Lawmakers miss the point of Assembly Bill 228

Lawmakers considering Assembly Bill 228 were so intent this week on shielding consumers from the uncomfortable realities of the credit market, they were blind to a technology that’s helping people rebuild their credit histories.

For almost a decade, Nevadans have willingly entered into auto loan agreements requiring them to install an on-board device that remotely disables the car if they fail to pay. Ultimately, if lender and borrower reach no resolution, the car can be located via GPS and repossessed. AB 228 was brought by the Payment Assurance Technology Association, which says it wants to incorporate the industry’s best practices into the law. PATA represents several manufacturers of the starter interrupt devices, and lenders who use them.

The devices have proven useful even before the repo man gets involved. Lenders say the delinquency rate on car loans drops to 5 percent among borrowers who get an electronic signal reminding them to pay after a ten-day lapse. The rate is 27 percent among the same class of borrowers without the devices, according to the PATA. Repossessions drop from 15 percent to 4 percent with a starter interrupt device.

Is this the most desirable credit arrangement? Only if you’re cool relinquishing some of your privacy and paying interest rates that push 30 percent. But for many subprime borrowers, it’s the only way to get a car.

Even a privacy hawk recognizes “intelligent tradeoffs,” a phrase used recently by legal scholar Richard Epstein to discuss the balance between privacy and national security. Car buyers with a credit score of 680 or lower are in a position to make an intelligent tradeoff, and put themselves in the driver’s seat.

The Assembly Commerce and Labor committee was predictably unconcerned with privacy, but visibly distressed by a bundle of secondary issues, including the interest rate – the absence of a Nevada usury law was lamented – and customer demographics (percentage of minorities and women, that is). Do the lenders jump to repossess before they’ve made a reasonable attempt to collect? Who holds the finance company accountable for collection and repossession practices? Is the electronic device a means to bully the slow payers?

The answers can be found in the market. Starter interrupt devices are already widely deployed across Nevada and the 49 other states. The customer profile is obvious, and it’s built on credit history, not race or gender. Yes, a tarnished credit record costs you money. Lots of money, regrettably. No, lenders aren’t running madly through the streets smacking their lips as they seize devalued assets to haul away and list on their balance sheets. They prefer granting extra time or coming up with an alternative payment plan, if only a borrower with a problem would contact them.

The starter interrupt device encourages communication between lender and buyer, with positive results for both, according to PATA. It’s a fact that fell on the deaf ears of lawmakers who called for usury laws on behalf of single mothers plagued by high interest rates.

Where do single mothers turn when they lack money for life’s necessities? To extend the stereotype, which has become the last refuge of politicians making dubious arguments, women have been known to turn to men for money, leading to arrangements that sometimes prove more costly than a bad car loan. PATA says the starter interrupt device keeps interest rates lower than they might otherwise be, and it makes some loans possible, period.

The market has validated this particular intelligent tradeoff.  Time to unclasp those wringing hands, and use them instead to applaud an industry that’s come forward to promote best practices.

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Nevadans seek state-mandated election audits

You’ll seldom hear a more vigorous defense of a state-run information system than the one mounted by election officials when voters challenge the legitimacy of an election. So it was earlier this week in the Nevada Assembly committee that vets election bills, where a group called the Citizen Task Force for Voters Rights showed up to promote AB209.

The bill would require the counties to establish an audit trail for each process involved in conducting an election. Voter registrars from across the state stepped up to protest the cost of implementing the measure, and to reassure lawmakers that their current practices are solid. Clark County’s Joe Gloria, as designated spokesman for his colleagues, touted their performance, noting that Nevada has received national recognition for election integrity.

The problem, says the task force, is that election departments are their own auditors. They investigate any reported irregularities, and not surprisingly, they find no fault in their own system. This wouldn’t fly for casinos or banks, and the task force wants Nevada’s elections subjected to external audits by fraud examiners, same as other high-stakes sectors.

