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9 posts from November 2017

Facebook to Temporarily Block Advertisers From Excluding Audiences by Race

[Editor's note: today's guest blog post, by the reporters at ProPublica, discusses advertising practices by both Facebook, a popular social networking site, and some advertisers using the site. Today's post is reprinted with permission.]

By Julia Angwin, ProPublica

Facebook said it would temporarily stop advertisers from being able to exclude viewers by race while it studies the use of its ad targeting system.

“Until we can better ensure that our tools will not be used inappropriately, we are disabling the option that permits advertisers to exclude multicultural affinity segments from the audience for their ads,” Facebook Sheryl Sandberg wrote in a letter to the Congressional Black Caucus.

ProPublica disclosed last week that Facebook was still allowing advertisers to buy housing ads that excluded audiences by race, despite its promises earlier this year to reject such ads. ProPublica also found that Facebook was not asking housing advertisers that blocked other sensitive audience categories — by religion, gender, or disability — to “self-certify” that their ads were compliant with anti-discrimination laws.

Under the Fair Housing Act of 1968, it’s illegal to “to make, print, or publish, or cause to be made, printed, or published any notice, statement, or advertisement, with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.” Violators face tens of thousands of dollars in fines.

In her letter, Sandberg said the company will examine how advertisers are using its exclusion tool — “focusing particularly on potentially sensitive segments” such as ads that exclude LGBTQ communities or people with disabilities. “During this review, no advertisers will be able to create ads that exclude multicultural affinity groups,” Facebook Vice President Rob Goldman said in an e-mailed statement.

Goldman said the results of the audit would be shared with “groups focused on discrimination in ads,” and that Facebook would work with them to identify further improvements and publish the steps it will take.

Sandberg’s letter to the Congressional Black Caucus is the outgrowth of a dialogue that has been ongoing since last year when ProPublica published its first article revealing Facebook was allowing advertisers to exclude people with an “ethnic affinity” for various minority groups, including African Americans, Asian Americans and Hispanics, from viewing their ads.

At that time, four members of the Congressional Black Caucus reached out to Facebook for an explanation. “This is in direct violation of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and it is our strong desire to see Facebook address this issue immediately,” wrote the lawmakers.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which enforces the nation’s fair housing laws, opened an inquiry into Facebook’s practices.

But in February, Facebook said it had solved the problem — by building an algorithm that would allow it to spot and reject housing, employment and credit ads that discriminated using racial categories. For audiences not selected by race, Facebook said it would require advertisers to “self-certify” that their ads were compliant with the law.

HUD closed its inquiry. But last week, ProPublica successfully purchased dozens of racist, sexist and otherwise discriminatory ads for a fictional housing company advertising a rental. None of the ads were rejected and none required a self-certification. Facebook said it was a “technical failure” and vowed to fix the problem.

U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill., said that Facebook’s actions to disable the feature are “an appropriate action.” “When I first raised this issue with Facebook, I was disappointed. When it became necessary to raise the issue again, I was irritated,” she said. “I will continue watching this issue very closely to ensure these issues do not raise again.”

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State Of Washington Sues Uber For Alleged Data Breach Law Violations

The Office of the Attorney General (AG) for Washington State has filed a lawsuit against Uber, the popular ride-sharing company, for alleged violations of the state's data breach laws. The AG's office explained in a press release:

"Under a 2015 amendment to the state’s data breach law requested by AG Bob Ferguson, consumers must be notified within 45 days of a breach, and the Attorney General’s Office also must be notified within 45 days if the breach affects 500 or more Washingtonians. This is the first lawsuit filed under the revised statute... Uber notified the Attorney General’s Office of the breach Nov. 21, 2017, roughly 372 days after it discovered the breach. Rather than reporting the breach as required by law, the company has admitted to paying the hackers to destroy the stolen data."

