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10 posts from June 2015

State AGs Work To Keep Cities And Towns From Forming Municipal Broadband Networks

Readers of this blog are familiar with the fact that 20 states have laws preventing cities and towns from forming high-speed Internet services. That means, the residents in these locations have fewer rights and freedoms. ProPublica reported how some states are fighting to keep these restrictions in place:

"... the attorneys general in North Carolina and Tennessee have recently filed lawsuits in an attempt to overrule the FCC and block towns in these states from expanding publicly funded Internet service. North Carolina’s attorney general argued in a suit filed last month that the “FCC unlawfully inserted itself between the State and the State’s political subdivisions.” Tennessee’s attorney general filed a similar suit in March. Tennessee has hired one of the country’s largest telecom lobbying and law firms, Wiley Rein, to represent the state in its suit. The firm, founded by a former FCC chairman, has represented AT&T, Verizon and Qwest, among others."

Why some states' attorney generals are doing this:

"... the Tennessee attorney general’s office told ProPublica, “This is a question of the state’s sovereign ability to define the role of its local governmental units.” North Carolina Attorney General’s office said in a statement that the “legal defense of state laws by the Attorney General’s office is a statutory requirement.” As the New York Times detailed last year, state attorneys general have become a major target of corporate lobbyists and contributors including AT&T, Comcast and T-Mobile."

And, money appears to be corrupting the decision process. The North Carolina:

"... Attorney General Roy Cooper received roughly $35,000 from the telecommunications industry in his 2012 run for office. Only the state’s retail industry gave more. The donations are just a small part of contributions the industry has made in the states. In North Carolina’s 2014 elections, the telecommunications industry gave a combined $870,000 to candidates in both parties, which made it one of the top industries to contribute that year. Candidates in Tennessee received nearly $921,000 from AT&T and other industry players in 2014."

Studies have documented that consumers in the USA pay more and get slower speeds than consumers in other countries. Several U.S. Senators introduced the Community Broadband Act to encourage more competition, faster speeds, and lower Internet prices.

If you live in one of these states, tell your elected officials you want more freedoms, not fewer, and better Internet services: faster speeds and lower prices. Tell them you want more competition to make sure you get better services. Tell them you will remember what they do, or fail to do, at the next election.

The EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act, "Zombie" Bills, And Privacy

In November 2014, the GOP-led House passed HR 1422. At that time, Inhabit summarized the bill and the issues associated with it:

“Bill H.R. 1422, also known as the Science Advisory Board Reform Act, passed 229-191. It was sponsored by Representative Chris Stewart (R-UT), pictured. The bill changes the rules for appointing members to the Science Advisory Board (SAB), which provides scientific advice to the EPA Administrator. Among many other things, it states: “Board members may not participate in advisory activities that directly or indirectly involve review or evaluation of their own work.” This means that a scientist who had published a peer-reviewed paper on a particular topic would not be able to advise the EPA on the findings contained within that paper. That is, the very scientists who know the subject matter best would not be able to discuss it.”

Thankfully, the White House threatened to veto this if passed. I don’t know about you, but I want the stewards at the EPA to have ALL of the facts when making decisions about how best to protect our air, water, and lands. And, peer-reviewed science articles are part of the facts... important facts, too, the EPA should be allowed to consider in its decisions.

There’s more. Proponents claim the bill solves conflict-of-interest concerns, but really doesn’t:

“Director of the Union of Concerned Scientists Andrew A. Rosenberg wrote a letter to House Representatives stating: “This [bill] effectively turns the idea of conflict of interest on its head, with the bizarre presumption that corporate experts with direct financial interests are not conflicted while academics who work on these issues are. Of course, a scientist with expertise on topics the Science Advisory Board addresses likely will have done peer-reviewed studies on that topic...”


For a bill to become law, it must be passed by both the House and Senate with the exact same language. Usually, the Senate proposes its bill version, and negotiations ensue. S 543 is the current Senate version. Some people have claimed that the Inhabit article is misleading. It wasn't. To understand why, one must understand both bill version. Below is the same clause from both bills:

HR 1422S 543
"E) Board members may not participate in advisory activities that directly or indirectly involve review or evaluation of their own work" "E) Board members may not participate in advisory activities that directly or indirectly involve review or evaluation of their own work, unless fully disclosed to the public and the work has been externally peer-reviewed..."

So, S 543 contains better language. The Inhabit article was correct to highlight the faulty language in HR 1422. Senate Bill 543 also contains this:

"To facilitate public participation in the advisory activities of the Board, the Administrator and the Board shall make public all reports and relevant scientific information and shall provide materials to the public at the same time as received by members of the Board."

So, the limitations mentioned in "E" are unnecessary since all studies will be made public. Problem solved, right? Not so fast.