Citizen Task Force for Voters Rights started as a group of voters seeking answers after a phantom candidate took 22.18 percent of the votes in a 2014 Republican primary contest. A man named Mike Monroe had captured 5,392 votes in Congressional District 4 without conducting a campaign. He had no financial backers, and never made appearances or walked neighborhoods. Their search for Monroe turned up no registered voter who knew him or voted for him. His supposed address was a vacant building.

Monroe’s voter turnout was all the more astonishing because his two opponents, then-state legislator Crescent Hardy and Las Vegas activist Niger Innis, conducted energetic campaigns and generated significant press coverage. Typically, anemic candidates facing better-known names would capture between 2 and 7 percent, according to task force research.

Since that election, task force members say they’ve devoted hundreds of hours to investigating election procedures in the counties encompassed by CD 4. They’ve reviewed materials, interviewed people who’ve worked at the polls, and researched the ways elections can be compromised.

They’ve compiled a list of election system vulnerabilities starting with the absence of audit trails and chain of custody records. Add weak voting machine security, training deficiencies, insufficient background checks, and undisciplined transportation procedures. The list also includes “failure to create a security culture.”

Some of the task force claims have years’ worth of anecdotal support from observers and polling place workers.

Election managers are passionate about their work, and nobody suggests they don’t take their task seriously. In the days since the AB209 hearing, two election officials have offered informal assessments of Nevada’s election system security. One described it as “bulletproof” and the other supports the assertion that it’s impervious to criminal interference.

To a reporter who’s covered voting security issues for more than a decade, they seem to be in denial. It was somewhat understandable in 2004, when electronic information management was still evolving. In 2015, they appear willfully blind to reality. No system is bulletproof. Sony wasn’t bulletproof. Athem Blue Cross, J.P. Morgan, and the U.S. Defense Department were not bulletproof. All of those entities spend millions more on security than budget-constrained Nevada election departments.

Consider also our reliance on minimally-trained election day volunteers, and the central role of the much-maligned Seqouia voting machines. It’s unnerving, even insulting, to expect intelligent taxpayers to believe that nothing can possibly go wrong.

Some lawmakers on the Assembly committee mirror the official demeanor, making it clear they favor blind reliance on the system over weighing thoughtful criticism from skeptical voters. Those legislators also reflect the tendency of election managers to blame questionable occurrences on the voters.

“Weird things happen (in primary elections),” said one Assemblyman, adding that primary voters are inclined to cast irrational votes.

The Citizen Task Force may struggle to get a second hearing.

Why Hillary’s State Department email and the Clark County School District email should have similar protection

Hillarymail, Part I: The data path to government computer networks should be secure

Nevadans should take special note of the revelations about Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s email account, which she reportedly managed from a server in her New York home while she was serving in the Obama Administration.

Mrs. Clinton is being criticized for three reasons, including her astonishing presumption that rules don’t apply to her. The other two reasons are pertinent to Nevada’s own unsettled questions about the difference between email content created by public employees, which should be part of the public record, and email addresses assigned to public employees, which should not.

The content of Hillary Clinton’s State Department email, in its entirety, should belong to the taxpayers. And it would, if she played by the rules. As it stands, we’ll never know if we’ve seen the complete archive. Her email address, on the other hand, should belong to the United States Federal Government on behalf of the taxpayers. And it would, if she played by the rules. Hillary’s email address should have existed behind a layered, military-grade security protocol. Would it be safe there from hostile activity? We can only hope, but that’s the intention.

Why does this distinction seem obvious in the face of national security implications, but not when the security of Nevada school children and their teachers is implicated?

The Clark County School District made the right call, with no apparent understanding of how right it was, when it denied public records requests for teacher email addresses. The district said that sharing the addresses with the Nevada Policy Research Institute (and other requesters) would cause “countless businesses and organizations to continuously solicit district teachers through their work email.” In other words, the district thought making the email addresses public would create a nuisance.

