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CINEMA: Sexy Beast

Friday, April 18th, 2014


UNDER THE SKIN (2013, directed by Jonathan Glazer, 108 minutes, U.K.)

There’s a moment early on in Jonathan Glazer’s hallucinatory new film Under the Skin where Scarlett Johansson’s unnamed character plucks an ant from a lifeless body and inspects it indifferently. The fleeting scene sets the tone for this grimly hypnotizing little mood piece, as it invites us to study the young woman as she moves through her surreal rituals like a bug collecting its prey. Long on process and short on explanation, Under the Skin pulls us into its spell by eschewing formula and refusing to wrap up its mysteries in a tidy package.

Director Jonathan Glazer has shown wonderful visual acuity in the pair of features proceeding this, 2000′s gangster study Sexy Beast and 2004′s reincarnation mystery Birth, but neither of them prepared us for the abstract style he has summoned for his latest film. Much of the action is shown in long takes from a medium distance that refuse to underline details of narrative or metaphoric importance. In the overly-literal style that dominates the film world of sci-fi (just one of the genres with which Under the Skin flirts) the film’s story stands resistant to any definitive meaning. It delivers its images from a detached perspective that gives it a similar jolt to classic Russian cinema. The film demands you lean forward and study each scene for detail and in general, art that requests more out of its viewer tends to reward much more deeply as well.

Much of the film is spent following The Woman as she wanders around the Scottish countryside looking for men to seduce. Johansson doesn’t look like a movie starlet in these scenes, she is instead dressed in some slightly ratty working class party clothes and her hair is dyed dark. One-by-one, she picks up hitchhikers in her van until she finds one that will follow her somewhere private. Once she and these poor horny bastards arrive to that darkened place the bottom drops out and they are trapped like a disbelieving fly in a web. Johansson is sometimes criticized for being unemotive but her restraint is useful in this role, where she often acts in scenes with non-actors who bring a discomforting intimacy to their ultimate demise. Glazer gives these scenes a wildly abstract design, at times collapsing into a vividly blurry light show that has drawn comparisons to the otherworldly ending of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It goes from this surreal pageantry back to the much more earthly spectacle of Scarlett Johansson traversing across the screen naked. It is enough to give admirers in the audience troubling sensation that they may be the next one to get caught in her web.

And onward it goes, much like a nature documentary as we learn about the habits of the insect-like creature. The details are so spare I’d hate to give away any more of the film’s secrets. In fact here is a film poorly-serviced by the nature of modern film criticism, it is easy to divulge too much about the film’s action and tip the hand on what little narrative the film holds. I will say the slow development of emotions in The Woman tilts towards mawkishness just a hair too much, like a spider wiping a tear over a fly’s pleas for mercy. Johansson is as enthralling as a force of nature here and one thing nature is not is sentimental. That’s no reason not to run to your theater (a far superior choice than your “On-Demand” button for a visual tour de force like this) because Under the Skin shows us an eerie look at nature unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.

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UPCOMING: Record Store Day, Shop ‘Til You Drop

Friday, April 18th, 2014


Record Story Day is Saturday. We urge you to support the dead-enders the defenders of the brick-and-mortar-mom-and-pop-cool-indie-record-store-with-the-smug-hipster-clerks faith. Might we suggest you pick up the Flaming Lips’ Seven Skies H3 [PICTURED, ABOVE], a handsome vinyl LP of containing the highlights of their infamous 24-hour song. With liner notes (SEE BELOW) by yours truly:

Thus sprach John F. Kennedy, “We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” He was talking about the race to land a man on the moon but he may well have been talking the race to write and record the longest song known to man. Also known as The Race To Colonize The Outer Limits Of Human Patience. You may laugh, but this is serious business. Men have died. (Not necessarily making long-ass songs, per se, but men have died nonetheless).

