Archive for the ‘Business’ Category
Full disclosure: I use Disconnect on all my browsers on my laptop. And I’ve blogged about it.
Ryan Gallagher reports for The Intercept:
An award-winning company founded by former Google engineers is taking legal action against the search engine giant over claims it has engaged in a “pattern of abusive behavior” and is violating privacy rights on a “massive scale.”
Disconnect, a U.S. firm that designs privacy-enhancing technology, has filed a complaint with European antitrust regulators after its Android app was banned from the Google Play Store. The app was designed to protect smartphone users from invisible tracking and malware distributed through online advertisements.
The complaint was submitted earlier this month, but the full allegations were not made public at the time. The Intercept has obtained a copy of the 104-page complaint, which attacks Google over its claimed commitment to privacy and accuses the tech titan of trying to stop people from using the Disconnect app because it poses an “existential threat” to its revenue sources.
Google’s business, the complaint claims, “consists almost entirely of gathering data about the preferences, locations, and behavior of ordinary people and monetizing that data through the sale of targeted advertisements on the Internet.” Because of this, it alleges, Google is “using the full weight of its market power to deny users control over tracking, particularly mobile tracking.”
When you visit a website, usually unbeknown to you, other websites and services try to connect to your device in the background to collect data about your browsing habits. The Disconnect app allows users to view and block these invisible network connections, which the company says “permit intrusions into the personal privacy of users by facilitating tracking and the collection of personal information” and “expose users to risks associated with malware and other forms of cybercrime.” However, some of these same invisible connections are used to generate advertising revenue, an issue that appears to be at the root of Google’s decision to crack down on Disconnect.
Disconnect argues in its complaint:
[I]nvisible, unsolicited tracking is Google’s lifeblood. The company makes virtually all of its revenue from advertising. Tracking permits Google to target its ads and, hence, to charge advertisers far more for ad placement. Indeed, Google is under enormous pressure from the financial community to increase the “effectiveness” of its tracking, so that it can increase revenues and profits. Giving a user the ability to control his own privacy information (and to protect himself from malware) by blocking invisible connections to problematic sites constitutes an existential threat to Google.
Google is dismissing Disconnect’s allegations as “baseless.” A company spokesman told The Intercept that Google Play policies “have long prohibited apps that interfere with other apps (such as by altering their functionality, or removing their way of making money). We apply this policy uniformly — and Android developers strongly support it. All apps must comply with these policies and there’s over 200 privacy apps available in Google Play that do.”
However, Disconnect claims that some apps that interfere with others have in fact been allowed in the Play Store — such as Ghostery’s Ad Control app — and it says Google turns a blind eye to them because they are “less effective” at blocking invisible tracking.
“We don’t think our app should be treated differently, the remedy we’re seeking is equal treatment,” Disconnect’s CEO Casey Oppenheim told The Intercept. “Google allows many Android apps in the Play Store that interfere with other apps.”
Google is putting its interest in ad revenues above protection of its users, Oppenheim alleged, undermining the public’s right to privacy and ability to protect itself from malware and identity theft.
“Google has built great technologies,” he said, “but it’s violating consumer privacy rights and creating dangerous security vulnerabilities on a massive scale.” . . .
From EWG, the foods with the worst pesticide residue—so buy these foods from the organic section:
- Sweet bell peppers
- Cherry tomatoes
- Snap peas – imported
- Hot Peppers
- Kale / Collard greens
And the foods lowest in pesticide residue, so safe to buy from the conventional section:
- Sweet corn
- Sweet peas
- Sweet potatoes (I prefer Jewell)
Broccoli is another safe one. Check the link.
Nice touch: they offer a mobile phone app so you can get food’s score as you shop.
The US for some reason has been reluctant to learn from other nations. Maurice Chammah reports for the Marshall Project on how Germany implements prisons:
Pictures of European prisons can be shocking, at least here in the United States. After all, eight of Buzzfeed’s “14 Prisons That Will Make You Question What You Think About Serving Time” were in Europe, and last fall, Business Insider told us, “An American Warden Visited A Norwegian Prison, And He Couldn’t Believe What He Saw.” Fed a steady diet of The Shawshank Redemption and Orange is the New Black, American readers know their own prisons are bleak places. So these images—of well-stocked kitchens, pottery studios, and cells that look like college dorm rooms—are a reminder of how starkly different correctional systems can be.
The Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based nonprofit that works with government agencies to improve courts, prisons, and other criminal justice institutions, has been trying for the last few years to show Americans that the two continents may not be as wildly incompatible as such headlines might suggest. This week, Vera and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice are taking a group of prison officials, prosecutors, researchers, and activists from the U.S. to tour German prisons. The International Sentencing and Corrections Exchange, as this tour is being called, includes the heads of the prison systems for New Mexico, Washington, Tennessee, and Connecticut, several district attorneys, and Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy.
