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Archive for June 19th, 2017

A Republican voter data firm likely exposed your personal information for days — and you don’t have much recourse

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Evan Halper and Paresh Dave report in the LA Times:

To any nefarious hackers looking for data that could be used to sway elections or steal Americans’ identities, the file compiled by a GOP digital firm called Deep Root Analytics offered all manner of possibilities.

There in one place was detailed personal information about almost every voter in America. It was a collection of some 9.5 billion data points that helped the firm assess not only how those Americans would probably vote, but their projected political preferences. In some cases, the data collectors had scoured voters’ histories on Reddit, the social media platform, and well-informed predictions were made about where each voter would stand on issues as personal as abortion and stem cell research.

It’s the kind of sensitive information that, if a bank or a big-box retailer or almost any other corporation had failed to protect it, would have triggered major trouble with regulators. But there it sat on the Internet, without so much as a password to guard it, for 12 days.

Luckily for the Republican Party and its contractor, a cybersecurity consultant with a firm in Mountain View, Calif., came across the treasure-trove of political data this month, not a foreign agent. There is no indication that the database had been tapped by any other unauthorized parties while it was unprotected.

But the exposure of the data, which some are describing as the largest leak of voter information in history, is a jolting reminder of how deeply the political parties are probing into the lives of voters and how vulnerable the information they are compiling is to theft.

The Deep Root incident is the latest in a series of such problems with political data, the most infamous being the case of the Russian hack of the Democratic National Committee. As cybersecurity experts sound an increasingly loud alarm about the potential consequences, the lapses keep happening — often with nobody held accountable for them.

“This is a catalog of human lives, with intrinsic details,” said Mike Baukes, CEO of UpGuard, the firm that came across the file during a routine scan of cloud systems.

“Every voter in America is potentially in there. The scale of it is just staggering, and the fact that it was left wide open is wholly irresponsible.…This is happening all the time. We are continually finding these things. It is just staggering.”

Privacy experts were skeptical that political operatives will change their ways following the latest incident.

“The state of security for massive data sets is so incredibly poor despite a daily drumbeat of data breached,” said Timothy Sparapani, a former director of public policy for Facebook who is now a data privacy consultant at the firm SPQR Strategies, based in Washington. “It is shocking. It is embarrassing. People ought to lose their jobs.”

Sparapani said if the culprit had been a private firm, it would be subjected to punitive actions by attorneys general, consumer lawsuits and big fines from regulators. But political operations face no such repercussions.

“As a voter, you are left with almost no recourse because our laws have not caught up to the massive computing power which is readily available to gather enormous data sets and make them searchable at the click of a button,” he said. “The breadth and depth of data collection by these companies is not well understood. If it were, I think the average voter would be frightened.”

UpGuard was able to access the file merely by guessing a Web address. It alerted Deep Root as well as federal authorities.

Deep Root apologized in a statement, but also suggested the incident had been overblown.

The data file “is our proprietary analysis to help inform local-television ad buying,” the statement said. It noted that much of the voter information the analysis is built on is “readily provided by state government offices.” The firm said it has put security procedures in place to prevent future leaks.

Other digital strategists warned, however, that the failure to protect such detailed information not only raised major privacy and security concerns, but also may have tipped off political adversaries to the inner workings of the Republican Party’s closely guarded digital strategy.

The GOP contracted with Deep Root during the presidential campaign. The firm’s co-founder, Alex Lundry, led the data efforts of GOP nominee Mitt Romney in 2012 and then worked for the unsuccessful presidential campaign of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush last year.

GOP officials said the data belonging to the party that was exposed was limited to very basic information about voters, such as their party registration. They said none of the GOP’s sensitive strategic data was exposed. The party has suspended work with the firm pending an investigation by Deep Root into security procedures.

The failure by Deep Root to protect its massive database was particularly troubling to some advocates at a time when Congress is investigating how Russia exploited data vulnerabilities to meddle in last year’s presidential election.

“This is data used for opinion manipulation,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the nonprofit research group Electronic Privacy Information Center, based in Washington. “It needs to be regulated. And there needs to be consequence for breaches. We have a major problem in this country with data security, and it’s getting worse.” The foundation wants Congress to hold hearings on political data security.

But holding political parties and contractors accountable for their data practices has proven tricky. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

19 June 2017 at 5:29 pm

Posted in GOP, Technology

Jared Kushner, Technology Ignoramus

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Kevin Drum’s column is well worth reading. From it we learn, among other things, that Jared Kushner believes that the government did not use any computers until after 1980.That’s the guy Trump is depending on to shape up the Federal government and, while he’s at it, bring peace between Israel and Palestine. And set up a private communication line with Russia through the Russian Embassy so that …. what?

