Category Archives: Politics

Social Security Numbers Are Kinda Sorta National IDs 

C. G. P. Grey has a video on Social Security numbers, and how even though they were explicitly not meant to be used for identification — it used to plainly state that on the card — their  ubiquitness made it too tempting for the IRS and various financial companies to not use them for identification. So now, they’re national ID cards in all but name, and very very poor ones, because they are horribly insecure.

See also:

The 2016 Game of Thrones Election

Between Cersei Clinton and Walder Trump

 

All Drug Use Has Been Decriminalized in Portugal Since 2001, And It’s Going Well

Before we get into details, a couple of clarifications:

  1. Yes, this includes the hard stuff, like cocaine and heroin
  2. It’s decriminalization, not legalization: drug use is still illegal, but it’s treated as a civil matter rather than a criminal one. More like traffic tickets and contracts rather than burglaries and murder.
  3. Making, trafficking and selling drugs are still criminal acts; the only thing that’s been decriminalized is possession for personal use, which is defined as a 10 day supply.

Now that we know the parameters of the situation, how has Portugal’s social experiment gone so far? For the most part, things have somewhat improved, and definitely nothing bad happened. Before the 2001 law went into effect, Portugal had a pretty bad drug problem, and a really bad problem with HIV caused by drug use, via infected needles. Since then, continued drug use has decreased by a third, drug court cases by two-thirds, the number of addicts has been cut in half, drug-related HIV cases have plummeted, and so have deaths by overdose.

Prevalence of drug use among all Portugese adults

However, the fear in the United States isn’t that re-classifying drug use from a criminal act to a health problem won’t decrease deaths, court cases and health problems. It’s that drug use will go up, because why wouldn’t it? Depending on who you ask, people either aren’t smart enough or restrained enough to not do drugs without the threat of a jail sentence. (Nevermind that half of American prisoners are there for drugs, and that the 40-year War on Drugs has been a trillion dollar failure.)

Well, it turns out that at least the Portugese know to stay away from drugs even if they get to keep their freedom. The above graph shows that definitely more people tried drugs since they’ve been decriminalized: the lifetime prevalence — how many people have ever tried drugs — went up about half as much by 2007, then declined a bit by 2012, but it still stayed above the 2001 figure. But the other numbers show that people only tried drugs while they were newly legal: by 2012, the amount of people that had tried drugs in the past month or the past year had both gone down from before decriminalization. So while experimental drug use went up, regular use went down.

This is probably because people know drugs are bad without any government threats, the same way they know that jumping out of a plane, even though it sounds like fun at first, ends up poorly. Yet, with proper precautions and supervision, thousands of people jump out of planes each year and walk away to live to tell about it.

US incarceration rate over time

But if it’s going so well for Portugal, why don’t more countries try decriminalizing personal drug use? Well, a few have:

  • Uruguay never criminalized it, and is in the process of opening government-run marijuana shops
  • The Czech Republic did the least they could under the UN’s Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs: small amounts for personal use are only a misdemeanor, subject to a small fine.
  • The Netherlands are famous for not enforcing drug laws for ‘soft’ drugs, such as marijuana
  • In Argentina, the Supreme Court declared laws against personal drug use as unconstitutional, but this has been largely ignored by the government.

See also:

via Business Insider, Policy.Mic, Washington Post, and The Associated Press

Furloughed NSA

furloughed-nsa

If you’re reading this in the distant future, this is regarding the 2013 U.S. government shutdown and the NSA surveillance scandal

See also:

Via FAIL Blog

Cellphone Use Does Not Cause More Car Crashes

More research has come out against the common belief that being on your phone while driving will make you more likely to crash a car. This time, they took advantage of the cellphone call spike that happens at 9pm on weekdays, which is when it generally becomes free to place calls: if talking on the phone led to more crashes, then there would also be a spike in car accidents just after 9pm. There was no such thing.

