Erie County Forced to Hand Over Stingray Documents

A few weeks ago, a New York judge ruled that the Erie County Sheriff’s Office had inappropriately denied a freedom of information request from the NYCLU regarding the office’s use of Stingray cell phone trackers.  The judge ordered the sheriff to release the documents that had been inappropriately withheld.

Yesterday, the sheriff complied and the documents prove exactly what transparency and civil liberties advocates have been arguing: these devices are often deployed in complete secrecy and with no judicial oversight.

Per the NYCLU press release:

The Sheriff’s Office used Stingrays at least 47 times between May 1, 2010, and October 3, 2014, including to assist other law enforcement departments like the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office. It appears that the office only obtained a court order in only one of those 47 circumstances, in October 2014, and even in that case it was not a warrant but a lower level court order (called a “pen register” order). This contradicts what the sheriff said to a local reporter and undermines what he said to the legislature – that this device is being used subject to “judicial review.”

Further, the federal government is directly complicit in this secrecy, forcing law enforcement agencies to sign non-disclosure agreements in exchange for use of the devices.  The agreements forbid participating law enforcement agencies from disclosing the nature of these devices, even to judges and defense attorneys.  The agreement even contains provisions giving the FBI the authority to compel prosecutors to drop criminal cases rather than reveal the Stingray use to the court.

From the non-disclosure agreement:

In addition, the Erie County Sheriff’s Office will, at the request of the FBI, seek dismissal of the case in lieu of using or providing, or allowing others to use or provide, any information concerning the Harris Corporation wirelesss collection equipment/technology, its associated software, operating manuals, and any related documentation (beyond the evidentiary results obtained through the use of the equipment/technology), if using or providing such information would potentially or actually compromise the equipment/technology. This point supposes that the agency has some control or influence of the prosecutorial process.  Where such is not the case, or is limited so as to be inconsequential, it is the FBI’s expectation that the law enforcement agency identify the applicable prosecuting agency, or agenices, for inclusion in this agreement.

This is not just idle boilerplate.  Although that provision of the agreements has until now been redacted, civil liberties advocates have long assumed its existence based on several instances of serious criminal charges being dropped when scrupulous defense attorneys or judges start inquiring into how police were able to locate suspects. Perhaps more troubling, the conditional nature of that provision implies that police and prosecutors can use information gleaned from these devices unless the judge or opposing counsel asks the right questions to expose the Stingray use.  That implication raises a troubling question: how often has evidence from illicit Stingray use been allowed to stand because neither the judge nor the lawyer knew what to look for?

A legitimate justice system requires transparency and accountability.  It requires checks and balances and respect for the rule of law. With every revelation about the widespread and unfettered use of cell site simulators by police, it becomes more clear that this program flies in the face of our cherished principles of justice.

 

White House Announces Initiative to Focus on Health Concerns of Global Warming: We’ve Already Done It For Them!

Global Science Report is a weekly feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

It seems like the Obama Administration is a bit behind the times when it comes to today’s announcement that it will start a new initiative to focus on the health effects of climate change.

There is no need for the White House to outlay federal resources for the time and effort that will be involved—we have already done it for them (and, undoubtedly, for a minuscule fraction of the price)!

Two and a half years ago, we released a publication titled “ADDENDUM: Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States” that basically was a non-government-influenced look at how climate change would likely impact the United States in the future, based a lot on current trends in climate and society. We titled it an “ADDENDUM” because the U.S. Global Change Research Program, back in 2009, released a similarly titled report that was so incomplete that, well, it needed an addendum. We knew the government wasn’t going to supply one, so we produced one ourselves.

In our report (available here), we included a chapter on human health. Here are the key messages from that chapter:

  • The health effects of climate change on the United States are negligible today, and likely to remain so in the future, unless the United States goes into precipitous economic and technological decline.
  • Death certificate data indicate that 46 percent of all deaths from extreme weather events in the United States from 1993-2006 were from excessive cold, 28 percent were from excessive heat, 10 percent were from hurricanes, 7 percent were from floods, and 4 percent were from tornadoes.
  • Over the long term, deaths from extreme weather events have declined in the United States.
  • Deaths in the United States peak in the colder months and are at a minimum in the warmer months.
  • In U.S. cities, heat-related mortality declines as heat waves become stronger and/or more frequent.
  • Census data indicate that the migration of Americans from the cold northern areas to the warmer southwest saves about 4,600 lives per year and is responsible for three to seven per cent of the gains in life expectancy from 1970-2000.
  • While the U.S. Global Change Research Program states that “Some diseases transmitted by food, water, and insects are likely to increase,” incidence of these diseases have been reduced by orders of magnitude in the United States over the past century, and show no sign of resurgence.

We effectively show that if you want to focus on the health of Americans, there is no need to bring climate change into the equation—especially if you are hoping to find negative impacts (which appears to be the goal of the Administration).

Scads of new science–on everything from heat-related mortality, to asthma, to extreme weather–continues to support that general conclusion.