I’m here with them. Over the next several days, I’ll be keeping a tour diary for The Marshall Project and VICE, watching as they visit a series of facilities in Berlin and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, along the northern coast, and hear presentations on how Germany handles sentencing, drug addiction, officer training, juveniles, high-risk prisoners, and probation.
The trip comes amidst an ongoing reevaluation in the U.S. on both the right and left about whether the tough-on-crime policies that proliferated in the 1970s — from lengthened sentences to increased use of solitary confinement to the prosecution of teenagers in adult courts — have actually made the public safer. (That reappraisal has been promoted by two conservatives who on this trip: Marc Levin, a Marshall Project advisory board member and policy director of the Right on Crime movement, and Vikrant Reddy, a research fellow at the Charles Koch Institute).
“I think at the end of the day, the public want people who return to their communities who won’t commit more crimes,” said Bernie Warner, Washington state’s corrections secretary and one of those making the journey, summing up the general feelings behind the trend. “Unless you focus on fixing behavior, you’re putting people back in the community who are bad for public safety.”
The state officials picked for this trip have shown an interest in reform. Malloy, the governor of Connecticut, and the state’s corrections chief, Scott Semple, have pushed to repeal mandatory sentences and improve programs to help ex-prisoners find jobs, terming this broader initiative the “Second-Chance Society.” Gregg Marcantel, the corrections secretary of New Mexico, has pushed to reduce usage of solitary confinement. John Chisholm, the district attorney of Milwaukee County, has tried to address high incarceration rates of African-Americans.
The Vera Institute has chosen these leaders in hopes that they’ll take the European lessons seriously, and that they have the clout and credibility to enact change once they return home.
The track record for this idea is short but promising. In 2013, Vera took a similar group on tours of prisons in the Netherlands and Germany. John Wetzel, who runs the prison system in Pennsylvania, adapted ideas from the trip as he revamped the way his state handles prisoners before they’re released. He learned how in Germany, correctional officers are more like therapists than guards, and when he returned, Wetzel told me, he increased training in communication skills for his employees, “shifting the whole focus around humanizing offenders and lifting the expectations for officers, to get every staff member to feel some ownership over outcomes.” Wetzel also increased mental health training because “when people understand the root cause of behavior, they are more likely to not interpret something as disrespectful.”
The point of all this, Wetzel added, is to figure out what’s causing prisoners to commit crimes so you can find out how to make sure they’re less likely to commit more once they leave prison, thereby protecting the public. “It almost smacked me in the face when they said that public safety is a logical consequence of a good corrections system, and not the other way around.”
Beyond policy, comparing American and German prisons will surely unearth some deeper undercurrents in the histories of both societies. Just as no study of American prisons is complete without looking at the history of race relations all the way back to slavery, German incarceration exists in the shadow of the 1940s and that decade’s unspeakable combination of prison, factory, and slaughterhouse. . .
Jeffrey Ball writes in the Atlantic:
Prince Turki bin Saud bin Mohammad Al Saud belongs to the family that rules Saudi Arabia. He wears a white thawb and ghutra, the traditional robe and headdress of Arab men, and he has a cavernous office hung with portraits of three Saudi royals. When I visited him in Riyadh this spring, a waiter poured tea and subordinates took notes as Turki spoke. Everything about the man seemed to suggest Western notions of a complacent functionary in a complacent, oil-rich kingdom.
But Turki doesn’t fit the stereotype, and neither does his country. Quietly, the prince is helping Saudi Arabia—the quintessential petrostate—prepare to make what could be one of the world’s biggest investments in solar power.
Near Riyadh, the government is preparing to build a commercial-scale solar-panel factory. On the Persian Gulf coast, another factory is about to begin producing large quantities of polysilicon, a material used to make solar cells. And next year, the two state-owned companies that control the energy sector—Saudi Aramco, the world’s biggest oil company, and the Saudi Electricity Company, the kingdom’s main power producer—plan to jointly break ground on about 10 solar projects around the country.
Turki heads two Saudi entities that are pushing solar hard: the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, a national research-and-development agency based in Riyadh, and Taqnia, a state-owned company that has made several investments in renewable energy and is looking to make more. “We have a clear interest in solar energy,” Turki told me. “And it will soon be expanding exponentially in the kingdom.”
Such talk sounds revolutionary in Saudi Arabia, for decades a poster child for fossil-fuel waste. The government sells gasoline to consumers for about 50 cents a gallon and electricity for as little as 1 cent a kilowatt-hour, a fraction of the lowest prices in the United States. As a result, the highways buzz with Cadillacs, Lincolns, and monster SUVs; few buildings have insulation; and people keep their home air conditioners running—often at temperatures that require sweaters—even when they go on vacation.