The first artist to break the sound barrier of the three minute pop radio single, and in the process trigger the starter pistol on The Length/Longness Race, was Bob Dylan with “Like A Rolling Stone,” which clocks in at an eternal six minutes and 58 consciousness-expanding seconds. Soon everyone was violating The Three Minute Rule. The next big leap forward in the race to prove that quantity is quality was Iron Butterfly’s “In A Gadda Davida” which clocked in at a mammoth 17 minutes and — for good measure — one second.

Pink Floyd would take it to the next level with “Echoes,” which clocked in at a brain-frying 23 minutes. After that there was no putting the longness genie back in the bottle. For the remainder of the ‘60s and most of the ‘70s, size mattered. Length conferred gravitas onto a song, it transformed a mere deep-cut album track into A Major Statement, and thereafter just about every album worth cleaning your weed on had at least one song that hovered around the 10-minute mark (think Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” or Led Zeppelin’s “Achilles’ Last Stand”), with some venturing into heretofore uncharted territory of the 20 minute-plus song (such as the elephantine title track to Rush’s 2112 or Genesis’ “Supper’s Ready”). Some never came back, never to be heard from again — which wasn’t necessarily an altogether bad thing.

And that was just within the confines of the studio. In concert, all bets were off. The Allman Brothers Brothers “Mountain Jam” could run anywhere from 22 minutes to 45 minutes depending on whether or not the cocaine gods smiled upon them that night. Can’s “Yoo Doo Right” was only 20 minutes long on record, live it was six hours long.

The race to establish the endurance limits of human hearing sort of ran out of steam by the end of the ‘70s. Punk’s ‘short, sharp, shock’ reductionist imperatives had a big hand in that. Cultural exhaustion, drug damage and carpal tunnel took care of the rest. But by the end of the 20th Century the race was back on. In 1998 Chris Butler Chris Butler’s “Devil’s Glitch” was, at 69 minutes, certified the longest pop song in the world by the Guinness Book Of World Records. In January of 2014, the German band Phrasenmäher broke Butler’s world record with the mind-numbingly inane “Zwei Jahre” which clocks in at 90 minutes and 10 seconds. It is accompanied, somewhat ingeniously, by a video of three young Germanic men dressed all in white assembling a piece of what looks like IKEA furniture in real time.

Not sure how that beats “The Chosen Priest and Apostle of Infinite Space” by U.S. drone merchants Bull In Heaven, which clocks in at two months long. Rumor has it they also have a song that lasts six years. And on it goes. The inexhaustible pursuit of pointless monumentalism. The unquenchable lust for the miraculous, the limit-defying and the superhuman. All part of life’s rich pageant, right? Maybe. Let us not forget that history shows again and again how prog-rock points out the folly of men.

That’s where the Flaming Lips come in. They tend to look at these grandiose arty goofs like the whole world’s double-dog daring them not to even try. “Steven already had a piece of music that went for about a half hour, but it felt like five minutes,” says Wayne Coyne, explaining the origin of “7 Skies H3.” “So I thought, well, why don’t we see if we can make that longer and we’ll just go into this epic world of marathon songs? So we had to psych ourselves up, like ‘You know Brian Eno has a song that plays for 30 years on a mountain top, beat that!’ We’re like, ‘Fuck him, we could do that. You know, we’ll put one on the moon and it will last 100 years!’”

Wayne originally wanted “7 Skies H3” to be a month long. Long time Lips producer Dave Fridmann countered that a week-long song would be more doable. “Then we all agreed that that was insane so we compromised and that’s when we decided on a 24 hour long song.”

For a week in late 2011 they camped out in Fridmann’s Tarbox Studios — Coyne and Fridmann in studio A, Drozd in the b-room and bassist Michael Ivins in studio C, each coming up with parts and then connecting them like railroad tracks. There are 15 distinct sections in “7 Skies H3.” “It gets real interesting at the five hour mark and stays that way for the next 7 hours,” says Drozd.