Of note is that accompanying today’s White House announcement is an announcement from the USGCRP that it has produced its own reportThe Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment.”

Based on loads of past experience with the USGCRP, we can only imagine the worst.

Public comments on this draft of the USGCRP report are due on June 8, 2015. It’s on our calendar.

Do Housing Vouchers Help Poor Children?

Why do poor parents have children who also grow up to be poor? One possible reason is that poor families do not have access to credit that would allow parents to invest more in the improvement of the human capital of their children. The conventional policy recommendation for this diagnosis is to increase transfers to poor families in order to remove their credit constraints.

The expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)—which uses the tax system to transfer money to low-income households—has been shown to increase standardized test scores. But critics of this research argue that factors unobservable to researchers but correlated with EITC receipt are responsible for children’s success, not the EITC transfers themselves.

Increasingly, economists use clever research designs that involve an element of random assignment, much like clinical trials of new pharmaceuticals, to provide more conclusive evidence of a program’s effectiveness or ineffectiveness. Recently, three researchers used a policy change in Chicago to test the effects of a change in housing subsidies.

Unlike many other welfare programs, housing subsidies are not given to everyone who qualifies for them, but are handed out on the basis of availability. In 1997, for the first time in 12 years, Chicago accepted applications for housing vouchers. About 82,000 people applied out of 300,000 poverty households in Chicago at the time. The applicants were randomly assigned a position in the waiting list. The first 35,000 on the list were told their number and that they would be offered a voucher within three years. The rest were told that they would not receive vouchers.

By 2003, 18,000 of the first 35,000 applicants had received vouchers. The Chicago Housing Authority had issued as many vouchers as it could fund, and stopped offering any new vouchers.

In a study I review in my “Working Papers” column in the current Regulation, Brian Jacob, Max Kapustin, and Jens Ludwig examine the outcomes 14 years later for children whose families “won” the Chicago housing vouchers versus the children of families that were told they would not receive a voucher. Families that won the lottery received a very large positive income shock—the equivalent of $12,000 a year—relative to the average income in the sample ($19,000 a year). If income alone allows families to improve the human capital in their children, we should see results from this experiment. 

The authors find very few effects on schooling, crime, or health outcomes—and none were significant. “Our estimates imply that extra cash transfers beyond the current level provided in the United States are likely to have a smaller impact per dollar than the best-practice educational interventions explicitly designed to improve children’s human capital,” they write. Their results are consistent with the findings of sociologist Susan Mayer, who concluded in her 1997 book What Money Can’t Buy (Harvard University Press) that there is “little reason to expect that policies to increase the income of poor families alone will substantially improve their children’s life chances.”

Rand Paul’s Challenge: Can a Libertarianish Candidate Succeed?

Rand Paul and David Boaz with book Libertarian MindAs Sen. Rand Paul announces his presidential candidacy, I’ve been talking about it in the media. At the Daily Beast, I write about his chances:

The Republican base may be divided into establishment, tea party, Christian right, and libertarian wings. Paul starts out with a strong base in the libertarian wing, which gave his father, Rep. Ron Paul, 21 percent of the Iowa caucus vote and 23 percent of the New Hampshire primary in 2012. With his strong opposition to taxes and spending and his book “The Tea Party Goes to Washington,” he’s also well positioned for the tea party vote. His pro-life views will make him acceptable to religious conservatives as the field narrows.

The wild card may be who can attract voters who don’t usually vote in Republican primaries. Paul’s stands on military intervention, marijuana, criminal justice reform, and the surveillance state give him a good shot at getting independents and young people to come out for him….

After the 2012 election Los Angeles Times columnist James Rainey wrote that the country is mildly “left on social issues and right on economics…. a center-libertarian nation.”

No other candidate is trying to appeal directly to that center-libertarian vote. That’s the big new idea that Rand Paul will test.

Nigerians Elect Former Dictator to Save Democracy

Nigerians have elected a new president, the first time an opposition candidate defeated an incumbent since the restoration of democracy in 1999. Muhammad Buhari, a 72-year-old former dictator and perennial presidential candidate, will take over on May 29.

Nigeria enjoys the continent’s largest GDP but trails several African nations in per capita GDP. Although possessing extensive energy resources, the nation suffers from regular power outages.

Nigerians are entrepreneurial but nearly a quarter of them are unemployed. An intrusive, exploitative state blocks economic development and steals wealth. According to the latest Economic Freedom of the World Nigeria has one of the world’s least open economies, coming in at 125 of the 152 countries rated. This discourages foreign investment in what should be the continent’s best market.

Corruption raises the cost of business and rewards economic manipulation. Last year an expatriate worker told me:  “Nigeria is not a country. It is an opportunity.”

Nigerian politics is anything but clean. Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party ruled for 16 years, using patronage and other tools of incumbency to maintain power.

Nigeria better protects political rights and civil liberties than many African states. However, the State Department pointed to a number of human rights challenges, including “vigilante killings; prolonged pretrial detention; denial of fair public trail; executive influence on the judiciary; infringements on citizens’ privacy rights; restrictions on the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, religion, and movement.”

