2013...mewhat-popular - %2

Here's the Worst Part of the Target Data Breach

| Sat Dec. 21, 2013 9:00 PM EST

You know what the most infuriating part of the massive data breach at Target is? This:

Over the last decade, most countries have moved toward using credit cards that carry information on embeddable microchips rather than magnetic strips. The additional encryption on so-called smart cards has made the kind of brazen data thefts suffered by Target almost impossible to pull off in most other countries.

Because the U.S. is one of the few places yet to widely deploy such technology, the nation has increasingly become the focus of hackers seeking to steal such information. The stolen data can easily be turned into phony credit cards that are sold on black markets around the world.

There's really no excuse for this. The technology to avoid this kind of hacking is available, and it's been in real-world use for many years. Every bank and every merchant in American knows how to implement it. But it would cost a bit of money, so they don't. And who pays the price? Not the banks:

J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. Saturday told debit-card holders who shopped at Target during a 20-day data breach that the bank would be limiting cash withdrawals to $100 and putting on a $300 daily-purchasing cap, a move that shows how banks will try to limit exposure to potential fraud.

In a letter to debit card holders posted on its website, the bank said such limitations on spending would be temporary while it plans to reissue cards. The spending restrictions don't affect credit card users, the bank said.

That's right: it's you who pays the price. Oh, these breaches are a pain in the ass for card-issuing banks and for Target itself, and it will end up costing them some money. But mainly it's a pain in the ass for consumers. And if this breach causes you to be a victim of identity theft, you can be sure that neither Target nor your bank nor your credit rating agency will give you so much as the time of day. It'll be up to you to reclaim your life even though it wasn't your fault in any way. It's a disgrace.

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Halftime Report: Chrome Out, Firefox In

| Sat Dec. 21, 2013 7:49 PM EST

Well, my switch to Chrome didn't go well after all. It turned out that the MoJo tech team had an excellent reason for not supporting it: For some reason, when you paste text into our blog software, Chrome copies over every last bit of HTML formatting from the source document. Why? Beats me. But it doesn't really matter, because Chrome lacked so many handy features that I've gotten used to in Opera that I would have given up on it anyway. So I tried Firefox again, and so far it's been great. It had most of the features Chrome didn't, and the few it lacked could be easily added via extensions. Performance is fine, and it mostly works well with the MoJo web software.

It doesn't have a built-in email client, which is one of the Opera features I like best, but that was eliminated in the most recent Opera update anyway. Given all this, there's really not much reason to stick with a browser that's supported by nobody and that merely produces shrugs (or worse) when you complain about their site not rendering properly.

But before I make the switch permanently, I have a question for the hive mind. I don't really recall why I gave up on Firefox a couple of years ago, but my recollection is that it had gotten slow and crash-prone. Anyone have any comments on that? Has it gotten better? Or does it still tend to crash at inopportune moments?

Also: Are there any add-ons that are so fabulous I should check them out immediately?

When Having Condoms Gets You Arrested

| Sat Dec. 21, 2013 6:00 AM EST

Last week, Mother Jones' Molly Redden wrote about a recent Human Rights Watch report, "In Harm’s Way," which argues that aggressive policing in New Orleans is contributing to the city’s soaring HIV/AIDS rates. One tactic that Human Rights Watch found to be particularly problematic: the police harassment of suspected sex workers for possessing condoms.

Transgender women reported the police calling them a "thing," a "whore," and "a disgrace to America" while searching them for condoms.

At the heart of the matter is the vague definition of the crime of "loitering for prostitution," which invites arbitrary arrests and discriminatory policing. According to the report, police in New Orleans use the possession of condoms as evidence of prostitution, even if they don't witness the crime underway. The result? Of the report’s 169 interviewees, all of whom had exchanged sex for money, drugs, or life necessities, more than a third said that they had carried fewer condoms out of fear of police harassment. More than a quarter had had unprotected sex due to the fear of carrying condoms.

