dana liebelson

Dana Liebelson

Reporter

Dana Liebelson is a reporter in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. Her work also appears in Marie Claire and The Week. In her free time, she plays electric violin and bass in a punk band.

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Why America Isn't Ready for Amazon's Delivery Drones

| Mon Dec. 2, 2013 5:55 PM EST

"It looks like science fiction, but it's real." That's how Amazon, the online retailing giant, describes its new plan to deliver blenders, spice racks, and sex toys in 30 minutes or less via drone. On Sunday, CEO Jeff Bezos announced that his company is in the process of testing these new delivery drones and aims to have them ready by the time the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is expected to open up US airspace to unmanned aerial vehicles in 2015. But after that date, Amazon's blender-delivering drones will still face big obstacles, such as the states and cities that are hostile towards drone use; potential accidents with passenger planes; GPS and privacy concerns; and roving bands of laser-wielding package bandits. 

While many states are vying for the right to be official FAA drone test sites, others are doing their best to make their skies unwelcome to drones. Both Idaho and Texas have passed laws that restrict private citizens from using drones to take photos—and it's likely that Amazon drones will need to be equipped with cameras, according to the Washington Post. Another seven states have jumped on the drone-banning bandwagon, by stopping law enforcement (but not private companies) from using them for surveillance. There are also a number of cities and counties that are considering making their air spaces "drone-free zones." Charlottesville, VirginiaIowa City, Iowa, and St. Bonifacius, Minnesota, have banned drones for at least two years. Syracuse, New York, considered a bill in October that would have banned drones but decided to hold it until the FAA regulations shake out. And a Colorado town even considered issuing drone-hunting licenses. 

Here's a map showing which states have passed legislation restricting drone use, put together with help from the National Conference of State Legislatures and the ACLU. Many other states have introduced bills that are still under consideration, so check your own state legislature for more information: 

Currently, FAA rules prohibit drones from carrying people or property for compensation and only allow them for "important missions in the public interest" like search and rescue, patrolling the border, and firefighting. Unmanned aircraft are also prohibited from airspace over major urban areas—because of a higher likelihood of accidents with traditional aircraft, and other obstacles, such as buildings and power lines. When the FAA lifts drone restrictions in 2015, Amazon drones would likely be traveling in urban areas, given that they can only fly within 10 miles of a distribution center, many of which are located in the suburbs of major cities. But cities aren't likely to be any less dense in two years, raising the possibility of collisions. The FAA is still working on how to safely implement drones in urban areas—particularly by employing sensor technology—but it's still a legitimate concern, given that drones have already crashed into a lake, a Navy ship, and Manhattan

If Amazon can find a way to make drones work while avoiding cities or airplane flight paths, the company would still need to implement very precise GPS directions to ensure each package goes to the right place. (In many places, a foot or two can mean the difference between your front door and the sidewalk.) The Washington Post points out that technology isn't precise enough yet to let drones fly themselves, so one option would be to have pilots fly drones via computer, to avoid GPS mishaps. But that would require them all to have cameras, creating a slew of new privacy concerns: "We need rules so that we can enjoy the benefits of this technology without becoming closer to a surveillance state," says Allie Bohm, an advocacy and policy strategist for the ACLU.

Finally, there's also the prospect of thievery. All it could take is an effective drone-destroyer—a hunting rifle? laser weapon? laser pointer?—for a bandit to be watching your movies, wearing your slippers, and making smoothies in your blender. Amazon claims that by 2015, it "will be ready" to unleash delivery drones in US skies—but America probably won't be. 

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Park Service to Congress: Only YOU Can Prevent Government Shutdowns

| Fri Nov. 29, 2013 7:00 AM EST

Perhaps nothing is more emblematic of the frustration Americans felt during the October government shutdown, which cost the economy an estimated $24 billion, than the furor over the shuttering of more than 400 federal national parks. Republicans accused Democrats of keeping veterans from seeing the World War II monument in Washington, DC. Democrats blamed the Republicans (who effectively held the nation's budget hostage for 16 days until they couldn't politically afford to anymore) of seizing the park issue to distract from the economy. But now, the US National Park Service—which lost $450,000 a day in park entry and activity fees during the shutdown—has a new message for Congress: No, we're not going prepare for another government shutdown, because you need to do your job.

