Open Thread: Pre-Crimes Thwarted in Alabama

Well, here’s a little late-night horrorshow, soon (no doubt) to be a direct-to-video movie starring Tom Cruise and Aasif Mandvi…

Act I, a post at NYMag, “Alabama School District Hired an Ex-FBI Agent to Monitor Students on Social Media“:

… A monitoring program in an Alabama school district paid a former FBI agent $157,000 to monitor the social-media interactions of students, resulting in 14 expulsions last year.

The program targeted 600 of Huntsville’s 24,000 students over the past year through a program called SAFe, Students Against Fear. Teachers or students could anonymously tip Chris McRae, the ex-FBI agent, about alarming things, and McRae would then scour their social-media accounts for signs linking them to drugs, weapons, gangs, or sex. (What, exactly, would count as an expulsion-worthy transgression isn’t clear.)

To make privacy matters more alarming, 12 of the 14 students expelled owing to social-media monitoring were black. This is in a school district where suspensions of black students already exceed their percentage of the student body: Just 40 percent of the district’s schoolchildren are black, but they accounted for 78 percent of expulsions last year…

(Orwell himself couldn’t have come up with a more ironic title for this spy program than “Students Against Fear,” although I suspect the idiosyncratic capitalization would’ve killed him if he weren’t already dead.)

Act II, I clicked over to the source article, read the comments, and got referred back to a series of AL.com articles at the end of September, starting with “Huntsville schools say call from NSA led to monitoring students online“:

A secret program to monitor students’ online activities began quietly in Huntsville schools, following a phone call from the NSA, school officials say.

Huntsville schools Superintendent Casey Wardynski says the system began monitoring social media sites 18 months ago, after the National Security Agency tipped the school district to a student making violent threats on Facebook.

The NSA, a U.S. agency responsible for foreign intelligence, this week said it has no record of a call to Huntsville and does not make calls to school systems…

About a year and half ago, Wardynski said, the NSA called Huntsville and reported a high school student had threatened on Facebook to injure a teacher.

Al Lankford, the city’s longtime school security officer, told AL.com that he took the NSA phone call. He said security officers went to the high school and eventually searched the boy’s car.

“We found a very good size knife and the student was expelled,” said Wardynski, a former U.S. Army colonel appointed as superintendent in Huntsville in 2011…

“There was a foreign connection,” said Wardynski, explaining why the NSA would contact Huntsville schools. He said the student in Huntsville had made the online threats while chatting online with a group that included an individual in Yemen….

Act III, that student with the Yemeni in his chat group outed himself:

Auseel Yousefi says he did it. He sent the tweets that school officials say led to a warning from the NSA which led Huntsville to begin monitoring student Facebook pages.

But he says it was all a joke, a bad one — a stand-up routine that would cost him the first semester of his senior year at Lee High School.

On the day he got in trouble, Yousefi says, he was taken into a room full of administrators and shown emailed photos of a series of jokes on his Twitter feed. He says the administrators alternately referred to reports of threats forwarded by “the NSA” or an “NSA affiliate.”

“It meant absolutely nothing to me at the time,” he said of the National Security Agency, the U.S. government’s global spy network. Instead, Yousefi was focused on defending the humor in those tweets. Then school security searched his car. They found a jeweled dagger from a Renaissance fair in the glove box. Yousefi would be expelled for one semester.

Superintendent Casey Wardynski has said the NSA contacted the system because of the foreign connection. Yousefi, now a student at Birmingham-Southern, said he was born and raised in Alabama, but his parents were from Yemen…

… After an interview with AL.com, Yousefi texted to say he remembered the name GEOCOP, a cyber security software program.

There are identical news reports out of Texas and Phoenix last year, reports of GEOCOP representatives, despite having no contract, calling school systems to warn of online threats from students. But GEOCOP today also said it wasn’t them…

It was his last day of junior year at Lee High School. Yousefi said he woke up early and decided: “How funny would it be if I tweeted last day of school jokes?”

He announced a list of what he would do that day. He sent four or five tweets.

