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Facebook’s Experiment in Ad Transparency Is Like Playing Hide And Seek

[Editor's note: today's guest post, by the reporters at ProPublica, explores a new global program Facebook introduced in Canada. It is reprinted with permission.]

Facebook logo By Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, ProPublica

Shortly before a Toronto City Council vote in December on whether to tighten regulation of short-term rental companies, an entity called Airbnb Citizen ran an ad on the Facebook news feeds of a selected audience, including Toronto residents over the age of 26 who listen to Canadian public radio. The ad featured a photo of a laughing couple from downtown Toronto, with the caption, “Airbnb hosts from the many wards of Toronto raise their voices in support of home sharing. Will you?”

Placed by an interested party to influence a political debate, this is exactly the sort of ad on Facebook that has attracted intense scrutiny. Facebook has acknowledged that a group with ties to the Russian government placed more than 3,000 such ads to influence voters during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

Facebook has also said it plans to avoid a repeat of the Russia fiasco by improving transparency. An approach it’s rolling out in Canada now, and plans to expand to other countries this summer, enables Facebook users outside an advertiser’s targeted audience to see ads. The hope is that enhanced scrutiny will keep advertisers honest and make it easier to detect foreign interference in politics. So we used a remote connection, called a virtual private network, to log into Facebook from Canada and see how this experiment is working.

The answer: It’s an improvement, but nowhere near the openness sought by critics who say online political advertising is a Wild West compared with the tightly regulated worlds of print and broadcast.

The new strategy — which Facebook announced in October, just days before a U.S. Senate hearing on the Russian online manipulation efforts — requires every advertiser to have a Facebook page. Whenever the advertiser is running an ad, the post is automatically placed in a new “Ads” section of the Facebook page, where any users in Canada can view it even if they aren’t part of the intended audience.

Facebook has said that the Canada experiment, which has been running since late October, is the first step toward a more robust setup that will let users know which group or company placed an ad and what other ads it’s running. “Transparency helps everyone, especially political watchdog groups and reporters, keep advertisers accountable for who they say they are and what they say to different groups,” Rob Goldman, Facebook’s vice president of ads, wrote before the launch.

While the new approach makes ads more accessible, they’re only available temporarily, can be hard to find, and can still mislead users about the advertiser’s identity, according to ProPublica’s review. The Airbnb Citizen ad — which we discovered via a ProPublica tool called the Political Ad Collector — is a case in point. Airbnb Citizen professed on its Facebook page to be a “community of hosts, guests and other believers in the power of home sharing to help tackle economic, environmental and social challenges around the world.” Its Facebook page didn’t mention that it is actually a marketing and public policy arm of Airbnb, a for-profit company.

Propublica-airbnb-citizen-adThe ad was part of an effort by the company to drum up support as it fought rental restrictions in Toronto. “These ads were one of the many ways that we engaged in the process before the vote,” Airbnb said. However, anyone who looked on Airbnb’s own Facebook page wouldn’t have found it.

Airbnb told ProPublica that it is clear about its connection to Airbnb Citizen. Airbnb’s webpage links to Airbnb Citizen’s webpage, and Airbnb Citizen’s webpage is copyrighted by Airbnb and uses part of the Airbnb logo. Airbnb said Airbnb Citizen provides information on local home-sharing rules to people who rent out their homes through Airbnb. “Airbnb has always been transparent about our advertising and public engagement efforts,” the statement said.

Political parties in Canada are already benefiting from the test to investigate ads from rival groups, said Nader Mohamed, digital director of Canada’s New Democratic Party, which has the third largest representation in Canada’s Parliament. “You’re going to be more careful with what you put out now, because you could get called on it at any time,” he said. Mohamed said he still expects heavy spending on digital advertising in upcoming campaigns.

After launching the test, Facebook demonstrated its new process to Elections Canada, the independent agency responsible for conducting federal elections there. Elections Canada recommended adding an archive function, so that ads no longer running could still be viewed, said Melanie Wise, the agency’s assistant director for media relations and issues management. The initiative is “helpful” but should go further, Wise said.

Some experts were more critical. Facebook’s new test is “useless,” said Ben Scott, a senior advisor at the think tank New America and a fellow at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship in Toronto who specializes in technology policy. “If an advertiser is inclined to do something unethical, this level of disclosure is not going to stop them. You would have to have an army of people checking pages constantly.”

More effective ways of policing ads, several experts said, might involve making more information about advertisers and their targeting strategies readily available to users from links on ads and in permanent archives. But such tactics could alienate advertisers reluctant to share information with competitors, cutting into Facebook’s revenue. Instead, in Canada, Facebook automatically puts ads up on the advertiser’s Facebook page, and doesn’t indicate the target audience there.

Facebook’s test represents the least the company can do and still avoid stricter regulation on political ads, particularly in the U.S., said Mark Surman, a Toronto resident and executive director of Mozilla, a nonprofit Internet advocacy group that makes the Firefox web browser. “There are lots of people in the company who are trying to do good work. But it’s obvious if you’re Facebook that you’re trying not to get into a long conversation with Congress,” Surman said.

Facebook said it’s listening to its critics. “We’re talking to advertisers, industry folks and watchdog groups and are taking this kind of feedback seriously,” Rob Leathern, Facebook director of product management for ads, said in an email. “We look forward to continue working with lawmakers on the right solution, but we also aren’t waiting for legislation to start getting solutions in place,” he added. The company declined to provide data on how many people in Canada were using the test tools.

Facebook is not the only internet company facing questions about transparency in advertising. Twitter also pledged in October before the Senate hearing that “in the coming weeks” it would build a platform that would “offer everyone visibility into who is advertising on Twitter, details behind those ads, and tools to share your feedback.” So far, nothing has been launched.

Facebook has more than 23 million monthly users in Canada, according to the company. That’s more than 60 percent of Canada’s population but only about 1 percent of Facebook’s user base. The company has said it is launching its new ad-transparency plan in Canada because it already has a program there called the Canadian Election Integrity Initiative. That initiative was in response to a Canadian federal government report, “Cyber Threats to Canada’s Democratic Process,” which warned that “multiple hacktivist groups will very likely deploy cyber capabilities in an attempt to influence the democratic process during the 2019 federal election.” The election integrity plan promotes news literacy and offers a guide for politicians and political parties to avoid getting hacked.

Compared to the U.S., Canada’s laws allow for much stricter government regulation of political advertising, said Michael Pal, a law professor at the University of Ottawa. He said Facebook’s transparency initiative was a good first step but that he saw the extension of strong campaign rules into internet advertising as inevitable in Canada. “This is the sort of question that, in Canada, is going to be handled by regulation,” Pal said.

Several Canadian technology policy experts who spoke with ProPublica said Facebook’s new system was too inconvenient for the average user. There’s no central place where people can search the millions of ads on Facebook to see what ads are running about a certain subject, so unless users are part of the target audience, they wouldn’t necessarily know that a group is even running an ad. If users somehow hear about an ad or simply want to check whether a company or group is running one, they must first navigate to the group’s Facebook page and then click a small tab on the side labeled “Ads” that runs alongside other tabs such as “Videos” and “Community.” Once the user clicks the “Ads” tab, a page opens showing every ad that the page owner is running at that time, one after another.

The group’s Facebook page isn’t always linked from the text of the ad. If it isn’t, users can still find the Facebook page by navigating to the “Why am I seeing this?” link in a drop-down menu at the top right of each ad in their news feed.

As soon as a marketing campaign is over, an ad can no longer be found on the “Ads” page at all. When ProPublica checked the Airbnb Citizen Facebook page a week after collecting the ad, it was no longer there.

Because the “Ads” page also doesn’t disclose the demographics of the advertiser’s target audience, people can only see that data on ads that were aimed at them and were on their own Facebook news feed. Without this information, people outside an ad’s selected audience can’t see to whom companies or politicians are tailoring their messages. ProPublica reported last year that dozens of major companies directed recruitment ads on Facebook only to younger people — information that would likely interest older workers, but would still be concealed from them under the new policy. One recent ad by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was directed at “people who may be similar to” his supporters, according to the Political Ad Collector data. Under the new system, people who don’t support Trudeau could see the ad on his Facebook page, but wouldn’t know why it was excluded from their news feeds.

Facebook has promised new measures to make political ads more accessible. When it expands the initiative to the U.S., it will start building a searchable electronic archive of ads related to U.S. federal elections. This archive will include details on the amount of money spent and demographic information about the people the ads reached. Facebook will initially limit its definition of political ads to those that “refer to or discuss a political figure” in a federal election, the company said.

The company hasn’t said what, if any, archive will be created for ads for state and local contests, or for political ads in other countries. It has said it will eventually require political advertisers in other countries, and in state elections in the U.S., to provide more documentation, but it’s not clear when that will happen.

Ads that aren’t political will be available under the same system being tested in Canada now.

Even an archive of the sort Facebook envisions wouldn’t solve the problems of misleading advertising on Facebook, Surman said. “It would be interesting to journalists and researchers trying to track this issue. But it won’t help users make informed choices about what ads they see,” he said. That’s because users need more information alongside the ads they are seeing on their news feeds, not in a separate location, he said.

The Airbnb Citizen ad wasn’t the only tactic that Airbnb adopted in an apparent attempt to sway the Toronto City Council. It also packed the council galleries with supporters on the morning of the vote, according to The Globe and Mail. Still, its efforts appear to have been unsuccessful.

On Dec. 6, two days after a reader sent us the ad, the City Council voted to keep people from renting a space that wasn’t their primary residence and stop homeowners from listing units such as basement apartments.

Filed under: Technology

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Advertising Agency Paid $2 Million To Settle Deceptive Advertising Charges

Marketing Architects inc. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced that Minneapolis-based Marketing Architects, Inc. (MAI):

"... an advertising agency that created and disseminated allegedly deceptive radio ads for weight-loss products marketed by its client, Direct Alternatives, has agreed to pay $2 million to the Federal Trade Commission and State of Maine Attorney General’s Office to settle their complaint..."

First, some background. According to the FTC, MAI created advertising for several products (e.g., Puranol, Pur-Hoodia Plus, Acai Fresh, AF Plus, and Final Trim) by Direct Alternatives from 2006 through February 2015. Then, in 2016 the FTC and the State of Maine settled allegations against Direct Alternatives, which required the company to halt deceptive advertising and illegal billing practices.

