Monday, December 16, 2013

Big Brother spying is reaching scary levels

On Monday, the world’s leading technology companies, including Google and Microsoft, published an open letter to President Obama and Congress demanding reform of U.S. privacy laws to restore the public’s “trust in the Internet.”

This comes after what seems like an endless series of revelations about government surveillance from the secret documents leaked by Edward Snowden.

Let’s start with the latest: American and British spies have gone into online fantasy games to snoop on players, and to see if any militants are communicating with each other dressed as elves or gnomes. Last week, the Washington Post reported that the National Security Agency is “collecting billions of records a day to track the location of mobile phone users around the world.” And we learned recently that the NSA hacked fiber-optic cables and infected 50,000 networks with malware.

Big Brother spying is happening at a scale we could never have imagined.

This new awareness has prompted people — even those with nothing to hide and who support broad surveillance for national security reasons — to try to regain some control over their online privacy.

According to a fall Pew report, 86% of people “have taken steps online to remove or mask their digital footprints.” Another study concluded that 64% of Internet users concerned about privacy have taken action to protect themselves in direct response to the NSA PRISM program.

Revelations of NSA spying even contributed to President Obama’s approval rating sinking to a new low.

Americans are very worried that they’ve lost control of their personal data. In this atmosphere of anxiety and mistrust, people are adopting privacy solutions in unprecedented numbers.

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Thursday, December 12, 2013

U.S. Government Nastygram Shuts Down One-Man Bitcoin Mint

Mike Caldwell spent years turning digital currency into physical coins. That may sound like a paradox. But it’s true. He takes bitcoins — the world’s most popular digital currency — and then he mints them here in the physical world. If you added up all the bitcoins Caldwell has minted on behalf of his customers, they would be worth about $82 million.

Basically, these physical bitcoins are novelty items. But by moving the digital currency into the physical realm, he also prevents hackers from stealing the stuff via an online attack. Or at least he did. His run as the premiere bitcoin minter may be at an end. Caldwell has been put on notice by the feds.

Just before Thanksgiving, he says, he received a letter from the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FINCEN, the arm of the Treasury Department that dictates how the nation’s anti-money-laundering and financial crime regulations are interpreted. According to FINCEN, Caldwell needs to rethink his business. “They considered my activity to be money transmitting,” Caldwell says. And if you want to transmit money, you must first jump through a lot of state and federal regulatory hoops Caldwell hasn’t jumped through.

Because the process is so complicated, Caldwell has stopped taking orders for his popular Casascius bitcoins — which have become one of the most recognizable images of the thoroughly intangible digital currency. In recent months, the feds have cracked down on many other bitcoin operations in similar ways, including Mt. Gox, the most prominent online bitcoin exchange. But Caldwell’s case is a little different. He doesn’t think he transmits money.

Caldwell doesn’t accept U.S. dollars or any type of fiat currency. You send him bitcoins via the internet, and he sends you back metal coins via the U.S. Postal Service. To spend bitcoins, you need a secret digital key — a string of numbers and letters — and when Caldwell makes the coins, he hides this key behind a tamper-resistant strip.

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Obama’s Orwellian Image Control

THE Internet has been abuzz over the spectacle of President Obama and the prime ministers of Britain and Denmark snapping a photo of themselves — a “selfie,” to use the mot du jour — with a smartphone at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in South Africa on Tuesday.

Leaving aside whether it was appropriate, the moment captured the democratization of image making that is a hallmark of our gadget-filled, technologically rich era.

Manifestly undemocratic, in contrast, is the way Mr. Obama’s administration — in hypocritical defiance of the principles of openness and transparency he campaigned on — has systematically tried to bypass the media by releasing a sanitized visual record of his activities through official photographs and videos, at the expense of independent journalistic access.

The White House-based press corps was prohibited from photographing Mr. Obama on his first day at work in January 2009. Instead, a set of carefully vetted images was released. Since then the press has been allowed to photograph him alone in the Oval Office only twice: in 2009 and in 2010, both times when he was speaking on the phone. Pictures of him at work with his staff in the Oval Office — activities to which previous administrations routinely granted access — have never been allowed.

Instead, here’s how it’s done these days: An event involving the president discharging his official duties is arbitrarily labeled “private,” with media access prohibited. A little while later an official photo is released on the White House Flickr page, or via Twitter to millions of followers. Private? Hardly.

These so-called private events include meetings with world leaders and other visitors of major public interest — just the sorts of activities photojournalists should, and used to, have access to.

In response to these restrictions, 38 of the nation’s largest and most respected media organizations (including The New York Times) delivered a letter to the White House last month protesting photojournalists’ diminished access.

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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Obamacare Rules Threaten to Torch Volunteer Fire Departments

Count volunteer fire deparments among the Obamacare-victimized.

Rules governing the health-care reform law championed by President Obama could inadvertently suck in volunteer firefighting companies, meaning the departments or the towns that support them might be forced to offer health insurance coverage or pay a penalty if they don’t.

According to Firehouse.com, the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) has asked the Internal Revenue Service, which has partial oversight of the law, to clarify if current IRS treatment of volunteer firefighters as employees means they fall under Obamacare rules.

Though the IAFC has been working on the issue with the IRS and White House for months, the question is largely flying under the radar.

“I thought the kinks were worked out of Obamacare at the first of the month,” Central Florida volunteer firefighter Carl Fabrizi told Sunshine State News Friday. “Man, oh, man, this could potentially destroy some real good companies in Florida.”

Republican Congressman Lou Barletta of Pennsylvania is pushing to get clarification from the IRS. “In Pennsylvania, 97 percent of fire departments are fully or mostly volunteer firefighters,” Barletta told Firehouse.com. “It’s the fourth highest amount in the country.”

Spokesmen for the IRS didn’t return Firehouse.com’s phone call, nor did they return SSN’s.

Firehouse.com claims the IAFC’s interpretation of the situation goes like this:

Obamacare requires employers with 50 or more full-time employees (full-time employees are those who work more than 30 hours a week) to offer health insurance. Companies with fewer than 50 don’t have to offer insurance. Employers who don’t offer health insurance have to pay fines.

Sounds simple, but the requirement is complicated by differing interpretations about the status of volunteer firefighters within the federal government. Apparently the Department of Labor classifies most volunteers as non-employees, but the IRS considers all volunteer firefighters and emergency medical personnel to be employees of their departments.

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U.S. Sells Off Last of Its General Motors Stock, at $10.5 Billion Loss

For one of the few times in its macro economic policy thought and action, the federal government relies on a subtle analysis of “things not seen” to defend its apparent $10.5 billion loss on the General Motors bailout as a success, via USA Today:

U.S. taxpayers no longer own any of automaker General Motors. The Treasury sold the last of its remaining 31.1 million GM shares today.

The taxpayer loss on the GM bailout finishes at $10.5 billion. The Treasury department said it recovered $39 billion from selling its GM stock, and had put $49.5 billion of taxpayer money into the GM bailout….

The administration emphasizes that the loss it took on GM shares is far less constly than had GM been allowed to fail.

“Inaction could have cost the broader economy more than one million jobs, billions in lost personal savings, and significantly reduced economic production,” Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said in a statement announcing that Treasury had sold all its remaining shars.

What might have happened to that money, those resources, those skills, those people, if they had not been diverted by government action? No one knows, or will ever know, and the government would prefer you not think about it.

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