Category Archives: Technology

The problem with mobile Amber Alerts

As you might have heard, many Californians were awakened by their phones last week for a late-night Amber Alert:

Russ went to bed early, setting “do not disturb” mode on his iPhone so no one could wake him up. His phone did wake him up, though, screeching and lighting up with an Amber Alert message about abducted children in a different part of the state. He asked Consumerist: how can he make these unwanted text messages stop?

What Russ got wasn’t a text message. It was part of the Wireless Emergency Alert System, or WEA. That’s a Federal Communications Commission program that zaps alerts about man-made or natural disasters, urgent messages from the President, and Amber Alerts directly to your phone.

Russ’ case was typical. That’s the problem. Amber alerts do not represent life-and-limb emergencies for 99.999% of those who receive them. Yet, thanks to the requirement of all WEA messages to be accompanied by the distinctive Emergency Broadcast System tone, they are treated as such.

Predictably, the noise and disruption caused by this late-night alert sent a lot of folks (myself included) scurrying to turn it off. California officials warn against this:

[T]he tones that come along with [Amber Alerts] are disruptive and annoying.

They’re supposed to be – to wake you up and make you pay attention and law enforcement officers statewide are urging cell users to stay in this potentially life-saving loop.

“That individual who may have deactivated may have provided that info on an individual that we’re looking for. Put yourself in those cases as well and put it into perspective,” Quintero said.

Speaker of the Assembly John Perez is so concerned about possible mass alert deactivations that he’s calling for a legislative hearing on the matter.

He also plans to arrange funding for a campaign of public service announcements emphasizing the importance of the alert system.

The public service announcements will do absolutely nothing to solve the problem. They might get a few people to turn the alerts back on, but those same folks will end up turning them off again with the next Amber Alert. Personally, I’m not going to budge. As a musician and a software professional, I need to have absolute trust in the Vibrate Only and Do Not Disturb settings on my smartphone. The Amber Alert I received caused my phone to emit a noise on maximum volume despite my setting it to Vibrate Only.

After this happened, I carefully examined the Emergency Alert settings on my device and found that there is no way to leave these on without the sound. That lack of choice is unfortunate. I would have been perfectly happy receiving Amber Alerts that displayed like other push notifications. I know at least a dozen other people who feel the same way. Judging by the news, there are probably hundreds of thousands more in the state. Each and every one of us will never get another Amber Alert on our phone because our only choices were to tolerate the noisy disruptions or opt out entirely. Guess we’ll just have to get our Amber Alerts from those signs on the highways.

Your Secrets Are Not Safe with the Government

During a recent show, Chris Hayes, host of All In with Chris Hayes, made some very important points worthy of sharing here about government secrecy and the government’s inability to keep secrets:

As of the end of 2011, there were 1.4 million people with top secret security clearance […] just one of the 1.4 million people is on trial for leaking a heck of a lot of secrets. Bradley Manning is the 25-year-old soldier accused of turning over files to Wikileaks including reports from Afghanistan and air strikes to killed civilians. His trial got under way and he faces prison. He is viewed as a hero and others see him as a villain and a traitor. What he is is proof that the government cannot keep secrets. If 1.4 million people had access, that access is not a secret in any real way.

For the purposes of this post, I’m not going to get into whether Bradley Manning is a patriot or a traitor but Chris Hayes’ main point about the ability of the government to keep secrets safe, especially among 1.4 million individuals. These secrets that Manning leaked were secrets which painted the U.S. government in a very negative light (to put it mildly) and therefore, had a great deal of incentives to keep these secrets from ever seeing the light of day (this seems to throw quite a bit of cold water on many of the Alex Jones conspiracy theories, at least in my mind). If these secrets could not be kept safe from public view, can anyone really make the case that the government would be better able or have greater incentive to keep secrets collected on American citizens?

This brings me to Hayes’ second point about the SCOTUS ruling regarding the keeping of DNA records in databases, even of suspected felons who were later found not guilty:

The court decided that information can be taken without your consent and kept in a database. All the precautions taken with the database, the state is not allowed to search it for fun or interesting facts about people. It can only be used to identify suspects. No matter how responsible the state promises to be with it, it is a government database subject to the statement forces that our top clearance systems. That system that they are trying to keep hackers out which is to say it is a system that cannot keep secrets.