The smack-down took place at a hearing last week before the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, which weighed in on a new bill introduced by Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) in October. The Provide Access and Retain Continuity (PARC) Act, which has 17 Republican co-sponsors, would allow states to keep national parks operating in the event of another shutdown and would make them eligible for reimbursement by the federal government. (During the shutdown, six states entered into a similar agreement.) Right now, the government is only funded until January 15, meaning that Republicans could potentially pull the same shenanigans all over again in 2014. Stewart tells Mother Jones, "This bill is designed to provide some safeguards to local communities that rely heavily on access to public lands in the event that a shutdown does occur."

According to a National Park Service spokesman, more than 11 million people were unable to visit parks during the shutdown, and the park service lost about $7 million in park entry fees. The Park Service also estimates that communities within 60 miles of a national park suffered a collective negative economic impact of $76 million for each day of the shutdown. But Bruce Sheaffer, Comptroller of the National Park Service,testified that the agency "strongly opposes the bill." He said:

We have a great deal of sympathy for the businesses and communities that experienced a disruption of activity and loss of revenue during last month’s government shutdown and that stand to lose more if there is another funding lapse in the future. However, rather than only protecting certain narrow sectors of the economy...from the effects of a government shutdown in the future, Congress should protect all sectors of the economy by enacting appropriations on time, so as to avoid any future shutdowns.

Sheaffer took issue with other parts of the bill, noting that forcing the Park Service to rely on state revenue would be "a poor use of already strained departmental resources" and would "seriously undermine the longstanding framework established by Congress for the management of federal lands." While Sheaffer didn't object to another GOP-backed bill on the table—the Protecting States, Opening National Parks Act, which would reimburse states for National Park expenses incurred during the October shutdown—he concluded that planning for another shutdown "is not a responsible alternative to simply making the political commitment to provide appropriations for all the vital functions the federal government performs."

Scheaffer's position had support from Rep. Raul Grijalva, (D-Ariz.), who told Cronkite News Service at the hearing, "We shouldn’t be coming up with doomsday preparations." But Stewart says, "The [Park Service] opposition is odd and misses the point. Of course the preferred course of action is to avoid future lapses in funding." He adds, "While I cannot predict the future, I do not anticipate another shutdown during the 113th Congress."

When Mother Jones asked the National Park service whether it considered the GOP's fixation on funding national parks a way to deflect blame away from the shutdown, a spokesman said, "Your question asks us to speculate on an issue. We don't do that."

Twitter Just Made It Harder for the NSA to Read Your Private Tweets

| Fri Nov. 22, 2013 6:56 PM EST
Twitter

On Friday, Twitter announced that it has enabled a new form of Internet security, already used by Google and Facebook, that makes it considerably more difficult for the NSA to read private messages. With this new security, there isn't one pair of master "keys" that unlock an entire website's encryption, instead, new keys are produced and destroyed for each login session.

"If an adversary is currently recording all Twitter users’ encrypted traffic, and they later crack or steal Twitter’s private keys, they should not be able to use those keys to decrypt the recorded traffic," Twitter wrote on its blog. To put that into simple terms, that would be like giving a new set of keys to each visitor coming to your house, melting them down after the person gets inside, and changing the locks. The method is called "Perfect Forward Secrecy," and while it has been around for at least two decades, it hasn't been picked up by tech giants until recently, following the allegations of vast government surveillance by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden

This security system specifically takes aim at the NSA's alleged practice of scooping up the encrypted communications of millions of users—either through hacking or top-secret national security orders—and then storing them until the agency is able to get a company's keys to access all of the data.​ While Twitter was never implicated in the NSA's vast online surveillance program, PRISM, there is still quite a bit of private information the US government could be interested in on Twitter for its counterterrorism efforts—direct messages, time zones, user passwords, and email addresses, for example. 

To get a peek at how this security might play out in real life, look no further than the legal battle the Department of Justice is currently waging against Lavabit, an alternative email provider that was reportedly used by Snowden. When the founder of Lavabit refused to give up its master encryption keys to the US government—because it would have had access to thousands of email accounts—the company was held in contempt of court. If Lavabit had installed Perfect Forward Secrecy, however, the company wouldn't have been able to give up its master keys, since they would have already been destroyed. 

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet privacy group, supports Perfect Forward Secrecy, arguing that "against the known threat of "upstream" data collection, supporting perfect forward secrecy is an essential step." However, as EFF notes, this doesn't necessarily make a company completely NSA-proof, since it doesn't protect data that's stored on a server (and NSA still managed to hack into Google, by breaking into its front end server, according to documents in the Washington Post).

The New York Times says that this new security will slow traffic down by about 150 milliseconds in the United States, and Tweeters are unlikely to notice. But it will "make the National Security Agency’s job much, much harder," the paper said. 

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