395 posts categorized "Government" Feed

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.

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.


The Equifax Breach: Several Investigations Underway

The Office of the Attorney General (AG) for the State of Nevada announced yesterday an investigation into the Equifax data breach. About 143 million persons were affected. The announcement stated:

"The breach, which took place from mid-May through July of this year, neglected to keep important personal identifying information safe and allowed hackers to access names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and even some driver’s license numbers. As a result of this breach, approximately 209,000 individuals throughout the country are estimated to have had their credit card numbers stolen."

Nevada AG Adam Paul Laxalt said:

"As a part of my commitment to safeguard the identities and personal information of Nevadans, my office will be working diligently with other states to investigate the cause of the Equifax breach... I encourage Nevadans to contact Equifax to determine whether their data was compromised, and to consider taking additional steps to protect themselves."

The statement did not mention the other states the Nevada AG's Office is working with. Residents of Nevada should read the announcement which lists specific actions consumers in that state should take to protect themselves.

The Attorney General for the State of New York announced on September 8 both an investigation into the Equifax data breach and a consumer alert:

"Under New York law, businesses with New York customers are required to inform customers and the Attorney General’s Office about security breaches that have placed personal information in jeopardy. The Attorney General’s Office investigates data breaches to determine if customers were properly notified of the breach and if the entity had appropriate safeguards in place to protect customers’ data..."

The consumer alert portion of the announcement:

"1) Check your credit reports from Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion by visiting annualcreditreport.com. Accounts or activity that you do not recognize could indicate identity theft. This is a free service; 2) Consider placing a credit freeze on your files. A credit freeze makes it harder for someone to open a new account in your name. It will not prevent a thief from using any of your existing accounts; 3) Monitor your existing credit card and bank accounts closely for unauthorized charges. Call the credit card company or bank immediately about any charges you do not recognize; and 4) Since Social Security numbers were affected, there is risk of tax fraud. Tax identity theft happens when someone uses your Social Security number to get a tax refund or a job. Consider filing your taxes early and pay close attention to correspondence from the IRS."

Annulacreditreport.com is the official site for free credit reports.  The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued new rules in 2010 which addressed consumer confusion in the marketplace about sites offering free credit reports. When using unofficial sites, some consumers found the "free" credit reports weren't truly free because they included expensive subscriptions to credit monitoring services.

On September 11, the New York AG's issued a warning about cyber attacks resulting from the Equifax breach:

"In addition to taking measures to protect their credit cards and bank accounts, New Yorkers should also think twice before clicking on any suspicious [e-mail] links claiming to be from Equifax or financial institutions... Hackers are resourceful criminals who are constantly looking to exploit any vulnerabilities... New Yorkers should be on the lookout for these possible attacks: a) Phishing emails that claim to be from Equifax where you can check if your data was compromised; b) Phishing emails that claim there is a problem with a credit card, your credit record, or other personal financial information; c) Calls from scammers that claim they are from your bank or credit union..."

Also, the Los Angeles Times confirmed an investigation by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC):

"The FTC’s disclosure of an ongoing probe is highly unusual, underscoring the enormous stakes involved in the incident affecting what amounts to half the country."

The news report cited comments by Peter Kaplan, the agency’s acting director of public affairs. So far, little is known which aspects of the breach the FTC is investigating.

No doubt, there is more news to come.


What We Know -- And Don't Know -- About Hate Crimes in America

[Editor's Note: today's guest blog post explores the problem of hate crimes. Recent surveys about harassment found that what happens online often doesn't stay online. Hopefully, future reports by ProPublica will explore the linkages. Today's blog post is reprinted with permission.]

By Rachel Glickhouse, ProPublica

"Go home. We need Americans here!" white supremacist Jeremy Joseph Christian yelled at two black women -- one wearing a hijab -- on a train in Portland, Oregon, in May. According to news reports, when several commuters tried to intervene, he went on a rampage, stabbing three people. Two of them died.

If the fatal stabbing was the worst racist attack in Portland this year, it was by no means the only one. In March, Buzzfeed reported on hate incidents in Oregon and the state's long history as a haven for white supremacists. Some of the incidents they found were gathered by Documenting Hate, a collaborative journalism project we launched earlier this year.

Documenting Hate is an attempt to overcome the inadequate data collection on hate crimes and bias incidents in America. We've been compiling incident reports from civil-rights groups, as well as news reports, social media and law enforcement records. We've also asked people to tell us their personal stories of witnessing or being the victim of hate.

It's been about six months since the project launched. Since then, we've been joined by more than 100 newsrooms around the country. Together, we're verifying the incidents that have been reported to us -- and telling people's stories.

We've received thousands of reports, with more coming every day. They come from cities big and small, and from states blue and red. People have reported hate incidents from every part of their communities: in schools, on the road, at private businesses, in the workplace. ProPublica and our partners have produced more than 50 stories using the tips from the database, from New York to Seattle, Minneapolis to Phoenix. Some examples:

Univision, HuffPost, and The New York Times opinion section identified a common thread in the reports we've received in which people of color are harassed "Go back to your country." This type of harassment affects both immigrants and U.S. citizens alike, reporters found.

Several stories published by our partners focused on racial harassment on public transportation, using tips to illustrate something officials were also seeing. The New York City Commission on Human Rights observed a 480 percent increase in claims of discriminatory harassment between 2015 and 2016, according to The New York Times Opinion section. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority recorded 24 cases of offensive graffiti through April, compared to 35 in all of last year, the Boston Globe found. Univision covered multiple incidents involving Latinos targeted in incidents on the New York City subway.

Combing through our database, Buzzfeed discovered there were dozens of reported incidents in K-12 schools in which students cited President Donald Trump's name or slogans to harass minority classmates. This echoed a pattern Univision had reported on: In November, the Teaching Tolerance project at the Southern Poverty Law Center received more than 10,000 responses to an educator survey indicating an uptick in anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant activity in schools.

Our local partners reported on how hate incidents affect communities across the country: anti-Semitic graffiti in Phoenix, Islamophobia in Minneapolis, racist vandalism and homophobic threats in Seattle, white supremacist activity at a California university, racist harassment and vandalism in Boston, racism in the workplace in New Orleans, and hate incidents throughout Florida.

There are a few questions for which answers continue to elude us: How many hate crimes happen each year, and why is the record keeping so inadequate?

The FBI, which is required to track hate crimes, counts between 5,000 and 6,000 of them annually. But the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates the total is closer to 250,000. One explanation for the gap is that many victims -- more than half, according to a recent estimate -- don't report what happened to them to police.

Even if they do, law enforcement agencies aren't all required to report to the FBI, meaning their reports might never make it into the national tally. The federal government is hardly a model of best practices; many federal agencies don't report their data, either -- even though they're legally required to do so.

We'll spend the next six months continuing to tackle these questions and more. And we and our partners will keep working our way through the tips in our database, telling people's stories and doing our best to understand what's happening.

There are ways that you can help us move the project forward:

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.


The Consequences From Unchecked Development Without Zoning Laws

While there has been plenty of news about hurricane Harvey and the flood in Houston, there hasn't been much news about an important, related issue which affects all taxpayers. This report by the QZ site highlights the consequences of unchecked development while ignoring environmental concerns:

"... Houstonians have been treating its wetlands as stinky, mosquito-infested blots in need of drainage. Even after it became a widely accepted scientific fact that wetlands can soak up large amounts of flood water, the city continued to pave over them. The watershed of the White Oak Bayou river, which includes much of northwest Houston, is a case in point. From 1992 to 2010, this area lost more than 70% of its wetlands, according to research (pdf) by Texas A&M University."

Unchecked development affects all taxpayers when federal bailout money is spent to repair the damage in areas subject to repeated, frequent floods:

"... the flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey has raised water levels in some parts of the watershed high enough to completely cover a Cadillac. The vanished wetlands wouldn’t have prevented flooding, but they would have made it less painful, experts say. The Harvey-wrought devastation is just the latest example of the consequences of Houston’s gung-ho approach to development. The city, the largest in the US with no zoning laws, is a case study in limiting government regulations and favoring growth—often at the expense of the environment. As water swamps many of its neighborhoods, it’s now also a cautionary tale of sidelining science and plain common sense..."

The consequences from lax laws favoring unchecked development:

"Wetland loss... The construction of flood-prone buildings in flood plains is another one: The elderly residents of La Vita Bella, a nursing home in Dickinson, east of Houston, were up to their waists in water before they got rescued. The home is within the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) designated flood zone... too few people have flood insurance. Although federal rules require certain homeowners to carry it, those rules are based on outdated flood data. Only a little over a quarter of the homes in “high risk” areas in Harris County, where Houston sits, have flood insurance."

So, not everyone who should be is paying their fair share (via flood insurance). And, it seems that things will get worse. All of the above was:

"... before [President] Trump came into office and started removing layers of regulation. Just 10 days before Harvey struck, the president signed an executive order that rescinded federal flood protection standards put in place by his predecessor, Barack Obama. FEMA and the US Housing and Urban Development Department, the two federal agencies that will handle most of the huge pile of cash expected for the rebuilding of Houston, would have been forced to require any rebuilding to confirm to new, safer codes. Now, they won’t."

Lax laws allowing the repair and construction of new buildings in high-risk areas subject to repeated flooding sounds foolish. It's basically throwing taxpayers' hard-earned money out the window. Do you want to pay for this? I don't. A few local developers may get rich, but at the expense of taxpayers nationwide.

There are always consequences -- intended and unintended. Be sure to demand that your elected officials consider and understand them.


Experts Call For Ban of Killer Robotic Weapons

116 robotics and artificial intelligence experts from 26 countries sent a letter to the United Nations (UN) warning against the deployment of lethal autonomous weapons. The Guardian reported:

"The UN recently voted to begin formal discussions on such weapons which include drones, tanks and automated machine guns... In their letter, the [experts] warn the review conference of the convention on conventional weapons that this arms race threatens to usher in the “third revolution in warfare” after gunpowder and nuclear arms... The letter, launching at the opening of the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence (IJCAI) in Melbourne on Monday, has the backing of high-profile figures in the robotics field and strongly stresses the need for urgent action..."

The letter stated in part:

"Once developed, lethal autonomous weapons will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend. These can be weapons of terror, weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways."

"We do not have long to act. Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close."

This is not science fiction. Autonomous weapons are already deployed:

"Samsung’s SGR-A1 sentry gun, which is reportedly technically capable of firing autonomously but is disputed whether it is deployed as such, is in use along the South Korean border of the 2.5m-wide Korean Demilitarized Zone. The fixed-place sentry gun, developed on behalf of the South Korean government, was the first of its kind with an autonomous system capable of performing surveillance, voice-recognition, tracking and firing with mounted machine gun or grenade launcher... The UK’s Taranis drone, in development by BAE Systems, is intended to be capable of carrying air-to-air and air-to-ground ordnance intercontinentally and incorporating full autonomy..."

Ban, indeed. Your thoughts? Opinions? Reaction?


Homeowners Receive $6.3 Million In Refunds Due To Improper Charges By Insurance Company

Assurant logo Last week, the Attorney General's office for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts announced the results of a post-settlement agreement audit with American Security Insurance Company, a subsidiary of Assurant, Inc., where homeowners in the state will receive $6.3 million in refunds for improper "forced-place insurance" charges. The announcement explained:

"Force-placed insurance is a type of property insurance that mortgage servicers can purchase on behalf of borrowers if they fail to maintain adequate homeowners insurance coverage on mortgaged properties. Mortgage servicers often hire insurance companies like Assurant to monitor whether borrowers are maintaining adequate homeowners insurance coverage and to issue force-placed insurance policies when appropriate homeowners coverage is not in place.

Premiums for force-placed policies are high—often two or three times as expensive as regular homeowners insurance—and the coverage provided is quite limited. Some mortgage servicers accept commission payments from force-placed insurers, which contribute to the high cost of force-placed insurance and create conflicts of interest for mortgage servicers."

The settlement agreement was first announced in November, 2015. The latest announcement described the results of the audit:

"Although force-placed insurance is only intended for circumstances in which the borrower has failed to adequately insure the mortgaged property, the Attorney General’s audit of Assurant found thousands of cases of duplicative insurance coverage for Massachusetts homeowners. Borrowers eligible for settlement money were previously required by their mortgage servicer to purchase force-placed insurance from Assurant, or were overcharged for force-placed insurance because they were mistakenly sold commercial policies rather than less expensive residential policies..."