Testimonies in the report describe police harassing sex workers, threatening arrest based on condom possession, and, in some cases, confiscating the condoms altogether. Transgender women reported the police calling them a "thing," a "whore," and "a disgrace to America" while searching them for condoms. Cleo, a 36-year-old woman, said, "In the French Quarter [in March of this year] I was at [a bar] with a man and the cops asked only the trans women to go outside and they searched us. If we had condoms we got arrested for attempted solicitation." 

New Orleans isn’t the only place where Human Rights Watch has documented condom confiscation. Last year, the organization examined the police treatment of sex workers in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC, and found that police in all four cities were using condoms as evidence of prostitution.

From last year's report, "Sex Workers at Risk":

Police use of condoms as evidence of prostitution has the same effect everywhere. Despite millions of dollars spent on promoting and distributing condoms as an effective method of HIV prevention, groups most at risk of infection—sex workers, transgender women, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth—are afraid to carry them and therefore engage in sex without protection as a result of police harassment. Outreach workers and businesses are unable to distribute condoms freely and without fear of harassment as well.

Over the past year, some places have made progress. In June, New York became the first state to pass a law prohibiting the use of condom possession as evidence of prostitution-related crimes. In Washington, DC, the Metropolitan Police started distributing "condom cards" and leaflets to sex workers and community health groups (Example text: "Individuals are allowed to carry as many condoms as they want. There is no 'three condom rule'"). In February, the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS identified the usage of condoms as evidence of prostitution as one of several "HIV-specific criminal laws" that are "fueling the epidemic rather than reducing it."

Whether or not the New Orleans Police Department will act on the report remains up in the air. Last week, dozens of people in New Orleans marched in front of City Hall holding signs saying "Prevention Not Punishment." A New Orleans Police Department spokesperson has told local media that "to date, we have no record of the allegations made in this report."

California Is Giving Tesla Another Huge Tax Break. Good Move.

| Fri Dec. 20, 2013 8:16 PM EST

This story originally appear on Slate and is reproduced here as part of the ClimateDesk collaboration.

This is going to drive the Tesla-haters crazy. The luxury electric-car maker is getting a huge new tax break from California, SFGate reports. The state will let it off the hook for sales and use taxes on some $415 million in new equipment it's purchasing in order to expand production of the Model S at its Bay Area factory. That amounts to a $34.7 million tax break to produce more of a vehicle whose sticker price starts above $70,000.

Tax breaks for the rich! Corporate giveaways! The working people forced to pay for tech titans' fancy rides!  

Well, sort of. But as SFGate's David R. Baker explains:

California is one of the few states to tax the purchase of manufacturing equipment, a policy that California business associations have spent years trying to change. But the state does grant exemptions for clean-tech companies as a way to encourage the industry's growth. The exemptions are issued by the California Alternative Energy and Advanced Transportation Financing Authority, chaired by State Treasurer Bill Lockyer.

So, in fact, it isn't Tesla per se that's getting special treatment from the state. It's the clean-tech industry in general, which California is very keen to promote for two reasons. One, it wants to establish itself as a leader in a sector that it believes will be a big driver of its economy in the decades to come. And two, it's one of the few states in the country that's actually, genuinely serious about reducing its greenhouse-gas emissions. Promoting clean energy is a crucial part of its strategy.

More broadly, whatever sense a tax on the purchase of manufacturing equipment might once have made for California, it's patently counterproductive in the context of clean-tech startups in the 21st century. Add to that some of the highest income and sales taxes in the nation, and it's no wonder California is worried about companies like Tesla picking up stakes and heading elsewhere. Businessweek notes that new manufacturing jobs in the state have risen less than 1 percent since 2010, compared with nearly 5 percent nationally. Gov. Jerry Brown has been chipping away at the tax already, and Tesla is just the latest example.

Nor is the deal likely to burden the state's taxpayers. Tesla's Model S is in huge demand, and the company has been scrambling since its launch to ramp up production. SFGate reports the new equipment will help Tesla boost production by some 35,000 vehicles a year from its current annual rate of 21,000. State analysts predict the added jobs and vehicle sales are expected to bring in more money to the state than the tax break will take away.

