“Big Data” Hits Chicago Streets

Photo credit: Gravitywave (Creative Commons)

In Chicago, the Big Data initiative is about to make a major leap this summer.

Urban planners are excited about the “Array of Things” project, which is installing “smart” lamp posts… pole-mounted sensors that gather data on everything from air quality to sound volume.

These smart lamps could make Chicago “a safer, more efficient and cleaner place to live,” according to Charlie Catlett, Director of the Urban Center for Computation and Data.

But they also present a new threat to personal privacy, as a bevy of advocates have noted.

You see, the sensors will also track foot traffic by locking on to cellphone signals. Researchers point out that the data will be collected anonymously; but as so many companies (for example, Netflix) have discovered, anonymity isn’t always foolproof.

Another One of Those Slippery Slopes

Frankly, it’s somewhat incredible that, in the wake of the NSA phone data scandal, other forms of phone data collection march on uninterrupted. Technology always advances faster than ethics, of course; but at this point, Big Data seems unstoppable.

And for many, Big Brother already feels like a foregone conclusion – if not our current reality. Think about it: The police are using facial recognition technology to capture criminals. Our license plates are being tracked by the Department of Homeland Security. Even Congress has been spied on by the CIA.

Those in charge of the “Array of Things” can claim that their sensors avoid recording the actual digital address of every cellphone they encounter…

But, as privacy expert Fred Cate wonders, what happens when “a company comes in and says we’ll pay you a million dollars to collect personally identifiable information?”

After all, it didn’t take Facebook (FB ), Apple (AAPL ), or Microsoft (MSFT ) long to hand over their massive data stores to the NSA’s PRISM initiative.

In fact, a similar “smart” street light system has the ability to analyze voices and track people , according to Intellistreets, the company that created the technology. Is there any reason to think that Chicago’s smart lamp posts won’t someday incorporate similar technology – especially if it’s put to use in other major cities?

In the end, money is power; and it’s hard to believe that any large-scale database is truly safe from abuse. More likely, it’s safe for the time being… and is merely waiting to be exploited. That feeling is bolstered by what the Chicago Tribune describes as the system’s “planned partnerships with industry.”

Additionally, what does this trend toward smart cities mean in the long term?

Researchers are clearly not concerned with Stephen Hawking’s warning about artificial intelligence (perhaps rightfully so).

Still, one of the world’s smartest individuals believes that AI is the greatest threat to humankind right now.

As he put it, artificial intelligence could “design improvements to itself and out-smart us all.” If the Robot Apocalypse ever did occur, I imagine humanity would regret the decision to install data-collecting lamp posts in major urban centers.


This commentary originally appeared at WallStreetDaily.com and is reprinted here with permission. 

The views expressed in this opinion article are solely those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by WesternJournalism.com.

This post originally appeared on Western Journalism – Informing And Equipping Americans Who Love Freedom

Don’t Fall For The Republicans’ “USA Freedom Act”…It’s A Trap

Often in Congress, the most patriotic-sounding bills contain the most harmful legislation.

Consider, for example, the Protect America Act of 2007, which actually removed the warrant requirement for government surveillance of foreign intelligence targets.

Or how about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act? I think we’re all familiar with Obamacare at this point.

Well, the tastefully named USA Freedom Act – which passed the House of Representatives last week by a 303-121 vote – is no exception to this rule.

The Act is meant to curtail the NSA’s extensive phone surveillance scheme and put an end to the agency’s mass data collection.

And at first, it had the unequivocal support of both Congress and privacy advocates alike.

But the bill was modified at the 11th hour, and privacy advocates say that the amended version does nothing to stop the NSA from continuing to operate with impunity.

A Matter of Semantics

The overarching goal of the Freedom Act is to take bulk phone data out of the NSA’s hands.

Instead of giving the NSA free rein over phone data records, those records will now stay in the hands of telecom companies. In order to search the records, the security agency will have to obtain a judicial order.

But the Obama administration pressured leaders in the House to water down the bill, and a few key changes were made to the wording.

One such change, according to the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative, allows the Director of National Intelligence to lead declassification reviews, rather than the Attorney General.

I imagine it’s not too difficult to guess which way the Director will lean in most reviews…

Unfortunately, that’s not the only change that favors the spy agency.

The most deceptive has to do with the “selector terms” – the terms that the NSA will use when defining the scope of its data request. In the original version of the bill, these terms were highly specific. But in the amended version, the wording was changed to something far more ambiguous.

Originally, a selection term was “a term used to uniquely describe a person, entity, or account.”

But the amended bill says that a selection term is “a discrete term, such as a term specifically identifying a person, entity, account, address, or device.”

The differences may seem minute; but in fact, they’re monumental. The bill that passed the House includes two more categories (address and device) and broadens the search possibilities from specific items to things such as those items.