Uber logo The massive data breach affected 57 million users, including both riders and drivers. This is critical because:

"... the hackers also obtained the names and driver’s license numbers of about 7 million drivers for the company. About 600,000 of those drivers live in the United States, and at least 10,888 live in Washington... The [AG's] office argues each day Uber failed to report for each individual qualifies as a separate violation under the law. Ferguson’s lawsuit asks for civil penalties of up to $2,000 per violation, which should result in a penalty in the millions of dollars. The state also asks for recovery of its costs and fees."

Important information for residents of Washington State:

"Washington has two data breach laws: One applying to individuals and businesses, the other for local and state government agencies. The laws are essentially the same and require notification to Washingtonians at risk of harm because of a security breach that includes personal information, meaning someone’s name and any of the following: a) Social Security number; b) Driver’s license number or Washington identification card number; or c) Bank account number or credit or debit card number, in combination with any required security code, access code, or password that would permit access to an individual’s account."

Since 48 states have data breach notification laws, I expect many more lawsuits. (Consumers in Alabama and South Dakota might ask their elected officials why their states don't have laws requiring notice.) When a company intentionally decides not to comply with states' laws, there must be consequences. Corporate executives must be held accountable for their actions and decisions; especially when they negatively affect consumers.

What are your opinions?


Security Researchers Announce Another Method To Defeat Apple Face ID

Bkav-artificial-mask
You may remember, earlier this year Apple launched its iPhone X with Face ID feature for users to unlock their phones:

"Your face is now your password. Face ID is a secure and private new way to unlock, authenticate, and pay... Face ID is enabled by the TrueDepth camera and is simple to set up. It projects and analyzes more than 30,000 invisible dots to create a precise depth map of your face."

Like it or not, there is no security system for your smartphone that can't be defeated. Mashable reported yesterday that security researchers have found another method to defeat Face ID:

"The same Vietnamese team that managed to trick Face ID with an elaborately constructed mask now says it has found a way to create a replicated face capable of unlocking Apple's latest and greatest biometric using a series of surreptitiously snagged photographs. Apple has copped to the fact that Face ID, for all its technical prowess, isn't perfect. It can be tricked by twins. For

The Bkav researchers explained in a blog post how their crude mask defeated Face ID:

"Bkav used a 3D mask (which costs ~200 USD), made of stone powder, with glued 2D images of the eyes. Bkav experts found out that stone powder can replace paper tape (used in previous mask) to trick Face ID' AI at higher scores. The eyes are printed infrared images – the same technology that Face ID itself uses to detect facial image. These materials and tools are casual for anyone. An iPhone X has its highest security options enabled, then has the owner's face enrolled to set up Face ID, then is immediately put in front of the mask, iPhone X is unlocked immediately. There is absolutely no learning of Face ID with the new mask in this experiment."

The same blog post also explained how a three-dimensional model can defeat Face ID:

"Bkav researchers said that making 3D model is very simple. A person can be secretly taken photos in just a few seconds when entering a room containing a pre-setup system of cameras located at different angles. Then, the photos will be processed by algorithms to make a 3D object.

It can be said that, until now, Fingerprint is still the most secure biometric technology. Collecting a fingerprint is much harder than taking photos from a distance. Meanwhile, just by taking photos from a distance to create 3D objects as mentioned above, both Apple's Face ID and Samsung's Iris Scanner can be bypassed easily."

Experts advise consumers to continue using passcodes, especially for online banking apps. And high-value targets (e.g., senior corporate executives, government officials, politicians, attorneys, etc.) probably shouldn't use facial recognition features to unlock their mobile devices.

I guess that 3-D models will provide law enforcement (and spy agencies) with new ways to use their archived collections of facial images. The Guardian reported earlier this year:

"Approximately half of adult Americans’ photographs are stored in facial recognition databases that can be accessed by the FBI, without their knowledge or consent, in the hunt for suspected criminals. About 80% of photos in the FBI’s network are non-criminal entries, including pictures from driver’s licenses and passports. The algorithms used to identify matches are inaccurate about 15% of the time, and are more likely to misidentify black people than white people."