The UCS explained problems in bills repeatedly submitted by House representatives. The UCS calls this proposed legislation, "zombie" bills:

"... anti-science “zombie” bills that House members insist on reintroducing over and over. These bills are written in such a way to appear to be something a science advocacy organization like the Union of Concerned Scientists would support, but upon close examination, it becomes clear that their intent is to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies from carrying out their duties."

An example of an anti-science "zombie" bill:

"... In a recent hearing on the so-called Secret Science bill, legislators accused the Environmental Protection Agency of “[relying] on studies with data that was not publicly available... The House passed... the Secret Science Reform Act, in mid-March... the bill, sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), would prohibit the EPA from implementing a regulation unless it makes public all related data, scientific analyses, materials and models. That’s a big problem, despite the fact that it sounds like a good idea."

The UCS explained why this is a problem:

"Agencies such as the EPA don’t make all this information publicly available for a number of very good reasons. Protecting individuals’ privacy is prime among them. For example, we’re all aware of the laws that protect the privacy of our medical records. The Secret Science bill appears to require the EPA to release such confidential personal health information about the participants in scientific studies if it wants to use health studies to make regulatory decisions—a direct violation of health privacy law. The bill also fails to protect intellectual property rights..."

So, Senate Bill 543 isn't the improvement it pretends to be. Why would legislators write bills that conflict with existing laws? Why would legislators write bills that erodes individuals' medical privacy? The UCS concluded:

"... if [the Secret Science] bill became law, the EPA would not be able to use public health data protected by confidentiality agreements to enact science-based regulations. The result? The EPA would not be able to carry out its mission of protecting public health and the environment. To be clear, there is nothing secret about the science that EPA uses to make decisions. The agency relies on peer-reviewed publications that have been vetted by relevant experts in and outside of the agency... The Secret Science Reform Act is clearly not in the public interest. It’s intended to enable industry to challenge proposed rules with competing analyses, slow the process, and cast doubt."

Senate Bill 543 doesn't seem to be in the public's interest, either. The whole affair still smells like another GOP attempt to neuter and de-claw the EPA, and then claim it is incompetent and unworthy of funding, after stealth efforts to make it that way. What are your opinions of the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act?

10 Tips About How To Read Terms Of Use And Privacy Policies

We all have encountered user agreements for our computers, tablets, smart phones, Internet service provider, e-mail provider, and many other products and services. Recently, a friend asked:

"... it is still troubling to think of all my personal information sitting in some database somewhere waiting to be harvested by some hackers or business... But what's a person to do? I can't live without a credit/debit card or mortgage or car loan or health insurance and I buy online and use email. And... who reads the user agreements in detail and understands all the legal ramifications and potential for abuse legal or not?"

Good concerns and questions. I am not an attorney, so this blog post is not legal advice. It includes my opinions, and what I've learned through 30+ years of business experience. If you want legal advice, stop reading and consult an attorney.

Now, what I've learned.

Like most things in life, learning how to read companies policies (e.g., Terms of Usage, Privacy Policy) and employers’ policies (e.g., Non-Disclosure, Social Media Usage) is an acquired skill. It takes time. Nobody is born knowing how to read a policy.

When you were born, you didn’t know how to eat, read, write, ride a bicycle, nor swim. You acquired those skills over time... and ideally, became more skilled after repeated usage. And, you had help learning these skills.

The topics I look for in a privacy policy:

  • What data about me they collect
  • What data about my device they collect
  • How long they retain data collected
  • Who they share collected data with

More often than not, companies never disclose the precise names of other companies they share data with. You’ll see general terms like: vendors, marketing partners, and other service providers. That can mean anybody.

The topics I look for in a terms of use policy:

  • Permitted and dis-allowed uses
  • For a disagreement, whether I have the right to sue or am bound by arbitration
  • The state any lawsuits or arbitration claims must be filed in
  • The fees and costs that apply for a lawsuit (or arbitration)

It is important to understand arbitration. This contractual clause means that for an unresolved problem or dispute, the consumer must use the arbitration process specified in the policy. It also means the loss of three rights: to sue, to participate in a class-action lawsuit, and to benefit from mediation. Bankrate explained:

"This week, the CFPB released new research showing that banks' practice of forcing customers into binding arbitration has a wide range of downsides for consumers... The exhaustive 700+ page CFPB report shows that arbitration clauses have a broad range of negative consequences for consumers. They discourage individual consumers from pursuing claims. The CFPB found that the number of arbitrations filed by individual consumers was much lower than one would expect given the number federal lawsuits filed by those who still have that option... They squelch legitimate class-action lawsuits. Arbitration clauses generally prevent customers from joining together in class-action lawsuits... They reduce consumer protections. The way that many consumer protection laws are enforced is through civil litigation. By blocking civil suits brought by customers, financial institutions effectively give themselves an end-around against these protections... They confuse consumers. In surveys conducted by the CFPB for the report, relatively few customers understood what arbitration was, whether they were subject to it and how it works in practice... They don't lead to lower prices. The big selling point for arbitration has always been that reducing legal costs by blocking customer lawsuits would result in lower prices for consumers. But that hasn't been the case, according to the report..."

