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Archive for July, 2008

Privacy vs. Law Enforcement Needs

I want to start by quoting an article from my local newspaper, which was filed by the Associated Press.  I’d like you to read the article, and then I’ll run my fingers – again.

Library’s Standoff With Police Underscores Dilemma

Kimball Library Required Warrant for Brooke Bennett Records


July 20, 2008
By JOHN CURRAN The Associated Press


RANDOLPH — Children’s librarian Judith Flint was getting ready for the monthly book discussion group for 8- and 9-year-olds on “Love That Dog” when police showed up.

They weren’t kidding around: Five state police detectives wanted to seize Kimball Public Library’s public access computers as they frantically searched for 12-year-old Brooke Bennett, acting on a tip that she sometimes used the terminals.

Flint demanded a search warrant, touching off a confrontation that pitted the privacy rights of library patrons against the rights of police on official business.

“It’s one of the most difficult situations a library can face,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of intellectual freedom issues for the American Library Association.

Investigators did obtain a warrant about eight hours later, but the June 26 standoff in the 105-year-old, red brick library on Main Street frustrated police and had fellow librarians cheering Flint.

“What I observed when I came in were a bunch of very tall men encircling a very small woman,” said the library’s director, Amy Grasmick, who held fast to the need for a warrant after coming to the rescue of the 4-foot-10 Flint.

Library records and patron privacy have been hot topics since the passage of the U.S. Patriot Act after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Library advocates have accused the government of using the anti-terrorism law to find out — without proper judicial oversight or after-the-fact reviews — what people research in libraries.

The investigation of Bennett’s disappearance wasn’t a Patriot Act case.

“We had to balance out the fact that we had information that we thought was true that Brooke Bennett used those computers to communicate on her MySpace account,” said Col. James Baker, director of the Vermont State Police. “We had to balance that out with protecting the civil liberties of everybody else, and this was not an easy decision to make.”

Brooke, from Braintree, vanished the day before the June 26 confrontation in the children’s section of the tiny library. Investigators went to the library chasing a lead that she had used the computers there to arrange a rendezvous.

Brooke was found dead July 2. An uncle, convicted sex offender Michael Jacques, has since been charged with kidnapping her. Authorities say Jacques had gotten into her MySpace account and altered postings to make investigators believe she had run off with someone she met online.

Flint was firm in her confrontation with the police.

“The lead detective said to me that they need to take the public computers and I said ‘OK, show me your warrant and that will be that,”‘ said Flint, 56. “He did say he didn’t need any paper. I said ‘You do.’ He said ‘I’m just trying to save a 12-year-old girl,’ and I told him ‘Show me the paper.”‘

Cybersecurity expert Fred H. Cate, a law professor at Indiana University, said the librarians acted appropriately.

“If you’ve told all your patrons ‘We won’t hand over your records unless we’re ordered to by a court,’ and then you turn them over voluntarily, you’re liable for anything that goes wrong,” he said.

A new Vermont law that requires libraries to demand court orders in such situations took effect July 1, but it wasn’t in place that June day. The library’s policy was to require one.

The librarians did agree to shut down the computers so no one could tamper with them, which had been a concern to police.

Once in police hands, how broadly could police dig into the computer hard drives without violating the privacy of other library patrons?

Baker wouldn’t discuss what information was gleaned from the computers or what state police did with information about other people, except to say the scope of the warrant was restricted to the missing girl investigation.

“The idea that they took all the computers, it’s like data mining,” said Caldwell-Stone. “Now, all of a sudden, since you used that computer, your information is exposed to law enforcement and can be used in ways that (it) wasn’t intended.”

http://www.timesargus.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080720/NEWS01/807200410/-1/RSS14

This is really bothersome.  I wrote a post not long ago about Brooke Bennett, and the shock waves that her disappearance and death had caused in Vermont.   It will be quite interesting for me to read the letters to the editor over the next few weeks responding to this particular article.

The privacy rights of library patrons has been a matter of contention since the Patriot Act was put into place in the country.  I probably wouldn’t even be writing this post, were it not for one particular paragraph in the article that pretty much leapt off the page at me:

“Baker wouldn’t discuss what information was gleaned from the computers or what state police did with information about other people, except to say the scope of the warrant was restricted to the missing girl investigation. “

So, okay, the scope of the warrant was limited to information about Brooke Bennett.  But, Baker “…wouldn’t discuss what information was gleaned from the computers or what state police did with information about other people…”  By inference, this seems to say that information about other people, outside the scope of the warrant, was indeed taken from the computers.  After all, Baker did not say that no other information about other people was examined.