And then? “I dunno, there’s five or six hours of it that I can’t even remember,” says Drozd, who insists he has listened to the entire 24 hour song beginning to end at least once. “7 Skies H3” was originally released on Halloween of 2011 as an EP, in the form of a flash drive encased in a real human skull, called The 24-Hour Song Skull. It was a limited edition run of 13 priced at $5,000 a piece. What you are holding in your hand is a 50-minute highlight reel of “7 Skies H3.” So where does that put the Lips in The Race To Make The Longest Hottest Mess?

Truth be told, the race was over 10 years before the Flaming Lips began competing. In 2001, an organ performance of John Cage’s “As Slowly As Possible” commenced at St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt, Germany, it is not expected to conclude for another 626 years, some time in 2640. Which seems impressive until you compare it to Jem Finere and Brian Eno’s 1000-years-long “Longplayer,” the Mother Of All Ridiculously Long Songs, which began 14 years ago and will not conclude until 2999. No matter. For the Lips it was never really about the race. They’ve staked their whole career on the premise that it’s not about the destination, it’s all about the getting there.

“The one good thing that came out of it,” says Drozd. “Is that I had no more musical ideas left when we were done. None. That’s never happened before. The well was emptied. After that I had to start from scratch and that’s a beautiful thing.” Despite graduating valedictorian from ‘it’s better to regret something you have done than to regret something you haven’t done’ school of hard knocks, Wayne seems a little more ambivalent. “If I said we’d never do it again, we probably would,” he says, raking his hands through the obligatory Hendrix perm he’s sporting these days. “So I’ll say never say never.” – JONATHAN VALANIA

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SWANS: Oxygen (To Be Kind)

Friday, April 18th, 2014

Eye-opening teaser track — sounds like John Coltrane in a canoe during a typhoon with a saxophone for a paddle — from the new album, To Be Kind, out May 13th via Young God Records/Mute. They play Union Transfer Thursday May 15th.

PREVIOUSLY: Swans”No Words No Thoughts”

PREVIOUSLY: Concert Review: Swans @ Union Transfer 10/13/12

PREVIOUSLY: This Awful Bliss

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Q&A: N.A. Poe Interviews Nikki Allen Poe, Candidate For Philly City Council At-Large Seat

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

PREVIOUSLY: Phawker Endorses Nikki Allen Poe For City Council

Nikki Allen Poe Kicks Off His Pro-Pot/Anti-PPA City Council Candidacy With Presser At The Rocky Statue

RELATED: Libertarian Party Picks Pro-Pot City Council Candidate

RELATED: Libertarian City Council Candidate Facing New Federal Drug Troubles

RELATED: Statement Regarding Mr. Poe’s Probation and “Drug Troubles”

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Win Tix To See Cloud Cult @ The Prince Friday!

Thursday, April 17th, 2014


We have a pair of tix to see panoramic sunny pop experimentalists Cloud Cult – think Arcade Fire, but less disco and Grammy-winning and more Eno Another Green World/Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy and Midwestern Burning Man pagan-folk-baroque — at the Prince Music Theater on Friday April 18th. To qualify, all you have to do is sign up for our mailing list (see right, below the masthead). Trust us, this is something you want to do. In addition to breaking news alerts and Phawker updates, you also get advanced warning about groovy concert ticket giveaways and other free swag opportunities like this one! After signing up, send us an email at FEED@PHAWKER.COM telling us a much, with the magic words YES, I WOULD LIKE TO JOIN YOUR CULT BECAUSE THAT ALWAYS SEEMS TO END WELL FOR EVERYONE in the subject line. If you are already on our mailing list, just send us an email saying as much. Either way, please include your full name and a mobile number for confirmation. The 14th Phawker reader to email us with the magic words wins! PLEASE INCLUDE YOUR FULL NAME AND MOBILE NUMBER FOR CONFIRMATION. Good luck and godspeed!