4,500 homeowners were improperly charged. The average refund per homeowner is about $1,400. Refund checks were mailed last week to affected homeowners.


Google And Massachusetts Transportation Department Provide GPS Signals In Tunnels

Smartphone users love their phones. That includes Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation services for driving directions. However, those driving directions don't work in tunnels where phones can't get GPS signals. That is changing.

Google and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) have entered a partnership to provide GPS navigation services for drivers inside tunnels. If you've familiar with Boston, then you know that portions of both Interstate 93 and the Massachusetts Turnpike include tunnels. The ABC affiliate in Boston, WCVB reported last month that the partnership, part of the Connected Citizens Program, will:

"... install beacons inside Boston's tunnels to help GPS connection stay strong underground. Around 850 beacons are being installed, free of charge, as a part of an ongoing partnership between the state and the traffic app... Installation is scheduled to be complete by the end of July... The beacons are not limited to improving their own app's signal. As long as you are using Bluetooth, they are able to help improve any traffic app's connection."

For those unfamiliar with the technology, beacons are low-powered transmitters which, in this particular application, are installed in the tunnels' walls and provide geographic location information usable by drivers' (or passengers') smartphones passing by (assuming the phones' Bluetooth features are enabled).

Bluetooth beacons are used in a variety of applications and locations. The Privacy SOS blog explained:

"... They’re useful in places where precise location information is necessary but difficult to acquire via satellite. For that reason, they’ve been field tested in museums such as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and airports like London Gatwick. At Gatwick, beacons deliver turn-by-turn directions to users’ phones to help them navigate the airport terminals..."

Within large airports such as Gatwick, the technology can present more precise geolocation data of nearby dining and shopping venues to travelers. According to Bluetooth SIG, Inc., the community of 30,000 companies that use the technology:

"The proliferation and near universal availability of Bluetooth® technology is opening up new markets at all ends of the spectrum. Beacons or iBeacons—small objects transmitting location information to smartphones and powered by Bluetooth with low energy—make the promise of a mobile wallet, mobile couponing, and location-based services possible... The retail space is the first to envision a future for beacons using for everything from in-store analytics to proximity marketing, indoor navigation and contactless payments. Think about a customer who is looking at a new TV and he/she gets a text with a 25 percent off coupon for that same TV and then pays automatically using an online account..."

iBeacons are the version for Apple branded mobile devices. All 12 major automobile makers offer hands-free phone calling systems using the technology. And, social network giant Facebook has developed its own proprietary Bluetooth module for an undisclosed upcoming consumer electronics device.

So, the technology provides new marketing and revenue opportunities to advertisers. TechCrunch explained:

"The Beacons program isn’t looking to get help from individual-driver Wazers in this case, but is looking for cities and tunnel owners who might be fans of the service to step up and apply to its program. The program is powered by Eddystone, a Bluetooth Low Energy beacon profile created by Google that works with cheap, battery-powered BLE Waze Beacon hardware to be installed in participating tunnels. These beacons would be configured to transmit signals to Bluetooth-enabled smartphones... There is a cost to participate — each beacon is $28.50, Waze notes, and a typical installation requires around 42 beacons per mile of tunnel. But for municipalities and tunnel operators, this would actually be a service they can provide drivers, which might actually eliminate frustration and traffic..."

There are several key takeaways here:

  1. GPS navigation services can perform better in previously unavailable areas,
  2. Companies can collect (and share) more precise geolocation data about consumers and our movements,
  3. Consumers' GPS data can now be collected in previously unattainable locations,
  4. What matters aren't the transmissions by beacons, but rather the GPS and related data collected by your phone and the apps you use, which are transmitted back to the apps' developers, and then shared by developers with their business partners (e.g., mobile service providers, smartphone operating system developers, advertisers, and affiliates
  5. You don't have to be a Google user for Google to collect GPS data about you, and
  6. Consumers can expect a coming proliferation of Bluetooth modules in a variety of locations, retail stores, and devices.

So, now you know more about how Google and other companies collect GPS data about you. After analyzing the geolocation data collected, they know not only when and where you go, but also your patterns in the physical world: where you go on certain days and times, how long you stay, where and what you've done before (and after), who you associate with, and more.

Don't like the more precise tracking? Then, don't use the Waze app or Google Maps, delete the blabbermouth apps, or turn off the Bluetooth feature on your phone.

A noted economist once said, "There is no free lunch." And that applies to GPS navigation in tunnels. The price for "free," convenient navigation services means mobile users allow companies to collect and analyze mountains of data about their movements in the physical world.

What are your opinions of GPS navigation services in tunnels? If the city or town where you live has tunnels, have beacons been installed?


The Myth Of Drug Expiration Dates

[Editor's Note: some politicians and pundits repeatedly claim that the private sector is more efficient than the public sector. Today's blog post explores waste in the healthcare industry. Today's post is reprinted with permission.]

By Marshall Allen, ProPublica

The box of prescription drugs had been forgotten in a back closet of a retail pharmacy for so long that some of the pills predated the 1969 moon landing. Most were 30 to 40 years past their expiration dates -- possibly toxic, probably worthless.

But to Lee Cantrell, who helps run the California Poison Control System, the cache was an opportunity to answer an enduring question about the actual shelf life of drugs: Could these drugs from the bell-bottom era still be potent?

Cantrell called Roy Gerona, a University of California, San Francisco, researcher who specializes in analyzing chemicals. Gerona had grown up in the Philippines and had seen people recover from sickness by taking expired drugs with no apparent ill effects.

"This was very cool," Gerona says. "Who gets the chance of analyzing drugs that have been in storage for more than 30 years?"

The age of the drugs might have been bizarre, but the question the researchers wanted to answer wasn't. Pharmacies across the country -- in major medical centers and in neighborhood strip malls -- routinely toss out tons of scarce and potentially valuable prescription drugs when they hit their expiration dates.

Gerona and Cantrell, a pharmacist and toxicologist, knew that the term "expiration date" was a misnomer. The dates on drug labels are simply the point up to which the Food and Drug Administration and pharmaceutical companies guarantee their effectiveness, typically at two or three years. But the dates don't necessarily mean they're ineffective immediately after they "expire" -- just that there's no incentive for drugmakers to study whether they could still be usable.

ProPublica has been researching why the U.S. health care system is the most expensive in the world. One answer, broadly, is waste -- some of it buried in practices that the medical establishment and the rest of us take for granted. We've documented how hospitals often discard pricey new supplies, how nursing homes trash valuable medications after patients pass away or move out, and how drug companies create expensive combinations of cheap drugs. Experts estimate such squandering eats up about $765 billion a year -- as much as a quarter of all the country's health care spending.

What if the system is destroying drugs that are technically "expired" but could still be safely used?

In his lab, Gerona ran tests on the decades-old drugs, including some now defunct brands such as the diet pills Obocell (once pitched to doctors with a portly figurine called "Mr. Obocell") and Bamadex. Overall, the bottles contained 14 different compounds, including antihistamines, pain relievers and stimulants. All the drugs tested were in their original sealed containers.

The findings surprised both researchers: A dozen of the 14 compounds were still as potent as they were when they were manufactured, some at almost 100 percent of their labeled concentrations.

"Lo and behold," Cantrell says, "The active ingredients are pretty darn stable."

Cantrell and Gerona knew their findings had big implications. Perhaps no area of health care has provoked as much anger in recent years as prescription drugs. The news media is rife with stories of medications priced out of reach or of shortages of crucial drugs, sometimes because producing them is no longer profitable.

Tossing such drugs when they expire is doubly hard. One pharmacist at Newton-Wellesley Hospital outside Boston says the 240-bed facility is able to return some expired drugs for credit, but had to destroy about $200,000 worth last year. A commentary in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings cited similar losses at the nearby Tufts Medical Center. Play that out at hospitals across the country and the tab is significant: about $800 million per year. And that doesn't include the costs of expired drugs at long-term care pharmacies, retail pharmacies and in consumer medicine cabinets.

After Cantrell and Gerona published their findings in Archives of Internal Medicine in 2012, some readers accused them of being irresponsible and advising patients that it was OK to take expired drugs. Cantrell says they weren't recommending the use of expired medication, just reviewing the arbitrary way the dates are set.  

"Refining our prescription drug dating process could save billions," he says.

But after a brief burst of attention, the response to their study faded. That raises an even bigger question: If some drugs remain effective well beyond the date on their labels, why hasn't there been a push to extend their expiration dates?

It turns out that the FDA, the agency that helps set the dates, has long known the shelf life of some drugs can be extended, sometimes by years.

In fact, the federal government has saved a fortune by doing this.

For decades, the federal government has stockpiled massive stashes of medication, antidotes and vaccines in secure locations throughout the country. The drugs are worth tens of billions of dollars and would provide a first line of defense in case of a large-scale emergency.

Maintaining these stockpiles is expensive. The drugs have to be kept secure and at the proper humidity and temperature so they don't degrade. Luckily, the country has rarely needed to tap into many of the drugs, but this means they often reach their expiration dates. Though the government requires pharmacies to throw away expired drugs, it doesn't always follow these instructions itself. Instead, for more than 30 years, it has pulled some medicines and tested their quality.

The idea that drugs expire on specified dates goes back at least a half-century, when the FDA began requiring manufacturers to add this information to the label. The time limits allow the agency to ensure medications work safely and effectively for patients. To determine a new drug's shelf life, its maker zaps it with intense heat and soaks it with moisture to see how it degrades under stress. It also checks how it breaks down over time. The drug company then proposes an expiration date to the FDA, which reviews the data to ensure it supports the date and approves it. Despite the difference in drugs' makeup, most "expire" after two or three years.

Once a drug is launched, the makers run tests to ensure it continues to be effective up to its labeled expiration date. Since they are not required to check beyond it, most don't, largely because regulations make it expensive and time-consuming for manufacturers to extend expiration dates, says Yan Wu, an analytical chemist who is part of a focus group at the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists that looks at the long-term stability of drugs. Most companies, she says, would rather sell new drugs and develop additional products.

Pharmacists and researchers say there is no economic "win" for drug companies to investigate further. They ring up more sales when medications are tossed as "expired" by hospitals, retail pharmacies and consumers despite retaining their safety and effectiveness.

Industry officials say patient safety is their highest priority. Olivia Shopshear, director of science and regulatory advocacy for the drug industry trade group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, says expiration dates are chosen "based on the period of time when any given lot will maintain its identity, potency and purity, which translates into safety for the patient."

That being said, it's an open secret among medical professionals that many drugs maintain their ability to combat ailments well after their labels say they don't. One pharmacist says he sometimes takes home expired over-the-counter medicine from his pharmacy so he and his family can use it.

The federal agencies that stockpile drugs -- including the military, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Veterans Affairs -- have long realized the savings in revisiting expiration dates.

In 1986, the Air Force, hoping to save on replacement costs, asked the FDA if certain drugs' expiration dates could be extended. In response, the FDA and Defense Department created the Shelf Life Extension Program.

Each year, drugs from the stockpiles are selected based on their value and pending expiration and analyzed in batches to determine whether their end dates could be safely extended. For several decades, the program has found that the actual shelf life of many drugs is well beyond the original expiration dates.

A 2006 study of 122 drugs tested by the program showed that two-thirds of the expired medications were stable every time a lot was tested. Each of them had their expiration dates extended, on average, by more than four years, according to research published in the Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences.

Some that failed to hold their potency include the common asthma inhalant albuterol, the topical rash spray diphenhydramine, and a local anesthetic made from lidocaine and epinephrine, the study said. But neither Cantrell nor Dr. Cathleen Clancy, associate medical director of National Capital Poison Center, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the George Washington University Medical Center, had heard of anyone being harmed by any expired drugs. Cantrell says there has been no recorded instance of such harm in medical literature.

Marc Young, a pharmacist who helped run the extension program from 2006 to 2009, says it has had a "ridiculous" return on investment. Each year the federal government saved $600 million to $800 million because it did not have to replace expired medication, he says.

An official with the Department of Defense, which maintains about $13.6 billion worth of drugs in its stockpile, says that in 2016 it cost $3.1 million to run the extension program, but it saved the department from replacing $2.1 billion in expired drugs. To put the magnitude of that return on investment into everyday terms: It's like spending a dollar to save $677.

"We didn't have any idea that some of the products would be so damn stable -- so robustly stable beyond the shelf life," says Ajaz Hussain, one of the scientists who formerly helped oversee the extension program.