“In retrospect, it was a very dumb thing to do.”

The first was the most problematic. Yousefi said he wrote” “I’m going to chop (his biology teacher) in the throat.” To his mind, it was harmless. It was an inside joke, he said, as the female teacher had used similar language to get the class to be quiet. The students thought it was funny….

He said he blamed Wardynski for his expulsion at one point. But then learned he could have been expelled for his whole senior year. “I have a lot of respect for the guy,” said Yousefi, who speaks highly of just about every teacher and administrator.

“If I could undo this, I don’t think I would, purely for the reason that I did more growing in these six months than all of high school,” he said.

He said he used to be a class clown, and was somewhat more introverted when he returned to Lee. But he said teachers were supportive. He said the same biology teacher offered to make him her lab assistant. He is now studying cognitive science and economics at Birmingham-Southern. The dagger is in a chest in his room at home.

But he still wonders why his Twitter account was singled out…

So — we have a private for-profit corporation scouring social websites, looking for student “threats” it can use to scam pants-wetting school administrators for fat contracts; and a Yemeni-American high school kid getting suspending for six months for making dumb jokes on Twitter; leading to a former FBI agent (McRae) getting $157,000 to snoop on all the high school kids in Huntsville; resulting in some dicey punishments that just so happen to mostly affect African-American students. And for once, it seems like the NSA may have had its name taken in vain!

It’d make a great farce, if it weren’t for the kids suffering, and also the scarce school funding poured down the security-theatre rathole…






51 replies
  1. 1
    Morzer says:

    For another glance at our bright, brave future in which we all get fisted by the invisible hand in the iron glove:

    http://www.theguardian.com/soc.....f-comments

    A man who was let go at the end of a temporary job has been ordered by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to work for the same firm for six months without pay.

    Electronics specialist John McArthur, now unemployed, says he is living off 16p tins of spaghetti and without heating after being sanctioned by a jobcentre for refusing to work unpaid for LAMH Recycle in Motherwell, a Scottish social enterprise.

    He says he was happy to work for LAMH under the now-defunct future jobs fund for the minimum wage in 2010-2011, but refuses on principle to do the same job unpaid.

    McArthur, 59, says he is surviving on a monthly pension of £149 after the DWP stopped his unemployment benefit until January as punishment for his refusal to go on the 26-week community work placement (CWP).

    No doubt creatures like Megan McArdle will explain that he should just have brought an app to market and magically become a millionaire overnight. Or maybe he should have trained toddlers how to rush at gunmen equipped with AK47s and secured his future that way.

  2. 2
    waspuppet says:

    But he still wonders why his Twitter account was singled out…

    I don’t.

  3. 3
    JGabriel says:

    AL.com:

    Huntsville schools Superintendent Casey Wardynski says the system began monitoring social media sites 18 months ago, after the National Security Agency tipped the school district to a student making violent threats on Facebook.

    The NSA, a U.S. agency responsible for foreign intelligence, this week said it has no record of a call to Huntsville and does not make calls to school systems…

    Hard to know who’s lying here. Calling school districts to warn them of naughty online behavior really does sound like it would be outside of the NSA’s bailiwick.

    On the other hand, there's a reason people say NSA stands for Never Say Anything, and the fact that the student who allegedly provoked the call has Yemeni parents lends credence to the idea that the NSA is lying about …

    Scratch that. Of course the NSA is lying. There’s no doubt that Yemeni heritage is cause enough for NSA spying, because the default NSA justification is not Is there reasonable suspicion? but Why not?

  4. 4
    Morzer says:

    @JGabriel:

    It sounds to me exactly like the sort of thing that conservative busybodies would do just because they can and because it gives them a thrill. I’d be more inclined to suspect Malkin’s rabble at Tweakers or Erick bin Erick’s mob at Deadhead State than the NSA. Sure, the NSA has plenty of faults, but I just don’t see why they would want to be anywhere near this sort of obvious idiocy. My bet, if I had to place one, would be a group of local conservative wannabes “protecting their children” from the Yemeni Sharia Teenage Communist State.

