provider on the authority of a subpoena, rather than the warrant they would need to obtain those same communications stored locally on a personal computer.

“If you’ve got the same files in the cloud, you want to have the same sense of privacy,” Leahy says.

Tech trade groups endorse

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act Amendments Act, authored by Leahy and Utah Republican Mike Lee, would reform the 1986 ECPA statute, which Leahy helped draft, to harmonize the privacy protections for digital documents, doing away with the so-called 180-day rule that has provided easier access to older emails, among other provisions.

Several leading tech trade groups quickly hailed the advancement of the ECPA reform bill.

“There are some issues in Washington where there are profound disagreements about what needs to be done. This isn’t one of them,” Robert Holleyman, president and CEO of BSA, a software industry trade group, says in a statement. “There is broad bipartisan agreement and a groundswell of support for reform among industry and public interest groups. Everyone understands that law enforcement access and constitutional protections should be the same for online files and other digital records as they are for papers stored in a file cabinet.”

In approving the ECPA overhaul bill by a voice vote, the Judiciary Committee sends the measure to the Senate floor, where any debate will likely air objections from lawmakers sympathetic to the concerns of law-enforcement authorities who have warned that some of the reform provisions could hinder their investigations.

The Justice Department has gone on record with the view that some of the distinctions in the 27-year-old law have failed to keep pace with the ways that consumers are using technology to communicate.

“We agree, for example, that there is no principled basis to treat email less than 180 days old differently than email more than 180 days old. Similarly, it makes sense that the statute not accord lesser protection to open emails than it gives to emails that are unopened,” a DoJ official told a House subcommittee last month.

Legal issues of location-based data

But the DoJ has not endorsed Leahy’s bill or any other specific reform measure, and the department’s absence at another House hearing Thursday morning that focused on the law’s implications for location-based data was noted.

“While DoJ has briefed committee staff on ECPA and geolocation, the Obama administration has refused our request to testify in public,” says Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations. “This is unacceptable.”

At the Senate markup the same day, Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, expressed a similar sentiment, saying, “It’s disappointing that the DoJ hasn’t weighed in.”

The House hearing on ECPA and geolocation data highlighted the same underlying friction between personal privacy and the needs of law enforcement that has colored the broader debate over ECPA reform.

“Requiring probable cause to get basic, limited information about a person’s historical location could make it significantly more difficult for us in law enforcement to solve crimes and seek justice,” says Peter Modafferi, a veteran detective and chair of the Police Investigative Operations Committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Leading online service providers like Google and Microsoft have thrown their lot in with civil liberties groups and privacy advocates in the debate, arguing that inconsistent privacy protections have created substantial uncertainty in the market and slowed the adoption of cloud computing.

Legal vs. privacy implications

Thursday’s activity on Capitol Hill involving ECPA comes about 15 months after the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the issue of location-based surveillance, ruling that law-enforcement authorities erred in not obtaining a warrant before attaching a GPS tracking device to the vehicle of a suspected D.C. drug kingpin. But that ruling was fairly narrow and stopped short of setting a broader precedent for law enforcement’s use of geolocation technology.

At Thursday’s House hearing, ACLU attorney Catherine Crump expressed support for the GPS Act, a bill pending before the subcommittee that would require investigators to obtain a warrant from a court before accessing a suspect’s phone location.

That measure has drawn predictable opposition from the law-enforcement community. But even as the civil liberties and law enforcement camps are far apart on the appropriate legal framework for lawful access to location information under ECPA, in the wake of the Supreme Court decision, they accept as a starting point that the legal issues in play remain unsettled.

As Crump put it: “We at least agree that the current situation is unclear and in a state of chaos.”

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It isn’t often that communications companies push back against government requests to monitor customers and hand over information about them, but a government task force is seeking to make it even harder for companies to say no.

The task force is pushing for legislation that would penalize companies like Google, Facebook and Skype that fail to comply with court orders for wiretapping, according to the Washington Post. The cost of non-complying would be an escalating series of fines, starting at tens of thousands of dollars. Fines that remained unpaid after 90 days would double daily.