Additional background according to the FTC: MAI previously created weight-loss ads for Sensa Products, LLC between March 2009 and May 2011. The FTC filed a complaint against Sensa in 2014, and subsequently Sensa agreed to refund $26.5 million to defrauded consumers. So, there's important, relevant history.

In the latest action, the joint complaint alleged that MAI created and disseminated radio ads with false or unsubstantiated weight-loss claims for AF Plus and Final Trim. Besides:

"... receiving FTC’s Sensa order, MAI was previously made aware of the need to have competent and reliable scientific evidence to back up health claims. Among other things, the complaint alleges that Direct Alternatives provided MAI with documents indicating that some of the weight-loss claims later challenged by the FTC needed to be supported by scientific evidence.

The complaint further charges that MAI developed and disseminated fictitious weight-loss testimonials and created radio ads for weight-loss products falsely disguised as news stories. Finally, the complaint charges MAI with creating inbound call scripts that failed to adequately disclose that consumers would be automatically enrolled in negative-option (auto-ship) continuity plans."

The latest action includes a proposed court order to ban MAI from making weight-loss claims about products the FTC has already advised as false, and:

"... requires MAI to have competent and reliable scientific evidence to support any other claims about the health benefits or efficacy of weight-loss products, and prohibits it from misrepresenting the existence or outcome of tests or studies. In addition, the order prohibits MAI from misrepresenting the experience of consumer testimonialists or that paid commercial advertising is independent programming."

This action is a reminder to advertising and digital agency executives everywhere: ensure that claims are supported by competent, reliable scientific evidence.

Good. Kudos to the FTC for these enforcement actions and for protecting consumers.


New Data Breach Legislation Proposed In North Carolina

After a surge in data breaches in North Carolina during 2017, state legislators have proposed stronger data breach laws. The National Law Review explained what prompted the legislative action:

"On January 8, 2018, the State of North Carolina released its Security Breach Report 2017, which highlights a 15 percent increase in breaches since 2016... Health care, financial services and insurance businesses accounted for 38 percent, with general businesses making up for just more than half of these data breaches. Almost 75 percent of all breaches resulted from phishing, hacking and unauthorized access, reflecting an overall increase of more than 3,500 percent in reported hacking incidents alone since 2006. Since 2015, phishing incidents increased over 2,300 percent. These numbers emphasize the warning to beware of emails or texts requesting personal information..."

So, fraudsters have tricked many North Carolina residents and employees into both opening fraudulent e-mail and text messages, and then responding by disclosing sensitive personal information. Not good.

Details about the proposed legislation:

"... named the Act to Strengthen Identity Theft Practices (ASITP), announced by Representative Jason Saine and Attorney General Josh Stein, attempts to combat the data breach epidemic by expanding North Carolina’s breach notification obligations, while reducing the time businesses have to comply with notification to the affected population and to the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office. If enacted, this new legislation will be one of the most aggressive U.S. breach notification statutes... The Fact Sheet concerning the ASITP as published by the North Carolina Attorney General proposes that the AG take a more direct role in the investigation of data breaches closer to their time of discovery...  To accomplish this goal, the ASITP proposes a significantly shorter period of time for an entity to provide notification to the affected population and to the North Carolina Attorney General. Currently, North Carolina’s statute mandates that notification be made to affected individuals and the Attorney General without “unreasonable delay.” Under the ASITP, the new deadline for all notifications would be 15 days following discovery of the data security incident. In addition to being the shortest deadline in the nation, it is important to note that notification vendors typically require 5 business days to process, print and mail notification letters... The proposed legislation also seeks to (1) expand the definition of “protected information” to include medical information and insurance account numbers, and (2) penalize those who fail to maintain reasonable security procedures by charging them with a violation under the Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act for each person whose information is breached..."

Good. The National Law Review article also compared the breach notification deadlines across all 50 states and territories. It is worth a look to see how your state compares. A comparison of selected states:

Time After Discovery of Breach Selected States/Territories
10 calendar days Puerto Rico (Dept. of Consumer Affairs)
15 calendar days North Carolina (Proposed)
15 business California (Protected Health Information)
30 calendar days Florida
45 calendar days Ohio, Maryland
90 calendar days Connecticut
Most expedient time & without
unreasonable delay
California (other), Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico (other)
As soon as possible Texas

To learn more, download the North Carolina Security Breach Report 2017 (Adobe PDF), and the ASITP Fact Sheet (Adobe PDF).


Uber's Ripley Program To Thwart Law Enforcement

Uber logo Uber is in the news again, and not in a good way. TechCrunch reported:

"Between spring 2015 until late 2016 the ride-hailing giant routinely used a system designed to thwart police raids in foreign countries, according to Bloomberg, citing three people with knowledge of the system. It reports that Uber’s San Francisco office used the protocol — which apparently came to be referred to internally as ‘Ripley’ — at least two dozen times. The system enabled staff to remotely change passwords and “otherwise lock up data on company-owned smartphones, laptops, and desktops as well as shut down the devices”, it reports. We’ve also been told — via our own sources — about multiple programs at Uber intended to prevent company data from being accessed by oversight authorities... according to Bloomberg Uber created the system in response to raids on its offices in Europe: Specifically following a March 2015 raid on its Brussel’s office in which police gained access to its payments system and financial documents as well as driver and employee information; and after a raid on its Paris office in the same week."

In November of last year, reports emerged that the popular ride-sharing service experienced a data breach affecting 57 million users. Regulators said then that Uber tried to cover it up.

In March of last year, reports surfaced about Greyball, a worldwide program within Uber to thwart code enforcement inspections by governments. TechCrunch also described uLocker:

"We’ve also heard of the existence of a program at Uber called uLocker, although one source with knowledge of the program told us that the intention was to utilize a ransomware cryptolocker exploit and randomize the tokens — with the idea being that if Uber got raided it would cryptolocker its own devices in order to render data inaccessible to oversight authorities. The source said uLocker was being written in-house by Uber’s eng-sec and Marketplace Analytics divisions..."

Geez. First Greyball. Then Reipley and uLocker. And these are the known programs. This raises the question: how many programs are there?

Earlier today, Wired reported:

"The engineer at the heart of the upcoming Waymo vs Uber trial is facing dramatic new allegations of commercial wrongdoing, this time from a former nanny. Erika Wong, who says she cared for Anthony Levandowski’s two children from December 2016 to June 2017, filed a lawsuit in California this month accusing him of breaking a long list of employment laws. The complaint alleges the failure to pay wages, labor and health code violations... In her complaint, Wong alleges that Levandowski was paying a Tesla engineer for updates on its electric truck program, selling microchips abroad, and creating new startups using stolen trade secrets. Her complaint also describes Levandowski reacting to the arrival of the Waymo lawsuit against Uber, strategizing with then-Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, and discussing fleeing to Canada to escape prosecution... Levandowski’s outside dealings while employed at Google and Uber have been central themes in Waymo’s trade secrets case. Waymo says that Levandowski took 14,000 technical files related to laser-ranging lidar and other self-driving technologies with him when he left Google to work at Uber..."

Is this a corporation or organized crime? It seems difficult to tell the difference. What do you think?


What We Discovered During a Year of Documenting Hate

[Editor's note: today's guest blog post, by the reporters at ProPublica, is second in a series about law enforcement and hate crimes in the United States. Today's post is reprinted with permission.]

By Rachel Glickhouse, ProPublica

The days after Election Day last year seemed to bring with them a rise in hate crimes and bias incidents. Reports filled social media and appeared in local news. There were the letters calling for the genocide of Muslims that were sent to Islamic centers from California to Ohio. And the swastikas that were scrawled on buildings around the country. In Florida, “colored” and “whites only” signs were posted over water fountains at a high school. A man assaulted a Hispanic woman in San Francisco, telling her “No Latinos here.”

But were these horrible events indicative of an increase in crimes and incidents themselves, or did the reports simply reflect an increased awareness and willingness to come forward on the part of victims and witnesses? As data journalists, we went looking for answers and were not prepared for what we found: Nobody knows for sure. Hate crimes are so poorly tracked in America, there’s no way to undertake the kind of national analysis that we do in other areas, from bank robberies to virus outbreaks.

There is a vast discrepancy between the hate crimes numbers gathered by the FBI from police jurisdictions around the country and the estimate of hate crime victims in annual surveys by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The FBI counts 6,121 hate crimes in 2016, and the BJS estimates 250,000 hate crimes a year.

We were told early on that while the law required the Department of Justice to report hate crime statistics, local and state police departments aren’t bound to report their numbers to the FBI — and many don't. Complicating matters further is that hate crime laws vary by state, with some including sexual orientation as a protected class of victims and some not. Five states have no hate crime statute at all.

We decided to try collecting data ourselves, using a mix of social media news gathering and asking readers to send in their personal stories. We assembled a coalition of more than 130 newsrooms to help us report on hate incidents by gathering and verifying tips, and worked on several lines of investigation in our own newsroom.

Along the way, we’ve learned a lot about how hate crimes fall through the cracks:

We’ve received thousands of tips so far through our embeddable incident reporting form. We’ve also added tips sent to us by civil rights groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center.

ProPublica and reporters in newsrooms around the country used those tips to tell the stories of people who’ve come forward as victims or witnesses. They’ve identified a number of patterns:

Impact

Our mission at ProPublica is to do journalism that has impact. We’ve seen significant impact from Documenting Hate.

  • The official Virginia state after-action report on the Charlottesville rally cited ProPublica’s reporting and made recommendations for better police practices based on our journalism.
  • Cloudflare changed their complaint policies following a ProPublica story on how the company helps support neo-Nazi sites. The company cited our reporting when they later shut down The Daily Stormer, a major neo-Nazi site.
  • After we asked for their records, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, which had not sent a hate crime report to the state of Florida in years, began reporting hate crime data for the first time since 2013.
  • The Miami-Dade Police Department started an internal audit after we talked to them in October. Detective Carlos Rosario, a spokesman for the department, told us they found four hate crimes that they had failed to report to the state. Rosario also told us that they are in the process of creating a digital hate crime reporting process as a result of our reporting.
  • The Colorado Springs, Colorado, police department fixed a database problem that had caused the loss of at least 18 hate crime reports. The error was discovered after we asked them questions about their records.
  • The Madison, Wisconsin, police department changed how they categorize hate crimes before they send them to the FBI based on our records request.
  • A group of nine senators led by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., sent a letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos asking what the administration will do in response to racist harassment in schools and universities, citing Buzzfeed’s reporting for the project.
  • The Daily Stormer in Spanish removed the name of a popular Spanish forum from its site after legal action was threatened following a Univision story.
  • The Matthew Shepard Foundation said it would increase resources dedicated to training police officers to identify and investigate hate crimes, citing our project.

