On Thursday, the Senate intelligence committee took a step forward toward officially authorizing some of the National Security Agency's more controversial surveillance practices, which have recently come to light thanks to leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The panel passed out of committee a bill allowing broad phone surveillance to continue under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Backed by the committee chair, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the FISA Improvements Act leaves untouched the NSA's internet surveillance dragnet, PRISM, and does little to improve oversight of the government's surveillance powers. Feinstein's bill will face off against legislation introduced earlier this week by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) that would significantly curb the government's ability to sweep up the private information of Americans.
Privacy experts say that the FISA Improvements Act, which passed 11-4, codifies current surveillance practices instead of fixing the law to protect the privacy and civil liberties of Americans: "This was an opportunity for Congress to really recalibrate the statute, and it's very disappointing that they've used this opportunity to cement domestic spying programs instead," says Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel for the ACLU.
The primary focus of the bill is Section 215 of FISA. This is the part of the law that provides the legal justification for the bulk collection of the telephone metadata of Americans, including phone numbers and the date and duration of calls (but not the content of those conversations). While the bill's language amends the statute to prevent the NSA from hoovering up phone metadata en masse, it provides gaping loopholes that could allow the agency to continue with its bulk collection practices as usual, such as if there's a "reasonable articulable suspicion" that an investigation is related to international terrorism. The legislation also makes it legal for the government to collect and search records that are three "hops" from a target who is suspected of terrorism—in other words, a suspect, all of that suspect's contacts, and all of their contacts. The bill makes only surface fixes and "absolutely allows for the kind of collection that is already happening right now," according to Amie Stepanovich, the director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center's (EPIC) Domestic Surveillance Project.
Also worrisome to privacy experts is the fact that the bill expands the NSA's powers, by allowing the agency to track cellphone's of non-Americans believed to be located abroad for 72 hours after they enter the United States. The bill additionally levies a penalty of up to 10 years in prison on anyone who accesses NSA information without authorization, like Snowden did.
"The call-records program is legal and subject to extensive congressional and judicial oversight, and I believe it contributes to our national security," Feinstein said in a statement. "But more can and should be done to increase transparency and build public support for privacy protections in place."
Feinstein's modest reforms include limiting the amount of time the government can store the information it collects to five years, with the approval of the attorney general required to search records that are older than three years. And it requires regular reporting to Congress on all FISA violations. The bill also requires the NSA to disclose to the public annually the number of times the agency searched its telephone metadata database.
Feinstein's surveillance bill will now go head to head with Sensenbrenner and Leahy's legislation. They introduced companion bills in the House and Senate that would end the bulk collection of phone metadata and put strict limits on the section of FISA that has been used to justify PRISM (so that if the online information of an Americans is accidentally collected, it cannot be searched). The USA FREEDOM Act has been referred to committee.
Unlike the bills introduced by Sensenbrenner and Leahy, Feinstein's legislation was only made public after it was passed out of committee. EPIC's Stepanovich notes that the secrecy with the which the Feinstein bill was crafted does not bode well for real reform. "This is the problem with all of these programs," she says. "You don't find out about them until it's far too late, and you have secret collection approved by a secret court, that's now being reformed by a law that's kept secret. It is unclear to what substantive 'improvements' the title [of the bill] refers to."
Datalogix tracks the spending habits of more than 110 million households using sources such as store loyalty cards. It partners with Twitter and Facebook to assess whether groups of users buy the cooking gear or brand of shampoo advertised on their social-media pages. Datalogix doesn't know that a certain Mother Jones journalist bought a quart of Ben & Jerry's Chocolate Therapy after changing her Facebook status back to "single," but it can help determine whether a targeted group of twentysomething professional women who left relationships bought that ice cream.
Opt out? You can do so on the company's website, but the request takes 30 days to process and each household member must opt out separately.
Companies that sell similar info: Acxiom, Epsilon, BlueKai, V12 Group
TLO, a "background research" company, uses technology that scans and reads license plates collected by cameras mounted on parking garages, roads, and bridges from coast to coast. The company claims to have collated more than 1 billion time-stamped reports containing photographs and specific locations of vehicles, which TLO markets to law enforcement agencies, law firms, and data brokers.
Opt out? Not unless you can limit your driving to dirt roads.
Companies that sell similar info: MVTRAC, Vigilant Solutions
Cheap credit scores and...Baby Einstein videos?
With credit reports on at least 299 million consumers, Experian doesn't just hold the key to whether you'll get a car loan or home mortgage: It also sells "life-event" data to advertisers, marketing a database that is "updated weekly with the names of expectant parents and families with newborns," and new homeowners, among other information.
Opt out? Experian allows users to opt out online or by phone but notes that "will not eliminate all targeted advertising."