What do you think?


Uber: Data Breach Affected 57 Million Users. Some Say A Post Breach Coverup, Too

Uber logo Uber is in the news again. And not in a good way. The popular ride-sharing service experienced a data breach affecting 57 million users. While many companies experience data breaches, regulators say Uber went further and tried to cover it up.

First, details about the data breach. Bloomberg reported:

"Hackers stole the personal data of 57 million customers and drivers... Compromised data from the October 2016 attack included names, email addresses and phone numbers of 50 million Uber riders around the world, the company told Bloomberg on Tuesday. The personal information of about 7 million drivers was accessed as well, including some 600,000 U.S. driver’s license numbers..."

Second, details about the coverup:

"... the ride-hailing firm ousted its chief security officer and one of his deputies for their roles in keeping the hack under wraps, which included a $100,000 payment to the attackers... At the time of the incident, Uber was negotiating with U.S. regulators investigating separate claims of privacy violations. Uber now says it had a legal obligation to report the hack to regulators and to drivers whose license numbers were taken. Instead, the company paid hackers to delete the data and keep the breach quiet."

Geez. Not tell regulators about a breach? Not tell affected users? 48 states have data breach notification laws requiring various levels of notifications. Consumers need notice in order to take action to protect themselves and their sensitive personal and payment information.

Third, Uber executives learned about the breach soon thereafter:

"Kalanick, Uber’s co-founder and former CEO, learned of the hack in November 2016, a month after it took place, the company said. Uber had just settled a lawsuit with the New York attorney general over data security disclosures and was in the process of negotiating with the Federal Trade Commission over the handling of consumer data. Kalanick declined to comment on the hack."

Reportedly, breach victims with stolen drivers license information will be offered free credit monitoring and identity theft services. Uber said that no Social Security numbers and credit card information was stolen during the breach, but one wonders if Uber and its executives can be trusted.

The company has a long history of sketchy behavior including the 'Greyball' worldwide program by executives to thwart code enforcement inspections by governments, dozens of employees fired or investigated for sexual harassment, a lawsuit descrbing how the company's mobile app allegedly scammed both riders and drivers, and privacy abuses with the 'God View' tool. TechCrunch reported that Uber:

"... reached a settlement with [New York State Attorney General] Schneiderman’s office in January 2016 over its abuse of private data in a rider-tracking system known as “God View” and its failure to disclose a previous data breach that took place in September 2014 in a timely manner."

Several regulators are investigating Uber's latest breach and alleged coverup. CNet reported:

"The New York State Attorney General has opened an investigation into the incident, which Uber made public Tuesday. Officials for Connecticut, Illinois and Massachusetts also confirmed they're investigating the hack. The New Mexico Attorney General sent Uber a letter asking for details of the hack and how the company responded. What's more, Uber appears to have broken a promise made in a Federal Trade Commission settlement not to mislead users about data privacy and security, a legal expert says... In addition to its agreement with the FTC, Uber is required to follow laws in New York and 47 other states that mandate companies to tell people when their drivers' license numbers are breached. Uber acknowledged Tuesday it had a legal requirement to disclose the breach."

The Financial Times reported that the U.K. Information Commissioner's Office is investigating the incident, along with the National Crime Agency and the National Cyber Security Centre. New data protection rules will go into effect in May, 2018 which will require companies to notify regulators within 72 hours of a cyber attack, or incur fines of up to 20 million Euro-dollars or 4 percent of annual global revenues.

Let's summarize the incident. It seems that a few months after settling a lawsuit about a data breach and its data security practices, the company had another data breach, paid the hackers to keep quiet about the breach and what they stole, and then allegedly chose not to tell affected users nor regulators about it, as required by prior settlement agreements, breach laws in most states, and breach laws in some international areas. Geez. What chutzpah!