The National Association of Consumer Advocates (NACA) explained:

"One of the alleged benefits of arbitration is that it costs less than litigation, but frequently this is not true for consumers and employees. Forced arbitration frequently costs more than taking a case to court and can cost thousands of dollars. Individuals often have to pay a large fee simply to initiate the arbitration process. If they are able to get an in-person hearing, individuals sometimes have to travel thousands of miles on their own dime to attend the arbitration. In the end, the loser (usually the individual) often pays the company’s legal fees."

The Public Citizen website lists the banks, retail stores, entertainment, online shopping, telecommunications, consumer electronics, software, nursing homes, and health care companies that include binding arbitration clauses in their contracts with customers. If this bothers you (and I hope that it does), you can take action at the NACA website.

We all use software on  our computing devices. That software has policies, too. Sometimes, they are called ‘license agreements.” Whatever they are called, I look for the same issues as noted above.

If you are new to reading policies, the ten tips I suggest:

  1. Don't try to read the whole document at once. Pick one topic to read today
  2. Return to the document later, or another day, to read about another topic
  3. Use the outline or table of contents in the document to find a topic. Well-written online policies contain a table of contents with clickable links to topics
  4. Repeat steps #1 through #3 until you feel that you fully understand the document
  5. If you get stuck, discuss the topic with somebody you know and trust who already uses the product, service, or mobile app
  6. Check reputable sites for clues. Product, service, and company reviews are good sources for clues about topics. I have always had success with Consumer Reports for product and service reviews, plus the Better Business Bureau (BBB) for company reviews.
  7. Be patient. Your skill at reading policies will improve. You will get better.
  8. If the mobile app, website, or online service lacks a privacy policy, assume the worst and shop elsewhere. The company probably collects, saves, and shares everything; and it may be highly disorganized since it failed to provide policies. Some State Attorneys have sued companies for failing to provide policies for mobile apps.
  9. Read all updates the company sends via e-mail, text, postal mail, or with your monthly bill. Well-written updates usually provide a list of what's changed in the revised policy
  10. If the item is a major expense (e.g., real estate, a home or condo, business, etc.), get the advice of an attorney

Many employers now have social media policies. These documents specify what you can or can’t say about your employer (and its customers or clients) on social networking sites. The document also outlines the consequences if you violate the policy (e.g., you get fired, suspended, fined, etc.). You may have heard about the Major League Baseball player benched for violating his team's social media policy. It happens. If you are interviewing, ask about their policy.

Last, some physicians require patients to sign a, “Mutual Agreement to Maintain Privacy” document. Don’t be fooled by the policy name. It is misleading. The document usually requires the patient to give up the right to mention that physician on any social networking sites.

Consider that policy a fancy, online muzzle. When I encounter a physician with such a a policy, I take my business elsewhere.

In general... if you don't read policies and later get burned (e.g., lose money, lose your data or photographs, lose your job), then you have nobody to blame but yourself.

Uber: Its Labor Ruling In California, Lawsuits, And Privacy Concerns

Uber logo During June, Uber, the ride-sharing company, has been in the news for a variety of reasons. Many consumers like the ride-sharing service as an alternative to tradition taxi-cabs. Uber is one of the largest ride-sharing services with about 8 million users worldwide and 160,000 drivers in the United States.

First, in March the State of California Labor Commission ruled that Uber drivers are employees and not independent contractors, as the company claimed. The ruling became public after the company appealed the original decision. In the original complaint, an Uber driver filed a claim for reimbursement of $4,152.00 of expenses.

The issues are worthy noting. Time reported:

"... the ruling is non-binding, has no legal bearing on any other drivers, and won’t force any money to change hands. But Uber’s decision to appeal will now move the fight to California’s court system where — along with several similar lawsuits pending in the state..."

One of several pending lawsuits:

"Uber has essentially shifted to its workers all the costs of running a business, the costs of owning a car, maintaining a car, paying for gas,” says Shannon Liss-Riordan, a Boston-based attorney who has a class-action case pending against Uber in California federal court. “Uber has saved massive amounts …. It’s important that the labor laws be enforced so that the companies can’t take advantage of workers that way. Uber’s a $50-billion company and I think it can afford to bear the responsibilities of an employer...”

Second, a new Uber policy bans firearms in its vehicles. KRJH in Tulsa, Oklahoma reported:

"Uber drivers and passengers have to follow a new company policy. Uber has banned all firearms from any vehicle used for its service. The policy comes two months after an Uber driver shot a man who was firing into a crowd of people in a Chicago neighborhood. The Uber driver had a concealed carry license and was not charged with a crime, but it raised the question of safety and comfort for its drivers and riders."