Even after the 100 news stories produced by the Documenting Hate coalition, we’re by no means finished. ProPublica and our partners will spend next year collecting and telling more stories from victims and witnesses. And we still have a lot of questions that demand answers. You can help.

Filed under: Civil Rights

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Hate Crime Training for Police Is Often Inadequate, Sometimes Nonexistent

[Editor's note: today's guest blog post, by the reporters at ProPublica, is first in a series which explores the approaches by law enforcement to hate crimes in the United States. Today's post is reprinted with permission.]

By A.C. Thompson, Rohan Naik and Ken Schwencke. ProPublica

To become a police officer in the U.S., one almost always has to enroll in an academy for some basic training. The typical academy session lasts 25 weeks, but state governments — which oversee police academies for local and state law enforcement officers — have wide latitude when it comes to choosing the subjects that will be taught in the classrooms.

How to properly identify and investigate hate crimes does not seem terribly high on the list of priorities, according to a ProPublica review.

Only 12 states, for example, have statutes requiring that academies provide instruction on hate crimes.

In at least seven others — Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Nevada, Missouri, South Dakota and Texas — recruits aren’t required to learn about hate crimes at all, according to law enforcement officials.

Even states that provide new recruits with at least some education on hate crimes often provide training that is cursory at best.

Officials overseeing police training in three states — Wisconsin, North Carolina and Washington — told ProPublica that their recruits spent about 30 minutes of class time on the subject.

Hate crimes in America have made no shortage of headlines over the last year as the country has once more confronted its raw and often violent racial, religious and political divisions. Just how few hate crimes get formally reported and analyzed has shocked many. Fewer still get successfully prosecuted, a fact that has provoked frustration among some elected officials and law enforcement agencies.

But the widespread lack of training for frontline officers in how to handle potential hate crimes, if no great surprise, might actually be the criminal justice system’s most basic failing. There is, after all, little way to either accurately tabulate or aggressively prosecute hate crimes if the officers in the street don’t know how to identify and investigate them.

Hate crimes are not, by and large, simple to deal with. Different states identify different categories of people to be protected under their laws. And the authorities must prove not only guilt, but intent. It isn’t enough to find fingerprints on a weapon. The authorities must explore a suspect’s state of mind, and then find ways of corroborating it.

“Hate crimes are so nuanced and the laws can be so complex. You’re trying to deal with the motivation of a crime,” said Liebe Geft, director of the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, which has for years provided training to officers as expert consultants.

“Thirty minutes in the academy is not enough,” Geft said.

Though each state operates its police academies differently, most of them rely on a training council or commission to oversee the institutions, shape the curriculum and set minimum standards for graduation.

ProPublica spent weeks trying to answer the question of how, if at all, police departments prepare their officers to respond to possible hate crimes, which are known as bias crimes in some jurisdictions. We interviewed key officials in 45 states and the District of Columbia about the lessons being taught to new recruits during their police academy classes. We reviewed thousands of pages of training material — curricula, detailed lesson plans, legal guidance, PowerPoint presentations and videos. We studied the statutes and regulations governing police training around the nation and interviewed experts who have spent years educating officers and federal agents. Several states declined to discuss their instructional practices, or provide ProPublica with any training materials.

Among our findings:

A key federal training program was scuttled during the early days of the Obama administration as police leaders concerned about violence colored by race, religion and politics shifted their focus toward Islamic extremists and terrorism. That program, which was run by an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, sent experts around the country to teach local and state police officers how to respond to hate crimes.

State leaders at times displayed a lack of even basic knowledge about hate crimes. In Alaska, the state Department of Public Safety told ProPublica that officers in that state don’t learn about hate crimes during their time in the academy because Alaska doesn’t have a hate crimes law. In fact, Alaska’s hate crimes statute has been on the books since 1996.

Training materials used in Kansas explain the history behind the federal hate crimes law, but make no mention of Kansas Statute 21-6815 — the state’s hate crimes code — which is likely to be of more use to a local officer in Topeka or Wichita.

Some states that require hate crimes training often combine the instruction with what has long been called cultural sensitivity training. Such instruction typically involves material on the subtleties of dealing with specific ethnic or religious communities. Our review, however, showed some of those materials to be either hopelessly out of date or downright inflammatory.

Law enforcement leaders point to several factors to explain, if not justify, the lack of emphasis on training for hate crimes. While the offenses can be dramatic and highly disturbing — like the incident earlier this year in which a white supremacist impaled an African-American man with an 18-inch sword in New York’s Times Square — they represent a very small percentage of the nation’s overall crime. Working with often limited budgets, police officials have to make difficult decisions about what to prioritize during training, and hate crimes can lose out.

That said, the events of the last 18 months, driven in great part by the racially charged presidential campaign of 2016, seem to suggest an adjustment of priorities might be in order.

The number of Americans reporting hate crimes to the authorities has grown in recent years, with FBI figures showing an increase of nearly 5 percent in 2016 alone, a tally that included more than 2,000 physical attacks and beatings. More recent data shows double-digit hate crime spikes in several major cities.

Melissa Garlick, the Northeast Area Civil Rights Counsel at the Anti-Defamation League, would like to see every state pass legislation requiring hate crimes training. “We want law enforcement to have the tools they need to properly investigate hate crimes,” she said.

Hate crimes laws are not new. The earliest legislation was adopted by a pair of states in the Pacific Northwest — Oregon and Washington — in 1981 and, since then, 43 states and the District of Columbia have passed their own hate crimes bills. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law a federal hate crimes bill named after murder victims James Byrd and Matthew Shepard. The FBI, for its part, has asked local and state law enforcement agencies to track hate crimes since 1990.

Yet today, nearly four decades after the first hate crimes law was passed, police officers in much of the country get little or no training on how the laws work, or what to look for when responding to a potential hate crime.

At the police academy in Huntsville, Alabama, instructors dedicate two weeks to educating recruits about the state’s penal code. Capt. Dewayne McCarver, who heads the academy, said he isn’t sure precisely how much time his staff spends discussing the Alabama hate crime law during those 10 days of legal instruction. In an interview, McCarver questioned whether the school needed to devote more than an hour, at most, to the subject.

The law, which dates to 1993, is similar to others across the country and focuses on individuals whose crimes are motivated by their victim’s “race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, or physical or mental disability.” It acts as a “sentence enhancement,” adding time behind bars in cases ranging from property destruction to murder.

In class, McCarver said, instructors caution students to be “very careful” in classifying offenses as possible hate crimes when writing up incident reports. He worries that logging incidents as potential hate crimes can cause trouble for officers when they testify in court: an aggressive defense attorney might challenge the officer’s decision to label the offense as a hate crime, particularly if prosecutors don’t wind up charging it as such.

He told ProPublica that officers in Huntsville “rarely, if ever” designate offenses as hate crimes.

“It’s really a box that I personally wish they didn’t put on a case report,” he said.

In fact, according to FBI records, the Huntsville Police Department has never reported a bias-motivated crime to the federal government.

Brian Levin, a former New York City police officer, takes issue with McCarver’s approach.

“We should always train law enforcement to tag it as a possible hate crime at the time of report, as long the evidence is there,” said Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “We need accurate data, so communities can be aware of the extent of the problem and the characteristics of the offenses.”

Last year, the entire state of Alabama reported only 14 hate crimes to the FBI, a figure criminologists believe is inaccurate and represents a small sliver of the true number of hate crimes.

Once on the force, McCarver said, Huntsville officers get 40 hours of additional training each year. That added instruction, however, does not include hate crimes, he said.

“We have a limited amount of time,” McCarver said. “We have not had a reason to put hate crimes into the curriculum other than what we learn in the basic class.”

Huntsville isn’t unique: Across the border in Florida, two of that state’s largest law enforcement agencies, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and the Miami-Dade Police Department, also do not refresh cops on hate crimes after their initial instruction.

Boe Turner is chief of training for Nevada’s Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, the body that oversees academies in that state. Turner thinks officers shouldn’t go looking into the motivation of suspected offenders. That’s the job of prosecutors, he said. Victims, he added, tend to have little insight into the motivations of their assailants.

Experts disagree. Victims, they say, are critical sources of information, particularly in hate crime cases. Because the cases are difficult to prove — prosecutors must show conclusively that the offender was motivated by bigotry or bias — it’s crucial for police to gather as much evidence as possible, they argue, and victims often understand the circumstances surrounding a crime better than anyone.

“Training for law enforcement officials on identifying and investigating hate crimes is critical,” said Becky Monroe, a former federal prosecutor who now works for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Decent training, she added, can prepare officers for a pair of intertwined tasks: gathering the right evidence and calming the fears of community members who may feel frightened and vulnerable in the aftermath of an attack.

To better equip officers for such investigations, some state academies have developed thorough and detailed lessons on hate crimes. Instructors at the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy, for instance, work from a 61-page handbook, which ProPublica obtained. The manual profiles local white supremacist leaders and extremist groups, examines recent criminal cases and offers practical guidance for investigators.

But not all training guides are so impressive. A six-page handout used in Arizona lists a host of white supremacist groups that have completely disbanded or faded from relevancy, but fails to mention the Hammerskins or Vinlanders, two Nazi skinhead gangs that have murdered people in the state in recent years.

In Wisconsin, trainers fold hate crimes training into broader courses about cultural sensitivity and biased policing. The material includes some dubious racial generalizations.

“African Americans may distrust the motives or honesty of a speaker who is carefully neutral, objective, and unemotional,” one section of the guide states. “By contrast, European Americans may see someone who is speaking with a great deal of emotion as irrational.”