Hussain is now president of the National Institute for Pharmaceutical Technology and Education, an organization of 17 universities that's working to reduce the cost of pharmaceutical development. He says the high price of drugs and shortages make it time to reexamine drug expiration dates in the commercial market.

"It's a shame to throw away good drugs," Hussain says.

Some medical providers have pushed for a changed approach to drug expiration dates -- with no success. In 2000, the American Medical Association, foretelling the current prescription drug crisis, adopted a resolution urging action. The shelf life of many drugs, it wrote, seems to be "considerably longer" than their expiration dates, leading to "unnecessary waste, higher pharmaceutical costs, and possibly reduced access to necessary drugs for some patients."

Citing the federal government's extension program, the AMA sent letters to the FDA, the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention, which sets standards for drugs, and PhRMA asking for a re-examination of expiration dates.

No one remembers the details -- just that the effort fell flat.

"Nothing happened, but we tried," says rheumatologist Roy Altman, now 80, who helped write the AMA report. "I'm glad the subject is being brought up again. I think there's considerable waste."

At Newton-Wellesley Hospital, outside Boston, pharmacist David Berkowitz yearns for something to change.

On a recent weekday, Berkowitz sorted through bins and boxes of medication in a back hallway of the hospital's pharmacy, peering at expiration dates. As the pharmacy's assistant director, he carefully manages how the facility orders and dispenses drugs to patients. Running a pharmacy is like working in a restaurant because everything is perishable, he says, "but without the free food."

Federal and state laws prohibit pharmacists from dispensing expired drugs and The Joint Commission, which accredits thousands of health care organizations, requires facilities to remove expired medication from their supply. So at Newton-Wellesley, outdated drugs are shunted to shelves in the back of the pharmacy and marked with a sign that says: "Do Not Dispense." The piles grow for weeks until they are hauled away by a third-party company that has them destroyed. And then the bins fill again.

"I question the expiration dates on most of these drugs," Berkowitz says.

One of the plastic boxes is piled with EpiPens -- devices that automatically inject epinephrine to treat severe allergic reactions. They run almost $300 each. These are from emergency kits that are rarely used, which means they often expire. Berkowitz counts them, tossing each one with a clatter into a separate container, " 'that's 45, 46, 47' " He finishes at 50. That's almost $15,000 in wasted EpiPens alone.

In May, Cantrell and Gerona published a study that examined 40 EpiPens and EpiPen Jrs., a smaller version, that had been expired for between one and 50 months. The devices had been donated by consumers, which meant they could have been stored in conditions that would cause them to break down, like a car's glove box or a steamy bathroom. The EpiPens also contain liquid medicine, which tends to be less stable than solid medications.

Testing showed 24 of the 40 expired devices contained at least 90 percent of their stated amount of epinephrine, enough to be considered as potent as when they were made. All of them contained at least 80 percent of their labeled concentration of medication. The takeaway? Even EpiPens stored in less than ideal conditions may last longer than their labels say they do, and if there's no other option, an expired EpiPen may be better than nothing, Cantrell says.

At Newton-Wellesley, Berkowitz keeps a spreadsheet of every outdated drug he throws away. The pharmacy sends what it can back for credit, but it doesn't come close to replacing what the hospital paid.

Then there's the added angst of tossing drugs that are in short supply. Berkowitz picks up a box of sodium bicarbonate, which is crucial for heart surgery and to treat certain overdoses. It's being rationed because there's so little available. He holds up a purple box of atropine, which gives patients a boost when they have low heart rates. It's also in short supply. In the federal government's stockpile, the expiration dates of both drugs have been extended, but they have to be thrown away by Berkowitz and other hospital pharmacists.

The 2006 FDA study of the extension program also said it pushed back the expiration date on lots of mannitol, a diuretic, for an average of five years. Berkowitz has to toss his out. Expired naloxone? The drug reverses narcotic overdoses in an emergency and is currently in wide use in the opioid epidemic. The FDA extended its use-by date for the stockpiled drugs, but Berkowitz has to trash it.

On rare occasions, a pharmaceutical company will extend the expiration dates of its own products because of shortages. That's what happened in June, when the FDA posted extended expiration dates from Pfizer for batches of its injectable atropine, dextrose, epinephrine and sodium bicarbonate. The agency notice included the lot numbers of the batches being extended and added six months to a year to their expiration dates.

The news sent Berkowitz running to his expired drugs to see if any could be put back into his supply. His team rescued four boxes of the syringes from destruction, including 75 atropine, 15 dextrose, 164 epinephrine and 22 sodium bicarbonate. Total value: $7,500. In a blink, "expired" drugs that were in the trash heap were put back into the pharmacy supply.

Berkowitz says he appreciated Pfizer's action, but feels it should be standard to make sure drugs that are still effective aren't thrown away.

"The question is: Should the FDA be doing more stability testing?" Berkowitz says. "Could they come up with a safe and systematic way to cut down on the drugs being wasted in hospitals?"

Four scientists who worked on the FDA extension program told ProPublica something like that could work for drugs stored in hospital pharmacies, where conditions are carefully controlled.

Greg Burel, director of the CDC's stockpile, says he worries that if drugmakers were forced to extend their expiration dates it could backfire, making it unprofitable to produce certain drugs and thereby reducing access or increasing prices.

The 2015 commentary in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, called "Extending Shelf Life Just Makes Sense," also suggested that drugmakers could be required to set a preliminary expiration date and then update it after long-term testing. An independent organization could also do testing similar to that done by the FDA extension program, or data from the extension program could be applied to properly stored medications.

ProPublica asked the FDA whether it could expand its extension program, or something like it, to hospital pharmacies, where drugs are stored in stable conditions similar to the national stockpile.

"The Agency does not have a position on the concept you have proposed," an official wrote back in an email.

Whatever the solution, the drug industry will need to be spurred in order to change, says Hussain, the former FDA scientist. "The FDA will have to take the lead for a solution to emerge," he says. "We are throwing away products that are certainly stable, and we need to do something about it."

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.


Presidential Commission Demands Massive Amounts of State Voter Data

[Editor's Note: today's guest blog post, by the reporters at ProPublica, explores issues of alleged voter fraud, and the problems with analyses claiming multiple voter registrations across states. It is reprinted with permission.]

by Jessica Huseman, ProPublica

On June 28, all 50 states were sent letters from Kris Kobach -- vice chair for the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity -- requesting information on voter fraud, election security and copies of every state's voter roll data.

The letter asked state officials to deliver the data within two weeks, and says that all information turned over to the commission will be made public. The letter does not explain what the commission plans to do with voter roll data, which often includes the names, ages and addresses of registered voters. The commission also asked for information beyond what is typically contained in voter registration records, including Social Security numbers and military status, if the state election databases contain it.

President Donald Trump established the commission through an executive order on March 11. Its stated goal is to "promote fair and honest Federal elections" and it is chaired by Vice President Mike Pence. The commission plans to present a report to Trump that identifies vulnerabilities in the voting system that could lead to fraud and makes recommendations for enhancing voters' confidence in election integrity. No deadline has been set for completion of the work.

A number of experts, as well as at least one state official, reacted with a mix of alarm and bafflement. Some saw political motivations behind the requests, while others said making such information public would create a national voter registration list, a move that could create new election problems.

"You'd think there would want to be a lot of thought behind security and access protocols for a national voter file, before you up and created one," said Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola University School of Law and former Department of Justice civil rights official. "This is asking to create a national voter file in two weeks."

David Becker, the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, also expressed serious concerns about the request. "It's probably a good idea not to make publicly available the name, address and military status of the people who are serving our armed forces to anyone who requests it," he said.

Kobach, the secretary of state in Kansas, has been concerned about voter fraud for years. His signature piece of legislation was a law requiring Kansans to show proof of citizenship when they register to vote, which is currently ensnarled in a fraught court battle with the American Civil Liberties Union. He has written that he believes people vote twice with "alarming regularity," and also that non-citizens frequently vote. Multiple studies have shown neither happens with any consistency.

Kobach also runs the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program, a proprietary piece of software started by Kansas Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh in 2005. Under the program, 30 states pool their voter information and attempt to identify people who are registered in more than one state.

Some expect the information Kobach has requested will be used to create a national system that would include data from all 50 states.

It is not uncommon for voters to be registered in more than one state. Many members of Trump's inner circle -- including his son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter Tiffany Trump -- were registered to vote in two states. Given the frequency with which voters move across state lines and re-register, the act of holding two registrations is not in itself fraud. There is no evidence to suggest that voting twice is a widespread problem, though experts say removing duplicate registrations are a good practice if done carefully.

"In theory, I don't think we have a problem with that as an idea, but the devil is always in the details," said Dale Ho, the director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project. While he believes voter registration list maintenance is important, he says Kobach's Crosscheck program has been repeatedly shown to be ineffective and to produce false matches. A study by a group of political scientists at Stanford published earlier this year found that Crosscheck highlighted 200 false matches for every one true double vote.

"I have every reason to think that given the shoddy work that Mr. Kobach has done in this area in the past that this is going to be yet another boondoggle and a propaganda tool that tries to inflate the problem of double registration beyond what it actually is," Ho said.

Some experts already see sloppy work in this request. On at least one occasion, the commission directed the letter to the incorrect entity. In North Carolina, it addressed and sent the letter to Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, who has no authority over elections or the voter rolls. In that state, the North Carolina Board of Elections manages both.

Charles Stewart, a professor at MIT and expert in election administration, said it was proof of "sloppy staff work," and questioned the speed at which the letter was sent. "It seems to me that the data aren't going anywhere. Doing database matching is hard work, and you need to plan it out carefully," he said. "It's a naïve first undertaking by the commission, and reflects that the commission may be getting ahead of itself."

Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill, who oversees voting in the state, said she was dismayed about the commission's failure to be clearer about what its intentions are. In a statement, Merrill said her office would share publicly available information with the commission. But she said that "in the same spirit of transparency" her office would request the commission "share any memos, meeting minutes or additional information as state officials have not been told precisely what the Commission is looking for."

"This lack of openness is all the more concerning, considering that the Vice Chair of the Commission, Kris Kobach, has a lengthy record of illegally disenfranchising eligible voters in Kansas," she wrote.

Alabama's Republican Secretary of State John Merrill (no relation) also indicated he had questions for Kobach regarding how much of the data would be made public and how Alabamans' privacy would be protected, even while he expressed support for the commission. "Kobach is a close friend, and I have full confidence in him and his ability, but before we turn over data of this magnitude to anybody we're going to make sure our questions are answered," he said.

Colorado Secretary of State Republican Wayne Williams, for his part, said he was not concerned with what the commission planned to do with the data. "Just like when we get a [public-records] request, we don't demand to know what they are going to do with the data," he said. "There are important reasons why the voter roll is publicly available information."

The extent to which voter roll data is public varies across the country. While some states, like North Carolina, make their voter rolls available for free download, other states charge high fees. Alabama, for example, charges one cent per voter in the roll for a total cost of more than $30,000. The state law provides a waiver for government entities, so Merrill said the commission would receive the data for free. Other states, like Virginia, do not make this information public beyond sharing it with formal campaigns and political candidates. When ProPublica tried to purchase Illinois' voter roll, our request was denied because they only release it to government entities for privacy reasons. Illinois did not respond to a request regarding whether they would release this information to the PCEI, which 2014 while a government entity 2014 intends to make the information public.

The letter from the commission also asks quite broad questions of state elections officials.

"What changes, if any, to federal election laws would you recommend to enhance the integrity of federal elections?" asks the first question. The letter also asked for all information and convictions related to any instance of voter fraud or registration fraud, and it solicited recommendations "for preventing voter intimidation or disenfranchisement."

"The equivalent is, 'Hey, doctors, what changes would you suggest regarding healthcare? Let us know in two weeks,'" said Levitt, the Loyola professor. "If I were a state election official, I wouldn't know what to do with this."

While the commission is being chaired by Vice President Mike Pence, Kobach signed the letter alone. Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said this is an indication that Kobach -- not Pence -- "will be running the show," which he said should be a point of concern.

"As we know with Kobach, he's obsessed with trying to identify voter fraud and finds it in a lot of places where it doesn't exist," he said.

Vanita Gupta, the former acting head of the Department of Justice's civil rights division under President Barack Obama, said the commission's letter was an indication the commission was "laying the groundwork" to carry out changes to the National Voter Registration Act that might seek to restrict access to the polls.