Saudi Arabia produces much of its electricity by burning oil, a practice that most countries abandoned long ago, reasoning that they could use coal and natural gas instead and save oil for transportation, an application for which there is no mainstream alternative. Most of Saudi Arabia’s power plants are colossally inefficient, as are its air conditioners, which consumed 70 percent of the kingdom’s electricity in 2013. Although the kingdom has just 30 million people, it is the world’s sixth-largest consumer of oil.
Now, Saudi rulers say, things must change. Their motivation isn’t concern about global warming; the last thing they want is an end to the fossil-fuel era. Quite the contrary: they see investing in solar energy as a way to remain a global oil power.
Pam Martens and Russ Martens report in Wall Street on Parade:
Yesterday, Mary Jo White was in London to address the International Organization of Securities Commissions (IOSCO). While there, she commented on the U.K.’s new plan to hold senior managers in the finance industry responsible for fraud in their departments. Each senior manager will have a specific delegated responsibility and if fraud occurs in their area, he or she can be terminated and banned for life from the industry if the senior manager had knowledge of the fraud. White called the idea “intriguing.”
While White was chatting with her fellow securities regulators in London on this novel idea of actually holding crooked Wall Street bosses accountable, Thomas Hayes was on trial in another section of London over charges that he rigged the benchmark interest rate, Libor, on which interest rates on loans and financial instruments are set around the world. Yesterday, Hayes produced for the jury a “Guide to Publishing Libor Rates,”which his superiors at UBS had crafted for traders, teaching them how to manipulate Libor to benefit trading positions of UBS. Hayes’ bosses are not on trial.
In 2012 when JPMorgan Chase was caught using hundreds of billions of dollars of its depositors’ money inside its commercial bank to make wild, exotic derivative bets (London Whale affair) to benefit its own profits, while losing at least $6.2 billion in the process, neither the head of that unit, Ina Drew, nor the company’s CEO, Jamie Dimon, were charged. Only two low-level traders, Javier Martín-Artajo and Julien Grout, were charged in the matter for hiding losses on the trades. Both of these individuals live abroad and efforts to extradite them for trial in the U.S. have thus far failed, conveniently leaving the public in the dark about how much their bosses knew.
On October 21 of last year, the Inspector General of the Federal Reserve System released a sanitized report on the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s supervision of JPMorgan Chase during the London Whale debacle. The skimpy report revealed that the staff of the New York Fed, one of JPMorgan’s regulators, had on three occasions – 2008, 2009, and 2010 – recommended an examination of the Chief Investment Office where the $6.2 billion in London Whale derivative losses were eventually discovered in 2012. The recommended examinations mysteriously didn’t happen. Jamie Dimon sat on the Board of Directors of the New York Fed – his own bank’s regulator – from 2007 through 2012.
On November 21 of last year, the President of the New York Fed, William Dudley, was himself hauled before a Senate panel to answer questions swirling around its coziness with the Wall Street firms it regulates. One deal at Goldman Sachs was allowed to proceed because it was “legal but shady” in the opinion of a New York Fed official. Shady is clearly the best one can hope for in the midst of epic corruption on Wall Street today.
The Senate hearing was triggered by a run of regulatory failings by the New York Fed and the September release of internal tape recordings made by Carmen Segarra, a former bank examiner at the New York Fed who says she was fired in retaliation for refusing to change her negative examination of Goldman Sachs. Portions of the tape recordings were released by ProPublica and public radio’s This American Life, showing a lap dog regulator afraid to take on a powerful Wall Street firm.
In 2012 Wall Street On Parade broke the story that Dudley, head of the body supervising JPMorgan Chase, had an outrageous conflict of interest that had actually been vetted and approved by the New York Fed. According to internal documents, Dudley’s spouse had previously worked for JPMorgan Chase and was receiving $190,000 annually in deferred compensation distributions from the bank. The $190,000 was to continue until 2021.
That kind of a conflict also comes under the heading of “legal but shady,” which appears to have blossomed into an art form at Wall Street regulators.
Then there was the SEC’s case against a shady and illegal deal called ABACUS at Goldman Sachs. On April 16, 2010, the SEC explained the deal as follows: . . .
It’s really too bad that the Federal government has so little will to take action.
Willoughby Mariano reports in the Atlanta Journal Consitution:
Since 2000, the state’s largest hospital has failed to tell police about as many as 1,500 possible sex crimes, including more than 130 where the victims asked the hospital for help to bring rapists to justice, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found.
