Tag: data

Morozov vs. Cyber-Alarmism

I’m no information security expert, but you don’t have to be to realize that an outbreak of cyber-alarmism afflicts American pundits and reporters.

As Jim Harper and Tim Lee have repeatedly argued (with a little help from me), while the internet created new opportunities for crime, spying, vandalism and military attack, the evidence that the web opens a huge American national security vulnerability comes not from events but from improbable what-ifs. That idea is, in other words, still a theory. Few pundits bother to point out that hackers don’t kill, that cyberspies don’t seem to have stolen many (or any?) important American secrets, and that our most critical infrastructure is not run on the public internet and thus is relatively invulnerable to cyberwhatever. They never note that to the extent that future wars have an online component, this redounds to the U.S. advantage, given our technological prowess.  Even the Wall Street Journal and New York Times recently published breathless stories exaggerating our vulnerability to online attacks and espionage.

So it’s good to see that the July/ August Boston Review has a terrific article by Evgeny Morozov taking on the alarmists. He provides not only a sober net assessment of the various worries categorized by the vague modifier “cyber” but even offers a theory about why hype wins.

Why is there so much concern about “cyber-terrorism”? Answering a question with a question: who frames the debate? Much of the data are gathered by ultra-secretive government agencies—which need to justify their own existence—and cyber-security companies—which derive commercial benefits from popular anxiety. Journalists do not help. Gloomy scenarios and speculations about cyber-Armaggedon draw attention, even if they are relatively short on facts.

I agree.

Social Control as a Profit Center

Here’s an idea that should be killed in the crib: scanning automobiles for up-to-date insurance.

Says Gizmodo (via ars technica and the Chicago Sun-Times):

The system is anticipated to raise yearly earnings “well in excess” of $100 million (possibly even double that figure or more), with InsureNet taking a modest 30% for their services. Of course, all of this cash would be contingent on uninsured drivers actually paying their fines.

There will be thousands more reasons like this put forward for mass public surveillance. The answer should almost always be no because of the accumulations of data about law-abiding citizens such programs would collect in government (and government-contractor) databases.

Taxpayers and the Federal Diary

The Federal Diary column in the Washington Post is a curious piece of newspaper real estate. Most newspaper columns are aimed at the broad general public, but this column is aimed directly at the few hundred thousand government workers in the DC region. The result is that it takes a very government- and union-centric view of the world. The fact that the federal civilian workforce costs taxpayers an enormous $300 billion or so every year is beside the point for the column.

In a briefing with reporters yesterday, the head of the Office of Personnel Management complained about a Lou Dobbs television bit that featured this data that I assembled from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The Federal Diary columnist called me yesterday about the data, and I explained to him the shortcomings of the OPM claims that federal workers are underpaid.

Unfortunately, the Federal Diary today simply parrots the OPM’s claims, calling the Dobbs/Edwards/BEA data “misleading.” Yet this data clearly shows that federal compensation has taken off like a rocket this decade.

Today’s column, like many of the Federal Diary columns, is about how to improve the pay, benefits, and working conditions of federal workers. What about the taxpayers who foot the bill? To provide some balance, the Post ought to at least have a side-by-side column entitled “Federal Taxpayers’ Diary.”

Euro VAT for America?

Desperate for fresh revenues to feed the giant spending appetite of President Obama, Democratic policymakers are talking up ‘tax reform’ as a way to reduce the deficit. Some are considering a European-style value-added tax (VAT), which would have a similar effect as a national sales tax, and be a large new burden on American families.

A VAT would raise hundreds of billions of dollars a year for the government, even at a 10-percent rate. The math is simple: total U.S. consumption in 2008 was $10 trillion. VATs usually tax about half of a nation’s consumption or less, say $5 trillion. That means that a 10% VAT would raise about $500 billion a year in the United States, or about $4,300 from every household. Obviously such a huge tax hit would fundamentally change the American economy and society, and for the worse.

Some fiscal experts think that a VAT would solve the government’s budget problems and reduce the deficit, as the Washington Post noted yesterday. That certainly has not happened in Europe where the average VAT rate is a huge 20 percent, and most nations face large budget deficits just as we do. The hard truth for policymakers to swallow is that the only real cure for our federal fiscal crisis is to cut spending.

Liberals like VATs because of the revenue-raising potential, but some conservatives are drawn to the idea of using VAT revenues to reduce the corporate tax rate. The Post story reflected this in noting “A 21 percent VAT has permitted Ireland to attract investment by lowering the corporate tax rate.” That implies that the Irish government lost money when it cut its corporate rate, but actually the reverse happened in the most dramatic way.