Unlike telecommunications companies that are required under the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) to have systems that are wiretap-enabled, some internet communication methods — such as social networking sites and online gaming sites — aren’t easily wiretapped and are not required to enable the capability under CALEA. Companies that argue that they don’t have the means to enable wiretapping have avoided complying with court orders seeking real-time surveillance, the paper notes. The legislation is intended to force these companies into finding technology solutions that would enable real-time surveillance.

Microsoft reportedly applied for a patent in 2009 for a technology called Legal Intercept that would have the ability to secretly monitor, intercept and record Skype calls. Microsoft filed for the patent before it bought Skype in 2011.

The push for legislation to compel these companies to cooperate with wiretapping orders began in 2010 after Google initiated end-to-end encryption for Gmail and text messages, which made it more difficult for the FBI to intercept e-mail under a court order, the Post notes.

But critics like Matt Blaze, professor of computer science at the University of Pennsylvania, have argued that the intercept capabilities introduce vulnerabilities (.pdf) that make it possible for foreign intelligence agencies and others to hijack the surveillance systems on communication networks and do their own spying.

The move to wiretap the internet isn’t new. The New York Times reported in 2010 that federal officials were seeking new regulations to wiretap the internet.

The piece noted that officials wanted legislation that would require all communications providers — including encrypted e-mail providers, like Google, social networking sites like Facebook, and messaging and voice services like Skype — to install the technical capability for wiretapping. Officials wanted these services to provide the ability not only to intercept and record communications but to and decrypt encrypted communications.

Officials argue that they’re not seeking new powers; they just want to extend the monitoring authority they currently have for telecommunications to other communication methods on the internet.

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A Senate committee today backed sweeping privacy protections requiring the government, for the first time, to get a probable-cause warrant to obtain e-mail and other content stored in the cloud.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the package on a voice vote after about 30 minutes of debate, and sent the measure to the Senate floor, where it faces an uncertain future.

The legislation, (.pdf) sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), the committee’s chair, and Michael S. Lee (R-Utah) nullifies a provision of federal law allowing the authorities to acquire a suspect’s e-mail or other stored content from an internet service provider without showing probable cause that a crime was committed if the content is 180 days or older.

Under the current law, the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the government can obtain e-mail without a warrant as long as the data has been stored on a third-party server — the cloud — for 180 days or more. The government only needs to show, often via an administrative subpoena, that it has “reasonable grounds to believe” the information would be useful to an investigation.

Initially, ECPA provided privacy to users, but that privacy protection eroded as technology advanced and people began storing e-mail and documents on servers for longer periods, sometimes indefinitely. The act was adopted at a time when e-mail wasn’t stored on servers for a long time, but instead was held briefly on its way to the recipient’s inbox. E-mail more than 6 months old was assumed abandoned.

“I think Americans are very concerned about unwarranted intrusions into our cyber lives,” Leahy said ahead of the vote.

The bill enjoys backing from a wide range of lobbying interests, from the American Civil Liberties Union to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The Judiciary Committee approved a nearly identical version of the bill in November. But it died a quiet death and, in Washington fashion, mutated into a package granting the public the right to automatically display on their Facebook feeds what they’re watching on Netflix.

What the President Barack Obama administration thinks of the measure is a mixed bag. The Justice Department testified in March at House committee that the 180-day rule “no longer made sense.” (.pdf)

But that doesn’t mean the agency is on board with the change.

“The harder question is how to update those outdated rules and the statute in light of new and changing technologies while maintaining protections for privacy and adequately providing for public safety and other law enforcement imperatives,” said Elana Tyrangiel, an acting assistant attorney general.

And on Thursday, Mary Jo White, the Securities and Exchange Commission’s new chair, wrote the Senate Judiciary Committee that the bill’s passage would hinder the government’s “ability to protect investors.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) said Thursday that federal authorities may simply abandon terrorism cases if they have to spent time comporting with the Fourth Amendment.