Crash Rate for California from 8pm to 10pm in Preperiods (1995 to 1998) and Postperiods (2005) (Monday to Thursday)

In lab simulations, it’s been shown that any kind of cellphone use (talking hands-free or not, texting, etc) is always more impairing than driving while drunk or high on marijuana. Real-life data does not seem to support the lab results, though. In their paper (PDF), the researchers also brought up two important points that we’ve seen before:

  1. Despite the exponential increase in cellphones over the past two decades, car crashes haven continued to decrease
  2. Laws banning cell phone use have no effect on accidents

Cellular Ownership and Crashes Per Vehicle Mile Traveled in the United States for 1988 to 2005

It’s also worth mentioning another study from 2012 showing that bad drivers will always drive badly: if they can’t be distracted by cell phones, they will find or make another distraction to keep them from being bored. Thankfully, self-driving cars are just years away at this point.

See also:

From Carnegie Mellon University (PDF), via Slashdot

The NSA Eavesdrops On Everyone Because… There’s Money In It?

This is the “nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition” moment of the whole Snowden saga, except instead of the Inquisition, it’s the Defense Industry. Last week, the House of Representatives had a vote to de-fund the NSA’s eavesdropping ability. In the end, the vote did not go through and the NSA still has money to collect all our data; but it was pretty close: 217 to 205 votes. Wired wondered if money had anything to do with the outcome of the vote and had the non-partisan, non-profit political money tracker maplight.org look into the matter.

Defense Contributions Chart

The evidence is pretty damning: the Congressmen that voted to continue funding the NSA’s activities received twice as much money from the Defense Industry. Why? Because NSA personnel are but a fraction of the NSA workforce. The rest is made up of contractors from companies like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Booz Allen, where Snowden used to work. If NSA funding gets cut, the piece of the funding that goes to the contracts will also disappear, which obviously is not good for the defense contractors.

But it probably works the other way also: the more stuff the Department of Defense and Intelligence Community does, the more contractors they need, and the more profits the contracting companies make. Ergo, if the companies want to make more money, they need the government to do more stuff. And they can get the government to do more stuff by lobbying Congressmen and giving them a piece of the cut as donations. So, actual national security need aside, it behooves defense contractors if everyone believes that building systems which collect and analyze more data, better, and faster is a good thing. It’s like taking advantage of a fire to sell everyone in the neighborhood fire retardant furniture and clothing, which they probably don’t need. Except fire retardant wouldn’t threaten our civil liberties, the way being constantly monitored does.

And all of this, done on the taxpayer’s dime.

See also:

From Maplight, via Wired

NSA Whistleblower Might Be A Genius, Might Be An Idiot

Ok, “genius” is probably a stretch, but the guy does appear to be smart:

  • He rose through the ranks of the government from enlisted soldier to security guard, to IT guy, to really well-paid IT contractor guy in Hawaii in less than 10 years
  • He’s definitely well-spoken and looks pretty smart in the video
  • He had the foresight to nobly out himself, get the protection of the public, get a pat on the back from the Pentagon Papers whistleblower, and go down in the history books, rather than wait until the CIA renditioned him to Poland
  • He gave up a super-well paying job in paradise to protect our democracy

Then again, he may not be the sharpest tool in the shed:

  • He gave up a super-well paying job in paradise to protect our democracy
  • He fled to Hong Kong, which is apparently the second worst place to flee to, if you’re running from the US government
  • He apparently used his real name when checking in to his hotel in Hong Kong, pretended the journalists got the wrong guy when they called, and then checked out
  • He doesn’t even have his high school degree, and even failed to get his GED
Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden

 

So at this point, Edward Snowden (whose name, it has to be said, kinda sounds like a Game of Thrones character or two) is to us much like Schrödinger’s cat, at both times smart and dumb. As for the NSA, if he’s smart, then he might’ve bested the them. If he’s dumb, how dumb is the NSA to have hired him?

One final note as we find out more about him: while all of the above is hard to dispute because much of it came from Snowden himself, one must also keep in mind, that when the Pentagon Papers whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg, came out, the Nixon administration tried to discredit him in all kinds of ways, going as far as breaking in to his psychiatrist’s office, and hashing a plan to drug with him LSD. Of course, that action caused Ellsberg’s mistrial and is the reason he’s a free man today. The Obama administration will likely not make such an error, meaning that unless he escapes extradition, Snowden’s best chance is jury nullification.