 

Written by LeisureGuy

19 June 2017 at 4:48 pm

How Cats Used Humans to Conquer the World

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Sarah Zhang writes in the Atlantic:

Sometime around the invention of agriculture, the cats came crawling. It was mice and rats, probably, that attracted the wild felines. The rats came because of stores of grain, made possible by human agriculture. And so cats and humans began their millennia-long coexistence.

This relationship has been good for us of course—formerly because cats caught the disease-carrying pests stealing our food and presently because cleaning up their hairballs somehow gives purpose to our modern lives. But this relationship has been great for cats as species, too. From their native home in the Middle East, the first tamed cats followed humans out on ships and expeditions to take over the world—settling on six continents  with even the occasional foray to Antarctica. Domestication has been a fantastically successful evolutionary strategy for cats.

A comprehensive new study of DNA from ancient cat skeletons and mummies spanning 9,000 years traces the spread of cats from the Middle East to the rest of the world. The whole study, from conception to publication, took about 10 years—not least because of the work it took to find ancient cat remains.

“Cat remains are scarce,” says Eva-Maria Geigl, a paleogeneticist at Institut Jacques Monod and an author on the study. We don’t eat cats for food, so their bones don’t end up in ancient trash piles the way pig or chicken bones do. Geigl and her colleagues, especially Wim Van Neer, wrote to museums and collections asking to sample cat remains found in archeological digs. The team ultimately got bone, teeth, or hair from 352 ancient cats—including Egyptian cat mummies at the British Museum.

Not all of the remains yielded DNA. The Middle East environment is hot. In Egyptian tombs, where the cat mummies came from, it was also humid. “This is really a disaster for DNA,” says Geigl. The very act of extracting DNA can damage it, too. So to protect the DNA from heat released when bones and teeth are ground, the grinding process happens in a liquid nitrogen bath. Ultimately, the team was able to get DNA from 209 of the cats.

This large number of samples painted a fairly detailed picture of how cats followed humans on trade routes. Modern domestic cats appear to have all originated in one of two places. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

19 June 2017 at 4:22 pm

Posted in Cats

Kids and Guns: Shootings Now Third Leading Cause of Death for U.S. Children

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But that’s okay—it’s just the price we pay for allowing anyone at all (including those arrested for domestic violence) to buy any gun they want, including assault rifles, designed to inflict the maximum possible damage to a body. And we certainly would not want to even touch that, regardless of how many children are killed. Hell, you can wipe out a good fraction of a generation, and gun rights would still be more important.

How is it possible for someone simply to accept the deaths of so many children? Of course there’s the denial approach—e.g., Alex Jones and Scottsboro Elementary: it was all a hoax. So are all the others. All hoaxes. Elaborately staged, but hoaxes. Just like the moon landings, but more blood.

But denial is only one form of self-deception, which is often much more subtle. See Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception, by Daniel Goleman.

Ryan Bort reports in Newsweek:

Few stories are more heartbreaking than those involving children who are injured or killed by gunshots. It isn’t hard to find them: In June alone, a 6-year-old accidentally shot and killed a 4-year-old in South Carolina, a father accidentally shot and killed his 9-year-old daughter in Indiana and an 8-year-old Mississippi boy was accidentally shot in the chest. His grandparents drove him to the hospital, but he died 45 minutes later. Sadly, the list of child gun deaths goes on.

Related: Republican praises guns just moments after Virginia shooting

Though we constantly see examples in the news, child gun injuries and deaths may be even more prevalent in the United States than we realized. A study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics showed that an average of 5,790 children in the United States receive emergency room treatment for gun-related injuries each year, and around 21 percent of those injuries are unintentional. The study also found that an average of 1,297 children die annually from gun-related injuries, making guns the third-leading cause of death for children in America (behind illnesses and unintentional injuries like drownings or car crashes). The number is based on data taken from 2012–2014 for children up to the age of 17.

Data on fatal gun deaths were drawn from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Vital Statistics System database, and data on non-fatal gun injuries were from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System.

Researchers found that 53 percent of the gun-related deaths were homicides, while 38 percent were suicides, 6 percent were unintentional and 3 percent were related to law enforcement or undetermined causes. Of the injuries, . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

19 June 2017 at 2:34 pm

Posted in Daily life, Government, Guns, Law

Who Holds the DEA Accountable When Its Missions Cost Lives?

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Ginger Thompson reports in ProPublica:

N EARLY 2011, the Drug Enforcement Administration obtained a rare and highly valuable piece of intelligence about the leaders of the Mexico-based Zetas cartel, one of the most powerful, and impenetrable, drug organizations in the world.

An agent in Dallas had persuaded the cartel’s leading cocaine distributor in East Texas to hand over trackable cellphone identification numbers for the group’s most wanted kingpins, in particular Miguel and Omar Treviño, a murderous pair of brothers whose viciousness had earned them top spots among the DEA’s most-wanted.