What are your opinions of the incident? Can Uber and its executives be trusted?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Some U.S. Hospitals Don’t Put Americans First for Liver Transplants

[Editor's note: today's guest blog post, by the reporters at ProPublica, discusses a largely unknown practice by some hospitals in the health care industry. Is this practice right? Ethical? Today's post is reprinted with permission.]

By Charles Ornstein, ProPublica

Earlier this fall, a leader of the busiest hospital for organ transplants in New York state — where livers are particularly scarce — pleaded for fairer treatment for ailing New Yorkers.

“Patients in equal need of a liver transplant should not have to wait and suffer differently because of the U.S. state where they reside,” wrote Dr. Herbert Pardes, former chief executive and now executive vice president of the board at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.

But Pardes left out his hospital’s own contribution to the shortage: From 2013 to 2016, it gave 20 livers to foreign nationals who came to the United States solely for a transplant — essentially exporting the organs and removing them from the pool available to New Yorkers.

That represented 5.2 percent of the hospital’s liver transplants during that time, one of the highest ratios in the country.

Little known to the public, or to sick patients and their families, organs donated domestically are sometimes given to patients flying in from other countries, who often pay a premium. Some hospitals even seek out foreign patients in need of a transplant. A Saudi Arabian company, Ansaq Medical Co., whose stated aim is to “facilitate the procedures and mechanisms of ‘medical tourism,’” said it signed an agreement with Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans in 2015.

The practice is legal, and foreign nationals must wait their turn for an organ in the same way as domestic patients. Transplant centers justify it on medical and humanitarian grounds. But at a time when President Donald Trump is espousing an “America First” policy and seeking to ban visitors and refugees from certain countries, allocating domestic organs to foreigners may run counter to the national mood.

Even beyond the realm of health care, some are questioning whether foreigners should be able to access limited spots that might otherwise be available to U.S. citizens. For instance, public colleges compensate for reductions in state funding by accepting more foreign students paying higher tuition, and critics say in-state students are being denied opportunities as a result.

Dr. Sander Florman, director of the transplant institute at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, said he struggles with “in essence, selling the organs we do have to foreign nationals with bushels of money.”

Mount Sinai has not performed any transplants on patients who came to this country specifically for that purpose, but it has done so for international patients here for other reasons.

Between 2013 and 2016, 252 foreigners came to the U.S. purely to receive livers at American hospitals. In 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, the majority of foreign recipients were from countries in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Israel and United Arab Emirates. Another 100 foreigners staying in the U.S. as non-residents also received livers.

All the while, more than 14,000 people, nearly all of them American citizens, are waiting for liver transplants, a figure that has remained stubbornly high for decades. By comparison, fewer than 8,000 liver transplants were performed last year in the United States — and that was an all-time high. The national median wait time for a liver is more than 14 months, and in states like New York, the wait is far longer. (The wait for livers varies from one state to the next, depending on such factors as the number of organ donors, and the resourcefulness of organ procurement agencies.)

Many patients die before reaching the front of the line. In 2016, more than 2,600 patients were removed from waiting lists nationally because they either died or were too sick to receive a liver transplant.

Most transplant centers only serve American citizens or residents, either by happenstance or by design. Foreign transplants are concentrated among a handful of centers, including NewYork-Presbyterian, Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center in Houston (31 such transplants from 2013 to 2016), Ochsner (30), and Cleveland Clinic in Ohio (21).

“When you take people from other parts of the world and provide an organ transplant to them rather than someone who’s here, there’s a real cost, there’s a real life that’s lost,” said Jane Hartsock, a visiting assistant professor of medical humanities and health studies at the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts. Hartsock and her colleagues wrote a journal article published last year saying foreigners should be last in line for a transplant.

NewYork-Presbyterian said it does not advertise its transplant program to foreign patients and that the majority of the transplants it performed on foreign nationals traveling to New York for that reason — 11 of the 20 — were on children under 18.