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LIKE TURKEYS VOTING FOR THANKSGIVING: The Koch Suckers At Americans For Prosperity Convince Tennessee Lawmakers To Ban Rapid Public Transit

Thursday, April 17th, 2014


WIRED: Tennessee lawmakers overwhelmingly voted in favor a bill that bans the construction of bus rapid transit (BRT) in two counties, one of which includes the city of Nashville.  The impetus for the vote was a proposal to build a $174 million BRT system in Nashville called The Amp, which would’ve ran on a 7.1 mile route and served rapidly growing neighborhoods across the city. There’s a more detailed summary of the project over at The Tennessean. Although BRT has been shown to revitalize economies and reduce congestion, opponents of The Amp voiced concerns about the safety of unloading bus passengers along roadways and whether private land would be used to build dedicated bus lanes. After the vote, Amp opponents revealed that the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, founded with the support of brothers Charles and David Koch, had lobbied in favor of the bus ban. MORE

NASHVILLE SCENE: The roots of The Amp conflict go back years. But it didn’t start heating up until fall 2012, when the project was still known as the East-West Connector. Videos from early community meetings showed middle-aged, well-off residents from the West End and Richland neighborhoods complaining that the new transit system would deposit “riff-raff from East Nashville” at their doorsteps. They got about as much sympathy as Swan Ballers shaking their jeweled fists at the great unwashed. MORE

RELATED: A study completed in December 2011 concluded that a BRT system, with dedicated lanes and fixed stations along the route, would provide the same benefits as streetcars at half the cost. Thus The Amp would move forward as BRT. In addition, based on information that came out of a five-year strategic plan released in 2009, its route would consist of two dedicated lanes going each way from West End to East Nashville. The pro-Amp explanation was heavy on references to West End as Nashville’s “Main Street,” citing the corridor’s 170,000 employees, 25,000 residents and 11 million annual visitors. MORE

RELATED: Rick Williams [PICTURED, ABOVE] opens the passenger door and steps out eagerly. An enthusiastic 55-year-old with a car salesman’s full head of wavy hair, Williams is dressed for a mission. His loafers are black, his pants are khaki, and his T-shirt — a battle flag of sorts — is red. It shows a bus underneath a boldface message: “Stop Amp.” This crisp morning, there is excitement in his nasal voice. The resistance has crossed the river. “We’re putting up our first 2-by-4 in East Nashville,” Williams says. “This is big for us.” Inside the truck, there’s a stack of red signs bearing the same logo and message as Williams’ T-shirt. Over the past six months, they have started to appear in yards across the city, particularly throughout the neighborhoods west of I-440 on West End. They declare opposition to The Amp, the $175 million bus rapid transit line proposed by Mayor Karl Dean. Rick Williams put them there. Typically, Williams spends a few hours every day driving around town and staking them up himself.  MORE

RELATED: The Koch Brothers ARE Job Creators


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NPR 4 THE DEAF: We Hear It Even When You Can’t

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014


Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden has revealed some of the group’s most carefully guarded secrets. The reporting on the documents he leaked won the Washington Post and The Guardian Pulitzer prizes, announced on Monday. But there’s still a lot we don’t know about Snowden himself — and his motivation. In a new article in Vanity Fair, Bryan Burrough, Suzanna Andrews and Sarah Ellison take a closer look at Snowden in an effort to explain how a high school drop-out, a “seemingly aimless geeky kid from the Maryland suburbs,” came to possess and expose secret NSA documents. The trio spent six months researching their Vanity Fair article, THE SNOWDEN SAGA, Bryan Borrough reflects on the article with Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. MORE

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Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

Song is meh, but video is pretty funny. Looks like it was shot on the mean sidewalks of LA. WARNING: Some cartoonish gore and an old lady gets tuned up, but she clearly had it coming.