In the meantime, we should all at least thank him for revealing the actual Facebook privacy settings:

Facebook privacy settings, with NSA

 

See also:

Via The Wall Street Journal, Slate, NPR and Gawker and FAIL Blog

Obama Makes Distinction Between Light And Hardcore Surveillance

“Nobody is listening to your telephone calls.” The government collects “phone numbers … and duration of calls… they are not looking at people’s names and they are not looking at content.” – President Obama, today in San Jose, CA

That roughly translates into “we’re just kinda keeping an eye on you, not really… you know… super-monitoring your calls hardcore.” As if light surveillance is somehow okay in a free society and we should just get used to things being like this now. In a few more years, when persistent drones fly in our skies high above the clouds, and news breaks out that the feds are monitoring everyone’s movements on the ground, the response will be:

“Nobody is bugging your house. We’re just looking at where you go and for how long… we’re not looking at people’s names and we’re not watching you inside your own house.” – President Obama in the Panopticon of the future

Because that would be crossing some kind of line, whereas just keeping tabs on everyone is perfectly normal for a democratic government, composed by the people and for the people, to do.

 

Update, June 9th: The very next day, Obama added:

“You’ve got private companies that have a lot more data and and a lot more details about emails and phone calls than the federal government does,” he said.

“So we’re going to take that data from those private companies by force, because we realize that no one would sign up for a government-run Facebook.”

One nation, under surveillance

See also:

Via NPR

Relax, The NSA Snooping On You Is Perfectly Legal

Many of the people that found themselves living in Soviet America today believe that the administration overstepped its bounds when it gave the NSA permission to monitor all calls in the country made on Verizon (and likely, all other carriers) and to search anyone’s data on Google, Facebook, Skype, Yahoo, etc. But what’s more shocking than the fact that the NSA is doing it is the fact that it’s all on the up-and-up.

Can you hear me now? Then the wiretap is functioning properly.

The wiretapping is allowed by section 215 of the Patriot Act, which was the legislative overreaction to 9/11. (The feds already had all the information they needed to stop the attacks — they just hadn’t put all the pieces together yet.)  Originally, then-Senator Obama was against the KGB-like powers the bill gave to the government agencies, and in 2005, he even sponsored a bill that would’ve put an end to it all. But, in early 2006 the powers that be got to him, and he actually voted to extend the Patriot Act. In this video from his 2008 campaign, he explains why, starting at 3:15:

 

Long story short, he didn’t think the Patriot Act was all that bad anymore, he tried to make it better and promised to remove the illegal wiretapping via executive order, when he got to office. And so he did: now, the wiretapping still goes on, but it’s all legal. The feds secretly ask a secret court to issue a subpoena for vague “national security” reasons, and it happens. There’s Congressional-ish oversight, in that the 7% of Congressmen — those who sit on the Intelligence Committees — get biannual reports on the NSA’s actions. But, if they don’t like something, all they can do is make vague warnings because all the information they get in those reports is classified. With 93% of Congress in the dark, the rest under a gag order, and the secret court handing out blank checks, the system ensures that abuses of power can never see the light of day.

And again, it’s 100% legal: this is how terrorist wiretapping is supposed to work, under the Patriot Act. As for getting a backdoor to search all the data Google and Facebook have to offer, that’s also legal because it’s all voluntary-ish: the feds offer those companies legal immunity from lawsuits, and in return they get to snoop on everyone conversations. Let’s just hope they don’t accidentally leak more of Petraeus’ emails.

See also:

From NPR

TSA Backtracks On The New Relaxed Rules, Thanks To Flight Attendants

Back in March, the TSA decided to go further with their historical lack-of-thinking-rules-through and not-trying-to-have-them-make-logical-sense by allowing certain knives and “sports sticks” on planes again, because — no kidding — Europe was doing it. Well, when the stewardesses heard about this, they got all up in arms because now that they don’t have to deal with drunken passengers wielding Swiss Army knives anymore, they don’t wanna start again.

TSA's small knives guide

This WAS going to become the new rule, but not anymore…

 

Because, screw the fact that it’s only happened once in history  — they were sober and wielding box cutters on 9/11, but still — it could happen again. Astronomical odds always trump passengers’ convenience, and at 2,000 pocket knives being confiscated every day by the TSA, that’s quite the trumping. Long story short, the TSA finally gave in to its wife, the International Flight Attendants Association, and had to go back and tell us kids that we’re too young to keep those Swiss Army knives after all. “As mommy pointed out, just because the European neighbors are doing it, that doesn’t mean it’s right for us.”

See also:

Via NPR