“Terrorism cases,” he said during the committee hearing, “may never be followed up on just because of that burden.”

The measure allows the authorities to bypass the warrant requirement for national security issues and emergencies. It also demands that the targets of warrants be immediately notified about the warrant.

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Here’s a Good Reason to Encrypt Your Data

There’s many reasons to password-protect — or encrypt — one’s digital data. Foremost among them is to protect it during a security breach.

Another top reason is to keep the government out of your hard drive.

The issue is front and center as a federal magistrate is refusing to order a Wisconsin computer scientist to decrypt his data that the authorities seized from kiddie-porn suspect Jeffrey Feldman. The reason is simple: The Fifth Amendment right against compelled self-incrimination protects even those suspected of unsavory crimes, according to U.S. Magistrate William Callahan Jr. of Wisconsin, who wrote:

This is a close call, but I conclude that Feldman’s act of production, which would necessarily require his using a password of some type to decrypt the storage device, would be tantamount to telling the government something it does not already know with ‘reasonably particularity’—namely, that Feldman has personal access to and control over the encrypted storage devices. Accordingly, in my opinion, Fifth Amendment protection is available to Feldman. Stated another way, ordering Feldman to decrypt the storage devices would be in violation of his Fifth Amendment right against compelled self-incrimination. (.pdf)

Hanni Fakhoury, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, stressed that the decision was important, and not because it might hinder a kiddie-porn prosecution.

“This isn’t just about child porn. It’s about anything on your computer that prosecutors or government officials may want,” he said in a telephone interview.

Federal prosecutors did not immediately respond for comment, but said in court papers they have spent months trying to decrypt the data.

“The FBI is performing admirable in the digital arms race between those seeking to hide evidence of their wrongdoing through encryption and law enforcement officers seeking to uncover that evidence; but the expense in time and resources in investigating cases like this one is beginning to inhibit the provision of justice,” the government said (.pdf) in seeking the magistrate to compel the suspect to unlock the data.

The suspect was not immediately reachable.

To be sure, decryption orders are rare, and they have never been squarely addressed by the Supreme Court despite varying opinions in the lower courts.

Just last year, for example, a federal appeals court rejected an appeal from a bank-fraud defendant who has been ordered to decrypt her laptop so its contents could be used in her criminal case. The issue was later mooted for defendant Romano Fricosu as a co-defendant eventually supplied a password.

Contrary to the Wisconsin child pornography case, however, the Fricosu matter was distinguishable because the authorities had evidence that her hard drive might contain evidence against her, meaning the court felt her Fifth Amendment rights were not at issue. That’s because the authorities had recorded a jailhouse conversation between her and a co-defendant, in which the laptop’s contents were discussed.

It’s worth noting that encryption is not 100 percent effective.

And failing to comply with a judge’s decryption order — or any order for that matter — might result in a contempt charge and land you in jail pending compliance. Alleging you forgot your encryption password is another story.

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The potential value of public surveillance technology took on new meaning last week when investigators identified the two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing after sifting through video images captured by the city’s cameras.

This has prompted public officials like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to speak of the “important function” such cameras play in offering safety on a daily basis and during events both big and small.

The successful use of this technology in such a high-profile investigation is likely to prompt other major cities to reaffirm – and even expand – their investment in and use of surveillance cameras. Civil liberties advocates fear this would create an undue invasion of privacy.

In the ensuing debates over privacy versus safety, advocates on both sides would be wise to consider the following guidelines.

-Public surveillance cameras and civil liberties can coexist if cameras are implemented and employed responsibly. Our guidebook for using public surveillance systems advises law enforcement to consider privacy issues when creating surveillance policies. For one, cameras should avoid or mask inappropriate views of private areas, such as yards and second-story windows. Law enforcement agencies should also document and publicize policies governing how surveillance cameras can be used and what the disciplinary consequences are for misuse. Likewise, officers should be thoroughly trained on these policies and held accountable for abiding by them.