A good cop has a curious nature.  This is a good quality for a cop to have.  But, it can also be a dangerous quality, if you think about it.  Imagine that you’re a cop, and suddenly, in the course of an investigation, you find yourself in possession of computers that hold a veritable wealth of information about an awful lot of people in your community.  Information about what they like to research via the library computers, which provide, at least at first glance, a sort of anonymity for the user.  Seeking information, in and of itself, is not a crime.  But it is being used as an indicator of possible crime now.  I can pretty much guarantee that if you, out of simple curiosity, or for a school research paper, or for whatever reason, surf around the net looking at, say, some of the hardcore neo-Nazi web sites, someone in law enforcement is going to take a bit of a closer look at you.

Which brings me to my little “extra cash enterprise.”  I do web searches for cell phone users through a company called ChaCha.  I am asked to look up pretty much anything that you can imagine.  I wonder – am I being watched now, because of some of the really odd things that I research for people?  Well, no matter.  I’ve most likely been under scrutiny for some time, because I have researched some pretty strange stuff in the past.  White supremacist groups, neo-Nazis, terrorist organizations, etc.  I’m pretty sure that my IP address is flagged somewhere by someone in law enforcement.

I’m so tired of hearing, “Well, if you don’t have anything to hide, why not just give them what they want to see?”  Well, I’ll tell you why.  Because even though I have nothing to hide, what I do, so long as it is not criminal in nature, and does not harm someone, and does not impede a lawful investigation, is no business of anyone, the police or otherwise.  The fact that I have researched neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups does not make me a neo-Nazi or a white supremacist, nor does it make me sympathetic to their cause.  The same can be said about any other topic I may choose to research and investigate.  I once researched the construction of a nuclear bomb, simply because I wanted to find out if, in fact, it was possible to find this information on the internet.  It is.  That does not mean that I’m going to build a nuke in my shed next weekend.   (Do you have any idea how difficult it is to obtain weapons-grade Plutonium?)

The librarian in this case, Judith Flint, did the right thing.  She has a responsibility to the people of her community who use the library to protect their personal information.  She didn’t refuse to cooperate, she simply told the police that she would not turn over the equipment without a warrant.  That was not only her right, but in this case, it was her duty.

We need more people like Judith Flint, and far fewer people like George W. Bush…

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Let me say, right out of the gate, that I’m in no way trying to equate this particular form of pressure on males with the pressure that women have faced for years.  Women have been bombarded with advertising images that make them constantly question their appearance, their weight, their sex appeal, etc.  And while men have also been under this kind of pressure, it’s not nearly to the extent that women have faced.

There is though, something that I’ve noticed of late.  This is not something new by any means, but it is far more open now than I can remember it being in the past.  In my last post, I mentioned being kind of down for the count with a back injury, and having more time to watch the stupid tube.  I am, of course, talking about “male enhancement products.”

Now, these ads have been around for a long time.  But in the past, they were pretty much relegated to the back pages of some of the sleazier “men’s magazines.”  (Hey!  I was a teen-aged boy once, you know.  A long time ago, but still…)  These ads used to offer mechanical devices that would supposedly enlarge the penis, and I suspect, be an aid to masturbation at the same time.   These days, we’re being offered pills, natural supplements that will supposedly do the same thing.

What is this thing that men have about penis size?  I mean, are we that insecure about it?  The average adult male, depending on whose data you look at, sports a penis that is anywhere from 5.1 inches in length, to 6.4 inches in length.  This is, one would assume, an erect penis we’re talking about.  In preparing for this post, I asked a few women about the subject.  Granted, I only talked to four women, but they all told me emphatically that size is a minor consideration, unless it’s “freakishly small,” to use one woman’s words.  They also told me that almost every man they’ve ever known tends to exaggerate the size of his penis if asked about it.  I don’t get it.

For the record, I have never taken the time to measure my penis.  Frankly, I don’t really care exactly how long it is.  In those situations, (very rare – actually, non-existent these days), where I’ve had the occasion and good fortune to have my penis on display for a woman, no one has ever pointed at it and laughed, so I figure I’m good.  I am not large.  Nor am I small.  I am…  Well, average, I guess.

And yet, I have read accounts of men who, after a woman made one comment, even as a joke, that might be remotely construed as making fun of his penis, began to have problems with impotence.  While I can’t remember them specifically, I do remember that there have been times in the past when a woman would make a joke about my penis.  It certainly didn’t stop me from, well, rising to the occasion again the next time around.  I just don’t understand it, really.