Third, the Electronic Privacy Rights Center (EPIC) has filed a complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) about Uber's upcoming privacy policy amendments to both collect more data about its customers and to track customers. Uber's new Privacy Policy goes into effect on July 15:

Location Information: When you use the Services for transportation or delivery, we collect precise location data about the trip from the Uber app used by the Driver. If you permit the Uber app to access location services through the permission system used by your mobile operating system (“platform”), we may also collect the precise location of your device when the app is running in the foreground or background. We may also derive your approximate location from your IP address."

"Contacts Information: If you permit the Uber app to access the address book on your device through the permission system used by your mobile platform, we may access and store names and contact information from your address book to facilitate social interactions through our Services and for other purposes described in this Statement or at the time of consent or collection."

The sharing of customers' information by Uber seems extensive:

"We may share your information: With Uber subsidiaries and affiliated entities that provide services or conduct data processing on our behalf, or for data centralization and / or logistics purposes; With vendors, consultants, marketing partners, and other service providers who need access to such information to carry out work on our behalf; In response to a request for information by a competent authority if we believe disclosure is in accordance with, or is otherwise required by, any applicable law, regulation, or legal process; With law enforcement officials, government authorities, or other third parties if we believe your actions are inconsistent with our User agreements, Terms of Service, or policies, or to protect the rights, property, or safety of Uber or others; In connection with, or during negotiations of, any merger, sale of company assets, consolidation or restructuring, financing, or acquisition of all or a portion of our business by or into another company..."

Words to focus upon include vendors, consultants, marketing partners, and other service providers. That can include a lot of companies anywhere. Note: that sharing is in addition to any sharing you may perform with social networking sites.

You may remember that ethics and privacy issues surfaced after news reports in 2014 about Uber allegedly using customer and tracking data it collected to target journalists critical of the service.

The EPIC complaint filed with the FTC (Adobe PDF) stated:

"19. Uber will also collect precise location information if the app is operating in the background. On phones running iOS, this means that Uber may be able collect location data even after an app has been terminated by the user."

"20. Even if a user disables the GPS location services on their phone, the company may still derive approximate location from riders’ IP addresses."

"21. This collection of user’s information far exceeds what customers expect from the transportation service. Users would not expect the company to collect location information when customers are not actively using the app, or have turned off their GPS location finder (as Uber can still collect location information through the phones’ IP addresses)..."

"24. Uber claims that it will allow users to opt-out of these features. However, this change in business practices places an unreasonable burden on consumers and is not easy to exercise: while iOS users can later disable the contact syncing option by changing the contacts setting on their mobile devices, the Android platform does not provide any such setting..."

"31. Job interviewees have been granted provisional access all the customer location data available to full-time employees, allowing non-Uber employees to temporarily track any customer. One such interviewee was granted this access for an entire day, even after the job interview ended. He admitted using the database to search records of people he knew, including politician’s relatives."

Based upon the new privacy policy, the tracking and data collection seems very invasive since it will also occur when customers aren't using the service. It seems invasive because the address book collection includes people who aren't Uber customers, didn't agree to the data collection, can't opt out of the collection, and have no control over how their contact information is used. Based upon the company's history, Uber executives seem to play fast and loose with consumers' personal private information.

If you don't like the privacy invasion, there are several resources online about how to cancel and delete your Uber account: C/Net, Reddit, and wikiHow.

What are your opinions of Uber's new privacy policy?

Update: Massive U.S. Government Data Breach And The Alleged Hackers

Office of Personnel Management logo Update on the massive data breach at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). On Saturday, the New York times reported that U.S. intelligence officials have followed the movements of several Chinese hacker for the past five years:

"But last summer, officials lost the trail as some of the hackers changed focus again, burrowing deep into United States government computer systems that contain vast troves of personnel data... Undetected for nearly a year, the Chinese intruders executed a sophisticated attack that gave them “administrator privileges” into the computer networks at the Office of Personnel Management, mimicking the credentials of people who run the agency’s systems..."

This sheds a tiny bit of light on how the hackers may have gained access. It also seems to strongly suggest that the hackers obtains sign-in credentials of users' with the strongest privileges to access and manipulate information. What the hackers seem to be seeking:

"Much of the personnel data had been stored in the lightly protected systems of the Department of the Interior, because it had cheap, available space for digital data storage. The hackers’ ultimate target: the one million or so federal employees and contractors who have filled out a form known as SF-86, which is stored in a different computer bank and details personal, financial and medical histories for anyone seeking a security clearance."