-Public surveillance camera systems can be a cost-effective way to deter, document, and reduce crime. Urban’s research has shown that in Baltimore and Chicago, cameras were linked to reduced crime, even beyond the areas with camera coverage. The cost savings associated with crimes averted through camera systems in Chicago saved the city over four dollars for every dollar spent on the technology, while Baltimore yielded a 50 cent return on the dollar.

-The usefulness of surveillance technology in preventing and solving crimes depends on the resources put into it. Our evaluation of three cities found that the most effective systems are monitored by trained staff, have enough cameras to detect crimes in progress, and integrate the technology into all manner of law enforcement activities.

-As with any technology, the use of cameras is by no means a substitute for good old-fashioned police work. The detectives we interviewed reported that camera footage provides additional leads in an investigation and aids in securing witness cooperation. And prosecutors noted that video footage serves as a complement to—but not a replacement for—eyewitness evidence in the courtroom.

Technological advances will continue to enhance our ability to monitor public spaces. By extension, technology will continue to aid efforts to prevent crime and apprehend criminals. While the use of cameras to identify suspects involved in the Boston Marathon bombings may prompt cities to seize upon additional surveillance opportunities, they should do so cautiously—and with the benefit of lessons learned from other cities.

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Welcome to the Age of Big Drone Data

Lt. Gen. Larry D. James has about all the drone designs he needs.

James is the Air Force’s deputy chief for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, giving him the flying service’s drone portfolio. During a rare public talk yesterday in Washington, James let on that “sustainment” of the drone fleet is his next big task. That means focusing less on designing new robots, as the Air Force’s new budget indicates, and more on the human problem of managing the absolutely enormous amount of data that its Predators, Reapers, Global Hawks and Sentinels generate.

“The future is going to be taking all sources of information and developing knowledge and intelligence from that,” James said. He’s working on some software fixes for that, as well as some data-storage farms. Welcome to the age of Big Drone Data.

The Air Force has actually lived in it for a long time. Last year, Secretary Michael Donley lamented that it will take “years” for Air Force analysts to swim through the oceans of imagery that the drones yield. One of the major purposes of the drone fleet is to hover over an area longer than a plane with a pilot in a cockpit can, snapping photos and streaming video down to the ground. And when you’ve got a robot doing that for 16 to 22 hours at a stretch, the length of a typical drone combat-air patrol, all that data piles up.

James doesn’t have ready-made solutions, but he said the Air Force is starting to look long and hard at its big-data challenges. First comes upgrading its network infrastructure “to move the data around, store it as you need to and to do that securely.” (Indeed.)

Next comes an improved suite of software tools to integrate the video feeds with other forms of imagery, harvested from drones, satellites, piloted spy planes and other sources. It’s got to work so that “I’m not relying on the human eyeball to look at FMV, full-motion video, all the time,” he said, “the tools are doing that for me.” Forthcoming algorithms will find something from a database of electro-optical information, connect it with something from the signals database “and bring it together in a fused fashion,” James said. No timetable on when that’ll come online.

In the meantime, Air Force isn’t totally shying away from developing new kinds of drones. It’s got a “micro-aviary” of tiny, insect- and bird-like ones, currently in the research phase. And the Air Force has a long history of developing planes in secret. As aviation journalist extraordinaire Bill Sweetman wrote on Tuesday, there’s likely a new secret drone design in the works right now; and in any event, the Air Force wants its next long-range bomber to be pilot-optional.

But other challenges that James wants his drone fleet of the future — even if it looks mostly like the one he’s got today — to meet are going to compound the Big Drone Data problem.

The first is increasing the time the Predators, Reapers, Global Hawks and Sentinels can stay aloft, an engineering challenge. The second is getting ever-powerful sensors in the bellies of the drones, so they can loiter further away from the targets they spy on. That’s a big issue, since drones are really easy to shoot down — they fly slow and aren’t built to maneuver — and not every place the military wants to send them lacks sophisticated air defenses a la Afghanistan and Iraq.