The federal government, for its part, has mounted several different training initiatives over the years, some more successful than others. Since the 1990s, the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services branch has run training programs aimed at teaching law enforcement agencies how to collect hate crimes statistics and submit that data to the FBI; today, however, around 12 percent of those agencies still don’t gather the information at all and many more fail to give the bureau reliable data.

After the federal Shepard-Byrd Act passed in 2009, Cynthia Deitle, while serving as head of the FBI’s Civil Rights unit, began organizing hate crimes conferences for state and local officers, educational events that explained the mechanics of the various state laws and laid out the ways the FBI could assist with local hate crime cases. She remembers stressing to local officers the importance of gathering every possible clue, no matter how insignificant it might seem. Unfortunately, many of the events weren’t well attended, pulling in maybe 20 to 50 police officers apiece.

“We could not force a police officer to come to our training,” said Deitle, who is now an executive at the Matthew Shepard Foundation, an advocacy group, adding that she understood the challenges faced by smaller agencies — many simply couldn’t take officers off the street for extra schooling.

While Deitle was trying to launch a new training effort, another federal program was coming to end.

For more than a decade, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers ran a program called “Train-the-Trainer” that routinely sent hate crimes specialists around the country to work with state and local cops. The idea was to educate police trainers and command staff about hate crimes so they could return to their departments and teach new recruits and frontline officers.

“It was a great program,” recalled Levin, the director of the extremism center in California who was one of the instructors. “I did stuff on everything from the hate groups to legal issues such as Supreme Court cases.” Levin said he volunteered his time out of a sense of mission and worked alongside experts from the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ADL, as well as law enforcement figures.

But interest in the issue eventually waned. Several people familiar with the effort say it came to a halt in the early days of the Obama administration, in 2009, at a time when police departments were shifting their attention toward combating acts of terrorism.

“Departments really wanted to focus on terrorism rather than hate crimes,” said Levin.

At FLETC, Communications Officer Christa Thompson wasn’t sure why the program shut down, but she did know what kind of courses the agency — which teaches local, state, federal and tribal law enforcement — is holding these days: internet investigations, active shooter response, marksmanship and more.

She said, “We do not currently offer hate crimes training” on a regular basis.

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Net Neutrality: Massachusetts Joins Multi-State Lawsuit Against FCC. What Next?

The Attorney General (AG) for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is suing the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) after the FCC voted on December 14th to repeal existing net neutrality rules protecting consumers. Maura Healey, the Massachusetts AG, announced that her office has joined a multi-state lawsuit with the New York State AG:

"... joined New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman in announcing that they will be filing a multi-state lawsuit against the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over its vote to rollback net neutrality protections...The FCC recently issued a proposed final order rolling back net neutrality protections and on December 14th, voted 3-2 on party lines to implement the final order. On December 13th, AG Healey joined a coalition of 18 attorneys general in sending a letter to the FCC after reports emerged that nearly two million comments submitted in support of the agency were fake."

AG Healey said about the multi-state lawsuit:

"With the FCC vote, Americans will pay more for the internet and will have fewer options... The agency has completely failed to justify this decision and we will be suing to stand up for the free exchange of ideas and to keep the American people in control of internet access."

The December 13th letter to the FCC about fake comments was signed by AGs from California, District of Columbia, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington. The AGs' letter stated, in part:

"One of the most important roles that we perform is to prosecute fraud. It is a role we take extremely seriously, and one that is essential to a fair marketplace... The ‘Restore Internet Freedom’ proposal, also known as net neutrality rollback (WC Docket No. 17- 108) has far-reaching implications for the everyday life of Americans... Recent attempts by New York Attorney General Schneiderman to investigate supposed comments received by the FCC have revealed a pattern of facts that should raise alarm bells for every American about the integrity of the democratic process. A careful review of the publicly available information revealed a pattern of fake submissions using the names of real people. In fact, there may be over one million fake submissions from across the country. This is akin to identity theft on a massive scale – and theft of someone’s voice in a democracy is particularly concerning.

As state Attorneys General, many of our offices have received complaints from consumers indicating their distress over their names being used in such a manner. While we will investigate these consumer complaints through our normal processes, we urge the Commission to take immediate action and to cooperate with law enforcement investigations. Woven throughout the Administrative Procedures Act is a duty for rulemakers to provide information to the public and to listen to the public. We know from advising our rulemakers at the state level that listening to the public provides insights from a diversity of viewpoints. But, if the well of public comment has been poisoned by falsified submissions, the Commission may be unable to rely on public comments that would help it reach a legitimate conclusion to the rulemaking process. Or, it must give less weight to the public comments submitted which also undermines the process..."

The FCC ignored the AGs' joint letter about fraud and proceeded with its net-neutrality vote on December 14. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai had blown off the identity theft and fraud charges as maneuvers by desperate net neutrality advocates.

California AG Xavier Becerra said:

"... the FCC failed to do what is right... The FCC decided that consumers do not deserve free, open, and equal access to the internet. It decided to ignore the millions of Americans who voiced their strong support for our existing net neutrality rules. Here in California – a state that is home to countless start-ups and technology giants alike – we know that a handful of powerful companies should not dictate the sources for the information we seek..."

Residents in some states can use special sites to notify their state's AG about the misuse of their identity data in fake comments submitted to the FCC: Pennsylvania, New York.

The FCC under Chairman Pai seems to listen and respond to the needs of corporate internet service providers (ISPs), and not to consumers. A November 21 - 25 poll found that 52 percent of registered voters support the current rules, including 55 percent of Democrats and 53 percent of Republicans.

While that is down from prior polls, a majority support net neutrality rules. A poll by Mozilla and Ipsos in June, 2017 found overwhelming support across party lines: 76% of Americans, 81% of Democrats, and 73% of Republicans favor keeping net neutrality rules. The poll included approximately 1,000 American adults across the U.S. with 354 Democrats, 344 Republicans, and 224 Independents.

Before the FCC affirmed net neutrality rules in 2015, a poll by the Center for Political Communication at the University of Delaware in 2014 found strong and widespread support:

"... About 81 percent of Americans oppose allowing Internet providers like Comcast and Verizon to charge Web sites and services more if they want to reach customers more quickly... Republicans were slightly more likely to support net neutrality than Democrats. 81 percent of Democrats and 85 percent of Republicans in the survey said they opposed fast lanes."

Experts have debated the various ways of moving forward after the December 14th FCC vote. Wired reported:

"Most immediately, the activity will move to the courts... The most likely argument: that the commission’s decision violates federal laws barring agencies from crafting “arbitrary and capricious” regulations. After all, the FCC’s net neutrality rules were just passed in 2015... as capricious as the current FCC's about-face may seem, legal experts say the challenges won’t be a slam-dunk case. Federal agencies are allowed to change their minds about previous regulations, so long as they adequately explain their reasoning... The FCC's main argument for revoking the 2015 rules is that the regulations hurt investment in broadband infrastructure. But, as WIRED recently detailed, many broadband providers actually increased their investments, while those that cut back on spending told shareholders that the net neutrality rules didn't affect their plans. University of Pennsylvania Law School professor Christopher Yoo says courts generally defer to an agency's expertise in interpreting evidence submitted into the record... net neutrality advocates could also argue that the agency's decision-making process was corrupted by the flood of fake comments left by bots. But FCC Chair AJit Pai will argue that the agency discarded low-quality and repeated comments and focused only on matters of substance... A long-term solution to net neutrality will require Congress to pass laws that won't change every time control of the White House passes to another party... Senator John Thune (R-South Dakota) recently called for Congress to pass bipartisan net neutrality legislation. In 2015, Thune and Representative Fred Upton (R-Michigan) introduced a bill that would have banned blocking or slowing legal content, but limited the FCC's authority over internet service providers. It never moved forward. Thune is clearly hoping that growing demand from the public for net neutrality protections will bring more Republicans to the table... Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) told WIRED earlier this year that he won't support a bill with weaker protections than the 2015 rules..."

President Trump appointed Pai as FCC Chairman in January, giving the Republican commissioners at the FCC a voting majority. Neither the President nor the White House staff said anything in its daily e-mail blast or in their website about the FCC vote; and instead discussed tax reform, general remarks about reducing regulation, and infrastructure (e.g., roads, bridges, tunnels).

Seems to me the internet is a key component of our country's infrastructure. What are your opinions? If your state isn't in the above list, we'd like to hear from you, too.


FCC Action To Kill Net Neutrality Will Likely Hurt Public Libraries, The Poor, And The Disabled

American Library Association logo Jim Neal, the president of the American Library Association, released a statement condemning the December 14th vote by the Republican-led U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to kill net neutrality protections for internet users:

"The majority of the FCC has just dealt a blow to equitable access to online information and services which puts libraries, our patrons, and America’s communities at risk... By rolling back essential and enforceable net neutrality protections, the FCC has enabled commercial interests at the expense of the public who depends on the internet as their primary means of information gathering, learning, and communication. We will continue to fight the FCC’s decision and advocate for strong, enforceable net neutrality protections."

New York Public Library logo The Verge interviewed New York Public Library (NYPL) president Tony Marx, and Greg Cam the NYPL director of information policy. During 2017, the NYPL provided 3.1 million computer sessions across all branches (using 4,700 computers), plus 3 million wireless sessions. Based upon that activity, Marx said:

"... the simple fact is that the poorest of New York rely on the library as the only place they can go and get free use of computers and free Wi-Fi. It’s one of the reasons why the library is the most visited civic institution in New York. We have also, in recent years, been lending people what we call hot spots, which are Wi-Fi boxes they can take home, typically for a year. That gives them digital access at home — broadband access — which something like 2 million New Yorkers can’t afford and don’t have..."

And, New York City is one of the more prosperous areas of the country. It makes one wonder how citizens in poor or rural areas; or in areas without any public libraries will manage. Disabled users will also be negatively affected by the FCC vote. Marx explained:

"... the New York Public Library runs the Andrew Heiskell Library for the visually impaired. I believe it is a three-state depository, so it plays a role in getting access in all the ways you described — not just in New York City but way beyond. A lot of that now happens online and it could simply stop working, which means they’re gonna cut people off completely."