The types of federal employees that have security clearances typically include covert operatives and investigators, plus:

"... an audit issued early last year, before the Chinese attacks, harshly criticized lax security at the Internal Revenue Service, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Energy Department, the Securities and Exchange Commission — and the Department of Homeland Security, which has responsibility for securing the nation’s critical networks... Computers at the I.R.S. allowed employees to use weak passwords like “password.” One report detailed 7,329 “potential vulnerabilities” because software patches had not been installed..."

It seems as though heads need to roll in several agencies with both senior management levels and specific departments (e.g., information technology, data security).

The California Drought, Money, And Pitchforks

If you haven't read it, there's an interesting article in the Washington Post about how some wealthy residents in California are responding to the state's attempts to protect its residents (and businesses) given an epic -- some might say biblical - drought.

First, some background. Numerous lakes, ponds, and rivers have all dried up or are at historic low levels. You may have seen the before-and-after photographs. As dramatic as the photos are, it must be even more-so in-person. The New Republic published these California drought statistics:

"The scary statistics of California’s drought read like a latter-day version of the 1930s Dust Bowl crisis. Last year was the state’s driest since the start of record-keeping in 1895, and this year is likely to be even drier. The state’s snowpack, the source of roughly one-third of the water used by California cities and farms, is hovering at only about 20 percent of its normal water content. The amount of water in certain crucial reservoirs is lower now than it was in 1977, which was one of the two prior driest years on record. About a month ago, the state announced that 17 rural communities were within 100 days of running out of drinking water, given current patterns of water supply and demand."

Those statistics were more than a year ago -- March, 2014. The drought continued since then. The U.S. Drought Monitor relays the percentages of the state under various drought conditions from "none" to "abnormally dry" to "exceptional drought."The State government has enacted numerous restrictions in response to the drought crisis.

Earlier this month, the Weather Channel reported that researchers determined no slowdown or hiatus with climate change. Global temperature trends are still slowly going upwards. The Pew Research Center published in June 2015 survey results that 68 percent of the public say there is solid evidence the average temperature of the earth is getting warmer, and 46 percent said also say it is a serious problem. 46 percent also say that the warming is caused by human activity. Public opinion is slowly catching up to the fact that 97 percent of scientists say global warming is caused by human activity.

How have residents in one wealthy California town responded to the crisis and the state's plan to start rationing water on July 1? The Washington Post reported:

"Drought or no drought, Steve Yuhas resents the idea that it is somehow shameful to be a water hog. If you can pay for it, he argues, you should get your water. People “should not be forced to live on property with brown lawns, golf on brown courses...” Yuhas fumed recently on social media. “We pay significant property taxes based on where we live,” he added in an interview. “And, no, we’re not all equal when it comes to water.”

Yes, everyone is entitled to their opinions, and many exercise that right on social networking sties. Yuhas is not the only person who feels this way:

"Yuhas lives in the ultra-wealthy enclave of Rancho Santa Fe, a bucolic Southern California hamlet of ranches, gated communities and country clubs that guzzles five times more water per capita than the statewide average. In April, after Gov. Jerry Brown (D) called for a 25 percent reduction in water use, consumption in Rancho Santa Fe went up by 9 percent."

Wow! Water use went up.

For me, this reaction to the drought and crisis highlights the two chief challenges facing humans:

  1. Climate change, and
  2. Ethics

Some people may argue about the order. You may remember the dust-up in Florida earlier this year about climate change, or more precisely: climate change denial. Senior state officials had banned employees in the state's environmental protection agency from using the words "climate change." How one responds to the crisis says a lot about their values and compassion.

Experts predict that the drought will affect all other states, including higher prices for produce and lost jobs. It will affect all taxpayers, too. In its June 16 Drought Update report (Adobe PDF), the California State government reported:

"On June 12, President Barack Obama announced a federal aid package to support farmers and workers suffering from drought, provide food assistance, support water efficiency and conservation, and combat wildfire in California and other drought - stricken Western states. California is expected to receive $18 million from the Department of Labor to provide jobs for works dislocated by the drought and another $7 million from the USDA to support conservation and water system improvements for water utilities and households coping with drought."

Like it or not, we are all connected.

You'd think that given all of this, wealthy folks (who could more easily afford it than others) would invest NOW in water-saving and water-conserving technologies to improve and ensure the (resale) value of
their properties into the future. But, I guess that myopic, denial-based thinking dominates.

Some people insist upon learning the hard way. That myopic thinking will quickly change when a mob of thirsty, angry villagers visit in the middle of the night armed with torches and pitchforks. Then, it'll be too late.

Frankenstein villagers visit

FCC Plans To Fine AT&T For Misleading Customers About Slowed Mobile Data Plan Speeds

AT&T logo On Wednesday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced that it will fine telecommunications giant AT&T for misleading consumers about mobile data plans:

"The FCC’s investigation alleges that AT&T severely slowed down the data speeds for customers with unlimited data plans and that the company failed to adequately notify its customers that they could receive speeds slower than the normal network speeds AT&T advertised. AT&T began offering unlimited data plans in 2007..."