Ireland installed a 10% corporate rate for certain industries in the 1980s, but also steadily cut its regular corporate rate during the 1990s. It switched over to a 12.5% rate for all corporations in 2004. OECD data show that as the Irish corporate tax rate fell, corporate tax revenues went through the roof – from 1.6% of GDP in 1990, to 3.7% in 2000, to 3.8% in 2006.

In sum, a VAT would not solve our deficit problems because Congress would simply boost its spending even higher, as happened in Europe as VAT rates increased over time. Also, a VAT is not needed to cut the corporate income tax rate because a corporate rate cut would be self-financing over the long-term as tax avoidance fell and economic growth increased.

E-Verify: The Surveillance Solution

The federal government will keep data about every person submitted to the “E-Verify” background check system for 10 years.

At least that’s my read of the slightly unclear notice describing the “United States Citizenship Immigration Services 009 Compliance Tracking and Monitoring System” in today’s Federal Register. (A second notice exempts this data from many protections of the Privacy Act.)

To make sure that people aren’t abusing E-Verify, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Verification Division, Monitoring and Compliance Branch will watch how the system is used. It will look for misuse, such as when a single Social Security Number is submitted to the system many times, which suggests that it is being used fraudulently.

How do you look for this kind of misuse (and others, more clever)? You collect all the data that goes into the system and mine it for patterns consistent with misuse.

The notice purports to limit the range of people whose data will be held in the system, listing “Individuals who are the subject of E-Verify or SAVE verifications and whose employer is subject to compliance activities.” But if the Monitoring Compliance Branch is going to find what it’s looking for, it’s going to look at data about all individuals submitted to E-Verify. “Employer subject to compliance activities” is not a limitation because all employers will be subject to “compliance activities” simply for using the system.

In my paper on electronic employment eligibility verification systems like E-Verify, I wrote how such systems “would add to the data stores throughout the federal government that continually amass information about the lives, livelihoods, activities, and interests of everyone—especially law-abiding citizens.”

It’s in the DNA of E-Verify to facilitate surveillance of every American worker. Today’s Federal Register notice is confirmation of that.

Questions for Heritage: REAL ID

The Heritage Foundation’s “The Foundry” blog has a post up called “Questions for Secretary Napolitano: Real ID.”

Honest advocates on two sides of an issue can come to almost perfectly opposite views, and this provides an example, because I find the post confused, wrong, or misleading in nearly every respect.

Let’s give it a brief fisking. Below, the language from the post is in italics, and my comments are in roman text:

Does the Obama Administration support the implementation of the Real ID Act?

(Hope not … .)

Congress has passed two bills that set Real ID standards for driver’s licenses in all U.S. jurisdictions.

REAL ID was a federal law that Congress passed in haste as an attachment to a military spending bill in early 2005. To me, “REAL ID standards” are the standards in the REAL ID Act. I’m not sure what other bill the post refers to.

Given the legitimate fear of REAL ID creating a federal national ID database, section 547 of the Consolidated Security, Disaster Assistance, and Continuing Appropriations Act, 2009 barred the creation of a new federal database or federal access to state databases with the funds in that bill. (Thus, these things will be done with other funds later.)

The Court Security Improvement Act allowed federal judges and Supreme Court Justices to withhold their addresses from the REAL ID database system, evidently because the courts don’t believe the databases would be secure.

And in the last Congress, bills were introduced to repeal REAL ID in both the House and Senate. Congress has been backing away from REAL ID since it was rammed through, with Senators like Joe Lieberman (I-CT) calling REAL ID unworkable.

It’s unclear what the import of the sentence is, but if it’s trying to convey that there is a settled consensus around the REAL ID law, that is not supported by its treatment in Congress.

The Real ID legislation does not create a federal identification card, but it does set minimum security standards for driver’s licenses.

This sentence is correct, but deceptive.

REAL ID sets federal standards for state identification cards and drivers’ licenses, refusing them federal acceptance if they don’t meet these standards. Among those standards is uniformity in the data elements and a nationally standardized machine readable technology. Interoperable databases and easily scanned cards mean that state-issued cards would be the functional equivalent of a federally issued card.

People won’t be fooled if their national ID cards have the flags of their home states on them. When I testified to the Michigan legislature in 2007, I parodied the argument that a state-issued card is not a national ID card: “My car didn’t hit you — the bumper did!”

All states have either agreed to comply with these standards or have applied for an extension of the deadline.

