Archives: December, 2009

Thursday Links

  • Prepare to pay more: Today, an average insurance policy can cost about $2,985 for an individual or $6,328 for a family.  Under the Senate bill, those premiums will increase to $5,800 for an individual worker and $15,200 for a family plan by 2016.

Three Keys to Surveillance Success: Location, Location, Location

The invaluable Chris Soghoian has posted some illuminating—and sobering—information on the scope of surveillance being carried out with the assistance of telecommunications providers.  The entire panel discussion from this year’s ISS World surveillance conference is well worth listening to in full, but surely the most striking item is a direct quotation from Sprint’s head of electronic surveillance:

[M]y major concern is the volume of requests. We have a lot of things that are automated but that’s just scratching the surface. One of the things, like with our GPS tool. We turned it on the web interface for law enforcement about one year ago last month, and we just passed 8 million requests. So there is no way on earth my team could have handled 8 million requests from law enforcement, just for GPS alone. So the tool has just really caught on fire with law enforcement. They also love that it is extremely inexpensive to operate and easy, so, just the sheer volume of requests they anticipate us automating other features, and I just don’t know how we’ll handle the millions and millions of requests that are going to come in.

To be clear, that doesn’t mean they are giving law enforcement geolocation data on 8 million people. He’s talking about the wonderful automated backend Sprint runs for law enforcement, LSite, which allows investigators to rapidly retrieve information directly, without the burden of having to get a human being to respond to every specific request for data.  Rather, says Sprint, each of those 8 million requests represents a time when an FBI computer or agent pulled up a target’s location data using their portal or API. (I don’t think you can Tweet subpoenas yet.)  For an investigation whose targets are under ongoing realtime surveillance over a period of weeks or months, that could very well add up to hundreds or thousands of requests for a few individuals. So those 8 million data requests, according to a Sprint representative in the comments, actually “only” represent “several thousand” discrete cases.

As Kevin Bankston argues, that’s not entirely comforting. The Justice Department, Soghoian points out, is badly delinquent in reporting on its use of pen/trap orders, which are generally used to track communications routing information like phone numbers and IP addresses, but are likely to be increasingly used for location tracking. And recent changes in the law may have made it easier for intelligence agencies to turn cell phones into tracking devices.  In the criminal context, the legal process for getting geolocation information depends on a variety of things—different districts have come up with different standards, and it matters whether investigators want historical records about a subject or ongoing access to location info in real time. Some courts have ruled that a full-blown warrant is required in some circumstances, in other cases a “hybrid” order consisting of a pen/trap order and a 2703(d) order. But a passage from an Inspector General’s report suggests that the 2005 PATRIOT reauthorization may have made it easier to obtain location data:

After passage of the Reauthorization Act on March 9, 2006, combination orders became unnecessary for subscriber information and [REDACTED PHRASE]. Section 128 of the Reauthorization Act amended the FISA statute to authorize subscriber information to be provided in response to a pen register/trap and trace order. Therefore, combination orders for subscriber information were no longer necessary. In addition, OIPR determined that substantive amendments to the statute undermined the legal basis for which OIPR had received authorization [REDACTED PHRASE] from the FISA Court. Therefore, OIPR decided not to request [REDACTED PHRASE] pursuant to Section 215 until it re-briefed the issue for the FISA Court. As a result, in 2006 combination orders were submitted to the FISA Court only from January 1, 2006, through March 8, 2006.

The new statutory language permits FISA pen/traps to get more information than is allowed under a traditional criminal pen/trap, with a lower standard of review, including “any temporarily assigned network address or associated routing or transmission information.” Bear in mind that it would have made sense to rely on a 215 order only if the information sought was more extensive than what could be obtained using a National Security Letter, which requires no judicial approval. That makes it quite likely that it’s become legally easier to transform a cell phone into a tracking device even as providers are making it point-and-click simple to log into their servers and submit automated location queries.  So it’s become much more  urgent that the Justice Department start living up to its obligation to start telling us how often they’re using these souped-up pen/traps, and how many people are affected.  In congressional debates, pen/trap orders are invariably mischaracterized as minimally intrusive, providing little more than the list of times and phone numbers they produced 30 years ago.  If they’re turning into a plug-and-play solution for lojacking the population, Americans ought to know about it.

If you’re interested enough in this stuff to have made it through that discussion, incidentally, come check out our debate at Cato this afternoon, either in the flesh or via webcast. There will be a simultaneous “tweetchat” hosted by the folks at Get FISA Right.

Palmer and Cowen on Libertarianism

On Tuesday I hosted a Book Forum for Tom Palmer’s new book, Realizing Freedom: Libertarian Theory, History, and Practice. You can see the video here. I thought Tyler Cowen’s comments were very astute, so I reproduce an abridged version here:

The first question is, “What do I, as a reader, see as the essential unity or unities in the book?” And I see really two. The first is I see this as a construction and articulation of a vision of what I call reasonable libertarianism. I think we’re in a world right now that is growing very partisan and very rabid, and a lot of things which are called libertarian in the Libertarian Party, or what you might call the Lew Rockwell / Ron Paul camp, are to my eye not exactly where libertarianism should be, and I think Tom has been a very brave and articulate advocate of a reasonable libertarianism. And if I ask myself, “Does the book succeed in this endeavor?” I would say, “Yes.”

