Political MoJo

Now There's a Zombie Drone That Hunts, Controls, and Kills Other Drones

| Fri Dec. 6, 2013 10:50 AM EST

When 27-year-old Samy Kamkar—a security researcher who famously made one million Myspace friends in a single day—heard the announcement on Sunday that Amazon was planning to start delivering packages via drone in 2015, he had an idea. He knew that whenever new technology, like drones, becomes popular quickly, there are bound to be security flaws. And he claims that he found one within 24 hours and promptly exploited it: America, meet the zombie drone that Kamkar says hunts, hacks, and takes over nearby drones. With enough hacks, a user can allegedly control an entire zombie drone army capable of flying in any direction, taking video of your house, or committing mass drone-suicide. 

"I've been playing with drones for a few years," Kamkar, who is based in Los Angeles, tells Mother Jones. "I'm sure that with most of the drones out there, if you scrutinize the security, you'll find some kind of vulnerability." Kamkar says that the Amazon announcement was an opportunity to point out that drone security has room for improvement. 

Kamkar's hack, also known as "Skyjack," was performed on a Parrot AR Drone 2 (More than 500,000 Parrot drones have been sold since 2010, and it's been used to help collected flight data for the European Space Agency.) It's unknown what kind of drone Amazon will end up using, but these drones have high-definition photo and video, a flying range of about 165 feet, and can be controlled using an iPhone or an iPad. Kamkar equipped his drone with a battery, a wireless transmitter, and a Raspberry Pi computer—the total of which costs about $400, including the drone. Then, he wrote software (which he made available on the open-source website GitHub, for anyone to use) that he says allows his drone to find wireless signals of other Parrot drones in the area and disconnect the wireless connection of another drone's original user, giving Kamkar—or any user with the software—control over both drones. The drones can even be forced to self-deactivate and drop out of the sky. "How fun would it be to take over drones carrying Amazon packages…or take over any other drones, and make them my little zombie drones. Awesome," writes Kamkar. 

Parrot did not respond to request for comment, but the BBC notes that, "experts said Parrot appeared to have ignored well-known guidelines" to prevent this kind of hack. Christopher Budd, a threat communications manager for Trend Micro, a data security company, tells Mother Jones that "reading what he's got, on the face of it, it certainly sounds like a plausible proof-of-concept" but says Parrot still needs to validate it. 

Here's a video:

So does this mean that your Amazon blender will be attacked by a hoard of hungry zombie drones? Not necessarily: "Amazon would be able to make drones that are immune to this," Kamkar tells Mother Jones, claiming that the Parrot Drone's wi-fi system is not fully encrypted, which is a security measure that Amazon would be likely to take. (Amazon did not respond to Mother Jones request for comment.) "I just want people to be concerned enough that it forces these drone makers to take an additional look at them. When you have enough people scrutinizing technology, you're going to have added security and added attention, and that's the benefit."

That's certainly how companies have responded to Kamkar's hacks before: After he crippled Myspace in 2005 using what some called the fastest spreading virus up to that point—(he was arrested and convicted under California penal code, and Kamkar says, "community service was a blast!")—Myspace revamped its security procedures. Still, even if Amazon manages to fend off the zombie drones, it faces other obstacles—including states that have banned drones, potential collisions in urban areas, and major privacy concerns. 

"Drones are an impressive piece of technology and part of me is super excited whenever I get it outside and fly it around," Kamkar says. "But part of me is a little fearful." 

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 6, 2013

Fri Dec. 6, 2013 9:47 AM EST

Marines with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit clean their weapons after completing a small-arms training exercise at Range 111 at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., Nov. 25. The training focused on enhancing the unit’s confidence and proficiency with personal weapons and M67 Fragmentation Hand Grenades.

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Emmanuel Ramos/Released)

ALEC Boots Mother Jones From Its Annual Conference

| Fri Dec. 6, 2013 6:00 AM EST

Starting Wednesday, hundreds of state lawmakers descended on downtown Washington, DC, for a big three-day confab hosted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, the conservative advocacy group that that brings together lawmakers and representatives of major corporations to draft model legislation on issues such as taxes, energy, workers' rights, education, and agriculture. These bills are then introduced in state legislatures around the country—in some cases, lawmakers pass ALEC-inspired bills without changing a word.

There were dozens of press credentials laid out on ALEC conference's check-in table when I arrived Thursday morning. Mother Jones' was not among them. ALEC's board of directors had refused my request for credentials, according to spokesman Bill Meierling.