Yet the longer the drones are in the skies and the better their sensor packages are, the more data they’ll produce — bringing the Air Force back into its data-management problem. James levels: they’re working on it.

“The software tools will lead the way,” he predicted. “And it’s not just the military that’s worried about how you handle this big data. There’s lots of corporate and commercial interests out there in terms of video and imagery and what do I do with it and how can I track things and see them.” Until then, the Air Force has a video glut on its hands.

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9 colleges part of campus safety pilot program

SPRINGFIELD – The Illinois Emergency Management Agency today announced an initiative to enhance safety for students, staff and visitors on college and university campuses.

Nine colleges and universities will participate in a pilot of the “Ready to Respond Campus” program, with a full roll out of the program expected in January 2014.

“The Ready to Respond Campus program will recognize those institutions that meet rigorous standards for ensuring the safety of their students, staff and visitors,” said IEMA Director Jonathon Monken. “The Ready to Respond Campus designation will let current and prospective students and their parents know that safety is a top priority on the campus.”

Schools participating in the pilot program include:

• Augustana College (Rock Island)

• Columbia College (Chicago)

• Heartland Community College (Normal)

• Parkland College (Champaign)

• Moraine Valley Community College (Palos Hills)

• Richland Community College (Decatur)

• Southeastern Illinois College (Harrisburg)

• Southern Illinois University (Carbondale)

• University of Illinois (Urbana/Champaign)

To attain the Ready to Respond Campus designation, colleges must demonstrate compliance with standards for hazard identification, operational and violence prevention planning, incident management, training, exercises and crisis communications/public education.

Templates are available if needed to help schools document compliance with the standards

Colleges and universities meeting the criteria will be designated a Ready to Respond Campus and can use the Ready Campus logo on official correspondence, websites, brochures and other media for three years.

They will be able to renew their Ready to Respond Campus designation by submitting updated documentation at that time.

The Ready to Respond Campus program is the latest component of Illinois’ Ready to Respond effort. In 2012, IEMA announced the Ready to Respond Community initiative.

The program is endorsed by the Illinois Campus Law Enforcement Administrators and supported by IEMA and the University of Illinois’ Center for Public Safety and Justice.

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The next time you post something on Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube or practically anywhere else on the Internet, keep in mind you’re leaving cyber crumbs behind.

The trail can become key evidence in a lawsuit, as purported bigamist John France of Westlake learned when his wife discovered he had married someone new after she saw wedding photos of France and Wife 2 on Facebook a few years ago.

Granted, the photos weren’t exactly discreet. The wedding ceremony had been at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., with France dressed as Prince Charming and his new bride as Sleeping Beauty, surrounded by footmen.

While the France case may be over the top, gathering evidence from social media sites and other Internet sources has become quite routine in law practices. Family law, workers’ comp, trademark infringement and defamation litigation all lend themselves to sweeps of social media sites to bolster cases.

“The proverbial ‘smoking gun’ document of the pre-Internet era, which had given way to smoking gun email, has now given way to the smoking gun social media post,” attorneys Joshua Briones and Ana Tagvoryan write in “Social Media as Evidence,” newly published by the American Bar Association.

The authors point to the staggering growth of social media as tracked by Eighty percent of Americans who are online now regularly use some form of it. By the end of 2012, there were 200 million blogs worldwide, 901 million monthly active users of Facebook, more than 260 million users on Myspace, 160 million LinkedIn users, 340 million Tweets every 24 hours and 4 billion YouTube views per day, according to the Pew Research Center.

People will say things on social media sites that they would never say around the water cooler, said Tracy Johnson, an intellectual-property lawyer at Calfee Halter & Griswold in Cleveland.

“I think there’s a certain feeling of social anonymity,” Johnson said. “Also, I don’t think people really understand — certainly they don’t think about — the permanence of what they said or how they’re saying it. Sometimes it’s practically impossible to pull back an utterance online.”