In a statement, the hospital and its academic partner Columbia University said they follow federal guidelines. “We strongly support efforts that aim to address the critical issue of equitable distribution of livers for transplant and are working closely with a wide range of stakeholders to help increase the number of organ donor registrations in New York State.”

A spokeswoman for the Cleveland Clinic, Eileen Sheil, said her hospital does not actively seek out foreign national business and has a “thoughtful and ethical approach that is well within the rules and aligned with our overall mission for taking care of patients.” Ochsner similarly said, “patients seek out Ochsner’s expertise because of our relentless commitment to provide the highest-quality, complex care.” Memorial Hermann did not respond to requests for comment.

To be sure, the proportion of available livers that go to foreigners is tiny — slightly less than 1 percent of liver transplants nationwide from 2013 to 16. The figure appears to be dropping further in 2017. Even if all recipients were Americans, wait times would still be substantial. Moreover, foreigners queue up on the waitlist like everybody else — although it may be easier for them, since they aren’t rooted in any particular state, to choose a hospital in an area with a shorter wait, such as Ochsner. And some Americans discouraged by the lengthy wait in this country have gone abroad for transplants.

The transplant figures in this article do not include transplants involving living donors, meaning a relative or friend who donates part of his or her liver to a patient. No one interviewed for this story said it is inappropriate for a foreign national to come to the U.S. for a procedure with a living donor.

There’s also an important distinction between giving an organ to a foreigner who happens to be in the U.S. — someone on a student visa or even an undocumented immigrant — and giving one to someone flying over just for surgery. Someone in the first group would be eligible to donate an organ if something happened to them in this country; someone in the latter group would not because livers must be transplanted quickly and there wouldn’t be enough time to ship them.

“If you live in the United States, no matter what your [citizenship] status is, you could potentially be an organ donor if you get hit by a car or something happens to you,” said Dr. Gabriel M. Danovitch, medical director of the kidney and pancreas transplant program at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, who previously led the UNOS international relations committee. “But if your home is somewhere else, a long way away, there’s no way that you can be a donor or your family or your friends could be donors.

“And in some respects, when you then come to the United States, you are using up a valuable resource that is in great shortage here.”

Foreign patients generally are not entitled to the same discounts as those with private insurance or Medicare, the federal insurance program for seniors and the disabled. In 2015, for instance, the average sticker price for a liver transplant at NewYork-Presbyterian was $371,203, but the average payment for patients in Medicare was less than one-third of that, $112,469, according to data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which runs Medicare. In the case of Saudi Arabia, its embassy in Washington often guarantees payment for patients.

The topic is emerging now because the nation’s transplant leaders will meet next month to consider rewriting the rules governing how livers are distributed, giving programs in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and other areas greater access to organs from people who die in nearby regions. The proposal by a committee of the United Network for Organ Sharing, the federal contractor that runs the national transplant system, faces opposition from programs and regions that stand to lose organs. Pardes’ comments were posted in an online comment forum devoted to the proposal, which does not address the issue of transplants for foreigners.

UNOS said it has worked to get better data on foreigners that receive transplants in this country but ultimately, federal law doesn’t prohibit these transplants.

“This is an individual medical decision that the individual transplant hospital makes,” spokesman Joel Newman said. “If we addressed citizenship or residency as a particular reason for whether to accept a patient or not, then that would open up the door to lots of other nonmedical criteria — religion, race, political preference, any number of things that as a community we have decided from an ethical standpoint not to consider.”

UNOS has the authority to ask questions of transplant centers about surgeries on foreign nationals, but Newman said UNOS committees are still trying to figure out what information they would want, and, in any event, the transplant centers don’t have to answer the questions.

The federal rules governing the transplant system, written more than three decades ago, say organ allocation decisions must be based on medical criteria, which would exclude consideration of a person’s nationality or citizenship. While centers can perform as many transplants on foreigners as they want, many programs have tried to keep them below 5 percent of all transplants for each organ type. Until several years ago, 5 percent was the threshold above which UNOS could audit a program. No programs were ever formally audited, and the cutoff was eventually eliminated.