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SMUS: This Land Is Your Land

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014


BY WILLIAM C. HENRY  Can anyone give me an update on how the native Americans are making out in their negotiations with the federal government on getting their original land holdings returned? Yeah, that’s what I figured — about as well as today’s Palestinians are progressing with getting THEIRS back. But I guess that’s how it goes when the land in question was originally doled out to the ancestors of its present occupiers by no less a grantor than Jehovah himself. One could almost be forgiven for thinking all of this is simply a bad dream were it not, in fact, such a completely despicable and deadly reality. Why the hell do we even pretend to believe in “justice for ALL” anymore? Oh, sure, we pay a little lip service to it now and then — an oration here, an oration there; just enough to appease our collective conscience. And then, ho hum, faster than you can say, “One million Arabs are not worth a Jewish fingernail,” we’re back in front of our TVs, game boxes, computers and smart phones. It’s a subject much too guilt-ridden to dwell on.

Might makes right. Well, not really. But as evidenced by the one-sided unjust and immoral abomination taking place some 5,740 miles east of here, one could certainly be forgiven for believing so. You might say it all began one day when, as Susan Abulhawa so understatedly asks in her novel, Mornings in Jenin, ”How was it that a man could not walk onto his own property, visit the grave of his wife, eat the fruits of forty generations of his ancestors’ toil, without mortal consequence?” To understand why it continues to this day you have only to imagine Benjamin Netanyahu whispering in Mahmoud Abbas’s ear, “You haven’t knuckled under enough, but when you do, rest assured it won’t be nearly enough.” And so it sadly goes, and goes, and goes, in the Jewish God’s own little green acre in the middle of the Middle East. You know, I’m beginning to wonder if “settlement expansion” hasn’t all along been Israel’s covert plan to literally “drown” all protestation out of the Palestinians. The way I see it, the Israelis have secretly resolved to keep pushing, and pushing, and pushing the Palestinians back, back, back, and just a little bit farther back still, until they eventually disappear into the Mediterranean and Red Seas leaving only anecdotal evidence of their ever having existed at all.

Sixty-five years of unimaginable human misery and injustice, more than six million refugees without hope of returning, little or no support from even their fellow Arabs, and still no resolution. Why, you ask? Well, primarily because of the implied (but in all likelihood “paper tigered”) threat of American intervention should Israel end up in an armed conflict with multiple Arab nations. I use the term “paper tigered” because the American public’s reaction to the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with our exhibited reluctance to take any kind of consequential action in places like Egypt, Syria, Libya, Crimea, North Korea, etc., leave little doubt as to our waning valiancy when it comes to military involvement in anyone’s problems regardless of who, where, or under what circumstances. Yes, I recognize that we no longer hold the kind of sway in Israeli affairs we once did, but the threat of divorcing ourselves from their situation completely will always be a hammer too heavy to ignore. For all their bluster, Israel cannot survive without our support. Period.

The Curious Life & Death Of An ‘American Jihadist’

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

This story does NOT reflect well on the FBI, the State Department, the media or the Federal prosecutor’s office of Virginia and the judge that initiated and perpetuated this travesty of justice. None of whom ever offered a word of apology. Shame on them all.

VICE: This past January, I asked Eric if he wanted to tell his story. It had been a year since he fired the RPG and about four months since he’d been released from jail, where he’d been in solitary confinement for six months. He’d signed a sealed plea bargain that gave him his freedom … sort of. He was now a felon, living with his parents in Phoenix, unable to do what he wanted to do most — return to Syria and continue fighting. He had been labeled the “American Jihadist” in the media, portrayed as a Muslim fundamentalist who hated America. He didn’t hate America, but the past year had made him feel used and betrayed by the US government, which he had served officially as a soldier and unofficially as — so he thought — an informant to the FBI and CIA. Eric had been found in Doc’s bedroom at about 3 PM. The paramedics pronounced him dead at the scene. “They wouldn’t let me in the room,” he told me. “When they brought him out on the gurney, I said, ‘Let me see my boy’s face.’ They said they couldn’t. That it was against the law.” The initial report was that it was an overdose; needles were reportedly found near Eric. But according to Doc, there was blood everywhere — under his desk, under his bed, seeping out some sliding glass doors. “How can there be that much blood if its drugs?” he wondered. An autopsy will determine the cause of death. MORE