NPRI then sued for the email database. The district’s motion to dismiss the complaint didn’t go far enough, nor was it sufficiently precise in claiming that broad use of teacher emails by outsiders would “frustrate” the purpose of the district’s communications network.

“Teachers would be forced to spend time sorting through phishing scams, computer viruses, and other unsolicited spam email,” the district asserted, if “organizations like (NPRI), as well as internet marketing companies, hackers and anyone else who may benefit from thousands of active email accounts…” were given access.  The additional traffic would “clog the servers and the computer systems, harming the public in the process.”

The harm envisioned by the district was inconvenience and misspent time due to commercial targeting of teachers. District officials apparently did not grasp the potential for malicious penetration causing catastrophic system failure. Neither did it link “phishing scams” and “hackers” with harm to student privacy. We’ve since learned from a separate conflict over academic standards that Nevada’s school districts are creating extensive student dossiers containing hundreds of personal, non-academic data points. What potential harms might come from an incursion into those information troves?

Email addresses are a data path, leading first to people, then to systems. Hostile nations might have used Hillary Clinton’s data path to glean State Department secrets. The math teacher’s data path could offer access to a valuable bundle of assets held by the nation’s fifth largest school district. Criminals could find payroll records, stalk students, or blackmail parents and administrators. The threats to these systems are utterly analogous.

There is compelling state interest in protecting government information systems at all levels. There’s no outcry in Nevada suggesting that school teachers are unreachable by the people who need to reach them. Tight system security does not constitute lack of transparency. We’ll soon see if the Supreme Court of Nevada agrees.

Hillarymail, Part II: Content is public record

The primary relevance of “HDR at Clintonemail dot com,” aside from its eloquent expression of presumed privilege, is its deviation from national security standards. Any omissions from the public archive can be corrected with the efforts of a diligent press, or a congressional investigation, or a special prosecutor if it comes to that.

The great (and not-so-great) thing about email is that it multiplies like bunnies. Anyone who destroys official email will live to regret it. Somebody, somewhere, will have the means, motive, and opportunity to resurrect regrettable messages.

State Department email messages, school district email messages, and all other email messages on taxpayer-funded systems are public records, and should be turned over to the public, period.

Hillarymail, Part III: Privacy and the infuriating double standard

Of all people who should realize that public life brings a diminished expectation of privacy, you’d think Hillary Clinton would top the list. Time will tell if it’s Hillary who will validate the infamous utterance of Google Chief Eric Schmidt: “If you have something you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.”

Hillarymail, whether a scandal or a screw-up, is a vivid reminder that Washington’s top tier has a double standard when it comes to privacy. They want theirs, but they’re willing and eager to be part of the data-sucking machine that robs you of yours.

It’s also a great chance for the taxpayers to demand that our privacy, not theirs, should be paramount. On that front, the silence so far is deafening.

Nevada Legislature needs a moratorium on data collection

It’s hard not to seem like a luddite, a naysayer, or a nut while assessing the new and expanded uses of technology proposed in the Nevada legislature.

And what a shame to feel uneasy, not appreciative for a proposed DMV database that would help police locate family members quickly when someone is rushed to the hospital after an accident.

County coroners and the Department of Public Safety are supporting a bill to create an emergency contact registry. It would save money and man hours when they’re looking for next of kin. Who wouldn’t jump on board? Why apply the brakes to a plan that could help loved ones arrive in time to make critical medical decisions, or spare them agonizing hours wondering what’s happened to someone who’s unconscious or dead?

But privacy advocates identified holes in the provision of SB3 that describes the management of this personal data. They asked for tighter guidelines.

What could go wrong with this database? Maybe nothing. Depends on who’s minding the data, and how.

But suppose a criminal gets access, and calls next-of-kin to report a fake accident. He prods panicky relatives for personal information to get proper emergency care for the “victim” — insurance policy numbers, physician’s name, and prescription drug information. Family members comply, desperate to help. This is not far-fetched. Similar schemes are rampant, and profitable.