We men are quite fond of our penises.  I know that I’m very fond of mine, and I’d certainly miss it if I were to lose it.  Short of a catastrophic accident, I don’t see that happening.  Despite the fact that these days it pretty much only serves to empty my bladder, I still have a sort of a love affair with it.  Men are like that, what can I say.

And now, to make matters worse, we have commercials running, offering to give us that extra size that will “make her happy.”  They do “interviews” with guys on the street, and they’re always standing next to a very attractive woman, who is smiling at him, rather indulgently, in my opinion.  Not gazing in wide-eyed, rapt adoration, but looking at him as if to say, “Hey, if it makes you feel better, go for it, Dude.”

I’m not even sure why I felt the urge to write this post, really.  Partly, I guess, at the idea that there are guys out there who will actually be suckered into this.  For example, I do part-time work as a Guide for ChaCha.  (If you don’t know what that is, Google for it.)  A little extra cash that helps to pay for a couple of self-indulgences.  In any event, the two questions I am, overwhelmingly, asked to answer the most often are:  “What is the average size of a man’s penis?” and, “Does size really matter?”  We are such suckers!!

At any rate, guys, listen up:  You’ve got a penis.  If it functions, if you can take a leak with it, under its own power; if it stands up when it’s supposed to; if it at the very least makes her smile when you’re doing the horizontal bop, then don’t worry about how big it is.  Ask around – I bet you’ll find that almost every woman you ask will say it doesn’t matter how big it is.

And no, she’s not lying to make you feel good about yourself…

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What The Hell?

Have I missed something? I try to stay fairly current with things in this country, and around the world, although I’m not what you’d ever call a news junkie. I know that roughly sixty-five percent of American adults are either obese or overweight; I know that approximately thirty-two percent of children and adolescents fall into the same category; I know that the rates of heart disease are climbing, etc. But what I didn’t know, what I somehow missed along the way, is that there must be a really huge proportion of us who are going deaf.

I don’t normally watch a lot of television. I have my few favorites, but for the most part, I find commercial television to be pretty stupid. But recently, I had the opportunity (read, “misfortune”) to spend some down time on the couch after injuring my back fairly badly. So, out of sheer boredom, and a lack of anything that piqued my immediate interest to read, I spent some time watching the stupid tube.

I suppose it’s a testament to the fact that I don’t watch a lot of television that I’ve not noticed this phenomenon before. After settling in for a guilty hour of watching “Law & Order,” the first commercial break came on. It nearly deafened me! I mean, what the hell!? Do advertisers think that they’re going to get the message across to me any better by cranking up the volume of their commercials to the point of causing me pain and possible hearing damage?

The first time I noticed this, I jumped, then yelped in pain when the sudden movement caused yet another spasm in my lower back. Then I swore, because I’d dropped the remote control to the floor, and had to kind of roll on to my side to find it, all the while being assaulted by this screaming commercial for some stupid mail-order product. I finally located it, found the mute button, which I seldom have use for, and brought blessed silence to the room.

This happened during each commercial break. Not only that, but I noticed something else, too. It’s not all of the commercials that blast out at you with a volume level comparable to the sound of an F-16 fighter with full afterburners on. Oh, no. It’s only select commercials that do this. So, I can infer from that little quirk that the television networks are charging more for the added volume. I have visions of sales reps speaking to advertisers: “Well, Mr. Sham-Wow representative. A thirty-second slot at normal volume costs $1,000.00. But, for an extra $500.00, we can double the volume, and make sure that the consumer hears you even if he or she is standing in the back yard!” (I chose that product because I find the narrator on the commercial to be extremely obnoxious.)

The population is growing older. And with advancing age, many people do lose some hearing – hell, I’m losing mine to a point, but that’s from too many years of standing in front of a guitar amplifier, oblivious to the fact that I was destroying my eardrums. Whatever. If I need to have the volume turned up; if your product is that interesting to me, and I can’t hear the commercial, trust me, I’ll turn it up myself. I don’t need you to compensate for me, thank you very much.

And since I’m on the topic of television commercials, what the hell is it with advertisers that they feel like they have to run the same commercial twice, back to back? Do they think that the repetition is going to make me buy the product any sooner? I’m sorry, but watching the same commercial for “Head On” twice in a row is not helping you sell it to me, it’s doing the opposite. The commercials are so damned annoying that by making me watch it twice, back to back, you will make certain that I do not buy your product, just so that I can get some sort of weak revenge against you.

Oh, and let’s not forget the commercials for products that are “not available in stores.” They all come with a “full, thirty day, money back guarantee. If you’re not satisfied, just return it, and we’ll refund your money!!” They tout this as though they’re doing you a favor. I have news for you: The Federal Trade Commission has this little rule in place:

“Unless the seller specifically states that he does not offer a money-back guarantee or offers, for example, a 30 day money back guarantee, he is required to make a full refund for a period of 60 days if the material is returned in good condition.”