When asked why I'd been turned away, Meierling pointed to our previous coverage of ALEC and said it's clear that Mother Jones "fundamentally hates" ALEC. We've covered ALEC for more than a decade—a 2002 exposé titled "Ghostwriting the Law," coverage of the group's proposals regarding voting rights and workers' rights, and more recently the departures of big-name corporate members.

At the same time he was explaining why I couldn't attend, Meierling stressed to me that ALEC is "moving toward transparency." To his credit, he acknowledged the irony.

If ALEC had given me a press credential, the only events I would've been allowed to cover were keynote speeches by Republican luminaries Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, and Grover Norquist. But the real action at ALEC conferences, the meat-and-potatoes work, happens at the meetings of the group's many task forces—the environment and energy task force led by American Electric Power, the tax and fiscal policy task force led by tobacco giant Altria, and the international relations task force run by tobacco company Philip Morris. Meierling says that even credentialed reporters can't cover those meetings. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank learned this firsthand on Wednesday, when DC police and ALEC staff stopped him from attending the group's private task force meetings.

It's been a tough week for ALEC. On Tuesday, the Guardian reported that the group faced a "funding crisis" after 40 of its corporate members and hundreds of state lawmakers ditched ALEC in the wake of Trayvon Martin's killing last year. Those members fled after it was revealed that ALEC's model legislation included the same Stand Your Ground law invoked by George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watchman who shot and killed Martin. ALEC has since eliminated its gun-related advocacy and, with a narrower fiscal focus, is trying to woo its erstwhile members to back into the fold.

Given the organization's recent struggles, I can understand why ALEC would be feeling defensive. Meierling, the ALEC spokesman, was polite throughout our conversation. We traded business cards before I left and promised to get a drink to talk more about Mother Jones. Fingers crossed for next year.

Conservative Think Tank Network Plotting "Coordinated Assault" on Medicaid, Education, Workers' Rights

| Thu Dec. 5, 2013 5:05 PM EST

The State Policy Network, an umbrella group overseeing a constellation of right-leaning think tanks in all 50 states, is plotting a nationwide "coordinated assault" to cut public-employee pensions, oppose cap-and-trade legislation and Medicaid expansion, and advocate for school vouchers, according to documents obtained by the Guardian newspaper.

The Guardian's documents reveal that State Policy Network's think-tank affiliates sought financial support for this blitz from the GD Searle Trust, a conservative foundation that bankrolls many major nonprofits including Americans for Prosperity, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and the climate-denying Heartland Institute. The documents show 40 different funding requests pitching conservative policy reforms that were written by think tanks in 34 states.

Here's more from the Guardian:

Most of the "think tanks" involved in the proposals gathered by the State Policy Network are constituted as 501(c)(3) charities that are exempt from tax by the Internal Revenue Service. Though the groups are not involved in election campaigns, they are subject to strict restrictions on the amount of lobbying they are allowed to perform. Several of the grant bids contained in the Guardian documents propose the launch of "media campaigns" aimed at changing state laws and policies, or refer to "advancing model legislation" and "candidate briefings", in ways that arguably cross the line into lobbying.

The documents also cast light on the nexus of funding arrangements behind radical right-wing campaigns. The State Policy Network (SPN) has members in each of the 50 states and an annual warchest of $83 million drawn from major corporate donors that include the energy tycoons the Koch brothers, the tobacco company Philip Morris, food giant Kraft and the multinational drugs company GlaxoSmithKline.

SPN gathered the grant proposals from the 34 states on 29 July. Ranging in size from requests of $25,000 to $65,000, the plans were submitted for funding to the Searle Freedom Trust, a private foundation that in 2011 donated almost $15m to largely rightwing causes.

[…]

The proposals in the grant bids contained in the Guardian documents go beyond a commitment to free enterprise, however. They include:

• "reforms" to public employee pensions raised by SPN thinktanks in Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania

• tax elimination or reduction schemes in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Maryland, Nebraska, and New York

• an education voucher system to promote private and home schooling in Florida

• campaigns against worker and union rights in Delaware and Nevada

• opposition to Medicaid in Georgia, North Carolina, and Utah

As I've written before, SPN exists to help out its influential state-level affiliates around the country and to push conservative policies in state capitals. It's enjoyed quite a lot of success lately: SPN members also played a role in the crackdown on workers' rights in 2011 in Wisconsin, Ohio, Idaho, and Tennessee. A year ago this month, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, an SPN member, rightly took credit for making Michigan the nation's 24th right-to-work state. Months later, Dick DeVos, the Amway heir and onetime in Michigan gubernatorial candidate, used SPN's annual conference as a chance to share his strategy with state-level allies itching for right-to-work in their states. The Guardian's documents strongly suggest that conservatives are coordinating their attacks on unions, public employees, and government.