For all that, I think some criticism might still be justified if Tesla in the end simply remains a producer of luxury cars for the wealthiest consumers. But the company has insisted from the outset that its ultimate goal is to produce an all-electric car that middle-class buyers can afford. A Tesla spokeswoman told me last week the company is still on track to release its third-generation vehicle by 2016 or 2017. The price is widely expected to be about half that of the Model S—not cheap, but certainly headed in the right direction.

Meanwhile, the success of the Model S has kickstarted the industry as a whole and made California the epicenter of the electric-car world. That's thanks in part to a similar tax break the state gave the company several years ago to manufacture its cars there in the first place. I'd say there are worse ways for a state to spend a few tens of millions. But if you're still convinced that tax breaks to big manufacturers are unfair and wrong, you might want to train your ire on a state a little further north, which just offered an all-time record $8.7 billion in tax breaks to a company that manufactures perhaps the least-green transportation technology of all. The worst part: Boeing might just move out anyway.

Friday Cat Blogging - 20 December 2013

| Fri Dec. 20, 2013 2:59 PM EST

This is the second of Marian's watercolor heart quilts. (You saw the other one in August, and yet another heart-themed quilt on Valentine's Day.) It's machine pieced and machine quilted. It's also nearly our last quilt of the year. There's one more to go next Friday, which will make for a grand total of 23 quilts if I've counted correctly, and then in 2014 we'll return to garden-variety catblogging. In the meantime, enjoy your weekend and watch out for the shopping mobs.

Are You An Atheist at Heart? Take This Simple Test to Find Out!

| Fri Dec. 20, 2013 2:46 PM EST

Chris Mooney writes today about research from Ara Norenzayan that isolates some of the cognitive traits that seem to be associated with atheists:

Less "mentalizing." One of the most surprising scientific findings of the research on the causes of religiosity (or the lack thereof) involves a trait called "mentalizing."....On a social level, mentalizing helps you connect with and relate to others....As for atheists? Norenzayan's research suggests they tend toward less mentalizing, which makes religious beliefs less intuitive to them.

....Analytical thinking style. In addition to mentalizing, a number of other basic cognitive traits have also been shown to promote religiosity. One very important one is having an intuitive style of thinking, as opposed to an analytic, contemplative style that favors in-depth, effortful thought.

Well, he sure has me pegged. A third (non-cognitive) trait that Norenzayan thinks promotes atheism is material security: "Again and again in Norenzayan's research, societies that are existentially secure—meaning that people have access to health care and a strong social safety net, that there is a strong rule of law, but also that they are not facing deadly diseases or natural disasters—tend toward less religion and also more tolerance of atheism." So maybe those crazy conservatives are right after all. Maybe Obamacare really is a secular plot.

More at the link.

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Chart of the Day: Here's Why Our Current Recovery Sucks So Bad

| Fri Dec. 20, 2013 1:25 PM EST

Nobody asked me for my favorite chart of the year, which is too bad. Because I actually have one. It's the chart from my austerity piece a couple of months ago that shows how government spending has plummeted during the current recovery, something that's never happened before. If you want to understand the weakness of our economic recovery over the past five years, it tells about 90 percent of the story.

But there are other versions of the same chart. Matt O'Brien has one today that shows government employment during every recession since World War II. As you can see, only two others have featured employment declines of any kind, and our current recovery features the biggest decline of all:

As Ben Bernanke put it, "people don't appreciate how tight fiscal policy has been." And how much that's knee-capped the economy. Take jobs. Bernanke points out that total public sector employment—local, state, and federal—has fallen by over 600,000 during the recovery alone. As point of comparison, it rose by 400,000 during the previous one.