Take comfort in knowing the registry would be optional. Nevadans who love the idea more than they fear a security breach would opt in.

Carson City is awash in bills conceived to make life safer or more convenient by collecting more personal information, or by inducing Nevadans to engage with the state’s information systems. Many have useful goals, but also provide fertile ground for unintended consequences.

In another example, an election procedures bill would allow election departments to send sample ballots by email to voters who opt in. Voter registrars say it will save money mailing paper ballots, and political activists believe it will stimulate civic involvement.

Proponents submitted a “privacy amendment” that puts the burden on voters to submit written requests to keep their email addresses private. Rather than provide privacy by default, the state will require voters who opt in for email ballots to subsequently opt out of a public listing.

What could go wrong? Depends on the sophistication of the data custodians, the technical rigor of their system, and the savvy of the citizens.

Confoundingly, while making some airy statements that raise questions about current security on the Clark County election website, Voter Registrar Joe Gloria also testified that sample ballots are available online. So why not encourage voters to download an electronic version, rather than solicit email addresses?

All of this should give pause to lawmakers. Their confidence should be conditional on absolute clarity by the data collector. And every goal should be accomplished in the least intrusive manner.

But some members of the elections committee gushed over the sheer gee-whiz-we’re-digital factor. Others were no doubt persuaded by the cost savings. Clark County alone would save $1,670 for every thousand voters who choose email over paper mailing.

If you believe your state-sponsored data custodians have privacy and security locked down, recall that we recently saw the inadvertent exposure of social security numbers belonging to 114 retired judges by an entity with fiduciary responsibility. PERS, the Public Employee Retirement System, emailed a spreadsheet with unencrypted social security numbers in response to a public information request. The breach was reported by the recipient, the Nevada Policy Research Institute, which had sought the data for a study of pensions.

It’s a stunning mistake. Although no names accompanied the data, and the recipient behaved responsibly, things might have been worse. Identities can be reverse engineered using a couple of the other data points that appeared on the spreadsheet.

In 2015, government and the private sector are both lagging in their grasp of how to protect privacy and security. There’s even less awareness of where potential danger might lie.

“Because we can” is not a good reason to expand data gathering by the state. Nevada might benefit from a two-year moratorium on such initiatives while public understanding catches up with technology.

Privacy Potpourri: Homeland Security inserts itself into local sex trade, and more

Privacy headlines popped in January like champagne corks on New Year’s Eve. Here are a few highlights, starting in Reno, where nine hapless SOBs were snagged by a law enforcement team including agents of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, for attempting to purchase unspecified sexual services on the street.

Recall that the mission of Homeland Security was supposed to be preventing actual breaches of homeland security. The DHS website gives only the barest hint of the mission creep that has it preventing transactional sex between Reno street hookers and their prospective customers.

Here’s the department’s “vital mission.”

“…to secure the nation from the many threats we face. This requires the dedication of more than 240,000 employees in jobs that range from aviation and border security to emergency response, from cybersecurity analyst to chemical facility inspector. Our duties are wide-ranging, but our goal is clear – keeping America safe.”

The Sparks Crime Suppression Team, apparently finding no crime to suppress in its own city, was on hand to help Reno PD and the feds with the six-hour sting, as were workers from the Washoe County Health Department, who performed mandatory HIV tests. Florence Nightingale must be smiling in heaven.

The first weeks of 2015 also revealed that at least 50 American law enforcement agencies have been secretly using a hand-held radar device to perform surveillance of human activity inside of homes, despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling requiring a warrant for similar searches that rely on thermal readers to detect heat behind the walls of buildings.

The radar devices were designed for military use, to spot human presence inside buildings by detecting movements as subtle as breathing, reports USA Today.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a search by U.S. Marshals using the device, but noted that it raises “many questions.”

Speaking of invasive technology with ostensibly benign intentions, the National Science Foundation is paying a professor $50,000 to develop a facial recognition app that monitors student attendance at college lectures. The developer teaches at Missouri University of Science and Technology. He uses his smart phone to take a video of students in the lecture hall. His finished product will automatically take attendance by applying a facial recognition algorithm to the video.