Like prominent liberal nonprofit groups, the State Policy Network appears to have plenty more planned for the near future. If you thought the 2011 fight over workers rights was intense, what's coming next could be even fiercer.

Catholic Bishops Won't Comment on Rush Limbaugh's Pope-Bashing

| Thu Dec. 5, 2013 2:33 PM EST

Rush Limbaugh has incensed Catholic groups by attacking Pope Francis's blueprint for a more inclusive, social justice-oriented Catholic Church as "pure Marxism" and saying, "somebody has either written this for [the Pope] or gotten to him."

But the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the top American leaders of the Catholic church, isn't commenting on the radio host's attacks. "We don't follow Rush Limbaugh," says Mary Ann Walsh, USCCB's media relations director. Annmarie Sanders, a spokeswoman for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, also declined to comment.

Meanwhile, Limbaugh has continued to bash the Pope, saying Wednesday that "the pope is ripping American"—and, that thanks to the pope's exhortations on poverty and powerful financial institutions, "Obama's having an orgasm."

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 5, 2013

Thu Dec. 5, 2013 10:05 AM EST

NANGAHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan - U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Shelby Johnson scans the horizon Nov. 18, 2013, during a dismounted patrol from Forward Operating Base Torkham to an Afghan Border Police checkpoint near the village of Goloco. Johnson serves as a squad leader with Company C, 2nd Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, @4th Brigade 10th Mountain "Patriots". The mission's purpose was to establish partnerships with the ABP officers at the checkpoint. This partnership will enhance security for Afghans and Coalition Forces operating in the area. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Eric Provost, Task Force Patriot PAO.

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These Cities Are Trying to Bully Undocumented Immigrants Out of Town

| Thu Dec. 5, 2013 8:31 AM EST

As House Speaker John Boehner continues to block immigration reform, a couple of US cities are pushing laws that would run immigrants out of town.

Last month, Hazleton, Pennsylvania, and Farmers Branch, Texas, asked the Supreme Court to hear cases challenging city ordinances that make it illegal for landlords to rent to undocumented immigrants. Both cities say that the high court should uphold their local laws, which have been struck down in lower courts, because a US appeals court recently upheld similar legislation passed by the town of Fremont, Nebraska.

But immigrant advocates say that the two cities' laws are doomed because they are very similar to Arizona's draconian immigration law, passed in 2010, which also criminalized being an immigrant. The Supreme Court invalidated most of the provisions of Arizona's statute in June 2012 because they interfered with the federal government's authority over immigration. Both the Hazleton and Farmers Branch laws were struck down by lower courts for this precise reason.

"The Supreme Court spoke clearly in the Arizona decision about overriding the federal role of immigration enforcement," says Sam Brooks of the Souther Poverty Law Center's Immigrant Justice Project. Not only are these types of laws likely unconstitutional, he adds, they encourage racial profiling by community members worried about giving leases to the wrong people.

Other towns have proposed laws that would stop landlords from renting to undocumented immigrants. San Bernardino, California, was the first to consider such a law in 2006. It was eventually voted down. Valley Park, Missouri, enacted this type of ordinance in 2006. It was challenged twice but upheld by a federal court in 2008. Scores of other municipalities and states have considered legislation that mimics the city housing ordinances and Arizona's law.

Most of the anti-immigrant statutes can be traced back to one man: Kris Kobach, the secretary of state of Kansas and chief counsel at the conservative Immigration Law Reform Institute (ILRI). Kobach helped craft the laws in Arizona, Hazleton, Farmers Branch, Fremont, and Valley Park, and has defended them in court.

ILRI is the legal arm of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which was founded by John Tanton, an English-only advocate who has ties to white supremacists.

Conflicts of Interest Abound in State Supreme Courts

| Thu Dec. 5, 2013 6:00 AM EST

A new investigation by the Center for Public Integrity reveals troubling conflicts of interest in state supreme courts nationwide. CPI combed through the financial disclosure forms of state supreme court justices in all 50 states and reviewed the states' disclosure laws for judges. Their findings on both fronts are discouraging.

CPI discovered several instances of justices writing opinions that favored companies they had financial ties to. An Arkansas justice ruled in favor of a company that had been paying his wife a salary of as much as $12,499 for two years. A high court judge in California ruled in favor of Wells Fargo despite owning up to $1 million of the bank's stock—even as a colleague who owned less stock recused himself. Other justices accepted perks from lawyers —from country club memberships to a $50,000 Italian vacation.  