Cram explained the wide range of tasks people use the internet for at public libraries:

"Our users depend on the library, and libraries in general, for things like completing homework assignments, locating e-government resources, e-government services, accessing oral histories and primary source materials. Things that are resource-intensive like video and audio and image collections are dependent on a free and open internet. Also things like applying and interviewing for jobs. More and more jobs involve a first round of interviews that are done over the internet. If we have to put things in the slow lane, we’re worried about those interview services being downgraded."

"Slow lanes" are one of about five possible consequences by the FCC decision to kill net neutrality. Marx summarized the concerns of many library managers:

"We live in a world where access to information is essential for opportunity, for learning, for success, for civic life, for checking facts. Anything that reduces that, particularly for people who can’t afford alternatives, is a body blow to the basic democratic principles that the library stands for. Whether people or the library are shoved to the slow lane, and/or forced to pay to be in the fast lane with resources that are already stretched thin, is really sort of shocking. To put it sort of bluntly, the FCC should be defending communications."

Basically, internet access is a utility like water or electricity; something corporate providers have long denied and fought. Everyone needs and uses broadband internet. What are your opinions?


More Year-End Considerations Given The Coming Likely Republican Tax Plan

A prior post discussed the questionable benefits and year-end considerations for middle-class taxpayers of the likely Republican tax reform plan making its way through Congress. The likely tax plan includes lower tax rates paired with many deductions eliminated.

The professional who prepares my taxes provided another warning:

"Dear clients:
It looks like almost a sure thing that, if you itemize deductions, beginning in 2018, you will no longer be able to take a deduction for the Excise Tax on your car or the income taxes that you pay to Massachusetts and other states. You will PROBABLY still be able to deduct your real estate property taxes up to $10,000 a year. If you currently pay the Alternative Minimum Tax (line 45 of your Form 1040), check with me before you follow these recommendations.

All others who itemize, I recommend that you consider the following actions this month (December):

  1. If your total property taxes (including those for a second home) are more than $10,000, pay your city or town as much as you possibly can in December.
  2. Be sure to pay... maybe even over-pay... as much of your State Income Tax as possible by December 31st. If you make estimated payments, your 4th quarter Massachusetts payment is due by January 15th. YOU SHOULD DEFINITELY PAY IT IN DECEMBER INSTEAD.
  3. Even if you don't usually make Estimate Payments to Massachusetts, you should consider making one in December... For example, if you made a payment of $1,000, you might save $150 or $250 or more on your 2017 federal tax return. You will save NOTHING on any state income taxes that you pay in 2018.

I will reach out again if and when the tax bill is finalized and signed into law if there are any other changes that might affect your plans in December."

Obviously, you should consult the professional that prepares your income taxes, since your situation and state may dictate different actions. And, I am not an income tax professional. New legislation always has consequences, and it seems wise to be aware. hence, this informational blog post.

Some additional thoughts. Capping the real estate property tax deduction at $10,000 might help pay for the increased deficits the Republican tax plan would generate, but it will also hurt persons living in high-cost areas (e.g., cities, states with high state taxes, areas with high real estate prices). Plus, the tax cuts are temporary for individuals but permanent for corporations. Slick, eh? Is it fair? Seems not.

My college friends and I are discussing via e-mail the considerations listed above and in my prior blog post. The proposed elimination of deductions for state and local taxes (SALT) is a hot topic. You can find online articles discussing the advantages and disadvantages of eliminating SALT deductions. Regardless, more to discuss with your accountant and/or income tax professional.


Doug Jones Wins In Alabama, Net Neutrality, And The FCC

[7:30 am EST] Congratulations to Doug Jones and his supporters for a stunning victory Tuesday in a special election in Alabama for the open U.S. Senate seat. His victory speech is available online. Late last month, Doug Jones tweeted this:

Later today, the commissioners at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will likely vote during their December 2017 Open Commission Meeting to kill net neutrality rules protecting consumers free and open internet access. The planned vote comes despite clear and mounting evidence of widespread identity theft by unknown persons to submit fake comments distorting and polluting FCC record and website soliciting feedback from the public.

Yesterday, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel released the following press release:

"Upon receipt of a letter from New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman stating that it now appears that two million Americans’ identities may have been misused in the FCC record and a separate letter from 18 State Attorneys General calling on the FCC to delay its net neutrality vote because of its “tainted” record, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel released the following statement:

“This is crazy. Two million people have had their identities stolen in an effort to corrupt our public record. Nineteen State Attorneys General from across the country have asked us to delay this vote so they can investigate. And yet, in less than 24 hours we are scheduled to vote on wiping out our net neutrality protections. We should not vote on any item that is based on this corrupt record. I call on my colleagues to delay this vote so we can get to the bottom of this mess.” "

Despite the widespread identity theft and fraud, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has maintained his position to proceed with a vote today to kill net neutrality protections for consumers. President Trump appointed Pai as FCC Chairman in January, giving the Republican commissioners a majority when voting. Pai has blown off the identity theft and fraud charges as maneuvers by desperate net neutrality advocates.

[Update at 2:20 pm EST: earlier today, the FCC commissioners voted along party lines to kill existing net neutrality rules protecting consumers.]


Was Your Identity Information Misused To Submit Fake Comments To The FCC About Net Neutrality?

After creating a webpage specifically to help New York State residents determine if their identifies were misued for net neutrality comments, Attorney General Schneiderman announced:

"In the last five days alone, over 3,200 people have reported misused identities to the Attorney General’s office, including nearly 350 New Yorkers from across the state. Attorney General Schneiderman urges New Yorkers to continue to check whether their identity was misused and report it to his office in order to inform the investigation."

The webpage automatically links to only net neutrality (Docket 17-108) comments with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC)  site. So, at least 3,200 persons have confirmed the misuse of their identity information by unknown persons (or bots) to pollute feedback by the public about net neutrality rules protecting consumers' broadband freedoms. You'd think that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai would be concerned about the pollution and fraud; and would delay the upcoming December 14th vote regarding net neutrality. But he's not and blew off the fake comments allegations, as explained in this earlier blog post.

You might think that Chairman Pai and the FCC would be concerned about pollution and fraud in feedback submitted to the FCC site, given the massive Equifax data breach in September which exposed the data elements (e.g., name, street addresses) criminals and fraudsters could easily use to submit fake comments.

This makes one wonder if the FCC can be trusted under Chairman Pai's leadership. Hopefully, Attorneys General in other states will provide similar webpages to help residents in their states... and not only for comments about net neutrality.

Being curious, I visited the webpage by AG Schneiderman. It instructed:

"The Office of the New York State Attorney General is investigating whether public comments regarding net neutrality rules wrongfully used New Yorkers’ identities without their consent. We encourage you to search the FCC’s public comment website and tell us if you see any comments that misuse your name and address.

First, search below to find any comments that may have misused your identity. If results appear, click on any comment that uses your name, and when the comment appears review the name, the address, and the comment text. (If no results appear, your identity most likely was not misused.)"

You don't need to be a New York State resident to use this online tool. My initial search produced 1,046, so I narrowed it by entering my name in quotations ("George Jenkins") for a more precise match. That second search produced 40 comments about net neutrality (e.g., Docket 17-108), a manageable number. I browsed the list which included my valid comment submitted during May, 2017.

I did not see any other comments using my name and address. That's good because I only submitted one comment. I noticed comments by persons with the same name in other states. That seems okay. It's reasonable to expect multiple persons with the same name in a country with a population of about 360 million people.

I did not check the addresses of the other persons with the same name. I realize that could easily hide synthetic ID-theft. In traditional synthetic ID-theft, criminals mix stolen (valid) Social Security numbers with other persons' names to avoid detection. In the ECFS comments system, one could enter valid names with fake addresses; or vice-versa. I hope that AG Schneiderman's fraud analysis also checks for both types of synthetic ID-theft: 1) fake names at real addresses, and 2) real names at fake addresses.

If I had found fraudulent entries, I would have notified AG Schneiderman, the Attorney General's office in the state where I live, and the FCC.

Did you check for misuse of your identity information? What did you find?


Governors and Federal Agencies Are Blocking Nearly 1,300 Accounts on Facebook and Twitter

[Editor's note: today's guest blog post, by the reporters at ProPublica, highlights a little-known practice by some elected officials to block their constituents on social networking sites. Today's post is reprinted with permission.]

By Leora Smith and Derek Kravitz - ProPublica

Amanda Farber still doesn’t know why Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan blocked her from his Facebook group. A resident of Bethesda and full-time parent and volunteer, Farber identifies as a Democrat but voted for the Republican Hogan in 2014. Farber says she doesn’t post on her representatives’ pages often. But earlier this year, she said she wrote on the governor’s Facebook page, asking him to oppose the Trump administration’s travel ban and health care proposal.

She never received a response. When she later returned to the page, she noticed her comment had been deleted. She also noticed she had been blocked from commenting. (She is still allowed to share the governor’s posts and messages.)

Farber has repeatedly emailed and called Hogan’s office, asking them to remove her from their blacklist. She remains blocked. According to documents ProPublica obtained through an open-records request this summer, hers is one of 494 accounts that Hogan blocks. Blocked accounts include a schoolteacher who criticized the governor’s education policies and a pastor who opposed the governor’s stance against accepting Syrian refugees. They even have their own Facebook group: Marylanders Blocked by Larry Hogan on Facebook.

Hogan’s office says they “diligently adhere” to their social media policy when deleting comments and blocking users.

In August, ProPublica filed public-records requests with every governor and 22 federal agencies, asking for lists of everyone blocked on their official Facebook and Twitter accounts. The responses we’ve received so far show that governors and agencies across the country are blocking at least 1,298 accounts. More than half of those — 652 accounts — are blocked by Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, a Republican.

Four other Republican governors and four Democrats, as well as five federal agencies, block hundreds of others, according to their responses to our requests. Five Republican governors and three Democrats responded that they are not blocking any accounts at all. Many agencies and more than half of governors’ offices have not yet responded to our requests. Most of the blocked accounts appear to belong to humans but some could be “bots,” or automated accounts.

When the administrator of a public Facebook page or Twitter handle blocks an account, the blocked user can no longer comment on posts. That can create an inaccurate public image of support for government policies. (Here’s how you can dig into whether your elected officials are blocking constituents.)