Federal Communications Commission logo The FCC had charged AT&T with violating the 2010 Open Internet Transparency Rule by:

"... falsely labeling these plans as “unlimited” and by failing to sufficiently inform customers of the maximum speed they would receive under the Maximum Bit Rate policy."

AT&T began the Maximum Bit Rate plan in 2011 and:

"... capped the maximum data speeds for unlimited customers after they used a set amount of data within a billing cycle. The capped speeds were much slower than the normal network speeds AT&T advertised and significantly impaired the ability of AT&T customers to access the Internet or use data applications for the remainder of the billing cycle... The Enforcement Bureau’s investigation revealed that millions of AT&T customers were affected. The customers who were subject to speed reductions were slowed for an average of 12 days per billing cycle, significantly impeding their ability to use common data applications such as GPS mapping or streaming video..."

AT&T representatives disagree with the FCC's findings. The New York Times reported:

"... Michael Balmoris, a spokesman for AT&T, said the company planned to “vigorously dispute” the regulatory agency’s accusations. “The F.C.C. has specifically identified this practice as a legitimate and reasonable way to manage network resources for the benefit of all customers, and has known for years that all of the major carriers use it,” Mr. Balmoris wrote in an email. “We have been fully transparent with our customers, providing notice in multiple ways,” he wrote, pointing to a notice posted to the wireless carrier’s website."

Kudos to the FCC for protecting consumers' interests, and for performing the technical investigation most consumers lack the technical resources and expertise to determine if their Internet service provider (ISP) commits bandwidth throttling. Trust is critical. Consumers need to be able to trust that their ISP is providing the services they paid for.

Guestworker Programs, Reshoring, And Skilled Workers. The Impacts Upon American Workers

In March 2015, Ron Hira, a Research Associate and Associate Professor of Public Policy at Howard University, testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing about immigration reforms needed to protect skilled American workers. That classification includes workers in various high-tech jobs. Mr. Hira testified:

"Congress and multiple Administrations have inadvertently created a highly lucrative business model of bringing in cheaper H-1B workers to substitute for Americans. There are mainframe-sized loopholes built into the H-1B program’s design... Some of these loopholes are intentional, some are not, but they all add up to a system that encourages employers to exploit the H-1B program for cheap labor. Given the extraordinarily high profits involved in using guestworkers instead of Americans, it should surprise no one that many employers are taking advantage of this business model and lobbying to expand it... Myth: Employers must prove there are no qualified American workers before hiring an H-1B... Myth: H-1B workers cannot be cheaper than Americans because employers must pay the “prevailing wage”... Myth: Compliance with the program’s rules that protect American workers is robust..."

You may have believed those myths. Now you know otherwise. That abuse of the H-1B visa program may affect you, an employed family member, or somebody you know. How? Mr. Hira explained:

"... This is not just adversely affecting a few workers. The H-1B program is very large with approximately 120,000 new workers admitted annually. Once admitted those workers can remain in the U.S. up to six years. While no one knows exactly how many H-1Bs are currently in the country, analysts estimate the stock of H-1B workers at 600,000..."

Of course, the corporations claim that they can't find skilled American workers. Mr. Hira explained what's really happening and how it extends beyond H-1B visa recipients:

"Most of the H-1B program is now being used to import cheaper foreign guestworkers, replacing American workers, and undercutting their wages... There are hundreds of thousands of additional guestworkers admitted on L-1 and OPT visas, and they too are harming the job prospects of American workers. Because Congress never expected L-1 and OPT workers to be potential competition to American workers those programs have virtually no rules to protect American workers. That expectation was incorrect. As with the H-1B program, these guestworker visa programs are now being used too to replace and undercut American workers."

Sadly, government agencies also perpetuate the problem:

"The recent case of Southern California Edison (SCE) illustrates the most flagrant abuses of the H-1B program and exposes the flaws in the protections for American workers. As reported by ComputerWorld and the Los Angeles Times, SCE is replacing its American workers with H-1B workers hired by outsourcers Tata and Infosys. To add insult to injury, SCE forced its American workers to train their H-1B replacements as a condition of receiving their severance packages. There could not be a clearer case of the H-1B program being used to harm American workers’ wages and working conditions."

You may remember a similar incident at Disney where fired American workers were forced to train their foreign replacements before leaving. Pew Charitable Trusts reported about other alleged abuses:

"A computer programmer from India was promised a $46,500 salary in New York, plus tuition to study for a master’s degree. Instead, his annual pay averaged less than $13,000 and his degree was withheld when his employer failed to make the promised tuition payments. In California, veteran computer workers at a health care company say they were forced to train cheaper foreign replacements before being laid off, even though the replacements were hired under a program meant to fill critical jobs when employers can’t find qualified U.S. citizens or permanent residents who hold green cards to fill them."