It’s time to revisit the rules, some lawmakers say.

“As a general rule, you’ve got to take care of Americans first as long as you have more demand than supply,” said Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., whose state is home to Ochsner, a leader in transplants for foreign nationals. Kennedy said he would favor curbing transplants for foreigners, while creating a national board that could make exceptions. “But what you don’t want to get into, it seems to me, is subjective areas like well, ‘If this person could live an extra few years, what could they contribute to society?’”

There have been scandals in the past about foreigners and organ transplants. In 2005, a liver transplant center in Los Angeles shut its doors after disclosing that its team had taken a liver that should have gone to a patient at another hospital and instead had implanted it in a Saudi national. The hospital said its staff members falsified documents to cover up the incident.

The University of California, Los Angeles, came under fire in 2008 for performing liver transplants on a powerful Japanese gang boss and other men linked to Japanese gangs, and then receiving donations afterward from at least two of the men. The hospital and its surgeon said they do not make moral judgments about patients.

Further complicating matters is a 2008 document endorsed by transplant organizations around the world, called the Declaration of Istanbul, which seeks to eliminate organ trafficking and reduce transplant tourism internationally. One concern was that patients went to China and received transplants using organs from prisoners. (China said it was stopping the practice in 2015, but experts question whether that has happened.) Another concern was that if a country’s wealthiest or most powerful residents could get transplants overseas, its leaders may not have an incentive to set up a system of their own.

The non-binding declaration also says that there should be a ban on “soliciting, or brokering for the purpose of transplant commercialism, organ trafficking, or transplant tourism.” It was endorsed by UNOS and other national transplant groups.

Former Ochsner employees say they recall Saudi nationals coming for transplants, some wealthy and some not. A New Orleans bar posted a photo on Facebook in 2015 of a young man who brought his mom from Saudi Arabia for a transplant.

Ochsner said in a statement that it was proud of its liver transplant program, which is the nation’s largest. It said that it is willing to accept donated organs that other centers turn down for medical reasons, expanding its ability to help patients while keeping its survival rate high. And it noted that the median waiting time for its patients is only 2.1 months, far below the national median.

“UNOS does not have any restrictions preventing transplant for international patients and they are subject to the same guidelines as domestic patients,” the statement said.

Still, many American candidates for livers don’t make Ochsner’s waiting list. It refused to put Brian “Bubba” Greenlee Jr. on its list right after Christmas in 2015, because of his “poor insight into his drinking and lack of proper social support,” his medical records show. He had cirrhosis and died weeks later at age 45.

His sister, Theresa Greenlee-Jeffers, said Ochsner led her brother to believe that he would get a new liver. Her brother had stopped drinking and she had volunteered to take care of him after a transplant, but then the hospital suddenly reversed course.

“His last Christmas, he was given false hope that he was going to get a transplant. That’s not OK. You don’t play with somebody’s emotions like that,” Greenlee-Jeffers said.

Ocshner did not answer questions about Greenlee’s care but said in its statement, “Not every patient is a candidate for transplant.” It said its criteria are similar to those of other liver transplant centers.

“At Ochsner, we are caregivers, dedicated to providing our patients with high-quality care, improved outcomes and the gift of a second chance at life,” its statement said.

Greenlee-Jeffers wonders if Ochsner excluded her brother and other Americans to make room for foreigners willing to pay more. “It’s not OK,” she said. “We need to take care of our people here at home first. We don’t have enough of this to go around.”

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FCC Approved Plan To Allow Telecom Companies To Block Robocalls

Last week, commissioners at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to allow telecommunications companies to block automated phone calls, known as robocalls, by scammers.