Insecurity is pervasive. When I visited last year my group sported a well-armed escort. The oil-rich Niger Delta is especially dangerous; executives admit to paying bribes to discourage attacks.

Worse, sectarianism divides the nation. At times violence flares.

In recent years the murderous Boko Haram extended its reach across Nigeria. The group received a blaze of publicity last year after kidnapping hundreds of school girls. Boko Haram has killed more than 20,000 Nigerians and displaced 1.5 million people in Nigeria and neighboring countries.

The Nigerian military is underfunded and ill-trained, distrusted by civilian politicians. Worse, government abuses generate support for Boko Haram.

Understandably, Nigerians desperately wanted change. But in what direction?

As dictator, Buhari lasted only 20 months before being unseated by another general. The Economist observed: “He detained thousands of opponents, silenced the press, banned political meetings and had people executed for crimes that were not capital offenses when they were committed.”

Buhari says he now recognizes democracy to be the better option. He has a reputation for probity and being a Muslim may better position him to combat Boko Haram.

However, energizing the economy may prove more difficult. Candidate Buhari promised much. While there are some free market advocates in Buhari’s coalition, more around him are not and he is thought to be an “unreconstructed statist,” according to the Financial Times. This is a prescription for economic failure.

His previous record is cause for pessimism. Noted the Economist: “He expelled 700,000 immigrants under the illusion that this would create jobs for Nigerians. His economic policies, which included the fixing of prices and bans on ‘unnecessary’ imports, were both crass and ineffective.” Nigeria cannot afford a repeat performance.

Still, in at least one important respect the election was good news. Despite some technical problems, the election went surprisingly well. Jenai Cox of Freedom House called the vote “one of the smoothest and least violent in Nigeria’s history.”

Equally important was President Jonathan’s unconditional acceptance of the results. He declared:  “I promised the country free and fair elections. I have kept my word.” And he did.

As I point out in Forbes online, “Nigeria’s success suggests that the country has developed a lusher civil society and stronger commitment to the rule of law than often thought. Moreover, this experience offers hope for other African nations struggling with democracy.”

Nigeria is a tragedy. Not so much because of the bad events which have occurred, which are many, but for its many lost opportunities and great unused potential. The future of Nigeria now rests in Muhammad Buhari’s hands.

Immigration and Equality

Now that a federal judge has enjoined President Obama’s unilateral amnesty, immigration reform will have to be achieved the old-fashioned – and constitutional – way: by compromise with Congress. A grand bargain is not impossible, but it will require a broad re-framing of the issues and a clear sense of what is at stake. For one thing, any such bargain should end, once and for all, governmental discrimination on the basis of race.

Affirmative action and immigration might, at first glance, appear unrelated; in fact, they are profoundly and perversely intertwined. It is often said that anti-immigration sentiment is driven by a fear of competition; Americans are said to fear competing against new immigrants for jobs, for contracts, for educational opportunities. This account leaves out a crucial part of the story: Americans have never lacked competitive spirit or feared a fair fight. What many Americans fear is that these competitions will, in fact, be rigged from the outset. The sad fact is that they are right.

You Ought to Have a Look: Parisian Promises

You Ought to Have a Look is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science posted by Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. (“Chip”) Knappenberger.  While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic.  Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.

In Paris this December, the U.N. will hold its 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) to the 1992 Rio Treaty (officially known as the UN framework Convention on Climate Change). Like the 20 previous COPs, the goal will be to entice (browbeat) as many countries as possible to commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in an attempt to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” [“Dangerous anthropogenic interference” has been defined to mean a global average temperature rise of more than 2.0°C above the preindustrial global average temperature. We are highly doubtful that a 2.0°C rise (of which we are more than a third of the way there) will actually prove “dangerous” especially when adaptations are factored in, but we digress.]

And like the 20 COPs that have come before, COP 21 will fail—largely because greenhouse gas emissions result primarily from burning fossil fuels to produce the energy which powers the modern economy.  Those with a modern economy want to keep it rolling along, and those without, desperately strive for one. Neither group is willing to budge much from these wishes. Consequently global emissions continue to rise.

Even the U.N. now is beginning to realize that meeting a 2.0°C warming target is virtually impossible—this despite rather absurd new calls for the target to be lowered to 1.5°C.

Nevertheless, the U.N. continues to go through the motions (after all, COPs are big business).

At last year’s COP 20, held in Lima, Peru, the best that everyone could agree on was assigning each country some homework along the lines of this: Describe what types of greenhouse gas emissions reductions (with targets and timetables) that you feel you may undertake; justify your answer. The assignment was due on March 31. Most countries are tardy.

Under U.N. terminology, the homework must include a declaration of each country’s “Intended Nationally-Derived Contributions (INDCs)” –that is, what each “intends” to do to reduce their carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gas) emissions.

A look through some of the work that has been handed in on time reveals a strange mélange on “intentions.”