  5. 5
    Botsplainer says:

    Given that the asshole kid was “joking” on Twitter, the call probably came from somebody on his twitter feed pretending to be NSA.

    Anyway, glad to see that the Alabama taxpayers coughed up about 10K per disciplined kid – or over 2K per targeted kid on their consultant. Great use of resources.

    One wonders what could have been accomplished with that money had it been applied to extracurriculars and broader instruction topics.

  6. 6
    Temporarily Max McGee (soon enough to be Andy K again) says:

    @Morzer:

    Yep. Hanlon’s Razor in full effect.

  7. 7
    JGabriel says:

    @Morzer:

    Sure, the NSA has plenty of faults, but I just don’t see why they would want to be anywhere near this sort of obvious idiocy.

    Maybe I’m wrong, though I kind of think engaging in obvious idiocy is a default position for our intelligence agencies.

    Alternately, if I recall correctly, the NSA has (or had) a section devoted to analysis of publicly available information – international news sites, online monitoring, that kind of thing. Possibly they contracted GEOCOP to handle social media monitoring, then someone at GEOCOP contacted the school districts while using citing their ties to the NSA to justify the call, and then that morphed into ooh, the NSA called us in a typical game of Telephone fashion.

    Honestly, that seems like the most reasonable scenario. It seems unlikely that the Alabama kid would have even heard of GEOCOP unless they were involved and someone mentioned them to him.

  8. 8
    NotMax says:

    More ancillary than related to the post, but recall that in the recommended and humorous little bon-bon of a travel book “Baghdad Without A Map,” the author describes the capital of Yemen, Sana’a, as a city which appears to have been designed by Dr. Seuss.

  9. 9
    Baud says:

    The NSA would not call the school directly. It absolutely would not call the school directly and say, “Hey, guys, this is the NSA.” C’mon, people.

  10. 10
    Morzer says:

    @Baud:

    ‘Tis true. These days they call the school and identify themselves as Glenn Greenwald. Or so my sources tell me.

  11. 11

    Am I the only one who finds this part sad?

    He said he used to be a class clown, and was somewhat more introverted when he returned to Lee.

  12. 12
    Temporarily Max McGee (soon enough to be Andy K again) says:

    @JGabriel:

    Honestly, that seems like the most reasonable scenario. It seems unlikely that the Alabama kid would have even heard of GEOCOP unless they were involved and someone mentioned them to him.

    It seems more likely that the former FBI guy in the hire of the school system would be familiar with GEOCOP. Maybe he dropped the name in fromnt of the kid.

    Maybe he proposed to the school system at some point that they subscribe to GEOCOP, and someone else in the employ of the school system mentioned it, maybe mistakenly, thinking that the school system was subscribing to GEOCOP; maybe just trying drop the name GEOCOP as to have the same effect as, “This will go down on your PERMANENT RECORD!”

    Why would the NSA, in the late spring of 2013, with the Snowden accusations exploding all around them, call a goddamned school system rather than, say, drop a tip to the actual FBI, if drop a tip at all?

  13. 13
    JGabriel says:

    @Karen in GA: No, you’re not. I thought the same thing too. Introversion and self-repression are common reactions to excessive punishment.

  14. 14
    Morzer says:

    @Temporarily Max McGee (soon enough to be Andy K again):

    I would put bets on the superintendant trying to scare the kid by referencing the NSA and Geocop as a means of making the “investigation” as short and easy as possible. I still don’t see what reason the NSA could conceivably have for dicking around with this sort of stuff – especially when they couldn’t claim any credit for it. Taxpayers terrified of ISIS/AlQaeda/TheScaryBlackPresidentUnderTheLilyWhiteBed aren’t going to want to fund an agency to pester kids because of their Twitter accounts and some crass teenage humor.

  15. 15
    NotMax says:

    It was his last day of junior year at Lee High School

    Fairly confident the place wasn’t named for Pinky or Peggy.