Companies that sell similar info: Equifax, TransUnion
Location is everything
As you surf the web, Neustar uses your computer's IP address to determine your area code, postal code, time zone, whether you're at home or at work, and whether you're using your phone. They then sell this data to companies that point ads at you: "Want to meet singles in Washington, DC?"
Opt out? You can do so on NeuÂstar's site, although you'll have to do it again each time you switch browsers or get a new computer.
Companies that sell similar info: MaxMind, Digital Envoy
Background checks on steroids
You've seen Intelius' ads if you've ever Googled your eighth-grade crush. The company sells data using more than 20 billion records on individuals, including bankruptcies, arrests, and address histories, mostly culled from public records such as driver's license databases and court documents. Intelius also collects relevant content from "blogs or social networking sites."
Opt out? You'll need to send a state-issued ID card or driver's license via fax or US mail, and wait 7 to 14 days.
Companies that sell similar info: Spokeo, PeopleFinders, BeenVerified.com
Tomorrow night, Americans will glue on feathers, douse their faces in fake blood, and scramble to CVS for last-minute costumes to celebrate Halloween. Some costumes will be outrageously creative. Some will be lame. Many will be wildly offensive.
But these aren't the only examples. Right now, Halloween stores are packed with costumes like "Tribal Tease" and "Hey Amigo Mexican," which make light of centuries of genocide, hatred, and discrimination and advance offensive stereotypes. Though the politics of Halloween costumes aren't always obvious—see this debate about whether an advice seeker's roommate is "Japanese" enough to dress as a geisha—The Root points out that there's never an excuse for choosing an ethnically inspired Halloween costume (or dressing up as Hitler or a Nazi). So without further ado, here's a helpful guide to help you figure out whether your Halloween costume is racist, sexist, fascist, or xenophobic. And if it is, take it off.
As Halloween approaches, certain Republican lawmakers are insisting on selling more scary stories about Obamacare.
Governor Bobby Jindal (R-La.) appeared on "Fox News Sunday" last weekend to tell voters that fixing Healthcare.gov's technical glitches is "the easy part" and "the real critical issue is when it comes time to schedule your grandmother’s cancer surgery, what's going to happen then?” But healthcare experts say that Jindal's fear is 100 percent unfounded—Americans over 65 are covered under Medicare—and according to the American Cancer Society, Obamacare will provide lots of benefits for cancer patients by decreasing costs and beefing up preventative care.
"This is typical right wing scare mongering," says Dr. Jonathan Gruber, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Obamacare has no effect on Medicare, the government program that will cover your grandmother. Indeed, your grandmother is now less likely to need cancer surgery because Obamacare provides her with a free annual checkup that can now catch the cancer before it needs surgery."
According to the American Cancer Society, the law provides a host of benefits to cancer patients, including preventing insurers from dropping patients because they are diagnosed with cancer and providing immediate coverage to cancer patients who were uninsured for six months or more. Under Obamacare, health plans also can't set "lifetime" limits on how much coverage patients get, and out-of-pocket costs will be eliminated for preventative screenings, like mammograms and colonoscopies.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services also told Mother Jones that before Obamacare, insurers weren't required to provide coverage for prescription drugs for cancer patients. Under the Act, patients will no longer face limitless costs for prescription drugs, and "a diagnosis no longer means choosing between facing bankruptcy or ignoring care." (Jindal's office did not respond to comment for this story.)
Jindal also appears to be giving a nod to another Republican meme—that if the government pays for healthcare, there will be rationing, long lines, and people won't see a doctor in time. Obamacare requires health insurance companies to maintain provider networks that have enough doctors to ensure that services will be accessible without unreasonable delay. Additionally, the law includes incentives to get more providers into the healthcare system, such as establishing scholarships and loan repayment programs.
Timothy Jost, a law professor at Washington and Lee University, acknowledges that "if you make healthcare available for everybody, what that means is that some people who already have good access to healthcare, may find it a little less convenient...But is the Governor's solution to tell millions of people they can't have healthcare, so people with lots of money can have access?"
Tony Carrk, a policy director for the Center for American Progress, says the claim "is surprising because Gov. Jindal is trying to be the leader of the GOP and he's resorting to Sarah Palin attacks. This is all part of the relentless GOP campaign to sabotage the law by attempting to repeal, defund, delay, misinform and misdirect, and throw anything at the wall to see what sticks."
Women have been allowed to vote in the United States since 1920, after the passage of the 19th Amendment. But fast-forward to 2013, and plenty of states' laws have a provision that makes it harder for women who are married or divorced to cast a ballot.