Period, end of story. The seller isn’t offering you something grand and amazing, he’s simply covering his ass, because he’s required by law to refund your money during that period if you return the merchandise in good condition. So, why is the advertiser saying he offers a “full, 30 day money back guarantee?” He’s saying it because if he doesn’t say it, then he is required to honor a 60 day money back guarantee. Ya gotta love those Madison Avenue guys, don’t you?

And let’s be fair. It’s not just commercial television that does this thing with the volume. Watching my beloved PBS station one evening, a lot of shows now have sponsors or supporters, who are listed at the beginning and/or end of the program. That’s fine, and PBS actually refers to them as supporters, not sponsors. But when they run those announcements about the proud supporters, that volume goes right through the roof again.

You know, I’m beginning to remind myself of that crabby, irascible old man who lived down the street when I was a kid. You know the one I mean. He’d be watching the neighborhood constantly, just waiting for an opportunity to bitch and gripe at something one of us kids had done, threatening to call our parents, calling us “young hoodlums,” and generally being a pain in the ass because everything just seemed to piss him off. These days, it seems that almost everything “just pisses me off.”

Holy shit! I’m becoming that old man from my childhood. So far, though, it’s not the neighborhood kids who piss me off, or even, most of the time, adults around me. It’s that indefinable “they.” The government, television, music, blah, blah, blah. The world is falling apart.

God, how I hate getting old…

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Brooke Bennett

Brooke Bennett

Yesterday, the Vermont State Police discovered the body of twelve-year-old Brooke Bennett, buried in a shallow grave near her uncle’s home. Evidence uncovered in the uncle’s home led police to her body. The uncle, Michael Jacques, is presently being held in jail on unrelated charges of sexual assault on another minor girl. He is officially a “person of interest” in Brooke Bennett’s death

All of Vermont is in a state of shock at this moment. This sort of thing happens so rarely here, that when it does, we who live here are always stunned at the sudden realization that the cold, cruel world that exists outside of our borders does, on occasion, creep in here. Visitors come here, and they see our pristine mountains, the deep green color that dominates the landscape, and the first word that comes to mind is, “Peaceful.” Vermont is the epitome of the word “idyllic.”

We Vermonters just aren’t used to this kind of crime. In 1976, there were a total of twenty-six murders in Vermont. That was the highest number that I could find. In 2006, the last year that I could find, there were twelve. In the entire state.

Vermont has been taking some bad press because of its “less than tough stance” with sexual offender laws. And I suppose that in some ways, when compared to the more draconian laws of other states, this might be true. I’m not going to claim to have any answers here, because I don’t have them. Michael Jacques, Bennett’s uncle, is a registered sex offender. It would appear that somehow, this guy slipped through the cracks, because the Vermont Sex Offender Registry web site does not list him as being a “high risk” offender. And now, he’s going to become one of those poster children that you see: The violent sexual offender who gets out of prison and then goes on to kidnap and murder another victim. The case will be used to push for tougher laws. And it’s very likely the laws here will become tougher.

Why does this disturb me? Well, Michael Jacques is one of the rarities when it comes to sex offenders. I know, I know – we all hear about those monsters who re-offend, killing someone in the process. But those are the rare ones, believe it or not. They make the news, because they have good shock value, and good “entertainment” value. The ones we don’t hear about are those who commit a crime, go to prison, are treated, released, and never commit a crime again. They are the vast majority. And they’ll become victims of this crime, every bit as much as Brooke was.

With all due respect, I have a question for Brooke’s mother. While my heart goes out to her, in so many ways about this, I have to wonder: What on earth was she thinking? Why on earth was this child ever allowed to be alone with Jacques in the first place? I understand that the man is her uncle, but in my mind, that’s even more reason that he should not have been left alone with her. The vast majority of sexual offenses against children are not committed by strangers. They are perpetrated by a close friend or family member. Brooke’s mother knew of his conviction for aggravated sexual assault. She knew that he’s a registered sex offender. What was she thinking?

In the end, though, this comes down to Brooke. A beautiful young girl, whose life was taken before it had a chance to really even begin. I can’t even imagine what she suffered in her last hours. But I also believe, in my heart of hearts, that Brooke has found some peace.

Rest in Peace, Brooke. Know that you are missed, and that you’re loved, by everyone here who has heard of your plight. As horrific as your last hours must have been, I believe that you are in a better place.

I have to believe this.

If I don’t, then I’ll lose all hope for every one of us…

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