  16. 16
    JGabriel says:

    @Temporarily Max McGee (soon enough to be Andy K again):

    It seems more likely that the former FBI guy in the hire of the school system would be familiar with GEOCOP. Maybe he dropped the name in fromnt of the kid.

    If I read the story correctly, the former FBI guy hadn’t been hired yet when the school confronted the kid. He was hired afterwards, as a reaction to the phone call.

    Also, I tend to think now that it was GEOCOP who made the call, not the NSA, as the story explicitly refers to previous stories involving alleged calls to schools from GEOCOP.

  17. 17
    Baud says:

    @Temporarily Max McGee (soon enough to be Andy K again):

    I think a government security contractor is even less likely than the government to get take the initiative to do something like this. Maybe some employee acting on his own initiative, but I can’t imagine anything beyond that.

  18. 18
    Temporarily Max McGee (soon enough to be Andy K again) says:

    @Morzer:

    Retired Army Colonel/School Superintendent: “Oh, yeah, that’s the kid from Yemen. I know what’ll scare him real good!”

  19. 19
    JGabriel says:

    @Morzer:

    Taxpayers terrified of ISIS/AlQaeda/TheScaryBlackPresidentUnderTheLilyWhiteBed aren’t going to want to fund an agency to pester kids because of their Twitter accounts …

    They will want an agency to pester kids if those taxpayers are Conservatives and the pestered kids are Islamic or Black.

  20. 20
    Morzer says:

    I would point out that it’s at least interesting that the three cases of this sort of harassment of students have all occurred in deep red states – Alabama, Texas, Arizona, all of which have a substantial part of the population heavily invested in white supremacy/pantswetting fear of Scary People – and that these shenanigans don’t seem to have happened in blue states. Now, admittedly this isn’t what you would call a big selection of data points, but I have to imagine that if the NSA were behind this they’d be doing it on a more nation-wide scale. I still think that some conservative group of paranoid and malicious bigots is behind this series of dimes being dropped – and the NSA is an easy whipping-boy to use for the purpose of concealing their own pointy-headed, thick-buttocked identities.

  21. 21
    Temporarily Max McGee (soon enough to be Andy K again) says:

    @Baud:

    Jesus, he Tweeted it! It was some classmate or classmate’s parent who fucking reported it.

    @JGabriel:

    If I read the story correctly, the former FBI guy hadn’t been hired yet when the school confronted the kid. He was hired afterwards, as a reaction to the phone call.

    Okay, then, the retired Army colonel with a hard on for snooping on students had been checking out options.

  22. 22
    JGabriel says:

    @Morzer:

    I still think that some conservative group of paranoid and malicious bigots is behind this series of dimes being dropped …

    Which would seem to be a plausible description of HMSTech/GEOCOP if you read their brochure.

  23. 23
    Morzer says:

    @Temporarily Max McGee (soon enough to be Andy K again):

    I guess Somebody Writes To The Colonel after all….

    With apologies to Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

  24. 24
    JGabriel says:

    @Temporarily Max McGee (soon enough to be Andy K again):

    It was some classmate or classmate’s parent who fucking reported it.

    A classmate, who probably would have got the joke, isn’t likely – though admittedly it’s plausible a parent would make the call if they saw the tweet. In that case, though, I just don’t think anyone would have thought to mention GEOCOP to justify their response – the NSA maybe, but GEOCOP is a pretty obscure reference.

  25. 25
    Morzer says:

    @JGabriel:

    The brochure looks like standard-issue surveillance technobabble to me. They may well be right wing thugs (with minimal training!), but I am not seeing that in the corporate propaganda sheet.

  26. 26
    Morzer says:

    @JGabriel:

    All it takes is one kid who didn’t like our insufficiently introverted Yemeni student. I don’t know about you, but my memory of high school is a bit lacking in the universal peace, harmony and mutual affection department.

  27. 27
    JGabriel says:

    @Baud:

    I think a government security contractor is even less likely than the government to get take the initiative to do something like this.

    You have a much higher opinion of government security contractors than I possess.