As we now know, the IRS found all kinds of “fun or interesting facts” and used them against certain individuals and groups. What other creative uses will this government come up with to use the alarming volume of information collected of and against the people? Even if we are to believe that most of the people who have access to confidential information will not misuse it (I have no such confidence this is true), all it takes is one rogue individual. For those who may be reading this who have adopted the authoritarian “If you have nothing to hide” mindset, I would suggest reconsidering that premise and resist the growing surveillance state.

Libertarianism And Privacy In The Data Age

The world is changing. It’s happening rapidly. And it’s freaking people out.

Libertarians are concerned that constant surveillance, like that which helped identify the Boston bombers, is an infringement on our privacy. This can be true whether the cameras are public or private, as it’s not hard to justify a subpoena for a company’s tape after a terrorist attack. Couple this with facial recognition software, and eventually tracking people in a public place will be a matter of computing power, not of investigative work. Automotive “black boxes” and licence plate readers (on regular streets and toll roads) offer tremendous opportunities for vehicle tracking, notwithstanding my colleague Doug Mataconis’ concerns about the data we’ll be giving up if we move to driverless cars. It cuts both ways, too, as the government is quickly forced to deal with the oversight of 300 million people with video cameras in their pocket at all times.

And none of this even begins to scratch the surface of the personal tracking device nearly all of us carry — the smartphone. Even when we’re not deliberately “checking in” to a place on Google+ or Facebook, we’re in contact with cell towers, WiFi access points, while our phone can track our location down to a few meters via GPS.

The premise for a dystopian novel writes itself, my friends, and we’re all lining up like lemmings at the edge of the cliff. The question amongst many paranoid libertarians is simple: how do we roll it back?

As a technology fellow myself with a basic understanding of economics, I’m sorry to report that the question is obsolete.

Technology marches forward with little concern for how we want to use it. Data storage capacity (my field) continues to explode, although barely keeping up with the amount of data people want to store. Computing power is still tracking Moore’s law, and now even low-end, low power [and low-cost] processors abound in devices that would have been analog a decade ago (or didn’t exist). And as efficiency, size, and battery technology improves, these technologies become ever-more portable and thus ever-more prevalent.

You’re not sticking this genie back in the bottle. It simply won’t happen. And you know what? I’m here to tell you that perhaps that’s not a bad thing!

I want us to be able to catch the bad guys. There’s the old adage that “if you’ve got nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”, and to an extent that’ actually true. If you don’t want to do the time, don’t do the crime. If someone commits a public bombing, or robs a bank, or kills/maims/rapes someone, I think actually having the tools to track down and catch that person is actually a good thing. It’s not catching criminals that’s the problem here…

…it’s that too many things are crimes.

You see, libertarians can’t roll back the clock on the surveillance/data age. That’s driven by society. But we *can* try to influence something far more important — the scope of what that data is relevant to.

Undoubtedly, we all do things today that are illegal. Usually multiple times before we’ve made it into the office. For some people, those things are as innocuous as not buckling your seat belt, jaywalking, or speeding. However, often those activities are certain things that are much more strongly disfavored by government despite being victimless activities — smoking a little pot, or paying for sex, or playing a little unlicensed poker with friends (or strangers). These are events that normally the government is not aware of, but even if your a target of or an innocent accessory to another investigation, the government can make your life hell if they catch you doing. And with this much data flying around, they can pretty well prove just about anything regarding what you’re doing if they try hard enough. All you need to do is to piss off the wrong petty bureaucrat, and they can work to destroy your life.

The goal is, and always should be, making it harder for the government to harass citizens over victimless crimes. And this can be done whether we have a surveillance state to catch the real criminals or not. The only difference is that when you don’t have a powerful surveillance apparatus (public OR private), fighting for libertarianism doesn’t matter all that much. When you DO have a powerful surveillance apparatus, fighting for libertarianism is absolutely critical.

We live in the surveillance/tracking/data age. That’s not going to change. And the very technologies which enable all the surveillance, tracking, and data collection are the same technologies that are being used daily to make our lives richer, easier, and more convenient. That’s a significant benefit to use personally and to society. It’s up to us to make sure that the unnecessary costs to our freedoms are as minimal as possible.

Are You or Someone You Know a Victim of the Drone Mentality?