The rationale for this NSF investment is that attendance is the best predictor of graduation rates, and that students who don’t graduate are less able to pay off their student loan debt. No word on the controlling classroom policy when an adult student declines to have his image captured on his prof’s phone.

The private sector has a solution, too. The Class120 app costs $199. Installed on the student’s own smartphone, it overlays geolocation data with campus maps, notifying parents if the phone is not in the right classroom at the right time of day. Nothing wrong with that, if the parents and the students agree on it. But here’s the kicker from the Wall Street Journal:

“As online interactions have grown, schools have realized they have a trove of new data to look at, such as how much a student is accessing the syllabus, taking part in online discussions with classmates and reading assigned material. Such technology “shows faculty exactly where students are interacting outside as well inside the classroom…”

Then there’s the insurance company that promised a discount to drivers who allow it to digitally monitor driving habits. Progressive Insurance has distributed two million dongles that port into the OBD (on-board diganostics) console, which is the electronic communication center for the moving components of the car. The dongle monitors brakes, acceleration and other readings, including mileage and time of day, creating a record of the driver’s vehicle usage.

Seems that a skilled hacker can use the the dongle to get into the vehicle’s core systems, according to a Forbes interview with security researcher Corey Thuen, who discovered that he could unlock doors and gather information about his truck’s engine by hooking up his laptop to the dongle. Says Theun:

“It (the dongle) has no secure boot mechanism, no cellular communications authentication, and uses no secure communications protocols, possibly putting the lives of people inside the vehicle in danger.”

Safety implications aside, the driver information itself is vulnerable. It would be a piece of cake to intercept the dongle’s transmissions to Progressive, and to steal, erase, or alter the data, with potentially serious and possibly irrevocable consequences for the driver.  Happy New Year!

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Feinstein versus the CIA: Incident reveals hypocrisy and incompetence

What do you call it when someone rifles through your computer files without your knowledge? Employers call it monitoring, and civil libertarians call it surveillance. U. S. Senator Dianne Feinstein calls it a “separation of powers” issue.

So Feinstein described her headline-grabbing dustup last year with the Central Intelligence Agency, in which the agency spied on staffers of the Senate Intelligence Committee while the committee was investigating certain interrogations by the CIA.

The squabble started after the CIA set up a dark network in an out-of-the-way location for Senate investigators to view specified CIA documents. When the agency realized it had not sufficiently blocked access to other files that should have remained hidden, five CIA staffers tried to assess the damage by snooping through Intelligence Committee computer files, and even reading email messages. Feinstien went public when she found out, blasting the agency for “violating separation of powers.”

While the senator rooted her fury in the CIA’s apparent intention to undermine her investigation, she discussed the incident in the language of inter-branch conflict, rather than call it what it was — spying by a spy agency. This suggests she stands by her vilification of Edward Snowden and her defense of the programs he leaked, while claiming that her own digital affairs should be off-limits to the prying eyes of alphabet soup agencies. In other words, Constitutional principles apply differently to powerful elected officials than to regular citizens.

Feinstein repeated the separation-of-powers charge when the story resurfaced this week, after a CIA investigative panel cleared the agency’s five snoops of wrongdoing. The agency’s internal report found its employees’ hacking activities had been “clearly inappropriate,” but were not cause for discipline.

But the report revealed something else: There were very basic failures of information governance that enabled the senate committee to grab documents it shouldn’t have, and that subsequently justified clearing the CIA of bad faith or malfeasance.

The Washington Post reports: “… the accountability review board concluded that the CIA-Senate arrangement was so convoluted that the panel could find no clear rules on how the shared computer system was to be run, let alone whether any rules had been violated.”

Notwithstanding the novelty of the “arrangement,” please note that the world’s most powerful spy agency and the nation’s most powerful legislative body abdicated well-established standards that would have determined in advance the protocol for a digital data transaction. This planning is fundamental to digital security and privacy.