When Americans all over the country head to the polls on November 5 to vote on mayoral candidates, ballot initiatives, gubernatorial races, and even members of Congress, they will be up against a new kind of voter ID law that has mostly cropped up in 2012 and 2013 and disproportionately affects women—as well as transgender voters and anyone else with a name change.
Controversial voter ID laws, which GOP proponents say are intended to prevent the (pretty much nonexistent) crime of voting fraud, are nothing new, and they have been criticized for targeting low-income voters, young people, and minorities. But Texas's newly enforced voter ID law has put a spotlight on another group of voters that will be disproportionately affected by these rules. Not only must Texas voters present government-issue photo IDs to vote, but now poll workers are required under the law to check these IDs against an official voting registry to determine if the two names "substantially" match. That means that a woman who updated her voter registration when she got married, but not her driver's license or passport (and vice versa), could face additional hurdles in getting her ballot counted.
The Texas law may have drawn extra scrutiny because of the state's reputation for being a battleground in the "war on women"—but it's just one of many to adopt this type of provision. At least 9 other states' voting laws, most enacted in 2012 or 2013, use similar language. That doesn't count the 24 additional states with other kinds of voter ID laws, including some with looser photo ID rules that are still potentially problematic for women. In 2006, the Brennan Center found that 34 percent of voting-age women do not possess a proof-of-citizenship document that reflects their legal name, although updated statistics on photo IDs are hard to come by. And Slate points out that the law doesn't just affect Democrats, as Republican women are more likely change their names.
"We need Americans to understand that even though this particular 'war on women' isn't out in the light, women are quietly being disenfranchised in the dark—they just might not know it yet," says Judith Browne Dianis, codirector of the the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization.
Voter ID laws can be sorted into three categories—ones that require non-photo ID, like a bank statement, ones that require a photo ID (usually government-issued); and ones that require photo ID and include language about how the name on that ID must match the name in the voter registration database (like Texas). Here's a map showing all of these categories and whether or not the laws are in place for this upcoming election. (For even more in-depth information on your state, head over to the National Conference of State Legislatures.)
In every single one of these states, minorities, low-income voters, and young people—who tend to vote Democratic and are least likely to have up-to-date identification—are targeted. But married or divorced women who have changed their names are also affected in the states above that require photo identification—since the name on their ID, which women often wait to update until it expires, has to match their voter registration. The Advancement Project's legal team told Mother Jones that the states that require poll workers to check the voter registration list for a match make it the most difficult for women, since poll workers have more explicit legal instructions.
Regardless of what's on the books, interpretation is largely left up to the poll workers, who have a lot of power over whether someone gets a ballot. In less strict states, for example, poll workers can choose to have someone sign a sworn affidavit rather than show ID. In Texas, if the voter registration list reads "Jane Smith" but the woman's ID says "Jane Doe Smith"—then that qualifies as a "substantial match" and the voter only has to sign an affidavit swearing to his or her identity for her vote to be counted. But if Jane's ID still has her maiden name, "Jane Doe," and the poll worker isn't sure, the ballot will only be counted if, within six days, Jane can dig up a $20 marriage or divorce certificate and find time to get a new ID that matches the name she registered with. (In Dallas, poll workers have been bending the rules so that voters can re-register under their married names.) Pennsylvania also gives six days to obtain a new ID, and Mississippi only gives five.
These scenarios aren't merely hypothetical. In 2011, a 96-year-old Georgia woman was denied the right to vote because she didn't have her marriage certificate. And in Pennsylvania, the state's ID law is on hold until a pending lawsuit is resolved. One of the plaintiffs is a woman who couldn't vote because her marriage certificate was in Hebrew, and she couldn't get a new ID that reflected her changed name, thus, her name didn't match the voter registration list. (Women who obtained common law marriages could have similar problems.) Another plaintiff is a transgender man who presented both a driver's license and passport, but was rejected because of his photograph.
"Voter ID laws discriminate against trans communities and many marginalized communities who struggle to obtain access to consistent, accurate and updated identity documents," says Sasha Buchert, staff attorney at the Transgender Law Center. "Often there are huge barriers for updating documents." In Texas, for example, a transgender person needs to bring a court order to the DMV.
For those heading to the polls, Kelly Ceballos, a spokesperson for the League of Women Voters, says the most important thing is for voters to get educated—Texas, for example, is reducing or eliminating the cost of getting a birth certificate copy in some counties—and not get discouraged. "It is important to participate in the democratic process and the way to do that is to go to the polls and cast a ballot," she says.
Judith Browne Dianis hopes that women voters will start realize that "you're being disenfranchised because you weren't paying attention. Maybe you thought this was something that was just affecting people of color, or low-income people, but it's impacting your voice and your ability to participate on the issues that matter to you."
For more data on voter ID laws and who they affect, click here.