ProPublica made the records requests and asked readers for their own examples after we detailed multiple instances of officials blocking constituents.

We heard from dozens of people. The governors’ offices in Alaska, Maine, Mississippi, Nebraska and New Jersey did not respond to our requests for records, but residents in each of those states reported being blocked. People were blocked after commenting on everything from marijuana legislation to Medicaid to a local green jobs bill.

For some, being blocked means losing one of few means to communicate with their elected representatives. Ann-Meredith McNeill, who lives in western rural Kentucky, told ProPublica that Bevin rarely visits anywhere near her. McNeill said she feels like “the internet is all I have” for interacting with the governor.

McNeill said she was blocked after criticizing Bevin’s position on abortion rights. (Last January, Bevin’s administration won a lawsuit that resulted in closing one of Kentucky’s two abortion clinics, the event that McNeill says inspired her comment.)

In response to questions about its social media blocking policies, Bevin’s office said in a statement that “a small number of users misuse [social media] outlets by posting obscene and abusive language or images, or repeated off-topic comments and spam. Constituents of all ages should be able to engage in civil discourse with Governor Bevin via his social media platforms without being subjected to vulgarity or abusive trolls.” McNeill told ProPublica, “I’m sure I got sassy” but she made “no threats or anything.”

Almost every federal agency that responded is blocking accounts. The Department of Veterans Affairs blocked 18 accounts as of July, but said most were originally blocked before 2014. The blocked accounts included a Michigan law firm specializing in auto accident cases and a Virginia real estate consultant who told ProPublica she had “no idea why” she was blocked. The Department of Energy blocked eight accounts as of October. The Department of Labor blocked seven accounts. And the Small Business Administration blocked two accounts, both of which were unverified and claimed to be affiliated with government loan programs.

Many governors and agencies gave us only partial lists or rejected our requests altogether. Outgoing Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s office told us they would not share their block lists due to “privacy concerns for those people whose names might appear on it.” Alabama declined to provide public records because our request did not come from an Alabama citizen.

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens’ office declined to share records from his Facebook or Twitter accounts, arguing they are not “considered to be the ‘official’ social media accounts of the Governor of Missouri” because he created them before he took office.

Increased attention on the issue of blocking seems to be having an impact. In September, the California-based First Amendment Coalition revealed that California Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, had blocked more than 1,500 accounts until June, shortly before the organization submitted a request for his social media records.

At some point before fulfilling the coalition’s request, Brown’s office unblocked every account.

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, blocked the activist group Indivisible Vermont on Twitter on Aug. 25. On Aug. 28, Vermont reporter Taylor Dobbs submitted a request for the governor’s full blocked list, shortly after ProPublica’s similar request. Later that day, Scott unblocked the group and released a statement saying the account was “misconstrued as spam.”

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s office unblocked at least two Facebook users after receiving ProPublica’s request. Here are screenshots they sent us showing that the users have been unblocked:

In the last year, a series of legal claims have called into question the legality of government officials blocking constituents on social media.

At least one federal district court held that government officials who block constituents are violating their First Amendment rights.

Constituents have pending lawsuits against the governors of Kentucky, Maine, and Maryland, as well as Representative Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., and President Trump.

We asked the White House, which is not subject to open-records laws, to disclose the list of people Trump is blocking. Officials there have not responded.

Filed under:

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Photos: December 7 Demonstration In Boston To Keep Net Neutrality

Demonstrations occurred nationwide on December 7 to save net neutrality. Citizens took to the streets to keep our internet services open. About 200 persons attended the demonstration in Boston on Boylston Street. It was encouraging to meet several students from local universities participating in the event. They understand the issue and its seriousness. Several A.C.L.U. members also participated:

Boylston Street, Boston. December 7, 2017. Keep net neutrality demonstration. Image 4910

Boylston Street, Boston. December 7, 2017. Keep net neutrality demonstration. Image 4897

Boylston Street, Boston. December 7, 2017. Keep net neutrality. Image 4904

Boylston Street, Boston. December 7, 2017. Keep net neutrality demonstration. Image 4900

Boylston Street, Boston. December 7, 2017. Keep net neutrality demonstration. Image 4905

Boylston Street, Boston. December 7, 2017. Keep net neutrality demonstration. Image 4908

Boylston Street, Boston. December 7, 2017. Keep net neutrality demonstration. Image 4906

Browse photos from other demonstrations nationwide on December 7. Contact your elected officials in Congress, and learn about the next day of action on December 12, 2017. More resources:


Futurism: Your Life Without Net Neutrality Protections

Federal communications Commission logo You've probably heard that Ajit Pai, the Chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), is leading his agency towards a vote on December 14, 2017 to kill net neutrality. How will consumers' online lives change? Futurism described what your online life will be like without net neutrality:

"You’re at work and want to check Facebook on your lunch break to see how your sister is doing. This is not exactly a straightforward task, as your company uses Verizon. You’re not about to ask your boss if they’d consider putting up the extra cash every month so that you can access social media in the office, so you’ll have to wait until you get home.

That evening, you log in to pay your monthly internet bill — or rather, bills.

See, there’s the baseline internet cost, but without net neutrality, you also have to pay a separate monthly fee for social media, another for "leisure" pages like Reddit and Imgur, and another still for liberal-leaning news sites — because your provider’s CEO is politically conservative. Not only is your bill confusing, you’re not sure you can really afford to access all these websites that, at one point in time, you took for granted.

In addition to the sites you can access if you pay for them, there are also websites that have just become lost to you. Websites that you once frequented, but that now, you aren’t even sure how to access anymore. You can’t even pay to access them. You used to like reading strange Wikipedia articles late at night and cruising for odd documentaries — but now, all those interests that once entertained and educated you in your precious and minimal free time are either behind yet another separately provided paywall or blocked entirely. You’ve started to ask around, see if your friends or coworkers with other providers have better access... but the story is pretty much always the same."

Net neutrality meme highlighting blocked content. Click to view larger version In short, without net neutrality:

  1. You will lose the freedom to use the internet bandwidth you've purchased monthly as you desire;
  2. Corporate internet service providers (ISPs) increase their their revenues and profits by adding tolls to each package in a sliced-and-diced approach to internet content;
  3. Your internet bill will become just as confusing, frustrating, and expensive as your cable-TV bill, where ISPs force you to buy several expensive packages of sites in order to access your favorite sites;
  4. The new, expensive tolls allow ISPs to decide what internet content you see and don't see. Sites or content producers unwilling to pay fees to ISPs will find their content blocked or relegated to "slow" speed lanes; and
  5. Both middle-class and poor online users will bear the brunt of the price increases.

If you think this can't happen in the United States, consider:

"Some countries are already living this reality. In New Zealand, Vodafone offers mobile internet packages that are comprised of different types of services. You might have to pay a certain amount to access social apps like Snapchat and Instagram, and a separate fee to chat with friends via Facebook Messenger and iMessage. A similar framework is used by Portugal’s MEO, where messaging, social media, music streaming, video streaming, and email are also split into separate packages.

Long ago, FCC Chairman Pai made his position clear. Breitbart News reported on April 28, 2017:

"Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai told Breitbart News in an exclusive interview that an open and free internet is vital for America in the 21st century. During a speech at the Newseum on Wednesday, Pai said he plans to roll back the net-neutrality regulations and to restore the light-touch regulatory system established by President Bill Clinton and Congressional Republicans by the 1996 Telecommunications Act... Chairman Pai said during his speech that the internet prospered before net neutrality was enacted... Breitbart News asked the FCC chief why he thinks that net neutrality is a problem, and why we must eliminate the rule. He said: "Number one there was no problem to solve, the internet wasn’t broken in 2015. In that situation, it doesn’t seem me that preemptive market-wide regulation is necessary. Number two, even if there was a problem, this wasn’t the right solution to adopt. These Title II regulations were inspired during the Great Depression to regulate Ma Bell which was a telephone monopoly. And the broadband market we have is very different from the telephone market of 1934. So, it seems to me that if you have 4,462 internet service providers and if a few of them are behaving in a way that is anti-competitive or otherwise bad for consumer welfare then you take targeted action to deal with that. You don’t declare the entire market anti-competitive and treat everyone as if they are a monopolist. Going forward we are going to propose eliminating that Title II classification and figure out the right way forward. The bottom line is, everyone agrees on the principles of a free and open internet what we disagree with is how many regulations are needed to preserve the internet." "

Note the language. Pai uses "free and open internet" to refer to freedoms for ISPs to do what they want; a slick attempt to co-opt language net neutrality proponentsused for freedoms for consumers go online where they want without additional fees. Pai's "Light touch" means fewer regulations for ISPS regardless of the negative consequences upon consumers. Pai's comments in April attempted to spin existing net neutrality laws as antiquated ("the telephone market of 1934"), when, in fact, net neutrality was established recently... in 2010. Even the same Breitbart News article admitted this:

"Net neutrality passed under former Democrat Tom Wheeler’s FCC in 2010."

Pai's exaggerations and falsehoods are astounding. Plenty of bogus claims by Pai and net neutrality critics. In January of this year, President Donald Trump appointed Ajit Pai, a former lawyer with Verizon, as the FCC Chairman. Earlier this year, CNN reported:

"More than 1,000 startups and investors have now signed an open letter to Pai opposing the proposal. The Internet Association, a trade group representing bigger companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon, has also condemned the plan. "The current FCC rules are working for consumers and the protections need to be kept in tact," Michael Beckerman, president and CEO of the Internet Association, said at a press conference Wednesday."

Regular readers of this blog are aware that more than "a few" ISPs committed abused consumers and content producers. (A prior blog post listed many historical problems and abuses of consumers by some ISPs.) Also, consider this: Pai made his net-neutrality position clear long before the public submitted comments to the FCC this past summer. Sounds like he never really intended to listen to comments from the public. Not very open minded.

As bad it all of this sounds, it's even worse. How? An FCC Commissioner, 28 U.S. senators, and the New York State Attorney General (AG) have lobbied FCC Chairman Pai to delay the net neutrality vote planned by the FCC on December 14, due to clear and convincing evidence of the massive fraud of comments submitted to the FCC's online commenting system.