The National Voter Registration Act -- sometimes called the Motor Voter Act -- was enacted in 1993. It allows the DOJ the authority to ensure states to keep voter registration lists, or voter rolls, accurate and up-to-date. It also requires states to offer opportunities for voter registration at all offices that provide public assistance (like the DMV). 

In November, Kobach was photographed holding a paper addressing national security issues and proposing changes to the voter registration law. It is not clear what these changes were. The ACLU is involved in a lawsuit against Kansas' state law requiring people to show proof of citizenship in order to register to vote. As part of the suit, ACLU lawyers requested access to the document reflecting the changes Kobach proposed.

Originally Kobach told the court the document was beyond the scope of the lawsuit, but last week the court found the documents were relevant and that Kobach had intentionally misled the court. He was fined $1,000 for the offense and required him to turn the document over. It has not yet been made public.

Gupta said her concern about the future of the voter registration act was deepened by the fact that, on June 29, the DOJ sent a letter to the 44 states covered by the act requesting information on the maintenance of their voter rolls. States were given 30 days to answer a set of detailed questions about their policies for list maintenance.

"The timing of the letters being issued on the same day is curious at the very least," she said.

The White House and the DOJ all did not respond to requests for comment about the letters.

The letter did not ask about compliance with the portions of the act that require states to attempt to expand the voter base, such as by offering voter registration forms and information in public offices.

Danielle Lang, deputy director of voting rights for The Campaign Legal Center, said the focus on list maintenance troubled her. While she said this might point to a new direction in enforcement for the DOJ's voting rights section, it was too early to tell how this information might be used.

Levitt said he did not recall a time when the DOJ has previously requested such broad information. While the information is public and not, on its face, troubling, Levitt said the only time he recalled requesting similar information was during targeted investigations when federal officials suspected a state was not complying with the law.

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.


Senator Warren Calls For the Firing Of All Wells Fargo Board Members

Wells Fargo logo In a letter sent Monday to the Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) has called for the firing of all 12 board members at Wells Fargo bank for failing to adequately protect accountholders. CNBC reported first the Senator's letter, which read in part:

"The fake accounts scandal cost Wells Fargo customers millions of dollars in unauthorized fees and damaged many of their credit scores," the senator wrote. "The scandal also revealed severe problems with the bank's risk management practices — problems that justify the Federal Reserve's removal of all responsible Board members."

After implementing sales targets and an incentive program, many of the bank's employees secretly opened new accounts and transferred money from other accounts to fund the new accounts -- all without the customers' knowledge nor consent. In some cases, employees applied for credit cards, created PIN numbers, and operated fake e-mail accounts in customers' names.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) announced in September, 2016 the consent order with the bank. As a result of the fake-account scandal, the bank paid about $185 million in fines and fired 5,300 lower-level employees for setting up 2 million bogus accounts. Few or no senior executives have been punished.

Many Republicans and President Trump seek to defund and shut down the CFPB.

During October, 2016 Timothy J. Sloan was elected chief executive officer at Wells Fargo bank after the former CEO, John Stumpf, retired. Sloan also joined the board of directors as a member.

CNN Money reported:

"... Wells Fargo suffered from inadequate risk management systems that should have flagged the illegal activity earlier. Shareholder advisory firm Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) agrees. ISS argued the Wells Fargo board made the scandal worse by failing to provide oversight that could have limited the damage..."

In her letter, Senator Warren urged the Federal Reserve to act:

"I urge you to use the tools Congress has given you to remove the responsible board members and protect the continued safety and soundness of one of the country's largest banks..."

Reportedly, the Senator's letter mentioned the following Wells Fargo board members: John D. Baker II, John S. Chen, Lloyd H. Dean, Elizabeth A. Duke, Enrique Hernandez, Donald M. James, Cynthia H. Milligan, Federico F. Pena, James H. Quigley, Stephen W. Sanger, Susan G. Swenson, and Suzanne M. Vautrinot.

Some banking experts see the demand as unprecedented and unlikely. All of the bank's board members were re-elected during the annual shareholder meeting in April , 2017. Also during April, the bank announced an expansion of its class-action settlement agreements for its retail sales practices. The expansion covered account holders affected as early as May, 2002 by the bogus new account scandal, and added $32 million to the settlement amount total.


Trump Administration Quietly Rolls Back Civil Rights Efforts Across Federal Government

[Editor's Note: today's guest blog post is by the reporters at ProPublica. Consent decrees are an important oversight tool to ensure corporate responsibility after wrongdoing. Today's post is reprinted with permission.]

By Jessica Huseman and Annie Waldman, ProPublica

Department of Justice logo For decades, the Department of Justice has used court-enforced agreements to protect civil rights, successfully desegregating school systems, reforming police departments, ensuring access for the disabled and defending the religious.

Now, under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the DOJ appears to be turning away from this storied tool, called consent decrees. Top officials in the DOJ civil rights division have issued verbal instructions through the ranks to seek settlements without consent decrees -- which would result in no continuing court oversight.

The move is just one part of a move by the Trump administration to limit federal civil rights enforcement. Other departments have scaled back the power of their internal divisions that monitor such abuses. In a previously unreported development, the Education Department last week reversed an Obama-era reform that broadened the agency's approach to protecting rights of students. The Labor Department and the Environmental Protection Agency have also announced sweeping cuts to their enforcement.

"At best, this administration believes that civil rights enforcement is superfluous and can be easily cut. At worst, it really is part of a systematic agenda to roll back civil rights," said Vanita Gupta, the former acting head of the DOJ's civil rights division under President Barack Obama.

Consent decrees have not been abandoned entirely by the DOJ, a person with knowledge of the instructions said. Instead, there is a presumption against their use -- attorneys should default to using settlements without court oversight unless there is an unavoidable reason for a consent decree. The instructions came from the civil rights division's office of acting Assistant Attorney General Tom Wheeler and Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Gore. There is no written policy guidance.

Devin O'Malley, a spokesperson for the DOJ, declined to comment for this story.

Consent decrees can be a powerful tool, and spell out specific steps that must be taken to remedy the harm. These are agreed to by both parties and signed off on by a judge, whom the parties can appear before again if the terms are not being met. Though critics say the DOJ sometimes does not enforce consent decrees well enough, they are more powerful than settlements that aren't overseen by a judge and have no built-in enforcement mechanism.

Such settlements have "far fewer teeth to ensure adequate enforcement," Gupta said.

Consent decrees often require agencies or municipalities to take expensive steps toward reform. Local leaders and agency heads then can point to the binding court authority when requesting budget increases to ensure reforms. Without consent decrees, many localities or government departments would simply never make such comprehensive changes, said William Yeomans, who spent 26 years at the DOJ, mostly in the civil rights division.

"They are key to civil rights enforcement," he said. "That's why Sessions and his ilk don't like them."

Some, however, believe the Obama administration relied on consent decrees too often and sometimes took advantage of vulnerable cities unable to effectively defend themselves against a well-resourced DOJ.

"I think a recalibration would be welcome," said Richard Epstein, a professor at New York University School of Law and a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, adding that consent decrees should be used in cases where clear, systemic issues of discrimination exist.

Though it's too early to see how widespread the effect of the changes will be, the Justice Department appears to be adhering to the directive already.

On May 30, the DOJ announced Bernards Township in New Jersey had agreed to pay $3.25 million to settle an accusation it denied zoning approval for a local Islamic group to build a mosque. Staff attorneys at the U.S. attorney's office in New Jersey initially sought to resolve the case with a consent decree, according to a spokesperson for Bernards Township. But because of the DOJ's new stance, the terms were changed after the township protested, according to a person familiar with the matter. A spokesperson for the New Jersey U.S. attorney's office declined comment.

Sessions has long been a public critic of consent decrees. As a senator, he wrote they "constitute an end run around the democratic process." He lambasted local agencies that seek them out as a way to inflate their budgets, a "particularly offensive" use of consent decrees that took decision-making power from legislatures.

On March 31, Sessions ordered a sweeping review of all consent decrees with troubled police departments nationwide to ensure they were in line with the Trump administration's law-and-order goals. Days before, the DOJ had asked a judge to postpone a hearing on a consent decree with the Baltimore Police Department that had been arranged during the last days of the Obama administration. The judge denied that request, and the consent decree has moved forward.

The DOJ has already come under fire from critics for altering its approach to voting rights cases. After nearly six years of litigation over Texas' voter ID law -- which Obama DOJ attorneys said was written to intentionally discriminate against minority voters and had such a discriminatory effect -- the Trump DOJ abruptly withdrew its intent claims in late February.

Attorneys who worked on the case for years were barely consulted about the change -- many weren't consulted at all, according to two former DOJ officials with knowledge of the matter. Gore wrote the filing changing the DOJ's position largely by himself and asked the attorneys who'd been involved in the case for years to sign it to show continuity. Not all of the attorneys fell in line. Avner Shapiro -- who has been a prosecutor in the civil rights division for more than 20 years -- left his name off the filings written by Gore. Shapiro was particularly involved in developing the DOJ's argument that Texas had intentionally discriminated against minorities in crafting its voter ID legislation.

"That's the ultimate act of rebellion," Yeomans, the former civil rights division prosecutor, said. A rare act, removing one's name from a legal filing is one of the few ways career attorneys can express public disagreement with an administration.

Gore has no history of bringing civil rights cases. A former partner at the law firm Jones Day, he has instead defended states against claims of racial gerrymandering and represented North Carolina when the state was sued over its controversial "bathroom bill," which requires transgender people to use the facility that matched their birth gender.

All of the internal changes at the DOJ have left attorneys and staff with "a great deal of fear and uncertainty," said Yeomans. While he says the lawyers there would like to stay at the department, they fear Sessions' priorities will have devastating impact on their work.

The DOJ's civil rights office is not alone in fearing rollbacks in enforcement. Across federal departments, the Trump administration has made moves to diminish the power of civil rights divisions.

U.S. Department of Education logo The Department of Education has laid out plans to loosen requirements on investigations into civil rights complaints, according to an internal memo sent to staff on June 8 and obtained by ProPublica.

Under the Obama administration, the department's office for civil rights applied an expansive approach to investigations. Individual complaints related to complex issues such as school discipline, sexual violence and harassment, equal access to educational resources, or racism at a single school might have prompted broader probes to determine whether the allegations were part of a pattern of discrimination or harassment.

The new memo, sent by Candice Jackson, the acting assistant secretary for civil rights, to regional directors at the department's civil rights office, trims this approach. Jackson was appointed deputy assistant secretary for the office in April and will remain as the acting head of the office until the Senate confirms a full-time assistant secretary. Trump has not publicly nominated anyone for the role yet.

The office will apply the broader approach "only" if the original allegations raise systemic concerns or the investigative team argues for it, Jackson wrote in the memo.

As part of the new approach, the Education Department will no longer require civil rights investigators to obtain three years of complaint data from a specific school or district to assess compliance with civil rights law.

Critics contend the Obama administration's probes were onerous. The office "did such a thorough review of everything that the investigations were demanding and very expensive" for schools, said Boston College American politics professor R. Shep Melnick, adding that the new approach could take some regulatory pressure off schools and districts.

But some civil rights leaders believe the change could undermine the office's mission. This narrowing of the department's investigations "is stunning to me and dangerous," said Catherine Lhamon, who led the Education Department's civil rights office from August 2013 until January 2017 and currently chairs the United States Commission on Civil Rights. "It's important to take an expansive view of the potential for harm because if you look only at the most recent year, you won't necessarily see the pattern," said Lhamon.

The department's new directive also gives more autonomy to regional offices, no longer requiring oversight or review of some cases by department headquarters, according to the memo.

The Education Department did not respond to ProPublica's request for comment.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has also proposed cutting over 40 positions from the civil rights office. With reduced staff, the office will have to "make difficult choices, including cutting back on initiating proactive investigations," according to the department's proposed budget.

Elsewhere, Trump administration appointees have launched similar initiatives. In its 2018 fiscal plan, the Labor Department has proposed dissolving the office that handles discrimination complaints. Similarly, new leadership at the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed entirely eliminating the environmental justice program, which addresses concerns that almost exclusively impact minority communities. The Washington Post reports the plan transfers all environmental justice work to the Office of Policy, which provides policy and regulatory guidance across the agency.

Mustafa Ali, a former EPA senior adviser and assistant associate administrator for environmental justice who served more than 20 years, quit the agency in protest days before the plan was announced. In his resignation letter, widely circulated in the media, Ali suggested the new leadership was abandoning "those who need our help most."