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Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

EDITOR’S NOTE: The article excerpted below, Everybody Should Have An Albert by Paul Slansky Paul Slansky, was first published in The Village Voice in March 1979

DAILY BEAST: When [his comedian father], died in 1958, 11-year-old Albert [Brooks], who had grown up around Hollywood comedians, already had a reputation among them as a budding comic genius. A few years later, when Johnny Carson asked Carl Reiner to name the funniest men he knew, Mel Brooks and a high school kid named Albert [Brooks] were the two that he mentioned. He did his first Tonight Show in mid-1972, and quickly became a Carson favorite. Instead of adopting bizarre, negative personae that would exploit the audience’s hostilities, Albert performed as himself, using his feelings rather than disguising them and talking as if the audience were sitting in his living room. So sure was he of his instincts that he didn’t even audition his new material for friends. “I tried out all my stuff on national television,” he says. “After doing two years of TV, I felt confident enough to put together a live bit.”

Albert spent three years on the road, headlining in small clubs and opening for rock stars like Neil Diamond in larger halls. The anxiety and boredom created by doing the same material night after night finally got to him during a tour to promote his first album, Comedy Minus One, and a gig at Paul’s Mall in Boston was literally the end of the road. “I was just real tired,” he says, “and the record wasn’t even in the stores. I remember doing an interview with a disc jockey who said to me, ‘Jonathan Winters went crazy, you think that’s ever gonna happen to you?’ I said, ‘I think it’s happening right now.’” In the middle of the one-week engagement, he flew back to L.A.

Around this time, he began going out with Linda Ronstadt, a relationship that lasted two years. “I was going with Linda just before big things started happening for her,” he says. “We lived together for almost a year. We liked each other because at that time we had the exact same fear of performing—whatever that fear was, we shared it.” By the end of 1975, his films were appearing regularly on Saturday Night Live, ostensibly the ideal vehicle to catapult him to stardom. Unfortunately, the relationship was not a smooth one. “Albert, to put it in its mildest form, is sometimes intolerant of other people’s problems,” says producer Lorne Michaels. “We couldn’t edit, we couldn’t have audience laughter on the soundtrack. He had complete creative control. I had asked him for three-to-five-minute films, he got me up to five-to-seven minutes, and eventually they came in at 10. And you couldn’t say they were too long, because he would say, ‘They’re brilliant.’” [...] When the six-film contract expired, neither party was inclined to renew. “Viewer mail rated my films the least popular part of the show,” says Albert. “The Muppets were the audience favorites.” MORE

ALBERT BROOKS: The New National Anthem

From The Flip Wilson Show, December 5, 1972.

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SIDEWALKING: The Walls Have Ears

Monday, April 14th, 2014

New Banksy, Cheltenham, U.K., near GCHQ, earlier today via the BBC

BBC: The artwork, which appeared in Cheltenham on Sunday, depicts three men wearing sunglasses and using listening devices to “snoop” on a telephone box. The piece has already attracted hundreds of visitors. Banksy has not yet claimed the work but it bears his hallmarks, say experts. Cheltenham street artist Dice67 claimed he had been told the artwork, which appeared on the corner of Fairview Road and Hewlett Road on Sunday morning, is indeed by Bristol artist Banksy. “It’s been all over the art forums. He’s tipped off a couple of people to come and see it – one guy flew in from France yesterday to take some photos of it.” MORE

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EXCLUSIVE: The PA State Police Has Purchased Controversial Cellphone Spying Technology And Would Prefer That You Didn’t Know About It

Monday, April 14th, 2014


BY DUSTIN SLAUGHTER A recent Pew poll indicates that more than 70% of Americans oppose the National Security Administation’s bulk collection of cellphone metadata. For Pennsylvanians, the threat to security and privacy of your cellphone communications just hit a little closer to home. Phawker has learned that Pennsylvania State Police has recently purchased a controversial type of cell phone surveillance technology, known as HailStorm. Hailstorm has the ability to “trick” cell phones into connecting to the device by posing as a cell tower, enabling it to scoop up phone serial data within a targeted radius and track the user’s location. The bad news is that it doesn’t just scoop up the cell phone data trail of the bad guys, it scoops up everyone’s cell phone data within its monitoring radius — without a warrant. The technology is very portable and could be mounted in the police cruiser that just passed your house.

