One year ago, Russia granted Edward Snowden temporary asylum after a 39-day stay for the NSA whistleblower in the transit zone at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. Snowden had become stranded there while trying to flee to Latin America, where several countries had offered permanent asylum after the U.S. government filed charges against him for making off with thousands of classified documents about its surveillance programs.
Since then, the Snowden story has unfolded in dramatic ways for a nonstop 12 months — as the world reacted to the vast amount of information that his files contained — sparking revelation after revelation about some of the nation’s most cherished secrets. It has also sparked a fierce policy debate over how to make intelligence organizations more accountable.
In the last six months alone, reports based on Snowden’s files have included important new details about how the NSA collects large amounts of American data under the guise of foreign surveillance. It has been shown that the NSA and Britain’s GCHQ targeted Muslim community leaders and online activists — possibly crossing the line between surveillance and censorship.
For many anti-secrecy activists and civil rights campaigners, the avalanche of stories over the past year has seemed to prove many of the things they had previously only suspected, when it came to surveillance actions and the way intelligence gathering was being used.
“The primary significance, in my view at least, of the Snowden disclosures is that it … presented to the American public documents that were actually written by the government proving, in fact, that what we [the ACLU] had been saying was true,” said Kade Crockford, who directs the Technology for Liberty Project at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and edits its Privacy Matters blog.
Yet while the headlines have been dominated by Snowden’s leaks, much of his own life over the past 12 months has remained in the shadows. Earlier this month, his lawyers said they had filed for an extension of his asylum in Russia beyond the July 31 expiration. According to a recent interview in The Guardian, which along with The Washington Post first reported on the Snowden leaks, it appears he spends his time in Russia working on digital privacy tools, reading Dostoevsky and giving talks about surveillance via videoconference.
My wife’s 10-year-old car has an expensive built-in navigation system, but anytime she drives out of Portland, she uses Waze on her iPhone. Besides being free, this “social driving” app (now owned by Google) is dramatically smarter and more useful than anything her Lexus offers, and proves its worth regularly, as it did when helping us route around a 30-minute traffic jam last month, on our way back from the Oregon coast. The dark screen of the car’s nav system makes a fine backrest for the phone, while Waze gleefully chimes in with accurate, crowdsourced traffic updates over the sound system via Bluetooth.
For all its utility, this is clearly not an ideal situation: It’s redundant, and the interface is far from optimal, or even entirely safe. Recent government regulation efforts are attempting to bring mobile use in cars under some kind of control, but ultimately it’s not a legislative problem. It’s a design problem.
Instead of trying to legislate this kind of behavior away, or pretending it doesn’t happen in the first place, we need to figure out how to make it work, safely and effectively. For interaction and user experience designers, this is a familiar problem of designing for context, except in this case, the context is a car.
Waze is already taking steps of its own to encourage safer use, warning drivers to not use the touch UI when the phone is in motion and–crucially–offering a voice interface instead. Newer aftermarket head units in cars, like those from Pioneer and Alpine, already allow voice control of all major phone activities over Bluetooth, including calling, answering and text messaging. Soon we’ll reach the point where our smartphones can push their screens wirelessly to large format in-car screens, custom-designed for rapid access and low distraction, and integrated with steering wheel controls. Two years from now, I expect technology that makes all of this to look quaint. Designing and developing for smartphones, after all, is far easier than it is for cars, which is why all the interesting things happen there.
House Republicans voted to proceed with a lawsuit against President Obama on Wednesday, saying that his executive actions are so extreme that they violate the Constitution.
The nearly party-line vote — all Democrats voted against it, and all but five Republicans voted for it — further agitated an already polarized climate on Capitol Hill as both parties used the pending suit to try to rally support ahead of the November elections.
Halfway across the continent, Obama almost gloated at the prospect of being sued.
“They’re going to sue me for taking executive actions to help people. So they’re mad I’m doing my job,” Obama said in an economics speech in Kansas City, Mo. “And by the way, I’ve told them I’d be happy to do it with you. The only reason I’m doing it on my own is because you’re not doing anything,” he said of Congress.
The clash came a day before Congress is scheduled to begin a 51 / 2-week summer break and as must-pass bills on reshaping veterans’ health care and highway construction appeared headed for passage — while most everything else was not.
For instance, the House and Senate moved in dramatically different directions on legislation designed to deal with the flow of thousands of unaccompanied Central American minors arriving at the border.
Expecting a flurry of work once the elections are over in November, leaders in both parties have instead tried to position their rank-and-file to take advantage of the gridlock by blaming the other side. By the time this year concludes, the 113th Congress is all but assured of being the least productive in recorded history in terms of passing legislation signed into law.
The details of Speaker John A. Boehner’s lawsuit mattered little — it focuses on a narrow portion of the landmark health-care law — and instead each side focused on the larger symbolism of the moment.
Democrats linked the lawsuit to calls from outspoken conservative activists urging the impeachment of Obama, a battle cry that Democrats have amplified in an effort to raise money and get people to vote.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), glaring at Republicans during the heated debate, accused Boehner (R-Ohio) of caving into “impeachment-hungry extremists.”
“Tell them impeachment is off the table. That’s what I had to do,” she said, noting several attempts by liberals to impeach President George W. Bush and Vice President Richard B. Cheney while she was House speaker.
Boehner, who has repeatedly said impeachment is not in the cards, connected the suit to a series of executive orders that Obama issued on climate change, immigration rules, the health-care law and raising the minimum wage for federal contractors, saying that those were power grabs that did not have requisite backing from Congress.
The fighting in Gaza is an information battle as much as it is about violence. Both the invading Israeli Defense Forces and its foes Hamas – the militant political party that governs the coastal strip – rely on an ability to “spin” the tragic outcomes of war to reassure their own citizens, undermine their opponents and attempt to convince the rest of the world their cause is worth supporting.