Ryan Gabrielson contributed to this report.

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.


Russian Cyber Attacks Against US Voting Systems Wider Than First Thought

Cyber attacks upon electoral systems in the United States are wider than originally thought. The attacks occurred in at least 39 states. The Bloomberg report described online attacks in Illinois as an example:

"... investigators found evidence that cyber intruders tried to delete or alter voter data. The hackers accessed software designed to be used by poll workers on Election Day, and in at least one state accessed a campaign finance database. Details of the wave of attacks, in the summer and fall of 2016... In early July 2016, a contractor who works two or three days a week at the state board of elections detected unauthorized data leaving the network, according to Ken Menzel, general counsel for the Illinois board of elections. The hackers had gained access to the state’s voter database, which contained information such as names, dates of birth, genders, driver’s licenses and partial Social Security numbers on 15 million people, half of whom were active voters. As many as 90,000 records were ultimately compromised..."

Politicians have emphasized that the point of the disclosures isn't to embarrass any specific state, but to alert the public to past activities and to the ongoing threat. The Intercept reported:

"Russian military intelligence executed a cyberattack on at least one U.S. voting software supplier and sent spear-phishing emails to more than 100 local election officials just days before last November’s presidential election, according to a highly classified intelligence report obtained by The Intercept.

The top-secret National Security Agency document, which was provided anonymously to The Intercept and independently authenticated, analyzes intelligence very recently acquired by the agency about a months-long Russian intelligence cyber effort against elements of the U.S. election and voting infrastructure. The report, dated May 5, 2017, is the most detailed U.S. government account of Russian interference in the election that has yet come to light."

Spear-fishing is the tactic criminals use by sending malware-laden e-mail messages to targeted individuals, whose names and demographic details may have been collected from social networking sites and other sources. The spam e-mail uses those details to pretend to be valid e-mail from a coworker, business associate, or friend. When the target opens the e-mail attachment, their computer and network are often infected with malware to collect and transmit log-in credentials to the criminals; or to remotely take over the targets' computers (e.g., ransomware) and demand ransom payments. Stolen log-in credentials are how criminals steal consumers' money by breaking into online bank accounts.

The Intercept report explained how the elections systems hackers adopted this tactic:

"... the Russian plan was simple: pose as an e-voting vendor and trick local government employees into opening Microsoft Word documents invisibly tainted with potent malware that could give hackers full control over the infected computers. But in order to dupe the local officials, the hackers needed access to an election software vendor’s internal systems to put together a convincing disguise. So on August 24, 2016, the Russian hackers sent spoofed emails purporting to be from Google to employees of an unnamed U.S. election software company... The spear-phishing email contained a link directing the employees to a malicious, faux-Google website that would request their login credentials and then hand them over to the hackers. The NSA identified seven “potential victims” at the company. While malicious emails targeting three of the potential victims were rejected by an email server, at least one of the employee accounts was likely compromised, the agency concluded..."

Experts believe the voting equipment company targeted was VR Systems, based in Florida. Reportedly, it's electronic voting services and equipment are used in eight states. VR Systems posted online a Frequently Asked Questions document (adobe PDF) about the cyber attacks against elections systems:

"Recent reports indicate that cyber actors impersonated VR Systems and other elections companies. Cyber actors sent an email from a fake account to election officials in an unknown number of districts just days before the 2016 general election. The fraudulent email asked recipients to open an attachment, which would then infect their computer, providing a gateway for more mischief... Because the spear-phishing email did not originate from VR Systems, we do not know how many jurisdictions were potentially impacted. Many election offices report that they never received the email or it was caught by their spam filters before it could reach recipients. It is our understanding that all jurisdictions, including VR Systems customers, have been notified by law enforcement agencies if they were a target of this spear-phishing attack... In August, a small number of phishing emails were sent to VR Systems. These emails were captured by our security protocols and the threat was neutralized. No VR Systems employee’s email was compromised. This prevented the cyber actors from accessing a genuine VR Systems email account. As such, the cyber actors, as part of their late October spear-phishing attack, resorted to creating a fake account to use in that spear-phishing campaign."

It is good news that VR Systems protected its employees' e-mail accounts. Let's hope that those employees were equally diligent about protecting their personal e-mail accounts and home computers, networks, and phones. We all know employees that often work from home.

The Intercept report highlighted a fact about life on the internet, which all internet users should know: stolen log-in credentials are highly valued by criminals:

"Jake Williams, founder of computer security firm Rendition Infosec and formerly of the NSA’s Tailored Access Operations hacking team, said stolen logins can be even more dangerous than an infected computer. “I’ll take credentials most days over malware,” he said, since an employee’s login information can be used to penetrate “corporate VPNs, email, or cloud services,” allowing access to internal corporate data. The risk is particularly heightened given how common it is to use the same password for multiple services. Phishing, as the name implies, doesn’t require everyone to take the bait in order to be a success — though Williams stressed that hackers “never want just one” set of stolen credentials."

So, a word to the wise for all internet users: don't use the same log-in credentials at multiple site. Don't open e-mail attachments from strangers. If you weren't expecting an e-mail attachment from a coworker/friend/business associate, call them on the phone first and verify that they indeed sent an attachment to you. The internet has become a dangerous place.


Trump Is Not the Only One Blocking Constituents on Twitter

[Editor's note: today's guest blog post, by the reporters at ProPublica, explores the emerging debate about whether the appropriate, perhaps ethical, use of social media by publicly elected officials and persons campaigning for office. Should they be able to block constituents posting views they dislike or disagree with? Is it really public speech on a privately-run social networking sites? Would you vote for person who blocks constituents? Do companies operating social networking site have a responsibility in this? Today's post is reprinted with permission.]

by Charles Ornstein, ProPublica

As President Donald Trump faces criticism for blocking users on his Twitter account, people across the country say they, too, have been cut off by elected officials at all levels of government after voicing dissent on social media.

In Arizona, a disabled Army veteran grew so angry when her congressman blocked her and others from posting dissenting views on his Facebook page that she began delivering actual blocks to his office.

A central Texas congressman has barred so many constituents on Twitter that a local activist group has begun selling T-shirts complaining about it.

And in Kentucky, the Democratic Party is using a hashtag, #BevinBlocked, to track those who've been blocked on social media by Republican Gov. Matt Bevin. (Most of the officials blocking constituents appear to be Republican.)

The growing combat over social media is igniting a new-age legal debate over whether losing this form of access to public officials violates constituents' First Amendment rights to free speech and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Those who've been blocked say it's akin to being thrown out of a town hall meeting for holding up a protest sign.

On Tuesday, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University called upon Trump to unblock people who've disagreed with him or directed criticism at him or his family via the @realdonaldtrump account, which he used prior to becoming president and continues to use as his principal Twitter outlet.

Trump blocked me after this tweet.Let's all hope the courts continue to protect us. Never stop resisting. pic.twitter.com/TlR4zgHCoU

-- Nick Jack Pappas (@Pappiness) June 5, 2017

"Though the architects of the Constitution surely didn't contemplate presidential Twitter accounts, they understood that the president must not be allowed to banish views from public discourse simply because he finds them objectionable," Jameel Jaffer, the Knight Institute's executive director, said in a statement.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment, but press secretary Sean Spicer said earlier Tuesday that statements the president makes on Twitter should be regarded as official statements.

Similar flare-ups have been playing out in state after state.

Earlier this year, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland called on Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican, to stop deleting critical comments and barring people from commenting on his Facebook page. (The Washington Post reported that the governor had blocked 450 people as of February.)

Deborah Jeon, the ACLU's legal director, said Hogan and other elected officials are increasingly foregoing town hall meetings and instead relying on social media as their primary means of communication with constituents. "That's why it's so problematic," she said. "If people are silenced in that medium," they can't effectively interact with their elected representative.

The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment this week. After the letter, however, it reinstated six of the seven people specifically identified by the ACLU (it said it couldn't find the seventh). "While the ACLU should be focusing on much more important activities than monitoring the governor's Facebook page, we appreciated them identifying a handful of individuals -- out of the over 1 million weekly viewers of the page -- that may have been inadvertently denied access," a spokeswoman for the governor told the Post.

Practically speaking, being blocked cuts off constituents from many forms of interacting with public officials. On Facebook, it means no posts, no likes and no questions or comments during live events on the page of the blocker. Even older posts that may not be offensive are taken down. On Twitter, being blocked prevents a user from seeing the other person's tweets on his or her timeline.

Moreover, while Twitter and Facebook themselves usually suspend account holders only temporarily for breaking rules, many elected officials don't have established policies for constituents who want to be reinstated. Sometimes a call is enough to reverse it, other times it's not.

Eugene Volokh, a constitutional law professor at the UCLA School of Law, said that for municipalities and public agencies, such as police departments, social media accounts would generally be considered "limited public forums" and therefore, should be open to all.

"Once they open it up to public comments, they can't then impose viewpoint-based restrictions on it," he said, for instance allowing only supportive comments while deleting critical ones.

But legislators are different because they are people. Elected officials can have personal accounts, campaign accounts and officeholder accounts that may appear quite similar. On their personal and campaign accounts, there's little disagreement that officials can engage with -- or block -- whoever they want. Last month, for instance, ProPublica reported how Rep. Peter King (Republican, New York) blocked users on his campaign account after they criticized his positions on health reform and other issues.

But what about their officeholder social media accounts?

The ACLU's Jeon says that they should be public if they use government resources, including staff time and office equipment to maintain the page. "Where that's the situation and taxpayer resources are going to it, then the full power of the First Amendment applies," she said. "It doesn't matter if they're members of Congress or the governor or a local councilperson."

Volokh of UCLA disagreed. He said that members of Congress are entitled to their own private speech, even on official pages. That's because each is one voice among many, as opposed to a governor or mayor. "It's clear that whatever my senator is, she's not the government. She is one person who is part of a legislative body," he said. "She was elected because she has her own views and it makes sense that if she has a Twitter feed or a Facebook page, that may well be seen as not government speech but the voice of somebody who may be a government official."

Volokh said he's inclined to see Trump's @realdonaldtrump account as a personal one, though other legal experts disagree.

"You could imagine actually some other president running this kind of account in a way that's very public minded -- 'I'm just going to express the views of the executive branch,'" he said. "The @realdonaldtrump account is very much, 'I'm Donald Trump. I'm going to be expressing my views, and if you don't like it, too bad for you.' That sounds like private speech, even done by a government official on government property."

It's possible the fight over the president's Twitter account will end up in court, as such disputes have across the country. Generally, in these situations, the people contesting the government's social media policies have reached settlements ending the questionable practices.

After being sued by the ACLU, three cities in Indiana agreed last year to change their policies by no longer blocking users or deleting comments.

In 2014, a federal judge ordered the City and County of Honolulu to pay $31,000 in attorney's fees to people who sued, contending that the Honolulu Police Department violated their constitutional rights by deleting their critical Facebook posts.

And San Diego County agreed to pay the attorney's fees of a gun parts dealer who sued after its Sheriff's Department deleted two Facebook posts that were critical of the sheriff and banned the dealer from commenting. The department took down its Facebook page after being sued and paid the dealer $20 as part of the settlement.

Angela Greben, a California paralegal, has spent the past two years gathering information about agencies and politicians that have blocked people on social media -- Democrats and Republican alike -- filing ethics complaints and even a lawsuit against the city of San Mateo, California, its mayor and police department. (They settled with her, giving her some of what she wanted.)

Greben has filed numerous public-records requests to agencies as varied as the Transportation Security Administration, the Seattle Police Department and the Connecticut Lottery seeking lists of people they block. She's posted the results online.

"It shouldn't be up to the elected official to decide who can tweet them and who can't," she said. "Everybody deserves to be treated equally and fairly under the law."

Even though she lives in California, Greben recently filed an ethics complaint against Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a Democrat, who has been criticized for blocking not only constituents but also journalists who cover him. Reed has blocked Greben since 2015 when she tweeted about him... well, blocking people on Twitter. "He's notorious for blocking and muting people," she said, meaning he can't see their tweets but they can still see his.

@LizLemeryJoy @KasimReed Mr. Mayor you are violating the #civilrights of all you have #blocked! @Georgia_AG @FOX5Atlanta @11AliveNews

-- Angela Greben (@AngelaGreben) March 7, 2015

In a statement, a city spokeswoman defended the mayor, saying he's now among the top five most-followed mayors in the country. "Mayor Reed uses social media as a personal platform to engage directly with constituents and some journalists. 2026 Like all Twitter users, Mayor Reed has the right to stop engaging in conversations when he determines they are unproductive, intentionally inflammatory, dishonest and/or misleading."