The second unity in the book, I think, has to do with the last thirty years of world history. I know in the United States now there is less liberty. But overall, the world as a whole, over the last thirty years, has seen more movement towards more liberty than perhaps in any other period of human history. And I suspect most of these movements toward liberty will last. So there have been these movements towards liberty, and they have been motivated, in part, by ideas. The question arises, which are the ideas that have been the important ones for this last thirty years? And I view Tom’s book, whether he intended it as such or not, as a kind of guide to which have been the important ideas driving the last thirty years. And a lot of the book goes back into history pretty far – the eighteenth century, the Levellers, debates over natural rights – and I think precisely because it takes this broader perspective it is one of the best guides – maybe the best guide – to what have been the most important ideas driving the last thirty years (as opposed to the misleading ideas or the dead-end ideas). So that’s my take on the essential unities.

Another question you might ask about a collection of essays is, “Which of them did I like best?” I thought about this for a while, and I have two nominations. The first one is “Twenty Myths about Markets,” which is the essay on economics. I don’t know any piece by an economist that does such a good job of poking holes in a lot of economic fallacies and just laying out what you hear so often. You would think an economist would have written this long ago, but to the best of my knowledge, not.

The other favorite little piece of mine is called “Six Facts about Iraq,” which  explains from Tom’s point of view – and Tom has been there a number of times – what’s going on in Iraq and why. It is only a few pages long, but I felt that I got a better sense of Iraq reading this short piece than almost anything else I’ve come across.

I’m not sure exactly what’s the common element between the two I liked best – they both start with a number – but I think the ones I liked best reminded me the most of Tom when he is talking. I had the sense of Tom being locked in a room, and forced to address a question, and not being allowed to leave until he had given his bottom line approach. And I think what he’s very good at through out the book is just getting directly to the point.

There’s more to Tyler’s comments, and lots more from both of them in response to questions, so check out the video.

Not So Intelligent Mail

In 2003, the U.S. Postal Service initiated the Intelligent Mail program, which would integrate thirty different barcode systems used by commercial mailers into a single system. Ideally, the new barcode system would improve efficiency, reduce costs, and improve timeliness of delivery. However, a new report from the Government Accountability Office details numerous problems with the program’s implementation that are all-too-common in government:

  • Delays. The entire program was supposed to have been deployed by January 2009. Now it’s being done in phases, with the second phase completed by the end of November. Key components of the program have been “deferred,” including performance measurement capabilities required by law. Greater automation of the business mail verification process, which was one of the key justifications for the program, has also been left out.
  • Cost Overruns. To incorporate all the components as originally planned, the USPS will need to spend more money on a third phase. However, the GAO says that program managers aren’t sure money will be made available given the USPS’s poor financial condition. The GAO also found that program managers didn’t include all the costs associated with the program, and they therefore “lack an accurate total cost estimate.”
  • Poor Performance. The first phase is already being plagued by operational problems. As of June 2009, 73 issues had been identified by mailers and the USPS.
  • Mismanagement. The GAO sensibly recommended that the USPS define the program’s core requirements and use them as a basis for developing reliable cost estimates. But in a prime example of bureaucratic chutzpah, the USPS responded: “Any attempt to define the ‘entire program’ and the cost associated is a waste of funding and resources.”
  • Fraud. There is no evidence of fraud yet, but the GAO notes that “a conflict of interest exists because the prime contractor for the development of the program also manages program management office activities.”

Let’s rid ourselves of these problems and open mail delivery to competition and eventually privatize the USPS. As President Obama himself said in August, “UPS and FedEx are doing just fine…It’s the Post Office that’s always having problems.”

Apropos of Nothing, Your H. L. Mencken Quote of the Day

From the best for-pleasure book I read (so far!) in 2009, Notes on Democracy:

H. L. MenckenThe Cheerful Visage of H. L. Mencken

The fact is that liberty, in any true sense, is a concept that lies quite beyond the reach of the inferior man’s mind.  He can imagine and even esteem, in his way, certain false forms of liberty–for example, the right to choose between two political mountebanks, and to yell for the more obviously dishonest–but the reality is incomprehensible to him.  And no wonder, for genuine liberty demands of its votaries a quality he lacks completely, and that is courage.  The man who loves it must be willing to fight for it; blood, said Jefferson, is its natural manure.  More, he must be able to endure it–an even more arduous business.  Liberty means self-reliance, it means resolution, it means enterprise, it means the capacity for doing without.  The free man is one who has won a small and precarious territory from the great mob of his inferiors, and is prepared and ready to defend it and make it support him.  All around him are enemies, and where he stands there is no friend.  He can hope for little help from other men of his own kind, for they have battles of their own to fight.  He has made of himself a sort of god in his little world, and he must face the responsibilities of a god, and the dreadful loneliness.  Has Homo boobiens any talent for this magnificent self-reliance?  He has the same talent for it that he has for writing symphonies in the manner of Ludwig van Beethoven, no less and no more.  That is to say, he has no talent whatsoever, nor even any understanding that such a talent exists.  Liberty is unfathomable to him.  He can no more comprehend it than he can comprehend honour.  What he mistakes for it, nine times out of ten, is simply the banal right to empty hallelujahs upon his oppressors.  He is an ox whose last proud, defiant gesture is to lick the butcher behind the ear.

Vermont Could Save Millions with Private School Choice

The Ethan Allen Institute has just published a report suggesting that Vermont could save $80 million a year by voucherizing its education system. What’s most interesting is how generous the prospective vouchers would be: $10,000 for K-6, and $14,900 for grades 7-12. How could such a system save money? The main reason is that Vermont was already spending $14,000/pupil on public schools across all grades four years ago. Taking into account the inevitable increase since then and the effects of inflation to 2009 dollars, the state is no doubt spending well over $15,000 per pupil today, so EAI’s ample voucher funding would still cost far less than the status quo.

The only problem is that, as the EAI report notes (see p. 10), Vermont’s state supreme court has ruled against state funding of sectarian schools. So tax credits would be a better option for that reason, among others.