It was an intelligence coup, the kind of information that comes along once in a very lucky career. With those numbers, authorities could track the brothers’ movements and ultimately capture them. But the DEA made a decision with fatal consequences. Against the wishes of the lead agent on the case — whose informant specifically warned of the potential for bloodshed — the DEA told a Mexican federal police unit with a long history of leaking to traffickers that it had the information.

Within days, the Zetas were, in turn, told that the DEA was onto their leaders. The Treviño brothers guessed immediately which of the cells in their organization had betrayed them and began hunting for the snitches. When the suspected traitors couldn’t be found, the traffickers went after anyone connected to them.

Dozens, possibly hundreds, of people were killed and kidnapped in and around Allende, a quiet ranching town in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila, about 40 minutes from the U.S. border. Zetas gunmen grabbed a 15-year-old high school football player, who was hanging out with friends whose parents ran a health club where one of the suspected snitches lifted weights. They took an 81-year-old woman, as well as her 6-month-old great-grandson. One family lost nearly 20 members.

Black clouds spewed from a local ranch where the cartel turned one building into a makeshift crematorium to burn the bodies of those they had killed.

For years, Mexican authorities did next to nothing to investigate the massacre. Meanwhile people in Allende, understandably distrustful of the authorities sworn to protect them, kept their mouths shut.

Tragically, that outcome has become all too familiar in Mexico, where impunity is a national scourge. Homegrown corruption, greed and fear have bred an epidemic of virtually unchallenged violence. What makes this case different is that the DEA lit the fuse that triggered the slaughter, then stood mutely by — as if it had played no role. DEA officials knew almost immediately that innocent lives had been lost as a result of sharing the intelligence with Mexico. The agency’s response then — and in the years since — nothing.

It didn’t demand answers from its Mexican counterparts, or suspend cooperation with the Mexican police until it could determine how the information was leaked. It didn’t conduct an internal investigation into the decision to share the intelligence or reassess its own rules for giving sensitive information to Mexico. It didn’t report the violence to superiors at the Justice Department or to overseers on Capitol Hill.

And, perhaps underscoring the perception that the lives destroyed were in some way acceptable collateral damage in the war on drugs, it didn’t offer to provide any assistance to those victimized by the leak or resources to help identify and arrest the perpetrators.

I’ve spent most of the last year investigating and documenting the attack on Allende, recording detailed, often gut-wrenching, accounts from those who lived through it and those whose actions helped cause it for ProPublica and National Geographic. Dozens of people in Allende agreed to speak to me on the record, many of them talking publicly for the first time and at great personal risk. Even the former Zetas-turned-informants spoke at length about their roles and their devastating consequences. The assistant U.S. attorney on the case described himself as “devastated.” And eventually, the DEA agent who led the investigation discussed, at times emotionally, his part in the tragedy.

But when presented with this array of voices and evidence, DEA officials refused to explain what, if anything, the agency had done to respond to the massacre. Spokesman Russ Baer would only say that the agency placed blame squarely on the Treviño brothers: “They were killing people before that happened, and they killed people after the numbers were passed.” He told me I needed to be clear on one thing: “This is not a story where the DEA has blood on its hands.”

That’s technically true, and sadly seems by design. Because of the way Mexico’s drug war is fought, the United States plays a leading role — providing training, equipment and intelligence to security forces with reputations for collaborating with traffickers — without sharing responsibility for the fallout.

Some Mexican counternarcotics units or programs — including the one implicated in the Allende massacre — wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the United States. American taxpayers have pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into Mexico’s counternarcotics programs over the years. But other than vague lists of kingpins who have been arrested and the occasional made-for-TV photo op of seized drugs, . . .

Continue reading.

The War on Drugs has been an utter failure and a destructive force, corrupting police and governments, killing thousands of innocents, destroying any peaceful way of life in entire regions, causing denial and ignorance in bureaucrats whose fiefdoms are funded by the War on Drugs, and not doing anything to reduce drug use. Well, perhaps creating the opportunity for legal purveyors of pharmaceutical drugs to get more into the addiction business through opioids, which seems very much like a deliberate business decision: “See how much money you can make? Well, here’s the beauty part: we’ll do it legally. We’ll be rich!”

And read the rest of the article. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 June 2017 at 2:20 pm

Data reveal bias in policing—and in an interesting way

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From Stanford University’s Open Policing project, “FINDINGS: The results of our nationwide analysis of traffic stops and searches.”

Police pull over more than 50,000 drivers on a typical day, more than 20 million motorists every year. Yet the most common police interaction — the traffic stop — has not been tracked, at least not in any systematic way.

The Stanford Open Policing Project — a unique partnership between the Stanford Computational Journalism Lab and the Stanford School of Engineering — is changing that. Starting in 2015, the Open Policing Project began requesting such data from state after state. To date, the project has collected and standardized more than 100 million records of traffic stop and search data from 31 states.