It’s true that all states have either moved toward complying or not, but that’s not very informative. What matters is that a dozen states have passed legislation barring their own participation in the national ID plan. A couple of states received deadline extensions from the Department of Homeland Security despite refusing to ask for them. Things are not going well for REAL ID.

Secure identification cards will make fraudulent documents more difficult to obtain and will also simplify employers’ efforts to check documents when verifying employer eligibility.

It’s true that REAL ID would make it a little bit harder to get - or actually to use - fraudulent documents, because it would add some very expensive checks into the processes states use when they issue cards.

It’s not secure identification cards that make fraudulent documents harder to obtain - the author of this post has the security problems jumbled. But, worse, he or she excludes mentioning that a national ID makes it more valuable to use fraudulent documents. When a thing is made harder to do, but proportionally more valuable to do, you’ll see more of it. REAL ID is not a recipe for a secure identity system; it’s a recipe for a more expensive and invasive, but less secure identity system.

Speaking of invasive, this sentence is a confession that REAL ID is meant to facilitate background checks on American workers before they can work. This is a process I wrote about in a paper subtitled “Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration.” The dream of easy federal background checks on all American workers will never materialize, and we wouldn’t want that power in the hands of the federal government even if we could have it.

Real ID is a sensible protection against identify fraud.

The Department of Homeland Security’s own economic analysis of REAL ID noted that only 28% of all reported incidents of identity theft in 2005 required the presentation of an identification document like a driver’s license. And it said REAL ID would reduce those frauds “only to the extent that the [REAL ID] rulemaking leads to incidental and required use of REAL ID documents in everyday transactions, which is an impact that also depends on decisions made by State and local governments and the private sector.”

Translation: REAL ID would have a small, but speculative effect on identity fraud.

Congress is set to introduce legislation next week that could largely repeal the Real ID.

The bill I’ve seen is structured just like REAL ID was, and it requires states to create a national ID just like REAL ID did. REAL ID is dying, but the bill would revive REAL ID, trying to give it a different name.

Some groups oppose this version of REAL ID because it takes longer to drive all Americans into a national ID system and frustrates their plans to do background checks on all American workers. But it’s still the REAL ID Act’s basic plan for a national ID.

The Administration should put pressure on Congress to ensure that this legislation does not effectively eliminate the Real ID standards.

Why the administration would pressure Congress to maintain the national ID law in place - by any name - is beyond me. REAL ID is unworkable, unwanted, and unfixable.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano signed legislation as Arizona’s governor to reject the REAL ID Act. Her predecessor at DHS, Michael Chertoff, talked tough about implementing the law but came up just shy of lighting the paper bag in which he left it on Napolitano’s doorstep.

The REAL ID revival bill that is being so widely discussed is likely to be both the national ID plan that so many states have already rejected and deeply unsatisfying to the anti-immigrant crowd. Congress rarely fails to grasp a lose-lose opportunity like this, so I expect it will be introduced and to see it’s sponsors award themselves a great deal of self-congratulations for their courageous work. You can expect that to receive a fisking here too.

You Just Can’t Say That

Let’s get one thing straight: As I’ve noted on numerous occasions, you can’t look just at National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results – especially only between two years – and attribute gains or losses to specific laws or programs. There are simply too many variables at play in education – federal laws, state laws, school choice, child nutrition, teacher quality, parents’ attitudes, the weather – to confidently assert that any one is responsible for changing scores. Indeed, it is possible that nothing government has done has had any effect, and every trend just reflects changing attitudes toward education among students themselves.

And yet, some reporters identify something akin to a god variable anyway, as the Associated Press did in its coverage of the new NAEP long-term-trends report:

The biggest gains came from low-achieving students. That is probably not an accident — the federal No Child Left Behind law and similar state laws have focused on improving the performance of minority and poor children, who struggle the most.

Now, there are a lot of problems with this statement, including that several of the lowest-achieving percentiles by age and subject saw no statistically significant changes in scores between 2004 and 2008; many groups had periods of faster gains before NCLB (though we don’t even have clear before and after-NCLB data points); and NAEP offers no income-based score breakdowns, only the proxy of parents’ education – and that just for 13 and 17-year-olds in mathematics. But the biggest problem is that, all of these factual problems aside, there is no way to ascribe score changes to specific laws or government policies. The data just aren’t there.

Fortunately, most of the coverage of the NAEP report has been pretty reasonable, including from the Washington Post and New York Times. But the AP reaches a lot of people, and that means many Americans are going to get “news” about the latest NAEP findings that is little more than unsupportable conjecture.