Why is Congress clueless about tech? Beancounters killed the committee!

When the draft version of a federal encryption bill got leaked this month, the verdict in the tech community was unanimous. Critics called it ludicrous and technically illiterate — and these were the kinder assessments of the “Compliance with Court Orders Act of 2016,” proposed legislation authored by the offices of Senators Diane Feinstein and Richard Burr.

The encryption issue is complex and the stakes are high, as evidenced by the recent battle between Apple and the FBI. Many other technology issues that the country is grappling with these days are just as complex, controversial, and critical—witness the debates over law enforcement’s use of stingrays to track mobile phones or the growing concerns around drones, self-driving cars, and 3-D printing. Yet decisions about these technical issues are being handled by luddite lawmakers who sometimes boast about not owning a cell phone or never having sent an email…

This wasn’t always the case. US lawmakers once had a body of independent technical and scientific experts at their disposal who were the envy of other nations: the Office of Technology Assessment. That is, until the OTA got axed unceremoniously two decades ago in a round of budget cuts.

Now, when lawmakers most need independent experts to guide them through the morass of technical details in our increasingly connected world, they have to rely on the often-biased advice of witnesses at committee hearings — sometimes chosen simply for their geographical proximity to Washington DC or a lawmaker’s home district.

Ashkan Soltani, who recently served as chief technologist to the Federal Trade Commission, says it’s important to have experts who are not lobbyists or activists with an ax to grind and do not represent companies that stand to profit from the decisions lawmakers make. Tech and science geeks, he says, can “basically be an encyclopedia for how things work, and can really help policymakers get to a good outcome,” he told WIRED. “We had that in the OTA and that went away, and I think that was a huge mistake.”…

The lack of tech expertise on Capitol Hill has never been more glaring than in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks. Revelations about the NSA’s extensive spying programs made it obvious that lawmakers who conducted oversight of these programs lacked the ability to comprehend the level of surveillance modern intelligence agencies can do with the sophisticated technologies available to them today. As a result, many politicians briefed on the surveillance programs were unable to pose the right questions about the NSA’s controversial bulk collection of phone records and email metadata. After the secret phone records program was exposed in 2013, President Obama insisted that “every member of Congress” had been briefed on it. But these were legal briefings “to explain the law” relevant to the program. Lawmakers didn’t understand the extensive surveillance the government could do simply by mining the metadata around the calls that people make to one another—data that can reveal a lot about a person’s activity and the people with whom they associate.

“Most members of Congress don’t know enough about science and technology to know what questions to ask, and so they don’t know what answers they’re missing,” former Congressman Rush Holt told WIRED.

RTFA for a big chunk of useful history. Useful, that is, to folks interested in understanding the ill-founded results of incompetence in office.

There isn’t any likelihood of OTA being reinstated as long as Tea Party Republicans and Blue Dog Dems campaign for re-election by answering questions about climate change, sexual identity, pollution and poisoned water with a canned statement starting with “I’m not a scientist…”

Leak of incompetent Senate encryption bill prompts immediate condemnation

Burr&Feinstein DHS buddies
Burr and Feinstein turn their backs on liberty and privacy

Security researchers and civil liberties advocates on Friday condemned draft legislation leaked from the U.S. Senate that would let judges order technology companies to assist law enforcement agencies in breaking into encrypted data.

The long-awaited bill is emerging just as the U.S. Justice Department redoubles its efforts to use the courts to force Apple to help unlock encrypted iPhones.

The Senate proposal is an attempt to resolve long-standing disagreements between the technology community, which believes strong encryption is essential to keep hackers and others from disrupting the Internet, and law enforcement officials worried about being unable to pry open encrypted devices and communications of criminal suspects.

But the draft bill, leaked online Thursday evening, was planned as an overly vague measure that added up to a ban on strong encryption.

Kevin Bankston, director of the Open Technology Institute, said in a statement it was the most ludicrous, dangerous, technically illiterate tech policy proposal of the 21st century…”

…The most current draft of the proposal…would give judges broad authority to order tech companies to hand over data in “an intelligible format” or provide “technical assistance” to access locked data. It does not spell out what form the data must take or under what circumstances a company would be forced to help…

In a joint statement, the authors of the bill, Senators Richard Burr and Dianne Feinstein, said they were still working with stakeholders to finalize the bill…

Two leading representatives of the kind of incompetents Americans elect and re-elect to regulate our lives and freedom. Sad commentary on the level of political hacks who can always be counted upon to fall to their knees at the slightest request from someone with a uniform and a badge.

The proposal from Burr and Feinstein, the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee respectively, is expected to face a steep climb in a gridlocked U.S. Congress during an election year.

“For the first time in America, companies that want to protect their customers with stronger security will not have that choice,” Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat and vocal privacy advocate told reporters Friday. “They will be required by federal law per this statute to decide how to weaken their products to make Americans less safe.”

Matt Blaze, a professor and computer security expert at the University of Pennsylvania, said on Twitter that the bill was worse than a failed effort by President Bill Clinton’s administration in the 1990s to require a special computer chip in phones to give the U.S. government a way to monitor encrypted conversations.

Same as it ever was, eh?

NC Republicans block compensation for sterilization victims


Elaine Riddick in her home in Atlanta, today
Daylife/AP Photo used by permission

There was a time when over half of the states in the U.S. had eugenics programs. Only one state continued after the revelations of Nazi atrocities at the end of World War 2. North Carolina.