An utterance or an image: Police in the recent conviction of Taunee Smith in the 2011 murder of DeJohn Dammons in Euclid used Facebook photos to identify Smith as present on the night of the shooting.

In an Arizona criminal case, prosecutors used the Myspace profile of Kirk Pressley Jr. to prove his Internet usage and alcohol consumption in violation of his probation. Pressley argued unsuccessfully on appeal that the trial court erred in admitting Myspace photographs.

On the civil side, litigants are checking social media sites as a standard part of due diligence for their clients. And insurance companies comb Facebook and Twitter accounts to assess the status of clients who file accident and personal injury claims.

Intellectual-property lawyer Philip Bautista at the Cleveland office of Taft, Stettinius & Hollister, said lawyers there make regular anti-piracy checks of social media sites. They’re looking for trademark and copyright infringements on clients with large portfolios of brands, including the Hershey Co. and gun manufacturer Heckler & Koch, he said.

“You can look at a business’s Facebook page and determine when an opposing party has used the trademark at issue,” Bautista said.

Briones and Tagvoryan say blogs and even the comments posted on them have deepening legal reach.

Court clerks use blogs as a source for researching legal issues, in the same way they used law review comments in the past, they said. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy recently remarked that comments on law review articles come out too late to be of use to the court, so he finds his clerks reading blogs for insight on cases pending before the court.

Internet sites are not culled only for evidence to prove cases or impeach witnesses. Online posting itself can be the subject of a lawsuit, as a South Carolina woman found when Med Express of Medina sued her over a complaint she wrote on eBay.

The posting by Amy Nicholls of Greenville, S.C., was not extremely critical. She said the microscope she bought from medical equipment supplier Med Express arrived with $1.44 in postage due. She posted that information online and gave the company a low rating on eBay’s feedback forum.

Med Express admitted its shipping error, offered to reimburse Nicholls for the postage and asked her to take down her posting. When Nicholls refused to retract it, Med Express responded with a defamation lawsuit.

“We certainly admit that it arrived postage due,” said Med Express lawyer James Amodio, who said the postage problem apparently arose because of a weighing error with the package.

Amodio said Med Express insisted on a retraction because the company sells exclusively over eBay, where a sufficient level of negative feedback can increase the cost of sales as well as possibly drive away customers.

A hearing in the case is set for May 2.

Paul Levy, staff attorney for the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, blogged about the case in the hopes of finding a pro bono attorney for the defendant. Public Citizen itself usually doesn’t take on cases such as Nicholls’, at least at the trial court level.

“There are so many defamation cases out there, we couldn’t defend everyone,” Levy said, “and it would only scratch the surface.”

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Changing Role of Campus Police Officers

The firefight between the marathon bombers and police in Boston suburbs left 15 officers injured, and one campus police officer at MIT dead.

Campus officers have taken on a more serious role in recent years.

Gone are the days where they merely bust parties and give out parking tickets.

“The initial typical role was a security officer,” said Ted Marnen, Director of Police and Safety at Gannon University.

“Somebody who walked around campus, somebody who gave parking tickets to campus violators, someone who locked and unlocked doors. It’s changed dramatically.”

Patrolman Chris O’Connell ran into some of those misconceptions when he first got on the job four years ago.

“A big issue when I first started was having people recognize that we’re an actual police department, that we do have arrest powers,” O’Connell said.

“When I was working third shift there were a couple times where I was trying to effect an arrest and I had to get a little physical with somebody, whereas if it was an Erie police officer dealing with it, it might not have been the case.”

Their base line training is the same as a city police officer, and the danger they face is the same, too, as seen with the shooting death of MIT officer Sean Collier, in Boston.

“They’re subject to being injured, shot at,” said Marnen. “We try to train them to be safe and cognizant of their surroundings but you just never know.”

Part of the danger at Gannon is its non- traditional position in the city. Campus police often have to deal with outside threats.

“We aren’t just dealing with our own students, we have to deal with the people around us… some of our neighbors aren’t so nice.”

Crime fighting is a team effort, and they often add their force to that of the city police department.