In light of the recent white paper release by the DOJ concerning the Obama administration’s drone policy, I thought it would be apropos to repost a post I wrote back in November 2011 entitled: Are You or Someone You Know a Victim of the Drone Mentality? I think it’s very telling how little interest there was by the MSM in reporting the drone policy until the Chosen One was safely reelected. The “anti-war” Left was also fairly quiet for the most part (Glenn Greenwald and a few others excepted).

Are you or someone you know a victim of what Glenn Greenwald calls “the drone mentality”?

[Emphasis original]

I was predictably deluged with responses justifying Obama’s drone attacks on the ground that they are necessary to kill The Terrorists. Reading the responses, I could clearly discern the mentality driving them: I have never heard of 99% of the people my government kills with drones, nor have I ever seen any evidence about them, but I am sure they are Terrorists. That is the drone mentality in both senses of the word; it’s that combination of pure ignorance and blind faith in government authorities that you will inevitably hear from anyone defending President Obama’s militarism.

If you are or have been a victim of this mentality don’t feel bad. I was once a victim of this mentality myself. I once believed that the government was completely incompetent domestically but somehow very efficient in its execution of the so-called war on terror.

The article continues [Emphasis original]

As it turns out, it isn’t only the President’s drone-cheering supporters who have no idea who is being killed by the program they support; neither does the CIA itself. […] Obama’s broad standards for when drone strikes are permitted, and noted that the “bulk” of the drone attacks — the bulk of them – “target groups of men believed to be militants associated with terrorist groups, but whose identities aren’t always known.” As Spencer Ackerman put it: “The CIA is now killing people without knowing who they are, on suspicion of association with terrorist groups”; moreover, the administration refuses to describe what it even means by being “associated” with a Terrorist group (indeed, it steadfastly refuses to tell citizens anything about the legal principles governing its covert drone wars).

Kill ‘em all, let [insert deity here] sort ‘em out…is this the policy for combating terrorism now? Is anyone else reading this disturbed by this?

[T]he internal dissent [inside the U.S. government] is grounded in the concern that these drone attacks undermine U.S. objectives by increasing anti-American sentiment in the region (there’s that primitive, inscrutable Muslim culture rearing its head again: they strangely seem to get very angry when foreign governments send sky robots over their countries and blow up their neighbors, teenagers and children)[…] Remember, though: we have to kill The Muslim Terrorists because they have no regard for human life.

Nah, that can’t be it. They hate us because of our freedom. Just ask John Bolton, Rick Santorum, and the rest of the Neocons who are chomping at the bit to start a war with Iran.

How is it that this drone mentality persists and what is the cure?

This is why it’s so imperative to do everything possible to shine a light on the victims of President Obama’s aggression in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere: ignoring the victims, rendering them invisible, is a crucial prerequisite to sustaining propaganda and maintaining support for this militarism (that’s the same reason John Brennan lied — yet again — by assuring Americans that there are no innocent victims of drone attacks). Many people want to hear nothing about these victims — like Tariq — because they don’t want to accept that the leader for whom they cheer and the drone attacks they support are regularly ending the lives of large numbers of innocent people, including children. They believe the fairy tale that the U.S. is only killing Terrorists and “militants” because they want to believe it…

For far too long, I believed this fairy tale myself. I couldn’t handle the truth but I eventually saw the error of my thinking. Government is just as blunt an instrument on foreign battlefields as it is in virtually every domestic aspect of our lives but even more destructive and deadly.

How about you, can you handle the truth?

The truth (according to sources cited in the article) that between 2,359 and 2,959 people (nearly 200 of whom were children) have been killed in 306 documented drone strikes, 85% of which were launched during the administration of the Nobel Peace Prize winner President Barack Obama?

If you are willing to confront the drone mentality head on, I would strongly encourage you to read the rest of Greenwald’s article.

“That’s a Violation of My Privacy!”


In Little Canada, MN the police are trying to argue that Andrew Henderson violated HIPPA (federal healthcare privacy law) when he recorded a police interaction with a third party which required an ambulance. His camera was confiscated, the file was deleted (according to Henderson), and is being charged with “disorderly conduct” and “obstruction of the legal process.” How filming the police from 30 feet away qualifies for either charge is beyond me.

Hat Tips: The Agitator (for the comic strip) and The Drudge Report (for the Little Canda story).

1 2 3 4 5 6 28