The North Carolina Senate rejected a plan to compensate victims of a mass sterilization plan that targeted mostly poor minorities for decades in the 20th century…Senate Republicans refused to support the measure put forth by the House to set aside $10 million in the state budget for compensation, which would have given victims $50,000 each. The move would have made North Carolina the first state to compensate eugenics victims…

North Carolina ran one of the country’s most active eugenics programs, targeting people who were poor and undereducated, and those with physical or mental disabilities. The North Carolina Eugenics Board, a five-person panel, made its decisions in the name of social welfare…

Elaine Riddick, 58, was one of the victims. Pregnant after she was raped at age 14, Riddick was sterilized without her knowledge when she went to a North Carolina hospital to give birth to her son in 1968. Years later, she learned what had happened to her

Deemed “promiscuous” and “feebleminded” by a social worker at the hospital, Riddick, who came from a black family on welfare, was recommended to the state for sterilization. Riddick’s illiterate grandmother was told that they were doing a “procedure” that was necessary to help the young girl; she signed the consent papers with an X. The state authorized and paid for the procedure, and without her consent or even her knowledge, Riddick was sterilized shortly after she gave birth…

“I was raped twice,” Elaine Riddick said, “once by the perpetrator and once by the state of North Carolina.”

North Carolina Republicans offer up their worship of the almighty dollar as key to their rejection of compensation. Some admit to concern over extending responsibility to all political crimes. Their biggest fear is that they might have to repay victims of all the crimes committed by the state against ordinary citizens.

Coppers free students chained in basement of Pakistan seminary


Two of the rescued children
Daylife/Getty Images used by permission

Police in the Pakistani city of Karachi have rescued 54 students from the basement of an Islamic seminary, or madrassa, where they said they were kept in chains by clerics, beaten and barely fed.

Police raided the Zakariya madrassa late on Monday on the outskirts of Karachi, Pakistan’s commercial hub. They were now investigating whether it had any links to violent militant groups, which often recruit from hardline religious schools. Most victims had signs of severe torture, and had developed wounds from the chains, police said. The main cleric of the madrassa escaped during the raid.

“Those 50 boys who were kept in such an environment like animals,” Interior Minister Rehman Malik told journalists…

“I was there for 30 days and I did not seen the sky or the sun even once,” Zainullah Khan, 21, told Reuters at a police station where the students were questioned and then released to their relatives. “I was whipped with a rubber belt and forced to beg for food…”

Many people are too poor to afford non-religious schools or feel state institutions are inadequate so they send their children to madrassas, where they memorize the Koran, learn Arabic and study the traditions of Islam.

Many madrassas offer free boarding and lodging. Some of the more extreme schools churn out fighters and suicide bombers for militant groups like the Taliban or al Qaeda.

Not exactly the newest ploy in the world for a religion to gather loyal recruits.

Religious schools in many countries are run as recruiting tools, as centers for rehabilitation, for free and later for profit. People who are poor enough, ignorant and/or illiterate, foolish enough to believe in a religion-based free lunch get what they pay for.

Technology doesn’t dumb us down

Everyone has been talking about an article in The Atlantic magazine called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Some subset of that group has actually read the 4,175-word article, by Nicholas Carr…

It is hard to think of a technology that wasn’t feared when it was introduced. In his Atlantic article, Carr says that Socrates feared the impact that writing would have on man’s ability to think. The advent of the printing press summoned similar fears. It wouldn’t be the last time…

But for all the new technologies that increase our productivity, there are others that demand more of our time. That is one of the dialectics of our era. With its maps and Internet access, the iPhone saves us time; with its downloadable games, we also carry a game machine in our pocket. The proportion of time-wasters to time-savers may only grow. In a knowledge-based society in which knowledge is free, attention becomes the valued commodity. Companies compete for eyeballs, that great metric born in the dot-com boom, and vie to create media that are sticky, another great term from this era. We are not paid for our attention span, but rewarded for it with yet more distractions and demands on our time.
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Rebuilding after Katrina hampered by an illiterate population

Three years after Katrina, residents of New Orleans are still buried in a blizzard of government paperwork. But for thousands of storm victims seeking federal aid, the challenge is made more difficult by a little-known obstacle: More than 40 percent of the city’s adults lack the literacy skills to comprehend basic government forms. And recovery programs have done little to ease the burden.

“I didn’t get a lot of school when I was a child. I guess they didn’t have enough to go around,” said Marsha Williams, who is learning to read in a YMCA adult-education course.

Rachel B. Nicolosi, program director for the Literacy Alliance of Greater New Orleans, estimates that as many as 100,000 people from New Orleans may have had assistance delayed, or they never applied for help at all, because they could not read the documents.

It’s a paramount issue. The rules are almost indecipherable for everyone,” said Davida Finger, a staff attorney for Loyola University’s New Orleans College of Law. Katrina destroyed 27 adult literacy programs when it came ashore in 2005. Only 13 programs survived, so Nicolosi and others have asked for government rebuilding agencies to write aid forms in a “plain language” format that is already used for some federal health and safety documents.

The government says “NO”.

The cornerstone of neighborhood rebuilding efforts is the $10.3 billion Road Home program, which asks participants to review dozens of documents and sign 18 final legal papers before aid is approved.

Just what serious reformation and rebuilding really needs. Right?

When I worked in the shipyards of Louisiana, the worst result of years of segregation and discrimination I confronted – was how racist school systems kept poor people, especially poor Black people, under their thumb with ignorance and illiteracy.