Creating this resource has been marked by challenges. Some states don’t collect demographics of who police pull over. States that do collect the information don’t always release the data. Even when states do provide the information, the way they track and then process the data varies widely across the country, creating challenges for standardizing the information.

Data from 20 states, comprising more than 60 million state patrol stops, are sufficiently detailed to facilitate rigorous statistical analysis. The result? The project has found significant racial disparities in policing. These disparities can occur for many reasons: differences in driving behavior, to name one. But, in some cases, we find evidence that bias also plays a role.

On this site, you can explore our results. You’ll find tutorials that walk you through the steps to understand the data yourself, and information on a new statistical test of discrimination developed as part of this project. See our technical paper for more details.

We encourage you to dig into the data. Toward that end, we’re releasing the records we’ve collected and our analysis code. We’ll be regularly updating the repository, and we’re collecting even more information, including local police stops.

STOP RATES

We start by analyzing the rates at which police stop motorists in locations across the country, relative to the driving age population in those areas. The data show that officers generally stop black drivers at higher rates than white drivers, and stop Hispanic drivers at similar or lower rates than whites. These broad patterns persist after controlling for the drivers’ age and gender.

Examining stop rates is a natural starting point, but they can be hard to interpret. For example, driving behavior and time spent on the road likely differ by race or ethnicity. The racial composition of the local population also may not be representative of those who drive through an area, especially when dealing with stops on highways.

AFTER THE STOP

After accounting for age, gender, and location, we find that officers ticket, search, and arrest black and Hispanic drivers more often than whites. For example, when pulled over for speeding, black drivers are 20% more likely to get a ticket (rather than a warning) than white drivers, and Hispanic drivers are 30% more likely to be ticketed than white drivers. Black and Hispanic motorists are about twice as likely to be searched compared to white drivers.

These patterns illustrate the disparate impact of policing on minority communities. However, as with stop rates, these disparities may not be due to bias. In nearly every jurisdiction, stopped black and Hispanic drivers are searched more often than whites. But if minorities also happen to carry contraband at higher rates, these higher search rates may stem from appropriate police work. Disentangling discrimination from effective policing is challenging and requires more subtle statistical analysis.

Continue reading.

And there are more graphs, all interesting, on various topics—e.g., this one:

The text for that:

THE EFFECTS OF LEGALIZING RECREATIONAL MARIJUANA USE

Several states have recently legalized the use of recreational marijuana. We have detailed data in two of these states: Colorado and Washington.

After marijuana use was legalized, both states saw a dramatic drop in search rates. That’s because many searches are drug-related. Take away marijuana as a crime and searches go down.

In Washington and Colorado, far fewer people — both whites and minorities — are searched overall. However, the racial disparities in searches remain and there is a persistent gap in the threshold for searching white and minority drivers.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 June 2017 at 2:12 pm

A 1912 news article ominously forecasted the catastrophic effects of fossil fuels on climate change

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Akshat Rathi writes in Quartz:

A short news clip from a New Zealand paper published in 1912 has gone viral as an example of an early news story to make the connection between burning fossil fuels and climate change.

It wasn’t, however, the first article to suggest that our love for coal was wreaking destruction on our environment that would lead to climate change. The theory—now widely accepted as scientific reality—was mentioned in the news media as early as 1883, and was discussed in scientific circles much earlier than that.

The French physicist Joseph Fourier had made the observation in 1824 that the composition of the atmosphere is likely to affect the climate. But Svante Arrhenius’s 1896 study titled, “On the influence of carbonic acid in the air upon the temperature on the ground” was the first to quantify how carbon dioxide (or anhydrous carbonic acid, by another name) affects global temperature. Though the study does not explicitly say that the burning of fossil fuels would cause global warming, there were scientists before him who had made such a forecast.

The earliest such mention that Quartz could find was in the journal Nature in December of 1882. The author HA Phillips writes:

According to Prof Tyndall’s research, hydrogen, marsh gas, and ethylene have the property to a very high degree of absorbing and radiating heat, and so much that a very small proportion, of say one thousandth part, had very great effect. From this we may conclude that the increasing pollution of the atmosphere will have a marked influence on the climate of the world.

Phillips was relying on the work of John Tyndall, who in the 1860s had shown how various gases in the atmosphere absorb heat from the sun in the form of infrared radiation. Now we know that Phillips was wrong about a few scientific details: He ignored carbon dioxide from burning coal and focused more on the by-products of mining. Still, he was drawing the right conclusion about what our demand for fossil fuels might do to the climate.

Newspapers around the world took those words published in a prestigious scientific journal quite seriously. In January 1883, the New York Times published a lengthy article based on Phillips’ letter to Nature, which said: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 June 2017 at 12:47 pm

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