Asked how many people he has blocked, she replied that the office doesn't keep such a list.

J'aime Morgaine, the Arizona veteran who delivered blocks to the office of Rep. Paul Gosar, a Republican, said being blocked on Facebook matters because her representative no longer hosts in-person town hall meetings and has started to answer questions on Facebook Live. Now she can't ask questions or leave comments.

"I have lost and other people who have been blocked have lost our right to participate in the democratic process," said Morgaine, leader of Indivisible Kingman, a group that opposes the president's agenda. "I am outraged that my congressman is blocking my voice and trampling upon my constitutional rights."

@RepGosar ..You weren't home when I delivered this message to your office, but no worries...there WILL be more!Stop BLOCKING Constituents! pic.twitter.com/JTWGQwhxKt

-- Indivisible Kingman (@IndivisibleCD4) May 13, 2017

Morgaine said the rules are not being applied equally. "They're not blocking everybody who's angry," she said. "They're blocking the voices of dissent, and there's no process for getting unblocked. There's no appeals process. There's no accountability."

A spokeswoman for Gosar defended his decision to block constituents but did not answer a question about how many have been blocked.

"Congressman Gosar's policy has been consistent since taking office in January 2010," spokeswoman Kelly Roberson said in an email. "In short: 2018Users whose comments or posts consist of profanity, hate speech, personal attacks, homophobia or Islamophobia may be banned.'"

On his Facebook page, Gosar posts the policy that guides his actions. It says in part, "Users are banned to promote healthy, civil dialogue on this page but are welcome to contact Congressman Gosar using other methods," including phone calls, emails and letters.

Sometimes, users are blocked repeatedly.

Community volunteer Gayle Lacy was named 2015 Wacoan of the Year for her effort to have the site of mammoth fossils in Waco, Texas, designated a national monument. Lacy's latest fight has been with her congressman, Bill Flores, who was with her in the Oval Office when Obama designated the site a national monument in 2015. She has been blocked three times by Flores' congressional Twitter account and once by his campaign account. One of those blocks happened after she tweeted at him: "My father died in service for this country, but you are not representative of that country and neither is your dear leader."

Lacy said she was able to get unblocked each time from Flores' congressional account by calling his office but remains blocked on the campaign one. "I don't know where to call," she said. "I asked in his D.C. office who I needed to call and I was told that they don't have that information."

Lacy and others said Flores blocks those who question him. Austin lawyer Matt Miller said he was blocked for asking when Flores would hold a town hall meeting. "It's totally inappropriate to block somebody, especially for asking a legitimate question of my elected representative," Miller said.

In a statement, Flores spokesman Andre Castro said Flores makes his policies clear on Twitter and on Facebook. "We reserve the right to block users whose comments include profanity, name-calling, threats, personal attacks, constant harping, inappropriate or false accusations, or other inappropriate comments or material. As the Congressman likes to say 2014 2018If you would not say it to your grandmother, we will not allow it here.'"

Ricardo Guerrero, an Austin marketer who is one of the leaders of a local group opposed to Trump's agenda, said he has gotten unblocked by Flores twice but then was blocked again and "just kind of gave up."

"He's creating an echo chamber of only the people that agree with him," Guerrero said of Flores. "He's purposefully removing any semblance of debate or alternative ideas or ideas that challenge his own -- and that seems completely undemocratic. That's the bigger issue in my mind."

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.


Study: Police Officers Talk More Respectfully To White Residents Than Non-White Residents

Researchers analyzed the language recorded by body cameras during police stops, and concluded that police officers talk more respectfully to White residents than non-White residents. The study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, included 183 hours of body camera footage taken during 981 routine traffic stops in April 2014 by 245 different officers in the Oakland Police Department.

The researchers found:

"Police officers speak significantly less respectfully to black than to white community members in everyday traffic stops, even after controlling for officer race, infraction severity, stop location, and stop outcome. This paper presents a systematic analysis of officer body-worn camera footage, using computational linguistic techniques to automatically measure the respect level that officers display to community members. This work demonstrates that body camera footage can be used as a rich source of data rather than merely archival evidence, and paves the way for developing powerful language-based tools for studying and potentially improving police–community relations. "

The study included random selections of 312 utterances spoken to black residents and 102 utterances spoken to white residents. Next, 10 volunteers rated each interaction without knowing the names, races, or identifying information of the police officers. Then, the researchers used a computer model to analyze the ratings based upon scientific literature about respect.

Why this study is important:

"Despite the rapid proliferation of body-worn cameras, no law enforcement agency has systematically analyzed the massive amounts of footage these cameras produce. Instead, the public and agencies alike tend to focus on the fraction of videos involving high-profile incidents, using footage as evidence of innocence or guilt in individual encounters... Previous research on police–community interactions has relied on citizens’ recollection of past interactions or researcher observation of officer behavior to assess procedural fairness. Although these methods are invaluable, they offer an indirect view of officer behavior and are limited to a small number of interactions...

Key findings from the full report:

"... white community members are 57% more likely to hear an officer say one of the most respectful utterances in our dataset, whereas black community members are 61% more likely to hear an officer say one of the least respectful utterances in our dataset. (Here we define the top 10% of utterances to be most respectful and the bottom 10% to be least respectful.) This work demonstrates the power of body camera footage as an important source of data, not just as evidence, addressing limitations with methodologies that rely on citizens’ recollection of past interactions..."

Perhaps, most importantly (bold emphasis added):

"The racial disparities in officer respect are clear and consistent, yet the causes of these disparities are less clear. It is certainly possible that some of these disparities are prompted by the language and behavior of the community members themselves, particularly as historical tensions in Oakland and preexisting beliefs about the legitimacy of the police may induce fear, anger, or stereotype threat. However, community member speech cannot be the sole cause of these disparities... We observe racial disparities in officer respect even in police utterances from the initial 5% of an interaction, suggesting that officers speak differently to community members of different races even before the driver has had the opportunity to say much at all."

"Regardless of cause, we have found that police officers’ interactions with blacks tend to be more fraught, not only in terms of disproportionate outcomes (as previous work has shown) but also interpersonally, even when no arrest is made and no use of force occurs. These disparities could have adverse downstream effects, as experiences of respect or disrespect in personal interactions with police officers play a central role in community members’ judgments of how procedurally fair the police are as an institution, as well as the community’s willingness to support or cooperate with the police."

The findings indicate training opportunities for law enforcement, and apply only to the Oakland, California police department. Additional studies are needed to draw conclusions about other police departments. CNN interviewed Rob Voigt, the lead author of the study at Stanford University:

"We're also hoping it inspires police departments to consider cooperating with researchers more. And facilitating this kind of analysis of body camera footage will help police departments improve their relationship with the community, and it will give them techniques for better communication... When people feel they're respected by the police, they are more likely to trust the police, they are more likely to cooperate with the police, and so on and so forth. So we have reason to expect that these differences that we find have real-world effects."

I look forward to future studies. What are your opinions?


Attorneys General In Several States Announce Settlement Agreements With Target

Target Bullseye logo The Office of the Attorney General (AG) for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts announced on Wednesday that the state will receive $625,000 as part of the settlement agreement with Target Corporation. The settlement agreement, which includes 47 states plus the District of Colombia, resolves claims by states about the retailer's massive data breach in 2013.

Card issuers had also sued the retailer. Target settled with Visa in August, 2015 to resolve claims in which 110 million consumers' records were stolen, including 40 million credit- and debit-card numbers. Also, debit card PIN numbers were stolen.

The announcement by Massachusetts AG Maura Healey explained:

"The investigation found that the stolen credentials were used to exploit weaknesses in Target’s system, which allowed the attackers to access a customer service database, install malware on the system and then capture data from credit or debit card transactions at Target stores (including stores in Massachusetts) from Nov. 27, 2013 to Dec. 15, 2013. The stolen data included consumers’ full names, telephone numbers, email addresses, mailing addresses, payment card numbers, expiration dates, security codes, and encrypted debit PINs... The breach affected more than 41 million customer payment card accounts and contact information for more than 60 million customers nationwide. In Massachusetts, the breach compromised information from approximately 947,000 customer payment card accounts and other personally-identifying information of about 1.5 million Massachusetts residents."

Terms of the settlement require Target:

"... to develop, implement and maintain a comprehensive information security program and to employ an executive or officer who is responsible for executing the plan. The company is required to hire an independent, qualified third-party to conduct a comprehensive security assessment... to maintain and support software on its network; to maintain appropriate encryption policies, particularly as pertains to cardholder and personal information data; to segment its cardholder data environment from the rest of its computer network; and to undertake steps to control access to its network, including implementing password rotation policies and two-factor authentication for certain accounts."

California will receive $1.4 million from the settlement. New York AG Eric T. Schneiderman said about the settlement agreement:

"New Yorkers need to know that when they shop, their data will be protected... This settlement marks an important win for New Yorkers – bringing over $635,000 into the state, in addition to the free credit monitoring services for those impacted by the data breach, and key security improvements to help protect Target consumers moving forward."

Yes, indeed. Shoppers everywhere need to know their data will be protected.

Besides Massachusetts, New York and California, the other states participating in this settlement include Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

AL.com reported:

"Alabama won't be cashing in on the largest multi-state data breach settlement in history, however. The reason, according to the Alabama Attorney General's Office, is the absence of a state law that requires entities to notify customers whose information could have been exposed in a breach and then take steps to remediate any injuries.

"Alabama is one of the few states in the nation that is not a party to the recent Target settlement because our state does not have data breach notification law," said Mike Lewis, Communications Director for the Office of the Alabama Attorney General."

Connecticut and Illinois led the states' investigation. The participating states have not yet announced how the settlement money will be distributed.

[Editor's Note: a prior version of this blog post did not include the report by AL.com.]


60 Minutes Re-Broadcast Its 2014 Interview With FBI Director Comey

60 Minutes logo Last night, the 60 Minutes television show re-broadcast its 2014 interview with former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director James Comey. The interview is important for several reasons.

Politically liberal people have criticized Comey for mentioning to Congress just before the 2016 election the FBI investigation of former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton's private e-mail server. Many believe that Comey's comments helped candidate Donald Trump win the Presidential election. Politically conservative people criticized Comey for not recommending prosecution of former Secretary Clinton.

The interview is a reminder of history and that reality is often far more nuanced and complicated. Back in 2004, when the George W. Bush administration sought a re-authorization of warrant-less e-mail/phone searches, 60 Minutes explained:

"At the time, Comey was in charge at the Justice Department because Attorney General John Ashcroft was in intensive care with near fatal pancreatitis. When Comey refused to sign off, the president's Chief of Staff Andy Card headed to the hospital to get Ashcroft's OK."

In the 2014 interview, Comey described his concerns in 2004 about key events:

"... [the government] cannot read your emails or listen to your calls without going to a federal judge, making a showing of probable cause that you are a terrorist, an agent of a foreign power, or a serious criminal of some sort, and get permission for a limited period of time to intercept those communications. It is an extremely burdensome process. And I like it that way... I was the deputy attorney general of the United States. We were not going to authorize, reauthorize or participate in activities that did not have a lawful basis."

During the interview in 2014 by 60 Minutes, then FBI Director Comey warned all Americans:

"I believe that Americans should be deeply skeptical of government power. You cannot trust people in power. The founders knew that. That's why they divided power among three branches, to set interest against interest... The promise I've tried to honor my entire career, that the rule of law and the design of the founders, right, the oversight of courts and the oversight of Congress will be at the heart of what the FBI does. The way you'd want it to be..."

The interview highlighted the letter Comey kept on his desk as a cautionary reminder of the excesses of government. That letter was about former FBI Director Herbert Hoover's investigations and excessive surveillance of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Is Comey the bad guy that people on both sides of the political spectrum claim? Yes, history is far more complicated and nuanced.

So, history is complex and nuanced... far more than a simplistic, self-serving tweet:

Many have paid close attention for years. After the Snowden disclosures in 2013 about broad, warrantless searches and data collection programs by government intelligence agencies, in 2014 Comey urged all USA citizens to participate in a national discussion about the balance between privacy and surveillance.

You can read the full transcript of the 60 Minutes interview in 2014, watch this preview on Youtube, or watch last night's re-broadcast by 60 Minutes of the 2014 interview.