In short, the FCC's online comments system is corrupted, hacked, and unreliable. The group (e.g., FCC commissioner, 28 Senators, and NY State AG) also objects to the elimination of net neutrality on the merits.

The fraud evidence is pretty damning, but Chairman Pai seems intent upon going ahead with a vote to kill net neutrality despite the comments fraud. Why? How? Ars Technica reported on December 4th:

"FCC Chairman Ajit Pai says that net neutrality rules aren't needed because the Federal Trade Commission can protect consumers from broadband providers... When contacted by Ars, Pai's office issued this statement in response to the [delay request] letter: "This is just evidence that supporters of heavy-handed Internet regulations are becoming more desperate by the day as their effort to defeat Chairman Pai's plan to restore Internet freedom has stalled. The vote will proceed as scheduled on December 14."

I find the whole process deeply disturbing. First, only 28 U.S. Senators seem concerned about the massive comments fraud. Why aren't all 100 concerned? Second, why aren't any House members concerned? Third, President Trump hasn't said anything about it. (This makes one wonder if POTUS45 either doesn't care consumers are hurt, or is asleep at the wheel.) Elected officials in positions of responsibility seem willing to ignore valid concerns.

Logo-verizon-protestsMany consumers are concerned, and protests to keep net neutrality are scheduled for later today outside Verizon stores nationwide. What do you think?


The Limitations And Issues With Facial Recognition Software

We've all seen television shows where police technicians use facial recognition software to swiftly and accurately identify suspects, or catch the bad guys. How accurate is that? An article in The Guardian newspaper discussed the promises, limitations, and issues with facial recognition software used by law enforcement:

"The software, which has taken an expanding role among law enforcement agencies in the US over the last several years, has been mired in controversy because of its effect on people of color. Experts fear that the new technology may actually be hurting the communities the police claims they are trying to protect... "It’s considered an imperfect biometric," said Clare Garvie, who in 2016 created a study on facial recognition software, published by the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law, called The Perpetual Line-Up. "There’s no consensus in the scientific community that it provides a positive identification of somebody"... [Garvie's] report found that black individuals, as with so many aspects of the justice system, were the most likely to be scrutinized by facial recognition software in cases. It also suggested that software was most likely to be incorrect when used on black individuals – a finding corroborated by the FBI's own research. This combination, which is making Lynch’s and other black Americans’ lives excruciatingly difficult, is born from another race issue that has become a subject of national discourse: the lack of diversity in the technology sector... According to a 2011 study by the National Institute of Standards and Technologies (Nist), facial recognition software is actually more accurate on Asian faces when it’s created by firms in Asian countries, suggesting that who makes the software strongly affects how it works... Law enforcement agencies often don’t review their software to check for baked-in racial bias – and there aren’t laws or regulations forcing them to."


Lower Tax Rate And Fewer Deductions. Questionable Help For Middle Class Taxpayers

Yesterday, I received an alert from the professional that prepares my income taxes:

"Dear Clients,
I know that Congress has not yet finalized the new tax law, but it looks pretty certain that Certain Miscellaneous Deductions will no longer be allowed in 2018. If you want to know if that affects you, see if there is an entry on your Schedule A, Line 27 from 2016. If you take the standard deduction, then don’t worry about it. These deductions include expenses for using your car on the job, un-reimbursed overnight travel and meals, union dues, uniforms, tools, and job training/education.

Some of my clients have huge union dues (police officers, carpenters, electricians, etc.) and others have Second Job Travel or 10-30,000 miles a year in their sales jobs. Every one of you will be hurt by this change.

If there are any expenses you can pay in December, be sure to do that so you can save 15 - 25% on your federal taxes... maybe even more. For example, do you have the option of paying your annual union dues all at once in December? Were you planning to buy a computer used for your job sometime soon? Is there a job-related course... or some tools and supplies... that you can pay for in December rather than next year? Remember... every $100 that you pay in December will save you $15 to $33 in taxes when we meet in a couple months...”

If you haven't consulted with your tax advisor, then now seems to be a good time to do so. I am not an income tax professional, and this blog post is informational.

Many people return to school to get better, high-paying jobs, or as required by their profession. The tax code allows companies to deduct expenses for business and trade associations, so why prevent union members from doing so? It seems that taxpayers with plenty of miscellaneous deductions will be hurt more than persons with fewer or no deductions.

And Republicans are probably hoping that voters won't notice nor feel the pain until after the 2018 elections. President Trump and the Republications promised to help the middle class and poor with tax reform, but the above impacts don't seem helpful. The benefits of lower tax rates are offset by the lost deductions. To use an old saying, that seems like Congress and Republicans are giving taxpayers, "the sleeves off their vests."

You might say this is a "mugging" of many taxpayers. What are your opinions?


'Tens Of Thousands' Of Fake Comments Submitted. New York State Attorney General Demands Answers From the FCC

Just before the Thanksgiving holiday, the attorney general for the New York State sent an open letter to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) about fake comments submitted to the agency's online comments system. Eric T. Schneiderman directed his letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. It read in part:

"Recent press reports suggest that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), under your leadership, soon will release rules to dismantle your agency’s existing “net neutrality” protections under Title II of the Communications Act, which shield the public from anti-consumer behaviors of the giant cable companies that provide high-speed internet to most people... Yet the process the FCC has employed to consider potentially sweeping alterations to current net neutrality rules has been corrupted by the fraudulent use of Americans’ identities — and the FCC has been unwilling to assist my office in our efforts to investigate this unlawful activity.

Specifically, for six months my office has been investigating who perpetrated a massive scheme to corrupt the FCC’s notice and comment process through the misuse of enormous numbers of real New Yorkers’ and other Americans’ identities. Such conduct likely violates state law— yet the FCC has refused multiple requests for crucial evidence in its sole possession that is vital to permit that law enforcement investigation to proceed.

In April 2017, the FCC announced that it would issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking concerning repeal of its existing net neutrality rules. Federal law requires the FCC and all federal agencies to take public comments on proposed rules into account — so it is important that the public comment process actually enable the voices of the millions of individuals and businesses who will be affected to be heard. That’s important no matter one’s position on net neutrality, environmental rules, and so many other areas in which federal agencies regulate.

In May 2017, researchers and reporters discovered that the FCC’s public comment process was being corrupted by the submission of enormous numbers of fake comments concerning the possible repeal of net neutrality rules. In doing so, the perpetrator or perpetrators attacked what is supposed to be an open public process by attempting to drown out and negate the views of the real people, businesses, and others who honestly commented on this important issue. Worse, while some of these fake comments used made up names and addresses, many misused the real names and addresses of actual people... My office analyzed the fake comments and found that tens of thousands of New Yorkers may have had their identities misused in this way... Impersonation and other misuse of a person’s identity violates New York law, so my office launched an investigation... So in June 2017, we contacted the FCC to request certain records related to its public comment system that were necessary to investigate which bad actor or actors were behind the misconduct. We made our request for logs and other records at least 9 times over 5 months: in June, July, August, September, October (three times), and November.

We reached out for assistance to multiple top FCC officials, including you, three successive acting FCC General Counsels, and the FCC’s Inspector General. We offered to keep the requested records confidential, as we had done when my office and the FCC shared information and documents as part of past investigative work. Yet we have received no substantive response to our investigative requests. None."

According to an analysis by the New York State AG's office, "tens of thousands" of fraudulent comment were submitted affecting residents not only in New York but also in California, Georgia, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Clearly, this is both very troubling and unacceptable.

The FCC is supposed to accept comments without tampering and to weigh comments submitted by the public (e.g., consumers, businesses, technology experts, legal experts, etc.) equally to arrive at a decision based upon the majority of comments. If a sizeable portion of the comments submitted were fraudulent, then any FCC decision to kill net neutrality is (at best) both flawed and in error; and (at worst) illegal and undermines both the process and the public's trust.

AG Schneiderman's letter to the FCC is also available on the Medium site. It is most puzzling that the FCC and Chairman Pai have refused data requests since June. What are they hiding? The FCC must balance often competing needs of consumers and industry.

Consumers are very concerned about plans by the FCC to kill net neutrality. Consumers are concerned that their internet needs are not being addressed by the FCC, and that our monthly broadband costs will rise. There is so much concerns that protests are scheduled for December 7th outside Verizon stores. Killing net neutrality may be great for telecom and providers' profits, but it's bad for consumers.

Clearly, the FCC should not make any decisions regarding net neutrality, or any other business, until the fake comments allegations have been answered and resolved. And, an investigation should happen soon. As AG Schneiderman wrote:

"We all have a powerful reason to hold accountable those who would steal Americans’ identities and assault the public’s right to be heard in government rulemaking. If law enforcement can’t investigate and (where appropriate) prosecute when it happens on this scale, the door is open for it to happen again and again."

Democracy and consumers lose if the FCC kills net neutrality. What do you think?


Security Researcher Finds Unprotected Voter Files Online Affecting Up To 1.8 Million Chicagoans

While looking for unprotected data in cloud storage services, a security researcher found unprotected information for as many as 1.8 million voters in Chicago. CBS Chicago reported:

"It was Friday Aug. 11 in Silicon Valley. John Hendren, a marketing representative for IT security firm UpGuard, was looking for insecure data in the cloud. He randomly plugged in "Chicago … db," for “Chicago database,” and hit the jackpot. He found names, addresses, birth dates, driver’s license numbers and the last four digits of Social Security numbers for up to 1.8 million Chicago voters..."

How the breach happened:

"Chicago’s vendor is ES&S, out of Omaha, Nebraska. The company has been paid more than $5 million since 2014 by the Chicago Board of Elections. The company placed the data folder on Amazon Web Services (AWS) with the wrong security settings, Tom Burt, the firm’s CEO, recently told Chicago officials. Burt says managers missed the gaffe, and the database remained online for six months, until UpGuard found it. Company officials say they don’t believe the information ended up on the “dark web” for identity thieves to attain..."

The CBE's breach notice (Adobe PDF) provided a more complete list of the data elements exposed:

"... The personal information contained in the back-up files included voter names, addresses, and dates of birth, and many voters’ driver’s license and State ID numbers and the last four digits of Social Security numbers. Upon discovery of the Incident, ES&S promptly took the AWS server off-line, secured the back-up files, and commenced a forensics investigation. ES&S also hired two specialized third-party vendors to conduct searches to determine whether any personal information stored on the back-up files was available on the Dark Web. The results of ES&S’ investigations have not uncovered any evidence that any voter’s personal information stored on the AWS server was misused..."