How is it possible that government added more jobs after World War II demobilization than now? Or after the 1980 recession, which was followed by another recession a year later? Well, it's what Paul Krugman calls the 50 Herbert Hoovers effect....Like Hoover in the 1930s, [states] tried to balance their books amidst a depressed economy. And like Hoover in the 1930s, it didn't work out too well. They went on a cops-and-teachers firing spree the likes of which we've never seen before. And one that was the difference between unemployment being 6 instead of 7 percent today.

The greatest trick austerians ever pulled was convincing people that it was stimulus that had failed.

It was a great trick, and they did it by focusing attention like a laser on the federal government. If you do that, spending and employment don't look too bad. But if you look at the big picture, the modest federal stimulus we enacted never came close to making up for the brutal austerity at the state and local level. It's the same trick conservatives use when they moan about tax rates hitting the rich too hard: They look solely at the federal income tax, which is fairly progressive. But they studiously ignore all the other taxes that make our system look a whole lot flatter.

The plain truth is that stimulus never failed. As Bernanke says, we never really had any serious stimulus. Sure, the little bit we got helped, but if we'd had a Congress that actually cared more about the economy than it did about the next election, we'd be in a whole lot better shape today than we are.

Red States Remain Adamantly Opposed to Medicaid Expansion

| Fri Dec. 20, 2013 12:00 PM EST

A lot of people, myself included, have hoped that pressure from health care groups will eventually persuade even deep red states to enact the Medicaid expansion that's part of Obamacare. After all, the expansion is almost entirely paid for by the federal government, and the loss of Medicaid money hurts doctors and hospitals in the affected states.

Today, Dylan Scott reports that the key word here is "eventually." For now, anyway, red-state politicians are adamant about never, ever expanding Medicaid by even a dime:

Top officials for powerful trade organizations in three of the largest states not expanding Medicaid under Obamacare told TPM that they have effectively given up that fight until political conditions change, setting their sights on 2015 at the earliest.

"What I'm really struggling with is — I don't even know how to talk about expanding Medicaid without just pissing Republicans the hell off and making them think I'm part of the problem," said a top official for one of the industry groups, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly about the political reality in their state and avoid upsetting the chances of expansion in the long term.

....These organizations approached Medicaid expansion as a typical legislative issue last year -- the kind where the promise of billions in federal dollars and opportunity to insure thousands of your constituents would trump ideological purity...."We found that this issue is much bigger than that. The influences are much stronger than a state-derived influence in terms of keeping states in the 'No' column," a trade group official in a third state said. "We can't even call it Medicaid expansion here. That's a politically incorrect way of saying it."

Ideological purity continues to trump the prospect of helping the poor, even when that help is all but free. Ladies and gentlemen, this is your modern Republican Party.

Following the Dark Money Would Be Easier if This Goverment Agency Did Its Job

| Fri Dec. 20, 2013 11:02 AM EST
A screenshot of the Priorities USA Action 2012 ad "Stage" attacking Mitt Romney.

A recent headline over at the Atlantic captured the mood when it comes to the state of money in American politics: "There's No Way to Follow the Money." The author, former Reuters editor Lee Aitken, was referring to the web of "social welfare" nonprofit groups moving hundreds of millions of dollars in dark money all around the country with the goal, ultimately, of influencing elections and shaping policy. Aitken has a point: As deep as reporters dig, it's harder than ever to track where the money's going, how it's being spent, and who's taking a cut along the way.

Following the dark money isn't any easier when timid or dysfunctional watchdogs plainly fail to do their jobs. Fingers point most often to the Federal Election Commission, which is at the moment an underfunded, ideologically divided, broken institution. But a new Sunlight Foundation analysis identifies another culprit: the Federal Communications Commission, the nation's top cop when it comes to TV, radio, and broadband.

Here's the back story: Tucked inside the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, a landmark piece of legislation better known as "McCain-Feingold" after its two sponsors, was a new requirement that local TV stations make available to the public information about political ad buys, including how much was spent and what candidates or issues were mentioned in the ad. Post-Citizens United, spending on political ads has exploded—$5.6 billion was spent in 2012, a 30 percent increase from 2008. Broadcasters' ad data can provide journalists, campaign staffers, activists, and anyone else with detailed and useful information on the ads running all over the country.