    Maybe some employee acting on his own initiative …

    This. With the proviso that the employee could have easily been someone in upper management.

  28. 28
    Temporarily Max McGee (soon enough to be Andy K again) says:

    @JGabriel:

    Holy friggin’ paranoia…The dickhead schoolmate who follows anonymously on Twitter, who hates Ayrabs in general and this kid in particular, could have easily dropped a dime just ’cause assholes do what assholes do. You don’t need a whole lot of money invested in shit like a GEOCOP subscription to get one teenager to fuck with another, and the way kids use social media these days, they’re just giving their peers ample ammunition with which to fuck ’em up but good.

    ETA: Were you home-schooled, or were you in a coma when everyone else your age was in high school? Teenagers can be real shits.

  29. 29
    Morzer says:

    @Temporarily Max McGee (soon enough to be Andy K again):

    All you need is one teenage boy whose unwitting crush told him that “Yemeni Boy is really hot and has the most enormous scimitar” and boom goes the neural dynamite and vengeance is on the menu.

  30. 30
    JGabriel says:

    @Morzer:

    I don’t know about you, but my memory of high school is a bit lacking in the universal peace, harmony and mutual affection department.

    My memory is decidedly similar, but I tend to recall the kids doling out the beatings, vengeance, and ridicule themselves rather than reporting things to people in authority. By the time High School rolled around, no one wanted to be called a snitch.

  31. 31
    Temporarily Max McGee (soon enough to be Andy K again) says:

    @Morzer:

    Yeah, no shit.

    But, then, jamming square pegs into round holes is the favorite pass time of some adults on the interwebs.

  32. 32
    Temporarily Max McGee (soon enough to be Andy K again) says:

    @JGabriel:

    Being a snitch is the way some kids dole out the beatings, and they often find it so rewarding that they continue doing the same their entire life. Consider yourself lucky if you’ve never crossed paths with that person.

  33. 33
    Chris says:

    Since it’s an open thread, anybody heard about this before?

    U.S. Company Hiring Mercenaries To Kill ISIS; Starting Pay $500K/yr – Only Requirement Is To Kill Members Of ISIS

    Clicking on the article will get you the founder of the company unironically paraphrasing Aldo Raine in Inglorious Basterds as the mission statement/creed of the company, along with Birther/thepresidentsamuslim conspiracism (totally suggesting that the mercs will be highly discriminating in targeting ISIS members only and not everybody in the region who is or totally looks like he might be a Muslim).

    Central American style death squads are apparently back in business. Or maybe I should simply use that pithy phrase, “the American Taliban.”

  34. 34
    Morzer says:

    @JGabriel:

    Sure, but back in the day there was nothing like Twitter, much less an ongoing state of paranoid terror about Ayrabs under the bed. We are living in a culture where teens drive “odd” kids to suicide via Facebook stalking or gang up to denounce a girl who sends the wrong boy a pic of her nekkid boobs as a “slut”. Hell, the kid wouldn’t even need to walk into the principal’s office to drop the dime. All it takes is a burner account and an email.

  35. 35
    Baud says:

    The NSA should get into the infidelity business. People would pay a fortune for that information.

  36. 36
    Cervantes says:

    @NotMax:

    The General is present but officially denied and officially invisible.

  37. 37
    Baud says:

    @JGabriel:

    You have a much higher opinion of government security contractors than I possess.

    It wasn’t a comment on their integrity. If anything, it was a comment about their lack of interest in anything other than the bottom line.

  38. 38
    Morzer says:

    @Cervantes:

    He’s living in the attic with the other Confederates.

  39. 39
    Gvg says:

    Yeah, well I do think it was an exceptionally dumb joke. In fact I wouldn’t take for granted it was a joke. teachers can’t always take for granted txt
    That these things are a joke and school bullying is something that makes schools think they need to monitor social media. if I was a parent I would have reported a joke like that. of course I wouldn’t make up a story about the NSA nor hire an ex FBI agent for a lot of money.
    I suspect someone is lying, maybe multiple liars.
    the trend to expel mostly black students is more of a problem I want to hear about. the first kid pretty much made his own trouble and flat out needs to never make that kind of joke again.
    If the NSA wants to make a call like that or GEO, they need to be able to prove to any body that they are who they say they are and any school official acting on such a tip needs to be able to ask for proof of source and documentation. anybody can say they got a call like that unless their is more substance though they shouldn’t be believed nesscesarily.