“We are here for backup if they need us,” said O’Connell.

Even if it’s not a big city like Boston, or a sprawling urban campus like Gannon, campus officers have to be ready to jump into action at any moment.

“Whether it’s in a rural setting in a fenced in area, they’re not in a bubble,” said Marnen. “There’s no vacuum, they’re still subject to crime.”

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By now, we all know the importance of recycling old computers and iPhones. The torrent of e-waste flowing into landfills shows no sign of slowing down, and many states have tried to counter by passing legislation requiring electronics recycling by manufacturers. But what exactly happens to your once-beloved iPod once you relinquish it to the recycling bin? We spoke with three e-Stewards certified recyclers from coast to coast to get some insight into the last moments of our abandoned gadgetry and where our old devices go to die.

A gargantuan operation

The first thing to appreciate about electronics recycling is the magnitude of operations. It’s big. Really, really big. “We do it on an enormous scale,” said Mark Van Den Elderen of ECS Refining in California. “We have a 260,000 square foot plant in Stockton, Van Den Elderen told us. “It’s just massive.”

Imagine bales of shrink-wrapped monitors and heaps of nearly-identical computer towers heaped up to a factory ceiling —enough gadgetry to power a small city.

The goods don’t just pile up, either. They move. “Dismantling is a big shock to people in terms of how much we actually break it down first,” said Donna Vojensky of Com2 Recycling in greater Chicago. One second, there’s the laptop that was once someone’s most prized possession; the next, there’s nothing but glass fragments, a shattered plastic shell, and a handful of circuitry components. “These guys are fast,” says Donna. “They can dismantle a couple hundred TVs a shift.”

Pennies on the dollar

There’s a reason for the mind-boggling volume at the plant: electronics recyclers can only survive by selling the component commodities they process – like plastic, glass, and copper – in bulk. The few high-price gadgets they are able to refurbish and resell aren’t enough to support the labor required to process everything. “All the prices are collapsing, literally before our eyes, from the e-Bay side to the commodities side,” said John Kirsch of 4th Bin in New York. “There’s a huge problem with glass right now: nobody wants it. Gold has even tanked … The markets are just a mess.”

The only high-value perk comes in the form of printed circuit boards: smidgens of copper, silver, gold, and platinum in the circuitry can be smelted off at different temperatures and refined. But the process itself is potentially toxic and produces plenty of worthless scrap, which is why it’s important to look for a recycler’s environmental credentials — or better yet, ask for an audit.

Smashing, shaking, sorting

So what does this separation process look like? Well, first of all, recyclers exclude overly hazardous materials. No refrigerators, no air conditioners — they don’t want to deal with Freon — and no laptop batteries, which are processed by outside specialists. “It’s bad to have battery acid going everywhere,” said Van Den Elderen.

At Vojensky’s Com2 Recycling center, things are still done by hand. “It’s an assembly line,” Vojensky said. ”Each person breaks out the parts.” However, the company plans to transition to automated machines soon. Meanwhile, at Van Den Elderen’s ECS Refining, the robots are already in charge. After multiple passes through a crushing maw, the electronics are reduced to a jumble of slivers and fragments. “You want [the pieces] generally the size of a poker chip,” said Van Den Elderen. Afterward, a series of magnets, shaking trays, and optical sorting technologies separate the remnants by the type of material.

A new life for old parts

What’s amazing about separating commodities in this way is that once refined, the components can be re-made into, well, just about anything. Gold from the circuit board in your ancient desktop could theoretically make it into the wedding band you buy for your fiancé. Talk about a circle of life!

“[Recycled goods] could end up being made into a new computer, or recycled material that goes into, I don’t know, business cards or a bag that contains dog food; I have no idea,” said Van Den Elderen.

While the end results remain a bit mysterious, at least some of the plastics recovered in this process seemed destined for rebirth within some of the newest computers to hit the market. “Our plastics get sent back to the OEM, the original equipment manager,” said Vojensky. Meanwhile, your kitchen walls could be the beneficiary of your old netbook. “We have one vendor that’s using glass to put it back into ceramic tiles,” Vojensky added.