The problem? TV stations are ignoring the law, leaving the public in the dark.

A Sunlight Foundation analysis of 200 randomly-chosen ad buys by PACs, super-PACs, or nonprofits found that fewer than one in six actually disclosed the name of the candidate or specific election referenced in the ad. The most important fields on the ad buy paperwork are blank, and the TV stations that are so eager to rake in all those revenues aren't prodding the ad buyers to fully disclose what they're doing.

The FCC could crack down on this if it wanted. Sunlight's Jacob Fenton explains why the agency isn't acting:

TV stations could be penalized for leaving out disclosure information, but the FCC has shown little appetite for doing so. Although occasional enforcement checks took place in the years after the reforms were adopted, more recently the FCC has fallen back on a "complaint driven" process. In other words, the agency won't act unless someone asks it to. But because the vast majority of the political ad filings are hidden away in file cabinets at broadcast stations, available only during business hours when most voters are working, few people ever see them, let alone complain.

Steve Waldman, an Internet entrepreneur and journalist who worked as a senior advisor to former FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, said the nation's communications watchdog was leery of getting stuck with the unenviable position of campaign cop. "When it comes to political stuff, there's extra sensitivity at the commission because it's the one area where Congress jumps up and down and says, 'If you do that we're going to come and slap you in the head,'" Waldman said.

Tom Wheeler, who just replaced Genachowski, saw his Senate confirmation vote held up by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, over the issue of political ad disclosure. In a statement, Cruz said he lifted the hold after Wheeler said he'd make political ad funding disclosure "not a priority."

It's not all bad news on the political ad transparency front. In August, a judge ruled that the FCC could proceed with a plan to require several hundred broadcast stations located in the nation's 50 largest cities to post their ad files online. Sunlight, among others, is working to make those files accessible and easily searchable to anyone with an Internet connection.

In the campaign finance world, that's progress. But it's enough. The FCC and the TV stations themselves need to feel more pressure to ensure that those ad files comply with the law. It's one of the few useful tools we have nowadays for following that shadowy money trail.

Quote of the Day: In Shocking Development, Media Org Gets Suckered By Darrell Issa Once Again

| Fri Dec. 20, 2013 10:39 AM EST

From ABC News:

This post has been updated to include an expanded response from CMS and a statement from the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee.

OK, I admit that doesn't seem like much of a quote. But Steve Benen provides the backstory: ABC ran a story today about "two high findings of risk" in the Obamacare website. This came via a leak from Darrell Issa, who is practically infamous for leaking partial transcripts of hearings that are wildly misleading. But ABC ran with it anyway. So here's what CMS said when they got a chance to respond:

In one case, what was initially flagged as a high finding was proven to be false,” the agency said in a statement. “In the other case, we identified a piece of software code that needed to be fixed and that fix is now in place. Since that time, the feature has been fully mitigated and verified by an independent security assessment, per standard practice.”

The administration maintains that no components of the website were allowed to go live after Oct. 1 with “open [unresolved] high findings.”

....The ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., has accused Issa of a “reckless pattern of leaking partial and misleading information” about the website operations.

“The very same witness interviewed by the Committee also said there have been absolutely no security breaches of the website and that she is satisfied with the current security testing,” Cummings said in a statement responding to the release of Fryer’s testimony. “This effort to leak cherry-picked information is part of a deliberate campaign to scare the American people and deny them the quality affordable health insurance to which they are entitled under the law.”

Naturally, Cummings' statement was relegated to the very last paragraph of the piece. But that's basically the whole story. One bug turned out to be trivial and the other has been fixed and never caused any problems. This is exactly what's supposed to happen with bugs. For all practical purposes, the update undermines the entire story.

When will reporters learn not to trust Issa? Judging by current practice, never.

UPDATE: It turns out this is even worse than I thought. Michael Hiltzik has the full story here.