Uncovering such information is exceedingly difficult because most states' disclosure laws for judges are pretty weak. While federal judges are required to recuse themselves from cases if they or a family member own even a single share of stock in a company involved, state laws are murky and inconsistent. CPI devised a system for grading the state standards for preventing these kinds of conflicts of interest: 43 got a D or lower.

Check out some of CPI's finds below: Some recent examples of state supreme court justices weighing in on cases involving companies in which they or their spouses owned stock, and a list of the freebies thrown at top judges.

Taking Stock

Justice Jacquelyn Stuart, Alabama

Owned stock in: Regions Financial Corp. Amount not disclosed.

Case: A securities-fraud lawsuit brought by a group of shareholders against the company.

Outcome for company: Favorable

 

Owned stock in: 3M. Amount not disclosed.

Case: 3M petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a change of venue for a case in which landowners accused the firm of polluting their property with dangerous chemicals.

Outcome for company: Favorable

 

Justice Kathryn Werdegar, California

Owned stock in: Wells Fargo. Between $100,001 and $1 million.

Case: Denied an appeal to a couple accusing Wells Fargo of predatory lending and unlawful foreclosure.

Outcome for company: Favorable

 

Justice Warren Silver, Maine

Owned stock in: Idexx Laboratories. About $28,300 held by his wife.

Case: The company was involved in a land dispute between a local quarry operator and the city.

Outcome for company: Favorable

 

Justice Robert Cordy, Massachusetts

Owned stock in: Bank of America. "Several hundred shares" according to a court spokeswoman.

Case: The bank was accused of unfair and deceptive business practices as a trustee on leased land in Chatham. 

Outcome for company: Favorable

 

Justice Lindsey Miller-Lerman, Nebraska

Owned stock in: Deutsche Bank. Amount not disclosed, but at least $1,000

Case: Disputing the bank's foreclosure on a home. 

Outcome for company: Favorable

 

Justice Robert Edmunds, North Carolina

Owned stock in: Abbott Laboratories. At least $10,000.

Case: Whether out-of-state lawyers representing a mother whose baby died should have been allowed to try a case against the hospital and Abbott, which made the formula the baby drank.

Outcome for company: Favorable

 

Owned stock in: Wells Fargo. At least $10,000.

Case: Upheld a lower court's ruling in a foreclosure case, thus finding that Wells Fargo did not need to present an original note showing their ownership of the mortgage in question.

Outcome for company: Favorable

 

If it may please the court

Justice Courtney Goodson, Arkansas: In 2011, she accepted a $12,000 Caribbean cruise from attorney W.H. Taylor. In 2012, she accepted a $50,000 Italian vacation from Taylor.

Justice Robert Thomas, Illinois: For the last three years, he reported honorary memberships to two country clubs. He has received "Notre Dame tix" from his friend and personal attorney.

Justices Robert Rucker, Brent Dickson, Steven Davis, Mark Massa, Indiana: In 2012, all four got free tickets to the Indy 500 from the Indiana Motor Speedway.

Chief Justice Bernette Johnson, Louisiana: In 2012, she accepted a $9,466 junket to France from the Louisiana Association of Defense Counsel (LADC) to attend their annual legal education courses.

Justice Greg Guidry, Louisiana: Guidry also took a trip to France sponsored by the LADC. In 2011, the group flew him to Buenos Aires for its annual meeting.

Justice Ron Parraguirre, Nevada: Last year, he received a $250 gift from a registered lobbyist for Barrick Gold. Less than two months later, the Nevada Supreme Court decided to hear a case regarding one of the company's mines. (It's still pending.)

Conservative Group ALEC in 1985: S&M Accidents Cause 10 Percent of San Francisco's Homicides

| Thu Dec. 5, 2013 6:00 AM EST

Gay people recruit small children in public schools and S&M accidents are a leading cause of death in San Francisco, according to a 1985 newsletter from the American Legislative Exchange Council, the national, corporate-funded conservative group best known for pushing Stand Your Ground laws and union-busting bills.

The report was dug up and highlighted by the liberal watchdog group People for the American Way, which is organizing a protest of this week's ALEC conference in Washington, DC. Titled "Homosexuals: Just Another Minority Group?" the report reads today like the script for a bizarre nature channel program on gay people. In it, ALEC outlines six primary types of gay people: "the blatant"; "the secret lifer"; "the desperate"; "the adjusted"; "the bisexual"; and "the situational." (The "blatant" homosexual "is the obvious 'limp-wristed' individual who typifies stereotype of the 'average' homosexual.")