I encourage you to visit the Pew Charitable trusts article, because it features an interactive map where you can discover the number H-1B workers in your state.

Some readers in denial may be thinking: I have a college degree, or I work in a high-tech job such as writing code for websites and mobile apps. It won't affect me. I'm immune.

Don't fool yourself. It will affect you. It probably already has. Former U.S. Labor Secretary and professor Robert Reich summarized the problem in a June 16 Facebook post (links added):

"... the [U.S.] Senate is considering a bill to raise the number of skilled foreign workers that can come to the U.S. on H-1B visas... It’s a bad idea. When Secretary of Labor, I was responsible for implementing the H-1B visa program – and again and again found high-tech companies claiming they needed skilled workers from abroad because they couldn’t find ...such workers in the U.S. -- when in reality they just didn’t want to pay higher wages to Americans with those same skills... A study released in April by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that H-1B visa recipients crowd out American workers, lowering wages and raising profits without increasing productivity. A 2013 analysis by the Economic Policy Institute found there are more than enough U.S.-born high-tech workers to fill jobs here, and that companies have been using foreign workers to cut costs, knowing they’re easy to intimidate because if they lose their jobs they have to leave the U.S."

You can read this study by researchers at the University of Notre Dame and University of California at Berkeley (Adobe PDF). They concluded:

"We find some evidence that additional H-1Bs lead to lower average employee wages while raising firm profits... we robustly find that new H-1Bs cause no significant increase in firm employment..."

Think about that. Firms pay less to other employees. So, even if you aren't replaced, you may be paid less or your annual wage increases are smaller. The savings went to the company's profits, and to senior executives rewarded for those savings via bonuses.

I have experienced the high-tech guest-worker situation. As a freelancer with a master's degree and plenty of experience, I work with a variety of digital agencies to produce websites for corporate clients. Several years ago, I subcontracted with an agency to work on a website redesign project. That project included a client company's internal website (called an "Intranet") to automate and streamline its human resources processes, forms, and performance reviews for both managers and employees. I was hired to perform the usability work and lead several focus-group sessions with the client company's employees and managers.

After meeting my project team members, I saw immediately the situation. Another person and I were the only two American workers on this project team. The rest of the team included workers from India to perform the project management, documentation, website development, quality assurance, and coding work. Plenty of my peers at other digital agencies, and some as freelancers, regularly perform all of these tasks. So, there's no shortage of qualified, experienced American workers.

During this three-month project, the foreign guest workers flew in from Mumbai as needed for their roles, and shared rooms in a rented home (cheaper than a hotel). When their role on the project was finished, they either returned to Mumbai or traveled to another U.S. location for their next project. The math probably went like this: the digital agency probably charged it's corporate client an average of about $120 per hour across all project team members. The digital agency paid me $90.00 per hour, paid the foreign workers maybe $40.00 per hour, and pocketed the difference. So, the agency's profits were $30.00 per hour for American workers like me, but a far higher $80.00 per hour with foreign workers.

This looked to me like a clear corporate choice aided by a willing digital agency. You'd never know it happened unless you worked directly on the project.

Multiply my experience by thousands of others and you get an idea of how vast the problem is. Corporations, politicians, and news media that defend this employment abuse may announce that thousands of jobs are returning to the USA (often called "reshoring"), but you now know what's really happening. Informed voters question announcements and demand to know if the returning jobs are pre-filled with foreign guest-workers while the employers don't bother looking to hire American workers. You now know more to contact your elected officials and demand that they explain what they are doing to protect American workers.

When returning jobs are pre-filled with guest workers, then there's really no benefit to USA citizens and plenty of downside: unemployment levels remain high, it is harder to find full-time work, and for workers over 55 years of age it can be impossible to find full-time work. You now know it's a pro-business free-for-all at the expense of middle-class and skilled workers.

What are your opinions of skilled guest workers? Of the H-1B visa program? Have you had to train foreign guest workers?

Massive Data Breach At Federal Government Agency Exposes Sensitive Data of Government Workers

Office of Personnel Management logo Numerous media outlets have reported about the massive data breach at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) where the personnel records of 14 million current and former federal employees were accessed. The original breach notification mentioned 4 million personnel records, but several news reports mentioned the higher 14 million figure. Several facts highlight the extreme seriousness of this data breach.

First, the OPM announced in its FAQ page that the data elements accessed and/or stolen included full names, Social Security Numbers, date of birth, place of birth, current residential address, and former residential addresses. The personnel records also included items:

"... such as job assignments, training records, and benefit selection decisions, but not the names of family members or beneficiaries and not information contained in actual policies..."