As Zoe Lofgren, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said, “If we leave any ambiguity at all, we have learned that the intelligence community will drive a truck through that ambiguity.”

Without pulling any punches, Lofgren said that the bill “will actually not end bulk collection, regrettably.”

And it’s not just politicians who are skeptical of this particular change to the USA Freedom Act. Reform Government Surveillance, a conglomerate of Silicon Valley tech companies including Apple (AAPL), Google (GOOGL), and Facebook (FB), called the change to the selector terms an “unacceptable loophole that could enable the bulk collection of internet users’ data.”

On the bright side, the Senate has vowed to be extremely tough on the bill as it passes through their chamber. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, said he’d be proposing “lots of modifications.”

For Americans who are concerned about privacy, this is the last line of defense against a bill that fails to curb the NSA’s extensive power. Here’s to hoping that the Senate is ready to go to bat for privacy.


This editorial originally appeared at WallStreetDaily.com and is reprinted here with permission. 

The views expressed in this opinion article are solely those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by WesternJournalism.com.

This post originally appeared on Western Journalism – Informing And Equipping Americans Who Love Freedom

Do New Sanctions Against Russia Really Matter?

On Monday, the White House announced yet another round of economic sanctions against Russia.

But the question is, “Does it really matter?”

President Obama imposed the latest sanctions after Russia failed to defuse the situation in Ukraine, which was part of a recent diplomatic agreement.

Indeed, rather than mollifying the situation, Putin has allowed pro-Russian separatists to escalate the crisis. On top of that, Russia is accused of supporting the protesters, who’ve occupied numerous official buildings in Eastern Ukraine and are responsible for shooting the mayor of Ukraine’s second-largest city on Monday.

The expanded sanctions target seven government officials and 17 companies linked to Putin, including several tech and defense companies. That brings the total number of U.S. sanctions to 45 individuals and 19 companies. The European Union (EU) has also sanctioned 46 individuals.

However, the United States’ ability to deter Putin remains extremely limited, and some analysts say that the expanded measures still aren’t tough enough to be effective.

Dollars and Cents, Pounds and Pence

The latest expansion targets numerous high-profile Russians, including Igor Sechin, the Chief Executive of Rosneft. He, along with the other individuals named in the sanctions, will face a visa ban, and his assets will be frozen. The companies named will have their assets frozen, as well.

Not to be outdone, Moscow’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov, replied to the sanctions by saying, “A response of Moscow will follow, and it will be painfully felt in Washington, D.C.”

In spite of the Russian rhetoric, though, White House officials admit that the sanctions are unlikely to prompt “immediate change” in Putin’s approach.

Part of the problem is hesitation from EU allies. You see, a number of EU countries – who have much greater ties to Russia than the United States does – are worried that increased sanctions will greatly affect their economies.

Those concerns have kept both the EU and the United States from imposing sanctions on Russian industries such as the energy sector.

But many analysts criticize this approach, saying that trying to limit the economic blowback only bolsters Putin’s position.

Michael Singh, Managing Director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said, “The problem is it sends the signal [that] we’re willing to act, but only as far as it doesn’t cost us very much. The risk is, it reinforces [Putin’s] view [that] he’s the one with the leverage here because of our view of the risk or cost of sanctions.”

Only recently has Germany begun warming to the idea of much tougher sanctions. Last week, four Germans were captured, along with three other European military monitors, and held captive in Eastern Ukraine. The violence may have started to sway German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s position.

But is it enough to get the EU to take a tougher stance? And would that even change the course of the Ukrainian crisis?

Tell us what you think on our Facebook page. Is the United States doing enough to deter Putin? Or is a much tougher stance needed to ensure Ukraine’s freedom and keep Russia from invading neighboring countries?

Pages: 1 2

The views expressed in this opinion article are solely those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by WesternJournalism.com.

This post originally appeared on Western Journalism – Informing And Equipping Americans Who Love Freedom

Could This Be The End Of Cable TV?

If you’re one of the many people who’ve grown tired of the current state of cable television, with its expensive channel bundles and oligarchical service offerings, then you may just be in luck.

That’s because the Supreme Court began hearing arguments this week in a case that has the potential to alter the cable TV landscape forever.

You see, a streaming company called Aereo Inc. has been using tiny satellites to pick up TV programming from public airwaves and then stream shows to subscribers. And at just $8 a month, the subscription cost is miniscule compared to paying for cable television.

Not surprisingly, the nation’s major cable television broadcasters, such as ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC, are less than thrilled about Aereo’s business model… especially because Aereo doesn’t pay licensing fees to the networks.

They’ve filed a civil lawsuit against Aereo, claiming that the streaming startup is no different from other cable and satellite firms and must, therefore, pay the requisite fees to rebroadcast network shows.

A Matter of Semantics

Aereo’s case hinges on the difference between materials used for “public” performances – which are shown to multiple people at once – and “private” performances, which are shown to an individual.