Unwanted calls, including illegal robocalls, are a leading complaint by consumers. Some experts estimated that consumers in the United States received about 2.4 billion robocalls per month during 2016. Many tools make it cheap and easy to make for scammers to both make robocalls and to "spoof" -- or hide -- the caller’s true identity (e.g.,, Caller ID information). The robocalls usually try to trick consumers into revealing sensitive personal and financial information.

The FCC announcement stated that the agency:

"... approved new rules to protect consumers from unwanted robocalls, allowing phone companies to proactively block calls that are likely to be fraudulent because they come from certain types of phone numbers... For example, perpetrators have used IRS phone numbers that don’t dial out to impersonate the tax agency, informing the people who answer that they are calling to collect money owed to the U.S. government. Such calls appear to be legitimate to those who receive them and can result in fraud or identity theft.

To combat these scams, the new rules approved today expressly authorize voice service providers to block robocalls that appear to be from telephone numbers that do not or cannot make outgoing calls... [telecommunications companies] will be allowed to block calls purporting to be from a phone number placed on a “do not originate” list by the number’s subscriber. They will also be allowed to block calls purporting to be from invalid numbers, like those with area codes that don’t exist..."

Neighbor spoofing is a huge problem and part of the robocall fraud. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai released a statement, which said:

"... the FCC’s top consumer protection priority is aggressively pursuing the scourge of illegal robocalls.  This Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking is one more step toward fulfilling that commitment... It is important to stress that today’s action is deregulatory in nature. We aren’t piling more rules upon industry. Instead, we’re providing relief from FCC rules that are having the perverse effect of facilitating unlawful and unwanted robocalls."

Pai's statement failed to mention exactly which rules facilitated unlawful and unwanted robocalls. President Trump appointed Pai as FCC Chairman in January.

While this latest FCC action will somewhat help consumers, it won't stop all robocalls. Why? Consumer Reports explained:

"... that only a small percentage of the calls will end up being blocked. David Frankel, a California-based telecommunications professional who has taken up the fight against robocalls, says his analysis of 3.5 million robocall complaints to the Federal Trade Commission shows that the new rules would block only 10 percent of robocalls, at best. And that would probably last for only a short period, he says, as robocallers no doubt change the techniques they use."

Commissioner Clyburn's comments acknowledged the limitations in her comments accompanying the FCC's announcement. Kudos to the agency for trying to help consumers. Hopefully, the FCC will do more for consumers especially since the agency under Chairman Pai's leadership has already hurt consumers by revoking broadband privacy rules, lowering broadband standards, and by moving to overturn net neutrality protections for consumers.

A final FCC vote to kill net neutrality is expected on December 14. Consumers want to decide how to use their high-speed internet connections to visit the sites they want to visit. Killing net neutrality would prevent this and allow internet service providers to create higher-cost "fast lanes" to some websites with "paid prioritization." That would be great for telecommunications companies' profits and bad for consumers with price increases; and internet bills as complicated and convoluted as cable TV bills.

Chairman Pai seems intent upon pleasing his corporate overlords while doing little to help consumers.


German Regulator Bans Smartwatches For Children

VTech Kidizoom DX smartwatch for children. Select for larger version Parents: considering a smartwatch for your children or grandchildren? Consider the privacy implications first. Bleeping Computer reported on Friday:

"Germany's Federal Network Agency (Bundesnetzagentur), the country's telecommunications agency, has banned the sale of children's smartwatches after it classified such devices as "prohibited listening devices." The ban was announced earlier today... parents are using their children's smartwatches to listen to teachers in the classroom. Recording or listening to private conversations is against the law in Germany without the permission of all recorded persons."

Some smartwatches are designed for children as young as four years of age. Several brands are available at online retailers, such as Amazon and Best Buy.

Why the ban? Gizmodo explained:

"Saying the technology more closely resembles a “spying device” than a toy... Last month, the European Consumer Organization (BEUC) warned that smartwatches marketed to kids were a serious threat to children’s privacy. A report published by the Norwegian Consumer Council in mid-October revealed serious flaws in several of the devices that could easily allow hackers to seize control. "

Clearly, this is another opportunity for parents to carefully research and consider smart device purchases for their family, to teach their children about privacy, and to not record persons without their permission.