America's Other Drug Problem

[Editor's Note: today's guest blog post, by reporters at ProPublica, explores the waste problem in the health care industry, and the accompanying pollution. It is reprinted with permission.]

by Marshall Allen, ProPublica

Every week in Des Moines, Iowa, the employees of a small nonprofit collect bins of unexpired prescription drugs tossed out by nursing homes after residents died, moved out or no longer needed them. The drugs are given to patients who couldn't otherwise afford them.

But travel 1,000 miles east to Long Island, New York, and you'll find nursing homes flushing similar leftover drugs down the toilet, alarming state environmental regulators worried they'll further contaminate the water supply.

In Baltimore, Maryland, a massive incinerator burns up tons of the drugs each year -- for a fee -- from nursing homes across the Eastern seaboard.

If you want to know why the nation's health care costs are among the highest in the world, a good place to start is with what we throw away. Across the country, nursing homes routinely toss large quantities of perfectly good prescription medication: tablets for diabetes, syringes of blood thinners, pricey pills for psychosis and seizures.

At a time when anger over soaring drug costs has perhaps never been more intense, redistributing discarded drugs seems like a no-brainer. Yet it's estimated that American taxpayers, through Medicare, spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year on drugs for nursing home patients -- much of which literally go down the tubes.

"It would not surprise me if as much as 20 percent of the medications we receive we end up having to destroy," said Mark Coggins, who oversees the pharmacy services for Diversicare, a chain of more than 70 nursing homes in 10 states. "It's very discouraging throwing away all those drugs when you know it can benefit somebody."

No one tracks this waste nationwide, but estimates show it's substantial. Colorado officials have said the state's 220 long-term care facilities throw away a whopping 17.5 tons of potentially reusable drugs every year, with a price tag of about $10 million. The Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 2015 that about 740 tons of drugs are wasted by nursing homes each year.

This is, of course, part of a bigger problem. The National Academy of Medicine estimated in 2012 that the United States squanders more than a quarter of what it spends on health care 2014 about $765 billion a year.

ProPublica is investigating the types of waste in health care that academics and politicians typically overlook. Our first installment examined the tens of millions worth of equipment and brand new supplies that hospitals jettison.

Today we look at the wasteful, and potentially harmful, ways nursing homes dispose of leftover meds -- and how some states, like Iowa, have found a solution.

On a recent Wednesday in Des Moines, Ami Bradwell, a certified pharmacy technician, popped open the lids of several 31-gallon bins full of prescription drugs. In each were hundreds of what are known as "bingo cards" filled with rows of pills in sealed bubbles.

"Metformin -- for diabetics," Bradwell said, holding up a card of large white pills. "It's not crazy expensive, but it's in high demand."

She held up an entire box of the anti-nausea drug Ondansetron. It goes for about $5 a pill, according to the website drugs.com. "Expensive."

Another card had three large pills stuffed in each chamber, a find Bradwell called "a 'jackpot' card. You can't live without it because it's a seizure medication."

Image from SafeNetRx Drug Donation Repository Bradwell works for the nonprofit SafeNetRx. Each week the group takes in dozens of bins full of such drugs, as well as boxes mailed in from across Iowa and several other states -- pharmaceutical trash that exists because, for convenience and cost, long-term care pharmacies often dispense nursing home patients' medications in bulk, a month's worth at a time.

Should a patient die, leave or stop taking the drug, what's left is typically tossed. The drugs have already been paid for, by Medicare in most cases, so there's little incentive to try to recycle them. In some states, such reuse is against the law.

Some of the cards Bradwell examined that day were missing only a few pills. One card had been thrown out even though it only lacked one of its 31 doses of oxybutynin, which reduces muscle spasms of the bladder. The remaining 30 are worth more than $13.

"There are literally millions of dollars of prescription medications thrown away every day in this country," said John Forbes, an Iowa pharmacist who dispenses SafeNetRx's recovered drugs to his low-income patients.

Although most states technically allow some leftover drugs to be recycled, Iowa is one of the few rescuing a significant percentage of the drugs from destruction. The state funds the program for about $600,000 a year, said SafeNetRx CEO Jon Rosmann, who calls it a "common sense" solution. In fiscal 2016 the program recovered and distributed drugs valued at about $3.4 million. This year it's on pace to top $5 million.

Forbes, who is also an Iowa state representative, said there are additional savings when low-income patients have access to the drugs they need. Patients who don't take their drugs "end up in the emergency room," he said, "which will wind up costing our health care system way more money."

At SafeNetRx, the drugs are sorted and organized in a 1,500-square-foot room lined with shelves stacked with bins of drugs. In the center, folding tables hold hundreds of bingo cards, sorted alphabetically by generic drug name, from the blood pressure drug acebutolol to the antipsychotic ziprasidone. None of the medications are controlled substances, though those may be included in the future.

Pharmacy officials say there may be a million dollars' worth of drugs in this small room. The 30 mg syringes of the blood thinner Enoxaparin are used by patients for weeks before and after heart surgery. They can go for $13 per dose.

One box contains scores of doses of Spiriva, inhalation capsules for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease that would sell for about $18 each. The antipsychotic Abilify runs about $46 per pill.

The biggest ticket items are the cancer drugs. They are typically donated directly from patients or their families. Those can run $8,000 or more per month.

The cancer drugs are passed on to people like Amber Judge, a patient advocate at Medical Oncology and Hematology Associates, a cancer clinic in Des Moines. Judge is accustomed to patients coming into her office in a panic. They've just learned they have cancer, only to find out they can't afford the drugs they need to battle the disease. That's when Judge opens one of the file drawers in her office, which are filled with tens of thousands of dollars' worth of the drugs recovered by SafeNetRx.

In one filing drawer she has about 30 boxes of Tasigna, which costs about $100 per pill. In another drawer she has a gallon-sized plastic bag with bottles of Stivarga, about $188 per pill.

The process is similar to patients receiving drug samples at a doctor's office. They leave her office with the drugs they need -- for free.

"I give them a month's supply if I have it," Judge said. "They're so thankful. They're incredulous."

In many places in the United States, however, these leftover drugs meet a very different end, one that is not only wasteful, but potentially harmful.

In recent years, scientists have detected something disturbing in the Long Island's aquifer: low levels of pharmaceuticals.

Though consumers have been warned not to flush their drugs down the toilet because sewer waste can contaminate groundwater, many still do it; more worrisome still, flushing remains a common practice at nursing homes in New York and across the country. The effects of such contamination on humans are unclear, but it has been shown to slow the metamorphosis of frogs and increase the feminization of fish.

Three years ago, New York's Department of Environmental Conservation started an annual program, funded by the state legislature, to scoop up unused medications before they were flushed. Even though the pickup service is free to facilities, only two dozen of 169 eligible Long Island nursing homes participated this February, turning over 660 pounds of drugs.

Those valuable medications didn't go into the water supply, but they didn't go to needy patients, either, though such recycling is now allowed in New York. Instead, they went to an incinerator company. Experts, including the EPA, have recommended incineration for getting rid of pharmaceuticals.

Destroying the unused drugs is always going to have environmental implications, said Carrie Meek Gallagher, region 1 director for the department. "It's always a trade-off of what's most harmful. For us, anything getting into the water is the worst solution."

The National Conference of State Legislatures said 39 states had passed laws that allowed the donation of drugs. But almost half of these states with laws lack programs to get the drugs safely from one appropriate user to another, and many of those that do have programs are focused on cancer drugs, the analysis showed.

There hasn't been a lot of public opposition to redistributing the drugs, even among drugmakers. Most concerns circle around logistics, although in Illinois trial attorneys have lobbied against a proposed program, saying it muddies liability issues.

Richard Cauchi, program director for health for the conference of state legislatures, said just passing laws doesn't guarantee success. A state agency or organization needs to oversee the program, encouraging participation and streamlining its administration so it's not a burden for pharmacies and nursing homes.

"It's a lot of work, and from a retail point of view, an expense," Cauchi said. "How do you accept these drugs? How do you confirm their safety? How do you know they meet the proper standards?"

Federal agencies are of little help, each pursuing their own, often contradictory, agendas.

The EPA discourages flushing drugs because they contaminate the water supply. But it doesn't have the authority to prohibit "sewering" the medications. Only local authorities can take that stance. It has, however, proposed reclassifying the unused drugs as hazardous waste, which would then prohibit flushing them.

The Food and Drug Administration says certain medications are so dangerous that they should be disposed of immediately, even if that means flushing them. It even provides a list of drugs recommended for flushing, mostly controlled substances like diazepam, better known as Valium, and the potent painkiller fentanyl.

The Drug Enforcement Administration wants to ensure controlled substances, like narcotic painkillers, aren't diverted to the illegal drug market. It has recommended that long-term pharmacies collect leftover drugs by placing boxes in nursing homes that must be emptied at least every three days, but that creates expense, hassle and potential liability.

Some advocates say the makers of the drugs should be responsible for disposing or recycling them. Scott Cassel, CEO of the Product Stewardship Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing the environmental impact of consumer products, said the producers of batteries, electronics, paint and other products are required by law in some areas to pay for the safe disposal of their products. Similar laws require drug makers to pay for the destruction of leftover household drugs in two states and about a dozen counties, but no laws address nursing homes.

Coggins, who leads the pharmacy services for the Diversicare chain, said people in the nursing home industry would like to do something about the waste. But their options are dictated by laws and regulations, and there's been a lack of investment in cost-effective solutions like the one in Iowa.

About half the states where Diversicare operates allow the donation of unused drugs, but the programs required too much work sorting and inventorying the drugs without any reimbursement, he said. "It's like people have created legislation and it's a feel-good thing, but nobody's come back to see why it's not working."

Diversicare avoids flushing drugs whenever possible, Coggins said, but it still occurs sometimes. The organization has switched to a product called Rx Destroyer that chemically deactivates the medication so it can be put in the trash, he said, but even that is controversial because it goes into a landfill.

In many nursing homes, flushing is just part of the routine.

"Oh my goodness, it's so sad," said Jennifer Ramsey, a nurse who formerly worked as a house supervisor for a nursing home in South Haven, Mississippi. Once a month she and another nurse would gather all the unused blister packs of medication, she said, piles of them, probably worth tens of thousands of dollars. Then they would pop the pills one by one into the toilet.

"You would spend almost your whole eight-hour day doing it," Ramsey recalled.

Ramsey now works for the nonprofit Good Shepherd Pharmacy in Memphis. In Tennessee, the law requires nursing homes to destroy unused drugs on site. Good Shepherd's founder is pressing to change the law so the drugs can be saved and donated.

In March, state Rep. Cameron Sexton, a Republican whose wife is a pharmacist, introduced a bill that would allow unexpired medications to be donated in Tennessee. "Unfortunately, we don't have a process set up to do that so all these drugs have to be destroyed," he said.

Perhaps the most graphic way to see the waste firsthand is a visit to the Curtis Bay Medical Waste facility on the south side of Baltimore, home of the largest incinerator of its kind in the country.

Here Curtis Bay's fleet of trucks delivers load after load of unused, unexpired drugs from hundreds of nursing homes and other facilities and clinics up and down the East Coast. Drugs also come from medical waste companies like SteriCycle and Daniels Sharpsmart. In 2015, 204 tons of non-hazardous pharmaceutical waste came from the Daniels location in the Bronx, according to records filed in New York. Such waste includes not only drugs tossed by nursing homes, but also those from hospitals, doctors' offices and other facilities.

Inside Curtis Bay, the drugs are processed and destroyed in an area the size of several hockey rinks. A conveyor belt about 15 feet off the ground snakes through the facility loaded with hundreds of boxes of pharmaceutical and medical waste 2014 all leading to the two incineration chambers.

On a recent visit, the chamber was over 2,000 degrees, a heat that could be felt from 20 feet away.

From a platform above the incinerator's maw, you can watch as thousands of dollars of potentially lifesaving pills and medications tumble, box by box, into the steaming opening. Then they are shoveled into the blaze.

Experts say incineration is the least environmentally objectionable end-of-life option for unused drugs. But it's also the most expensive destruction method -- from 50 cents to a dollar per pound, paid for by the facilities themselves -- which is why many nursing homes resort to flushing.

Nursing homes save the disposal fees in Iowa, because they can donate them to SafeNetRx, where they benefit needy patients like Max Armstrong.