  40. 40
    Morzer says:

    @Baud:

    Most people manage to be unfaithful without relying on government handouts, you Communist love-moocher!

    Anyway, isn’t that what the free market and Ashley Madison are for?

  41. 41
    Crusty Dem says:

    The 12:2 black/white expulsion ratio is absolutely damning. Am i supposed to believe that white kids are disproportionately restrained online? Because that is frankly absurd..

  42. 42
    Elmo says:

    @Chris:
    It’s satire, and not particularly good satire at that. The article quotes one prospective merc as having injected himself with Ebola, so he can infect ISIS fighters when they cut off his head.

    Note also the name of the company. G6S? It’s satirizing G4S, a real Govt security contractor with a dodgy history. Just not that dodgy.

  43. 43
    Chris says:

    @Elmo:

    Oh, good.

    That’s what I get for reposting stuff before having had coffee, I guess.

  44. 44
    YellowDog says:

    Before he went all in on Tolkien, Peter Jackson made “The Frighteners,” about a man who can see spirits and uses them to con people into hiring him as an exorcist/ghostbuster. It is an under appreciated movie, a different type of role for Michael J. Fox, and it was the first thing that came to mind when I read this story.

  45. 45
    Crusty Dem says:

    @YellowDog:

    That was a good one, though comparing the NSA to spirits might be a bit much.

  46. 46
    YellowDog says:

    @Crusty Dem: Spies are sometimes called spooks. But this seems like trolling by a private company looking for a few easy contracts for the company or its associates. Have there been other instances of the NSA calling a school district, a college, or a company about a student or an employee? It seems too direct and would expose them to public criticism.

  47. 47
    jonas says:

    @Botsplainer:

    One wonders what could have been accomplished with that money had it been applied to extracurriculars and broader instruction topics.

    Some of those resources might have benefited students of color, so they determined it would be wiser to waste on on bullshit where at least some white guys make out like bandits.

  48. 48
    RSR says:

    A case that unfolded yesterday in suburban Philadelphia has resulted in an 17 year high school student facing charges for making terroristic threats.

    Radnor police: Girl threatened school shooting

    A Radnor High School senior who had a “fascination” with the Columbine High School massacre of 15 years ago wrote about shooting “everyone in classrooms” and blowing up the cafeteria, police said Monday.
    .
    .
    Colarulo said students were not in any danger. Police searched the student’s home and her locker at school, and no weapons were found.

    Colarulo did not say how the journal entries came to the attention of school officials, who alerted police.
    .
    .
    Colarulo said the student, who would be charged as a juvenile with making terroristic threats, has a history of treatment for “psychological issues.”

    “She is getting the help she needs,” he said.

    Colarulo said the girl’s parents were cooperating with police.

    I have a lot of concern about charges being the appropriate way to handle this situation.

  49. 49
    Mike in NC says:

    Funny how many stories involving corruption and stupidity are tied to former FBI agents.

  50. 50
    Danack says:

    @Baud: “The NSA should get into the infidelity business. People would pay a fortune for that information.”

    Who says they haven’t?

    I have suspicions that even back in the Echelon days, the resistance of the spy agencies to any meaningful oversight was due to them having highly profitable sidelines providing information acquired to large corporations.

    The more personal information being acquired now would be a natural extension of that profitable sideline.

  51. 51
    Mnemosyne says:

    @RSR:

    Well, it’s a plus that she would be charged as a juvenile, not an adult. Also, it’s not that uncommon for prosecutors to hold the threat of charges over people to force them into psychiatric or substance abuse treatment — if they agree to undergo treatment and complete it, the other charges are dropped. I don’t really consider it ethical, but it’s fairly common.

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