USA Today recently did lengthy takeout on the alarming proliferation of this phone-tracking technology on a state and local level, reporting that more than 25 state and municipal police departments have currently deployed this technology while others have tech-sharing agreements with the FBI and other federal agencies. The Electronic Frontier Foundation calls the device “the biggest technological threat to cell phone privacy that you don’t know about, while the ACLU has roundly criticized the technology’s use as a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment’s “General Warrant” clause.

Four requests for the Pennsylvania State Police to confirm or deny our report have gone unanswered. However, we know for a fact that the State Police have purchased this technology because we have obtained a copy of the purchasing order through a PA Right-To-Know request filed in February.  The documents indicate that State Police purchased two of the devices in December of last year from the controversial Harris Corporation at a total cost of $232,772. HailStorm is an “upgrade” to original StingRay technology which, if combined with a software named Pen-Link, enables authorities to communicate directly with cell service carriers over an Internet connection to strengthen real-time location tracking. It is not clear at this time whether State Police have this capability, although a records request is pending seeking Pen-Link contracts.

In addition to PSP’s Hailstorm upgrade, the agency also bought Harpoon ‘amplifier’ antennae, which allows State Police to vastly expand reach of its cellphone data collection. Once a StingRay gathers a phone’s “International Mobile Subscriber Number” (IMSI) and serial data, the phone can be singled out for closer scrutiny, including real-time location tracking. This has drawn increasing scrutiny – and criticism – from legal advocacy groups such as the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The technology, originally introduced to state and local police departments through Joint Terrorism Task Forces across the US, has ‘mission-creeped’ from so-called terror investigations into ordinary criminal investigations. “They certainly are being pitched as a counter-terrorism tool and DHS funds have been used to help police departments buy these devices, but we know they are being used in garden variety criminal cases of all sorts,” says EFF staff attorney Hanni Fakhoury. “For example, the city of Oakland reported in 2009 a number of routine criminal cases involving StingRays.”

And it’s not just used for legitimate criminal investigations: In 2003, Miami-Dade police purchased similar devices to surreptitiously monitor activists protesting at a world trade conference, according to agency procurement records.Equally troubling is how law enforcement often uses it without obtaining legal permission from judges. And on the infrequent occasions when StingRay technology is even mentioned by investigators, its full capabilities are rarely disclosed to the judges from whom they are seeking warrants. “By withholding information about this technology from courts in applications for electronic surveillance orders, the federal government is essentially seeking to write its own search warrants,” says Linda Lye, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Northern California. Not all judges have rubberstamped the use of this cellphone tracking technology. Some have begun to ask pointed questions.

A federal magistrate judge in the Southern District of Texas became one of the few judges who denied a warrant on grounds that law enforcement wasn’t specific enough about their intended use of the device. Judge Brian L. Owsley cited the fact that the government provided no explanation regarding how they would handle captured cell data swept up from “seemingly innocent cell phone users” as grounds for denying the search warrant request. “Transparency is [crucial to] the use of these devices,” says the EFF’s Fakhoury. “Criminal defense attorneys need to start inquiring into whether these devices were used in cases they’re defending. State legislators can take steps to safeguard privacy by passing laws requiring police get a warrant to use these devices.” Some states, like Utah and Indiana, have already passed legislation that does precisely that. Pennsylvania is not among them.


RELATED: Cellphone Data Spying — It’s Not Just The NSA

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