The OPM began in early June to notify breach victims. The OPM announced on June 4, 2015 several resources and tips for breach victims to protect themselves. These resources and tips were standard items, such as check credit reports for fraud, online FTC resources to combat identity theft and fraud, be suspicious of phone spam, place Fraud Alerts on credit reports, and don't disclose personal information over the phone nor on the Internet. Also, the OPM has arranged complimentary credit monitoring services via CSID for breach victims.

Second, the breach occurred in December 2014, and the OPM discovered it in April 2015. The OPM has been working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to determine the full impact of the breach.

Third, the OPM announced on June 15 that the breach was wider than first thought:

"Through the course of the ongoing investigation into the cyber intrusion that compromised personnel records of current and former Federal employees announced on June 4, OPM has recently discovered that additional systems were compromised. These systems included those that contain information related to the background investigations of current, former, and prospective Federal government employees, as well as other individuals for whom a Federal background investigation was conducted."

Fourth, the data stolen was more extensive than first thought. Federal Times reported on June 16 that the data breach:

"... might have led to the loss of all personnel data for federal employee and retirees, according to the American Federation of Government Employees. Union President J. David Cox said that the data breach – which took place in 2014 but was only discovered in April – means that hackers now have federal employee and retiree social security numbers, military records, insurance information, addresses and a wealth of other personal details."

While the data was not encrypted, officials stated that encryption would not have stopped the hackers. Clearly, more information about the breach will continue to surface. Fifth, many news reports have focused upon the alleged hackers and international espionage:

"Hackers working for the Chinese state breached the computer system of the Office of Personnel Management in December, U.S. officials said Thursday... It was the second major intrusion of the same agency by China in less than a year and the second significant foreign breach into U.S. government networks in recent months... One private security firm, iSight Partners, says it has linked the OPM intrusion to the same cyber­espionage group that hacked the health insurance giant Anthem. The FBI suspects that that intrusion, announced in February, was also the work of Chinese hackers, people close to the investigation have said."

Many news reports have focused upon the alleged hackers' interest in gaining background information on government officials and covert operatives (e.g., spies):

"In the current incident, the hackers targeted an OPM data center housed at the Interior Department. The database did not contain information on background investigations or employees applying for security clear­ances, officials said... in March 2014, OPM officials discovered that hackers had breached an OPM system that manages sensitive data on federal employees applying for clearances. That often includes financial data, information about family and other sensitive details. That breach, too, was attributed to China, other officials said."

Interestingly, the actual breach notices by the OPM never mentioned China.

Sixth, the June 4 announcement by the OPM have been intentionally vague about exactly how hackers breached the agency's systems:

"Because cyber threats are evolving and pervasive, OPM is continuously working to identify and mitigate threats when they occur. OPM evaluates its IT security protocols on a continuous basis to make sure that sensitive data is protected to the greatest extent possible, across all networks where OPM data resides—including those managed by government partners and contractors."

Based upon what we know so far, it seems that several senior executives at OPM need to replaced. Ars Technica reported:

"House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) told [OPM Director Katherine Archuleta] and OPM Chief Information Officer Donna Seymour, "You failed utterly and totally." He referred to OPM's own inspector general reports and hammered Seymour in particular for the eleven major systems out of 47 that had not been properly certified as secure—which were not contractor systems but systems operated by OPM's own IT department. "They were in your office, which is a horrible example to be setting," Chaffetz told Seymour. In total, 65 percent of OPM's data was stored on those uncertified systems."

It is a tricky balance between disclosing too much (to aid hackers) versus disclosing too little (failing reassure the public). More needs to be disclosed so that the public is confident that adequate fixes have been implemented so a breach like this doesn't happen again. And, executives must be held accountable for the security failures.

Editor's Picks

Readers: I apologize for the recent lack of blog posts. No worries. Simply, I have been busy with my "day job," which pays the bills. I will resume new posts soon. Meanwhile, twelve must-read items from this year:

  1. Report: Researchers Compare High-Speed Internet Services Worldwide. Consumers In The USA Pay More And Get Slower Speeds
  2. Technology Firm's Consent Agreement With The FTC Highlights The Spying Of Consumers At Brick-And-Mortar Retail Stores
  3. You Own That New Car You Bought, Right? Not So Fast…
  4. What You Need To Know To Pay With Your Phone And Ditch The Plastic In Your Wallet
  5. Update: Bank Of America Price Increase For Its Checking Customers
  6. Hydraulic Fracturing, Safety, And America's Future
  7. Telemarketers Offer Energy Discounts. Have You Received These Calls?
  8. Looking For An Electric Company With Lower Prices? What Massachusetts Residents Need To Know
  9. Corinthian Colleges Students Loan Repayment Strike. Is This A Revolt?
  10. The Starbucks Prepaid Gift Card App Fraud. What You Need To Know
  11. Prepaid Card Phone Scam: How To Spot It And Not Get Duped
  12. 5 Banks Plead Guilty And Pay More Than $5.5 Billion In Penalties