An Israeli soldier aims his weapon at a Palestinian during clashes in the village of Hawara near the West Bank city of Nablus on Friday.
The nature of this latest conflict, however, has drawn scrutiny from across the globe as news outlets and governments alike report wide-scale deaths and abuses by fighters on both sides. A growing coalition of international powers has become critical of what it perceives as Israel’s heavy-handedness in its violent response. Yet Israel and some of its allies don’t feel the need to justify its pursuit of Hamas any further than pointing to its classification as a terrorist organization.
On the ground, both Israelis and Palestinians believe the other side wishes to annihilate their very way of life, and likely don’t have the time or motivation to question the veracity of the reports they hear.
Or perhaps that kind of accuracy doesn’t matter. As George Orwell said, “All propaganda is lies, even when one is telling the truth.”
Israel has invested massive amounts of time and effort into polishing its external image, hiring well-groomed and articulate representatives to speak on behalf of their government. Israeli Defense Forces Lt. Col. Peter Lerner appears frequently on outlets such as CNN, BBC and Al-Jazeera, explaining his country’s concerns with a refined English accent.
Hamas, however, has fewer resources and fewer spokespeople to use to appeal to Western audiences. Its delegate to Lebanon, Osama Hamdan, for example, speaks with a strong Arabic accent and is not as fluent in English as his Israeli counterparts.
The same perception is true on social media. The @IDFSpokesperson Twitter account routinely updates its followers on military campaigns in and around Israel, using snappy graphics and subtle messaging to drive home its point.
Hamas, however, is unable to maintain an English-language Twitter account without it being blocked for content violations. Its main source of social media messaging exists through an Arabic-only presence. @QassamFeed, a Twitter account for Qassam Brigades, the organization’s military wing, soared in popularity this summer, eliciting citations from high-profile news outlets. Twitter shut down the account in mid-July citing privacy and security concerns, according to the Christian Science Monitor. The social media company did not elaborate on its decision, but it could be related to policies barring illegal activity and Hamas’ official status as a terrorist organization.
Beyond their respective public faces, neither Israel nor Palestine is exactly a shining example of an open and fair media system. Palestine ranks 138th of180 countries for press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders, the nonprofit that advocates internationally for journalists’ and news organizations’ rights. The media spectrum there is listed as a “very difficult situation,” wedging it between Libya and Chad on the press rights rankings.
But Israel, a staunch ally of the U.S. and considered by most to be a Westernized country, ranks not much higher on the list at 96th. (The U.S., by contrast, is 46th, and the U.K. is 33rd. Finland is at the very top of the list). In the Jewish state, RWB reports, “freedom of information is often sacrificed to purported security requirements.”
A federal judge today told five different police unions they can’t stop broad changes to stop-and-friskthat Mayor de Blasio agreed to in a settlement earlier this year. The ruling opens the door for the NYPD to overhaul the practice that was ruled unconstitutional last August. In the 108-page ruling, federal Judge Analisa Torres said the unions have “no significant protectable interests relating to the subject of the litigation that would warrant intervention.”
And so ends the department’s attempts to prevent stop-and-frisk reforms. Those changes, agreed to in January by the mayor and plaintiffs suing the city over what they said were illegal stop-and-frisks, include retraining officers, a new program that would put cameras on some officers, and an independent monitor to oversee the new process. Now they can finally go into effect.
This story is part of an ongoing POLITICO series on how national policy issues are affecting the 2014 midterm elections.
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Rep. Bruce Braley is betting the farm on corn — and Democrats’ hold on the Senate may be in danger if he’s wrong.
The Iowan is touting federal support for ethanol while competing in one of 2014’s most critical Senate contests — and he’s banking on his ability to champion his state’s cause in D.C., where the corn industry’s political power has waned. While critics ranging from environmentalists to anti-subsidy fiscal conservatives have turned against ethanol, Braley is busy posing at gas stations that sell the corn-based biofuel, campaigning with farmers and pressuring EPA to protect the federal mandate that guarantees corn’s role in the U.S. fuel supply.
His Republican opponent, state Sen. Joni Ernst, has been more elusive on the issue — saying she “philosophically” opposes government meddling in markets but promising to protect EPA’s ethanol program until all other subsidies are repealed. That sounds like waffling to Braley supporters, an impression Ernst has tried to counteract with some pro-ethanol rhetoric this week.
Less-than-overwhelming enthusiasm for EPA’s ethanol mandate is a rare stance for any candidate in Iowa, from either party, so a perception that Ernst is wobbly on biofuels would offer an advantage to Braley. Ernst’s opponents have also attacked her for planning to attend a Washington fundraiser hosted by the oil industry, one of ethanol’s biggest opponents.
But Braley, whose campaign leans heavily on his influence in Washington, faces pressure to show he can deliver. A key test is expected in the coming weeks, when EPA announces a decision that could make or break the federal mandate that requires gasoline refiners to blend ethanol into their fuel.
People in the home-grown industry agree that ethanol looms large here, though many are still deciding where they think Ernst stands.
“I think renewable fuels can be a big issue in the race,” said Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association. Shaw, who lost a Republican House primary in Iowa earlier this year, says about 10,000 households in the state are directly invested in or employed by the renewable fuels industry, and nearly 300,000 Iowans are “pretty much directly engaged in agriculture,” he said. “That’s a lot of voters.”
“If you can’t find a senator in Iowa that supports ethanol, you’ve got a serious problem,” said Pam Johnson, a sixth-generation farmer in northern Iowa and chairwoman of the corn board at the National Corn Growers Association.
Braley expects Iowa voters to pay close attention to the candidates’ stances on the ethanol program, known as the Renewable Fuel Standard.