According to the report, 10 percent of all homicides in San Francisco at one point in the 1980s were "a result of S&M accidents among homosexuals."

The newsletter also serves as a cheat-sheet for gay men or women looking to meet like-minded people. "If a bar scene is preferred, the 'Gayellow Pages,' helps the homosexual find appropriate meeting places for socializing with other homosexuals," the report says. If that doesn't work, the newsletter discusses "public restrooms" and "massage parlors" as havens for "the desperate homosexual." Gay people even had their own language: "The homosexual's vocabulary is another part of their culture that separates them from the heterosexual mainstream."

The ALEC newsletter asserted that homosexuality was not only a choice ("the homosexual makes the conscious choice to pursue members of his/her own sex"), but one that its practitioners often came to regret. "Tom Minnery, who writes for Christianity Today, has written about homosexuals forsaking their homosexuality upon becoming Christian," the newsletter notes. "He says, 'the fact is, many people are experiencing deliverance from homosexuality. The evidence is too great to deny it.'"

But those who refused to abandon their homosexual urges were a risk to public health and children, according to ALEC. "Whatever the type of homosexual, one of the more dominant practices within the homosexual world is pedophilia, the fetish for young children," warned the newsletter. The reason for this was simple. "What is important to remember here is the fact that homosexuals cannot reproduce themselves biologically so they must recruit the young." And gay people came at a significant cost to the taxpayers, in the form of research for infectious diseases and tax-exempt status for LGBT nonprofits. "In addition to federal funding of AIDS research, the federal government has been active in funding the homosexual movement."

The report even took aim at the early stages of gay rights legislation, which the ALEC newsletter warned would force conservatives into uncomfortable and perhaps dangerous situations. Under new anti-discrimination laws for some public employees, "[p]arents will no longer be able to keep their children out from under the tutelage of homosexuals." Bans on LGBT discrimination in housing would mean "landlords will be forced to rent their property to a homosexual couple even if the landlord's family shares the same building." But the most ominous piece legislation concerned a proposal to end LGBT discrimination in immigration: "This bill would permit known homosexuals from other countries to become citizens of the U.S."

The horror.

Elizabeth Warren: Big Banks Should Reveal Their Donations to Influential Think Tanks

| Wed Dec. 4, 2013 6:25 PM EST

On Wednesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called on the biggest US banks to disclose their donations to think tanks, which influence laws that affect them.

Under current law, banks and other corporations are not required to publicly report their contributions to think tanks. That means that lawmakers who use think tank data and analysis to shape laws and regulations designed to police banks do not know how much bank money influences that research. "A lot of the power of big banks over DC comes from donations to think tanks, who then put out 'studies' favorable to certain ways of doing business," says one Democratic aide. In a letter to the CEOs of the nation's six largest financial institutions—JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, and Morgan Stanley—Warren called on the companies to start voluntarily reporting their donations to these policy shops.

"To prevent future [economic] crises," Warren says in the letter, "policymakers need access to objective, high-quality research, data, and analysis about our consumer and financial markets…[P]rivate think tanks are extremely well-suited to provide this research and analysis, but for it to be valuable, such research and analysis must be truly independent."

Corporations are required to tell the public when they lobby members of Congress or government agencies, Warren says, so "the same transparency should exist for any indirect efforts [banks] make to influence policymaking through financial contributions to think tanks."

Warren's demand for think tank money transparency is yet another approach to curbing too-big-to-fail—the problem of the biggest Wall Street banks being so large and loosely regulated that their failure would endanger the entire financial system. One of the reasons too-big-to-fail is still a problem, five years after the financial crisis, is that banks are good at weakening the laws and regulations meant to rein them in.

One way to do that is through think tanks. The Roosevelt Institute, for example, recently published a report on the successes and failures of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform act. If the institute had received loads of Wall Street cash, it might have been motivated to minimize the failures of the law, and thus further regulation.

Warren's letter comes a few days after the president and vice president of the centrist think tank Third Way wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed warning Democrats against following Warren over a "populist cliff."  The Nation reported this week that Third Way employs a Washington consulting firm that represents financial institutions including MasterCard and Deutsche Bank.

The letter also comes on the heels of a recent defeat for corporate contribution transparency advocates. The Securities and Exchange Commission, a Wall Street regulator, considered forcing corporations to disclose the money they spend on campaigns and elections. But just this week, the agency announced it had dropped that issue from its 2014 priority list.