Do Social Media Pose Threats To Democracies?

November 4th cover of The Economist magazine The November 4th issue of The Economist magazine discussed whether social networking sites threaten democracy in the United States and elsewhere. Social media were supposed to better connect us with accurate and reliable information. What we know so far (links added):

"... Facebook acknowledged that before and after last year’s American election, between January 2015 and August this year, 146m users may have seen Russian misinformation on its platform. Google’s YouTube admitted to 1,108 Russian-linked videos and Twitter to 36,746 accounts. Far from bringing enlightenment, social media have been spreading poison. Russia’s trouble-making is only the start. From South Africa to Spain, politics is getting uglier... by spreading untruth and outrage, corroding voters’ judgment and aggravating partisanship, social media erode the conditions..."

You can browse some of the ads Russia bought on Facebook during 2016. (Hopefully, you weren't tricked by any of them.) We also know from this United Press International (UPI) report about social media companies' testimony before Congress:

"Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt) said Facebook still has many pages that appear to have been created by the Internet Research Agency, a pro-Kremlin group that bought advertising during the campaign. Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) said some Russian-backed advertisers even paid for the ads in Russian currency.

"How could you not connect those two dots?" he asked Facebook general council Colin Stretch. "It's a signal we should have been alert to and, in hindsight, one we missed," Stretch answered."

Google logo And during the Congressional testimony:

"Google attorney Richard Salgado said his company's platform is not a newspaper, which has legal responsibilities different from technology platforms. "We are not a newspaper. We are a platform that shares information," he said. "This is a platform from which news can be read from many sources."

Separate from the Congressional testimony, Kent Walker, a Senior Vice President and General Counsel at Google, released a statement which read in part:

"... like other internet platforms, we have found some evidence of efforts to misuse our platforms during the 2016 U.S. election by actors linked to the Internet Research Agency in Russia... We have been conducting a thorough investigation related to the U.S. election across our products drawing on the work of our information security team, research into misinformation campaigns from our teams, and leads provided by other companies. Today, we are sharing results from that investigation... We will be launching several new initiatives to provide more transparency and enhance security, which we also detail in these information sheets: what we found, steps against phishing and hacking, and our work going forward..."

This matters greatly. Why? by The Economist explained that the disinformation distributed via social media and other websites:

"... aggravates the politics of contempt that took hold, in the United States at least, in the 1990s. Because different sides see different facts, they share no empirical basis for reaching a compromise. Because each side hears time and again that the other lot are good for nothing but lying, bad faith and slander, the system has even less room for empathy. Because people are sucked into a maelstrom of pettiness, scandal and outrage, they lose sight of what matters for the society they share. This tends to discredit the compromises and subtleties of liberal democracy, and to boost the politicians who feed off conspiracy and nativism..."

When citizens (via their elected representatives) can't agree nor compromise, then government gridlock results. Nothing gets done. Frustration builds among voters.

What solutions to fix these problems? The Economist article discussed several remedies: better critical-thinking skills by social media users, holding social-media companies accountable, more transparency around ads, better fact checking, anti-trust actions, and/or disallow bots (automated accounts). It will take time for social media users to improve their critical-thinking skills. Considerations about fact checking:

"When Facebook farms out items to independent outfits for fact-checking, the evidence that it moderates behavior is mixed. Moreover, politics is not like other kinds of speech; it is dangerous to ask a handful of big firms to deem what is healthy for society.

Considerations about anti-trust actions:

"Breaking up social-media giants might make sense in antitrust terms, but it would not help with political speech—indeed, by multiplying the number of platforms, it could make the industry harder to manage."

All of the solutions have advantages and disadvantages. It seems the problems will be with us for a long while. Social media has been abused... and will continue to be abused. Comments? What solutions do you think would be best?