Contemplating the agency’s sloppy information governance, especially given what was at stake, should lead to serious doubts about extending to any federal agency more authority to collect, store, or probe the digital records of Americans. For anyone who’s still not clear that the federal government is a poor steward of information, please do a careful reading of the above linked story in the Post.

That brings us (briefly) to President Obama’s 2015 cybersecurity initiatives. The president’s package would facilitate continued government access to citizen communications, and would snag security researchers, journalists, lawyers, and others in a net cast much too wide for cybercriminals. A recent surge in global terrorist activities validates the need for strong cyberdefense, but does not justify tossing all the cybercrime and national security concerns into a cybersecurity blender and turning on the blades.

It’s only a proposal right now, but there are elements that cry out already for the kind of definition that was lacking from the Senate-CIA plan. Selecting a bullet point at random:

“All monitoring, collection, use, retention, and sharing of information are limited to protecting against cybersecurity threats…”

Well, one would hope.  But what does the protection entail, and how do we define the threats? These are not nit-picky questions, they are essential to information governance that does the intended tasks, and mitigates privacy invasion. Or whatever you prefer to call it.

The privacy apartheid: no money, no time, no education, adds up to no privacy.

When privacy was a natural state of affairs, protecting it required a set of window shades, and maybe a hedge between you and the neighbor.

Modern privacy is a commodity, and the price is staggering. I’s not just money. Privacy protection is really inconvenient now, and intellectually challenging – not always in a good way. It requires a combination of education, time, prosperity, and technical aptitude that’s rare in a single human being. If you’re deficient in two or more of those categories, welcome to the privacy apartheid. You’re the have-not.

Here’s a brief and partial survey of the cost of privacy.

On the practically free end, you can make sure your internet browsers run in in SSL mode by default. The cost is a bit of time. It requires a Google search and ability to download a plugin. You also need to understand when and why this will preclude internet access in certain circumstances, so you won’t freak out when it happens.

If you’re very serious and skilled, you can run your own email server. Hardcore privacy advocates recommend this as if it were a walk in the park. It requires equipment, dozens of hours to implement, and a great deal of technical aptitude to maintain, with numerous headaches guaranteed.

Recently, consumer-grade privacy-enhancing products have become available. Check out the Consumer Electronics Show, where for many years, gee-whiz products with the greatest privacy-invading potential have been the highlight. This year, a tiny space on the show floor features vendors of privacy, starting with signal-blocking cases for mobile devices ($69-$199, no technical proficiency required). Last Private Place featured a competing product for phones a few months back, the $80 Privacy Case.

Vysk is there, with a phone sleeve that has an encryption feature in the microphone to keep conversations private ($229). Using Vysk’s QS1 case requires a technical comfort level sufficient to activate the product’s privacy modes and download the subscription-based apps. Add a monthly charge of $9.99, plus at least an hour to experiment and understand settings and capabilities.

Virtual Private Network service provider PIA offers encrypted internet access on demand, with tech support. (Annual packge price $39.95). But it’s not simple. You need basic knowledge of how networks function and probably about three hours to understand and activate the service.

Privacy advocates also suggest staying off most social media. There’s always been a privacy bonus for avoiding gossipy neighbors, and there still is. But there’s also a professional penalty, because those gossips now call themselves LinkedIn and Facebook, and your competitors are present in droves. Opportunity cost: incalculable.

If you’re looking for cheap solutions, a hat and sunglasses may provide a defense against surveillance cameras. For a few bucks and a few minutes you can sew a couple of infrared LED lights into the hat, with a 9 volt battery to power them. Hacker lore says in certain lighting conditions, this will obscure your face from the cameras.

So you pay with money or you pay with time and know-how, or you pay with isolation. And no matter how you pay, no product exists to completely eradicate the ubiquitous privacy challenges that show up daily disguised as fun and convenience.