Public performances are everywhere. Anytime a cable company rebroadcasts an NBC show, for example, it’s offering a public performance. And networks are increasingly reliant on the rebroadcast fees tied to public performances, which will be worth a whopping $7 billion by 2018, according to SNL Kagan.

On the other hand, when an antenna captures over-the-air programming and broadcasts it into a single TV for personal viewing, it’s considered a private performance… and is, therefore, not subject to rebroadcasting fees. Thus, Aereo has positioned itself as nothing more than an antenna rental service, which it’s hoping will keep it out of trouble with the court.

“All we’re doing is giving consumers an alternative to what is now an utterly irrational system where people have to pay too much for so many channels,” said Chet Kanojia, Aereo’s Chief Executive, in an interview with the Washington Post.

Kanojia’s mission has cable reform advocates excited. They’re dreaming of a new and wondrous future for TV viewing – one that doesn’t involve paying excessive fees for hundreds of channels that never get watched.

Frankly, it’s not hard to see why the current system is losing its appeal – and the numbers support this trend. According to the Washington Post, five million households have abandoned cable, up from two million in 2007. The proliferation of cheaper internet options, such as Hulu and Netflix (NFLX), have people ditching their exorbitant cable bills left and right.

An Aereo victory in the Supreme Court, therefore, has the potential to bury cable television as we know it, or at least force meaningful change.

Of course, the networks have a backup plan, which they’re calling the “nuclear option.” Essentially, it involves moving all programming to cable-only broadcast, thus killing over-the-air programming and the value of antenna-based services. But it’s not a great solution for anyone, the networks included.

Pages: 1 2

The views expressed in this opinion article are solely those of their author and are not necessarily either shared or endorsed by WesternJournalism.com.

This post originally appeared on Western Journalism – Informing And Equipping Americans Who Love Freedom

Rogue Agency Seizes Control Of The Internet


You’ve probably heard the words “net neutrality” being tossed around a lot lately.

That’s because on January 14, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit Court struck down the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Open Internet Order, which protected net neutrality by regulating the nation’s broadband infrastructure.

The court’s ruling appeared to be the coup de grâce for the FCC, which has been fighting to regulate the internet for over 10 years.

But as it turns out, the opposite may be true. By calling out the FCC for overstepping its bounds, the court may have actually opened the door for the FCC to completely control the internet.

Worst of all, no one’s talking about it! The mainstream media is focused on the slight (but real) possibility that consumers may have to pay a little more to use services like Netflix (NFLX). And don’t get me wrong – that’s a distressing thought.

But there’s far more at stake than the price of streaming video.

Conveniently Rewriting the Rules

The FCC’s fight to regulate the internet can be traced to 2002, when the Commission classified internet service providers (ISPs) as “information service providers” and not “telecommunications carriers.”

Since then, however, the FCC has continued forcing ISPs to follow the same rules that apply to telecoms (with varying degrees of success). And now, for the first time, the court has said definitively that the FCC can’t do that.

But that’s not the whole story…

You see, in 2008, the FCC quietly reinterpreted Section 706 of the Communications Act. Sounds pretty harmless, right? But the updated version acts as a broad grant of authority for pretty much whatever the FCC wants to do.

And on January 14, when the court struck down the Open Internet Order, it also accepted the reinterpreted Section 706.

Basically, the court told the FCC: You can’t broadly regulate ISPs like telecoms, but don’t sweat it! On a case-by-case basis, you can do virtually anything you want.

As Berin Szoka and Geoffrey Manne said in Wired, “The FCC now has vast discretion, and seems unwilling to give that up.”

On top of that, Judge Silberman, who ruled in the Open Internet Order case, called any remaining limitations on the FCC “illusory.” In his dissent, he said that Section 706 “grant[s] the FCC virtually unlimited power to regulate the internet.”

Could the FCC Control Your Entire Life?

Giving sweeping power to a federal agency is never a good idea, and the FCC is no exception. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has long supported net neutrality, says the ruling could be a “Trojan Horse for unrestrained FCC authority to regulate the internet.”

In fact, it’s unclear why the FCC couldn’t regulate any information services, so long as it has a plausible argument that it’s boosting broadband demand. Could the FCC then rule over VoIP as well as broadband? What about smart cars? Or even entire smart cities?

It’s a scary thought, and everyone – from net neutrality advocates to venture capitalists, broadband innovators and even ISPs like Verizon (VZ) and Comcast(CCV) – should be worried.

An open internet is essential to our very way of life, from education to freedom of speech to economic growth. Handing the government the keys to common law regulation allows the FCC to wage a piecemeal campaign that slowly but surely tightens the grip of federal regulation, and that’s no good for anyone.


This commentary originally appeared at CapitolHillDaily.com and is reprinted here with permission