Popping up in unexpected places

Of course, as the old “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” mantra teaches us that re-purposing old electronics does far more good for Mother Earth than the most efficient recycling process ever could. Unfortunately, as New York-based 4th Bin’s John Kirsch pointed out, “Unless it’s an Apple product that’s fairly new, I can tell you, it’s essentially worthless.” There’s no real market for first-generation Kindles or cumbersome CRT TVs. So how do recyclers re-purpose them?

“The circuit boards are popular with artists,” said Kirsch. “One wanted to build an entire park out of them.” Similarly, Van Den Elderen recounts tales of artists who have transformed a computer tower into a greenhouse planter, or assembled metal fragments from their electronics into a coffee table. As we’ve seen recently, they’ve even been turned into ornate carpets.

Kirsch’s 4th Bin also partners with film studios at CBS, providing retro-looking computing props for shows such as CSI. CBS gets to skip building models for the set from scratch, and 4th Bin gets the parts back for recycling after shooting wraps — it’s a win-win.

Discovering a “dinosaur”

Another exciting moment in the business happens once in a blue moon, when a recycler will come across a real antique, especially from residential customers. “We picked up some stuff from the ‘60s from a bigwig at IBM,” said Kirsch. “He was a top programmer. We’re talking 80- or 90-pound desktops.”

As primarily a collection agency, as opposed to downstream processors like Van Den Elderen’s ECS Refining, Kirsch’s team comes across plenty of nostalgia pieces. “We’ll get retro computers like Commodore 64s,” he said.

Security as a service

Recycling and repurposing aren’t all these companies do. While we at Digital Trends recommend properly erasing your hard drive before turning your computer over for recycling, a big part of the labor at recycling plants involves wiping or flashing every drive that comes their way. It’s an essential security step and necessary to cover their own liability.

Vojensky uses a digestive metaphor to explain Com2 Recycling’s overwriting software, which uses Department of Defense standards: “It bites away at the information and keeps chewing away until it’s empty.” Video monitoring runs 24/7 to help reassure customers that no one will steal their information, but if that’s not enough, clients can even set an appointment to see their hard drive physically destroyed in person, mangled and shattered into oblivion. “That’s something to see, because you can’t ever put it back together again,” said Vojensky. “Make sure you get what you need off it, ‘cause it’s not coming back!”

Warnings about the recycling racket

As e-Stewards certified organizations, everyone we interviewed is held to extremely high environmental and ethical standards. “We have to account for every single item we pick up. Like literally, we have to weigh everything,” said John Kirsch. “It sounds insane, but it’s mass-balance accounting.” According to Kirsch, an auditor will insist, “Y’all just picked up 5,000 pounds, now show me where it went and its end-of-life,” down to the very end of the recycling cycle.

However, be forewarned: not all recyclers are created equal. Any scrapyard owner or e-Bay profiteer can label themselves a “recycler,” but that’s no guarantee they won’t dump your e-waste in a landfill if it’s convenient. “This is the major leagues of smoke and mirrors,” said Kirsch. “It’s almost like Bernie Madoff, you know: ‘Oh yeah, we’re a recycler, don’t you worry about where your stuff goes.’ They’re in for a quick buck.” He reports that CNN once contacted 4th Bin for their help investigating false recycling claims, but abandoned the issue in order to cover Michael Jackson’s sudden demise: “Michael Jackson’s death was more important than environmental issues, apparently.”

Indeed, according to a 2009 EPA report, more than 80 percent of all e-waste still ends up in traditional landfills. That’s why Van Den Elderen advised, “As a consumer, make sure you know what your recycler is doing with the materials … not only are you keeping precious resources here in the U.S., you’re preventing potentially hazardous materials from being dumped in someone else’s backyard in a developing area.” After all, genuine investment into reuse and recycling is the price we pay for getting our hands on the newest shiny gadget.

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