This is bad for several reasons. First, the data elements exposed or stolen are enough for cyber criminals to do sufficient damage to breach victims. Second, just because the post-breach investigation didn't find misuse of data doesn't mean there wasn't any. It simply means they didn't find any misuse.

Third, it would be unwise to assume that the breach wasn't that bad because only the last 4 digits of Social Security numbers were exposed. Security researchers have known for a long time that Social Security numbers are easy to guess:

"... a crook need only figure out where and when you were born--information often easily found on social networking sites like Facebook--to guess your number in as few as 1000 tries... Social Security numbers were never meant to be used for widespread identification. They were conceived solely to track taxes and benefits... Every Social Security number starts with three digits known as an "area number." Smaller states might have only one, whereas New York, for example, has 85. The next two digits are "group numbers," which can be anything from 01-99, but don't correspond to anything specific. The last four digits, the "serial number," are assigned sequentially..."

So, it's long past time to stop using the last four digits of Social Security numbers as identification. Fourth, the incident makes one wonder when -- if ever -- the unprotected data folder would have been discovered by ES&S or CBE, if the security researcher hadn't found it. That's unsettling. It calls into question the security methods and managerial oversight at ES&S.

This isn't the first breach at the Chicago Board of Elections (CBE). A CBE breach in 2012 exposed the sensitive personal information of at least 1,000 voters, after initial reports estimated the number of affected voters at 1.7 million. Before that, the CBE faced several lawsuits in 2007 claiming negligence after:

"... it distributed more than 100 computer disks containing Social Security numbers and other personal data on more than 1.3 million voters to alderman and ward committee members."

Reportedly, in 2016 foreign cyber criminals hacked the Illinois Board of Elections' voter registration system. A similar attack happened in Arizona. The main takeaway: voter registration databases are high-value targets.

So, strong data security measures and methods seem wise; if not necessary. The latest incident makes one wonder about: a) the data security language and provisions in CBE's outsourcing contract with ES&S, and b) the agency's vendor oversight.

Will Chicago residents demand better data security? I hope so. What do you think?


Survey: United States Citizens Don't Know Their Basic Constitutional Rights

The Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) announced the results of its latest annual Constitution Day Civics Survey -- how well United States citizens know their Constitutional rights. The latest survey was conducted August 9 to 13 and included 1,013 adults. Main findings:

"1. More than half of Americans (53 percent) incorrectly think it is accurate to say that immigrants who are here illegally do not have any rights under the U.S. Constitution;

2. More than a third of those surveyed (37 percent) can’t name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment; and

3. Only a quarter of Americans (26 percent) can name all three branches of government."

About the rights of undocumented immigrants, the incorrect belief is held by more conservatives (67 percent) compared to moderates (48 percent) and liberals (46 percent). The APPC explained:

"In fact, immigrants who are in the United States illegally share some constitutional protections with U.S. citizens. More than a century ago, in Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886), a case involving a Chinese immigrant, the Supreme Court ruled that non-citizens were entitled to due process rights under the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. Other cases have expanded upon those rights..."

A tiny bit of good news in the survey results:

"Most respondents, though not all, know that under the Constitution, U.S. citizens who are atheists or Muslim have the same rights as all other citizens. Seventy-nine percent of respondents know it is accurate to say that U.S. citizens who are atheists have the same rights as other citizens, and 76 percent know it is accurate to say that citizens who are Muslim have the same rights as other citizens."

About how well (or not) citizens' know their rights under the First Amendment (bold emphasis added):

"Nearly half of those surveyed (48 percent) say that freedom of speech is a right guaranteed by the First Amendment. But, unprompted, 37 percent could not name any First Amendment rights. And far fewer people could name the other First Amendment rights: 15 percent of respondents say freedom of religion; 14 percent say freedom of the press; 10 percent say the right of assembly; and only 3 percent say the right to petition the government... Contrary to the First Amendment, 39 percent of Americans support allowing Congress to stop the news media from reporting on any issue of national security without government approval. That was essentially unchanged from last year..."

So, many Americans fail to understand the law of the land -- the U.S. Constitution -- and some naively (or stupidly) support actions to restrict their rights.

Are things getting better or worse? In a 2011 survey by the APPC, barely half of United States citizens (51 percent) knew that a two-thirds majority vote by Congress is needed to overturn a presidential veto. In a 2015 survey by the APPC, about one in ten Americans (12 percent) said that the Bill of Rights guarantees pet ownership. It doesn't. A quick comparison across the years:

Survey Result (% of People) 2011 2015 2017
Correctly named all 3 branches of government 38 31 26
Unable to name 1 branch of government 33 32 33

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) of the University of Pennsylvania said:

"Protecting the rights guaranteed by the Constitution presupposes that we know what they are. The fact that many don’t is worrisome... These results emphasize the need for high-quality civics education in the schools and for press reporting that underscores the existence of constitutional protections."

I agree. These results are embarrassing, too. What do you think?


Experts Say the Use of Private Email by Trump’s Voter Fraud Commission Isn’t Legal

[Editor's note: today's guest post is by the reporters at ProPublica. It is reprinted with permission.]

By Jessica Huseman, ProPublica

President Donald Trump’s voter fraud commission came under fire earlier this month when a lawsuit and media reports revealed that the commissioners were using private emails to conduct public business. Commission co-chair Kris Kobach confirmed this week that most of them continue to do so.

Experts say the commission’s email practices do not appear to comport with federal law. "The statute here is clear," said Jason R. Baron, a lawyer at Drinker Biddle and former director of litigation at the National Archives and Records Administration.

Essentially, Baron said, the commissioners have three options: 1. They can use a government email address; 2. They can use a private email address but copy every message to a government account; or 3. They can use a private email address and forward each message to a government account within 20 days. According to Baron, those are the requirements of the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which the commission must comply with under its charter.

"All written communications between or among its members involving commission business are permanent records destined to be preserved at the National Archives," said Baron. "Without specific guidance, commission members may not realize that their email communications about commission business constitute White House records."

ProPublica reviewed dozens of emails to and from members of the commission as well as written directives on records retention. The commissioners appear to have been given no instructions to use government email or copy or forward messages to a government account.

Commissioner Matthew Dunlap, the secretary of state for Maine, confirmed that he’d received no such directives. "That’s news to me," he said, when read the PRA provision governing emails. "I think it would be a little cleaner if I had a us.gov email account."

Dunlap’s account is disputed by Andrew Kossack, the executive director of the commission. Kossack said attorneys from the Government Services Administration provided training on the PRA before the commission’s first meeting on July 19. Kossack provided a copy of the PowerPoint presentation. However, the word "email" appears in only a single slide — with no mention of anything relating to the use of government email.

Notably, the commission did not receive any training in records retention until the July 19 meeting, even though the commission was formed in May and had been actively engaged in commission business.

Indeed, the commission had kicked into high gear on June 28, when it sent a letter to all 50 secretaries of state requesting publicly available voter rolls. The response was swift and negative, and commissioners began receiving a wave of messages from election officials and the public.

Despite this, the commissioners were offered no instructions then on how to preserve communications. Baron said such messages would presumptively be considered presidential records, and "the obligation to preserve such records would have arisen on day one."

In a statement, Kossack denied there is an obligation to provide commissioners with government email addresses. He maintained that the commission is required only to "preserve emails and other records related to work on commission matters, regardless of the forum on which the records are created or sent, which the commission and its members are doing."

After the commission’s most recent meeting, on Tuesday, Kobach confirmed that he plans to continue to use his personal Gmail account to conduct commission business. Using his Kansas secretary of state email address, he said, would be a "waste of state resources" as he’s acting as a private citizen on the commission and not in his role as secretary of state.

Dunlap has interpreted the requirements differently. He’s trying to ensure his state email account is used so that emails can be made available to constituents under Maine state law. Even this is a struggle, he said, asserting that commissioners continue to email him at his personal account despite multiple requests that they send email to his government account.

"I really don’t understand why they keep using my personal Gmail account instead of my official state email. But I’m saving everything!" Dunlap wrote to himself on August 7, when he forwarded a communication from the commission to his government address. He has, it appears, continued to immediately forward all emails sent to his personal address by the commission to his state address.

At ProPublica’s request, Dunlap shared every email he has received or sent relating to the commission. The majority went to personal email accounts.

At their recent meeting in New Hampshire, Kossack provided commissioners printed instructions on how to retain their own emails related to a lawsuit filed against the commission by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Dunlap said these instructions are the only written set of instructions on records retention he recalls receiving. (The instructions leave records retention entirely to the discretion of each member of the commission, which Dunlap said concerns him.)

Past commissions with similar missions were not allowed such wide discretion. The Presidential Commission on Election Administration, formed by the Obama administration in March 2013, provided ethics and records retention training days after commissioners were nominated. Each commissioner was provided with a federal email address that automatically archived all messages. PCEA documents show extensive, specific instructions on records retention and compliance with FACA.

Richard Painter, who served as the George W. Bush administration’s chief ethics lawyer from 2005 to 2007, expressed shock that the current commission is being allowed to rely on personal email accounts (which are to be forwarded to Kossack at their discretion). "This is just sloppy," he said, adding that waiting more than two months to offer ethics training was just another sign that the Trump administration "doesn’t take ethics training seriously."

One footnote: Among the emails provided by Dunlap was a message from Carter Page, a former policy adviser to the Trump campaign who has reportedly attracted the attention of investigators probing the Russia imbroglio. Page sent an email on July 5 to three accounts associated with Kobach and cc’d Dunlap, New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner and Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson. In it, he implored the commission to investigate "the Obama administration’s misuse of federal resources of the Intelligence Community in their unjustified attacks on myself and other volunteers who peacefully supported [Trump’s] campaign as private citizens."

"The work of your commission offers an essential opportunity to take further steps toward helping to further restore the integrity of the American democracy following their abuses of last year," he wrote.

There is no evidence this email was forwarded to a federal email account. Page, Kossack and Kobach did not respond to requests for comment about the email.

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