Grady Memorial officials said a federal medical privacy law blocked them from alerting police or providing them with evidence they collected from patients, such as bodily fluids and hair.
But had staff notified police when they learned of the possible crimes, the federal law would have been no barrier, legal experts told the AJC. What’s more, state law requires hospitals to alert law enforcement to injuries that may have been caused by a crime. Other hospitals contacted by the AJC said they report immediately and give the evidence stored in “rape kits” to investigators.
As it is, victims at Grady may have undergone an invasive, grueling rape exam for nothing, advocates said, and dangerous criminal may have gone unpunished. Police could have been flagged to patterns of attacks. Entering DNA samples into a national database could have unmasked attackers who were strangers to their victims or prevented serial rapists from striking again.
Grady officials later acknowledged that 136 patients who said they were raped had requested in writing that the hospital turn over findings and answer questions from police. Hospital Attorney Timothy Jefferson wouldn’t say why those assaults were not reported to law enforcement.
“Obviously there was a mistake made somewhere. Or something else happened,” Jefferson told the AJC.
He insists, though, that the federal Health Insurance Portability and Acccountability Act barred the hospital from notifying police. If Grady doesn’t have patients’ written and verbal consent to provide evidence to police, it locks the rape kits away in a storage room. There they stay unless patients change their minds and file police reports themselves.
He said he disagrees with the other attorneys’ interpretation of the federal law, and that Grady plans no immediate changes in its policy.
Following the AJC’s inquiries, Grady did hand Atlanta police the 136 rape kits, without telling them why. . .
For-profit hospitals should be made illegal in all states, as they are in some, and for a very good reason: they mercilessly gouge people who are ill and cannot fight back. Wendell Potter reports at the Center for Public Integrity:
If you think costs would come down if hospitals were all owned and operated by big for-profit corporations like Hospital Corporation of America, you might want to take a look at a study published last week by the journal Health Affairs.
Of the 50 U.S. hospitals that mark up prices the most, 49 of them are part of for-profit hospital chains, according to the study’s authors, Ge Bai of Washington & Lee University and Gerard Anderson of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Using 2012 data provided by 4,483 hospitals to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Bai and Anderson found that those 50 had an average markup of 1,013 percent over what Medicare pays for the thousands of items on hospitals’ “chargemasters.” (Chargemasters are lists of all the items and services hospitals bill for. Hospitals set their own charges. Few states set any limits on what hospitals can charge.) That’s almost three times the average markup at the other 4,433 hospitals. The average markup for all those other hospitals—most of them nonprofits—was 340 percent.
Of those high-markup 50, more than a fourth of them are owned and operated by Nashville-based Hospital Corporation of America (HCA). But with 14 hospitals on the list, HCA was just in second place. A full half of the top 50 are owned by HCA’s biggest rival, Community Health Systems, a Franklin, Tennessee company that operates 199 hospitals in 29 states.
At the very top of the markup list was North Okaloosa Medical Center in Crestview, Florida. That hospital, in the Sunshine State’s panhandle, had the distinction of marking up its costs an average of 1260 percent. The Atlantic’s Olga Khazan took a look at North Okaloosa’s markups. She found, for example, that the hospital charged $79,350 to treat a hemorrhage. That’s compared to Medicare’s reimbursement of $5,177.
As the authors noted in their Health Affairs article, “Collectively, this system (of giving hospitals free rein to mark up their costs) has the effect of charging the highest prices to the most vulnerable patients and those with the least market power.” Those who are the most vulnerable, of course, are the uninsured and under-insured. Bai and Anderson pointed out that even when (or if) the Affordable Care Act is fully implemented, there will still be 30 million people without insurance. When those folks get sick or injured and wind up in the hospital, they’ll be on the hook to pay whatever the hospitals decide to charge. This means that even with the ACA, thousands of families will still find themselves in bankruptcy court every year because of medical bills they can’t possibly pay.
(Note to the uninsured: it’s in your best interest to find out which hospitals near you are nonprofit and which ones are for-profit. And that’s not just because the for-profits’ markups are higher. The ACA requires nonprofit hospitals to provide discounts to eligible uninsured patients. There are no such requirements for for-profits.)
Most of the high-markup hospitals are in the South. And of the top 50, 20 are in for-profit-hospital-friendly Florida, whose governor is former HCA CEO Rick Scott.
Scott has a long history in the world of for-profit health care. When I worked for Humana in the early 1990s, the company decided to sell its hospital division, and Scott and one of his business partners at the time, David Vanderwater, bought them. Soon after that, Scott negotiated a merger with HCA and became the combined company’s chief executive. He resigned from HCA in 1997 after the government launched an investigation into whether the company had committed Medicare fraud. . .