The 82-year-old suffers from multiple chronic conditions -- emphysema, congestive heart failure and more. The ailments were manageable until 2015, when he suffered blood clots in his leg and lung. Doctors put him on the generic blood thinner warfarin, but it "almost killed me," he said, so he switched to Xarelto, a newer brand name drug that costs about $700 a month.

The total tab for the Xarelto and the other 14 medications Armstrong must take each month would cost at least $1,200, according to his daughter. Armstrong, whose savings took a hit during the financial crisis, lives on $1,158 a month in Social Security.

It's "stupid" to throw away drugs that can keep so many other people healthy, Armstrong said. "There's a lot of people out there in this world who need help."

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.


Seattle Strengthens Privacy Protections For Broadband And Cable Users

The city of Seattle has strengthened it privacy rules to better protect residents using cable-TV services and high-speed internet services (a/k/a broadband). The new rules go into effect on May 24, and mirrors the FCC broadband privacy rules which Congress revoked earlier this year.

The announcement by the Seattle Mayor's office explained:

"Seattle Municipal Code (SMC 21.60) grants the City of Seattle authority to issue rules related to the privacy practices of cable operators. These rules govern not only cable television services but also non-cable services, such as internet service. The new rule states cable operators must obtain opt-in consent before sharing a customer’s web browsing history or otherwise using such information for a purpose other than providing a customer with their requested service.

Comcast, CenturyLink, and Wave have cable franchise agreements with the City of Seattle and will be subject to the new rule. Under the terms of the rule, these cable operators must report their compliance by Sept. 30, 2017 and annually thereafter."

Earlier this year, a national poll found the the Republican rollback of FCC broadband privacy rules very unpopular among consumers. Despite this, President Trump signed the privacy-rollback legislation on April 3.

The new rules in Seattle, ITD Director's Rule 2017-10 (Adobe PDF), state in part:

"- Prohibit Cable Operators from collecting or disclosing any information regarding the extent of any individual customer's viewing habits, or other use by a customer of a cable service or other service provided such as web browsing activity, without the prior affirmative consent of the customer, unless such information is necessary to render a service requested by the customer, or a legitimate business purpose related to the service.
- Require Cable Operators to fully and completely disclose customer rights and the limitations imposed on a Cable Operator's collection, use, and disclosure of Personally Identifiable Information (PII) in clear language that a customer can radily understand.
- Require Cable Operators to destroy within 90 days any PII if the PII is no longer necessary for the purpose for which it was collected and there are no pending requests or orders for access to shuch PII... Require Cable Operators to provide stamped, self-addressed post cards that customers can mail in to have their names and addresses removed form any lists the Cable Operators might use for purposes other than the direct provision of service to those customers.
- Establish without ambiguity that a customer, once "opting out" of the Cable Operator's mailing list, is permanently removed from that list unless that customer subsequently requests inclusion on such list."

This is a great start. The rules define PII as:

"... specific information about a customer, including, but not not limited to, a customer's (a) login information, (b) extent of viewing of video programming or other services, (c) shopping choices, (d) interests and opinions, (e) energy uses, (f) medical information, (g) banking data or information, (h) web browsing activities, or (i) any other personal or private information..."

Mayor Edward B. Murray commented about the new rules:

"Where the Trump administration continues to roll back critical consumer protections, Seattle will act... I believe protecting the privacy of internet users is essential and this policy allows the City to do just that. Because of regulation repeals at the national level, we must use all of the powers at our disposal to protect the rights of our residents."

Citizens in other major cities across the United States may want to ask what consumer-friendly privacy actions their mayors are taking.


The Need For A Code Of Ethics With The Internet Of Things

Earlier this week, The Atlantic website published and interview with Francine Berman, a computer-science professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, about the need for a code of ethics for connected, autonomous devices, commonly referred to as the internet-of-things (IoT). The IoT is exploding.

Experts forecast 8.4 billion connected devices in use worldwide in 2017, up 31 percent from 2016. Total spending for those devices will reach almost $2 trillion in 2017, and $20.4 billion by 2020. North America, Western Europe, and China, which already comprise 67 percent of the installed base, will drive much of this growth.

In a February, 2017 article (Adobe PDF) in the journal Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery, Berman and Vint Cerf, an engineer, discussed the need for a code of ethics:

"Last October, millions of interconnected devices infected with malware mounted a "denial-of-service" cyberattack on Dyn, a company that operates part of the Internet’s directory service. Such attacks require us to up our technical game in Internet security and safety. They also expose the need to frame and enforce social and ethical behavior, privacy, and appropriate use in Internet environments... At present, policy and laws about online privacy and rights to information are challenging to interpret and difficult to enforce. As IoT technologies become more pervasive, personal information will become more valuable to a diverse set of actors that include organizations, individuals, and autonomous systems with the capacity to make decisions about you."

Given this, it seems wise for voters to consider whether or not elected officials in state, local, and federal government understand the issues. Do they understand the issues? If they understand the issues, are they taking appropriate action? If they aren't taking appropriate action, is due to other priorities? Or are different elected officials needed? At the federal level, recent events with broadband privacy indicate a conscious decision to ignore consumers' needs in favor of business.

In their ACM article, Bermand and Cerf posed three relevant questions:

  1. "What are your rights to privacy in the internet-of-things?
  2. Who is accountable for decisions made by autonomous systems?
  3. How do we promote the ethical use of IoT technologies?"

Researchers and technologists have already raised concerns about the ethical dilemmas of self-driving cars. Recent events have also highlighted the issues.

Some background. Last October, a denial-of-service attack against a hosting service based in France utilized a network of more than 152,000 IoT devices, including closed-circuit-television (CCTV) cameras and DVRs. The fatal crash in May of a Tesla Model S car operating in auto-pilot mode and the crash in February of a Google self-driving car raised concerns. According to researchers, 75 percent of all cars shipped globally will have internet connectivity by 2020. Last month, a security expert explained the difficulty with protecting connected cars from hackers.

And after a customer posted a negative review online, a developer of connected garage-door openers disabled both the customer's device and online account. (Service was later restored.) Earlier this year, a smart TV maker paid $2.2 million to settle privacy abuse charges by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Consumers buy and use a wide variety of connected devices: laptops, tablets, smartphones, personal assistants, printers, lighting and temperature controls, televisions, home security systems, fitness bands, smart watches, toys, smart wine bottles, and home appliances (e.g., refrigerators, hot water heaters, coffee makers, crock pots, etc.). Devices with poor security features don't allow operating system and security software updates, don't encrypt key information such as PIN numbers and passwords, and build the software into the firmware where it cannot be upgraded. In January, the FTC filed a lawsuit against a modem/router maker alleging poor security in its products.

Consumers have less control over many IoT devices, such as smart utility meters, which collect information about consumers. Typically, the devices are owned and maintained by utility companies while installed in or on consumers' premises.

Now, back to the interview in The Atlantic. Professor Berman reminded us that society has met the ethical challenge before:

"Think about the Industrial Revolution: The technologies were very compelling—but perhaps the most compelling part were the social differences it created. During the Industrial Revolution, you saw a move to the cities, you saw the first child-labor laws, you saw manufacturing really come to the fore. Things were available that had not been very available before..."

Well, another revolution is upon us. This time, it includes changes brought about by the internet and the IoT. Berman explained today's challenges include considerations:

"... we never even imagined we’d have to think about. A great example: What if self-driving cars have to make bad choices? How do they do that? Where are the ethics? And then who is accountable for the choices that are made by autonomous systems? This needs to be more of a priority, and we need to be thinking about it more broadly. We need to start designing the systems that are going to be able to support social regulation, social policy, and social practice, to bring out the best of the Internet of Things... Think about designing a car. I want to design it so it’s safe, and so that the opportunity to hack my car is minimized. If I design Internet of Things systems that are effective, provide me a lot of opportunities, and are adaptive, but I only worry about really important things like security and privacy and safety afterwards, it’s much less effective than designing them with those things in mind. We can lessen the number of unintended consequences if we start thinking from the design stage and the innovation stage how we’re going to use these technologies. Then, we put into place the corresponding social framework."

Perhaps, most importantly:

"There’s a shared responsibility between innovators, companies, the government, and the individual, to try and create and utilize a framework that assigns responsibility and accountability based on what promotes the public good."

Will we meet the challenge of this revolution? Will innovators, companies, government, and individuals share responsibility? Will we work for the public good or solely for business growth and profitability?

What do you think?


For-Profit School Chain Camelot Suffers Setback Following Abuse Allegations

[Editor's note: today's guest post, by the reporters at ProPublica, provides an update about a for-profit school operating in the State of Georgia. The article was originally published on April 12, 2017 and is reprinted with permission.]

by Zoë Kirsch, The Teacher Project, ProPublica

The Muscogee County School Board in Columbus, Georgia, dealt another blow to embattled Camelot Education when it voted Monday night on April 10 to delay for three months a decision on whether to hire the company to run its alternative education programs.

The delay in awarding the $6.4 million annual contract comes in the wake of a recent report by ProPublica and Slate that more than a dozen Camelot students were allegedly shoved, beaten or thrown by staff members -- incidents almost always referred to as "slamming." The for-profit Camelot runs alternative programs across the country for more than 3,000 students, most of whom have emotional or behavioral difficulties or have fallen far behind academically.

"The abuse allegations were one of many red flags for me," said Muscogee school board member Frank Myers, one of five board members who supported postponement, while three were opposed. If the district is going to privatize such an important service, he said, "You ought to have an outfit that has a pristine record."

The board bucked the wishes of school district officials, including Superintendent of Education David Lewis, who pushed to hire Camelot. "There was no transparency," Myers said. "They wanted us to rush this thing."

Instead, a community advisory council will be created, and additional public hearings will be held. The council is expected to report back within three months.

Efforts to reach Lewis were unsuccessful. Camelot spokesman Kirk Dorn said in an email that the company often encounters delays when it enters new partnerships. The company expects to meet with the community later this month "and will continue to ensure that those who still have questions get answers," Dorn said. "We know from experience that the more a community learns about how we help students succeed the more reassured they become that we will be an asset."

Camelot has faced recent setbacks in other states as well. On March 9, the day after the report was published, the Houston school board voted unanimously not to renew its contract with Camelot, instead bringing management of its alternative program in house. And a Philadelphia city councilwoman called for more information about the city's alternative schools, including their disciplinary practices.

About half a million people in the United States attend alternative schools, which are publicly funded but often managed by private, for-profit companies such as Camelot, which was founded in 2002. They frequently serve as a last resort for struggling low-income and minority students.

The Columbus branch of the NAACP announced last week that it opposed hiring Camelot, citing the Slate and ProPublica investigation. "Abuse is failure," branch president Tonza Thomas told the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer.

"Our community has competent educators that assist our children with challenges daily," the organization said in a news release. "Yet they were not consulted before a decision was made to introduce an out-of-state, for profit, security-corporation to our school district."

Abuse allegations made by teachers and students against Camelot span ten years and four states: Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Florida and Louisiana. For the most part, staffers who allegedly assaulted students have faced no criminal charges or internal discipline; some have even been promoted.

In written statements, Camelot and its chief executive, Todd Bock, have said it provides effective and supportive services to thousands of the country's most challenging and needy students, and have denied any claims of systemic abuse across its programs.

"The idea of 'slamming' a student is offensive and counter to Camelot's values, culture and procedures," the company said on March 22. "Camelot does not currently practice nor has it ever practiced 'slamming' kids."

Monday night's decision in Muscogee County, located in western Georgia, was the second delay for Camelot there since Superintendent Lewis recommended hiring the company. On March 27, the school board postponed its vote for two weeks so that residents could attend two public forums about the proposal.

At those forums, both Camelot executives and Lewis touted the company's potential benefits, according to Fife Whiteside, a local attorney who served on the Muscogee school board from 1993 to 2008. Lewis told community members that hiring Camelot could help the district save money by cutting staffing costs.

At the start of one forum, Marianne Young, the parent of a child with special needs, tried to hand out fliers that were critical of Camelot. Young said in an interview that a security guard initially told her she couldn't distribute the fliers.

Another parent called a school board member to complain, Young said. Lewis then allowed Young to give out the fliers, she said. "I have a lot of concerns" about this contract, Young said, including "the abuse allegations, and the lack of oversight that our district has for these situations."

Whiteside, the former school board member, said he was surprised that the board opposed the superintendent. The reports of abuse allegations played a role in turning some board members against Camelot, he said. "The board rarely fails to support the superintendent in his initiatives," Whiteside said.

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.