dana liebelson

Dana Liebelson


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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Calling 911 in California? Don't Use Your Cellphone Unless You Have To

| Tue Aug. 13, 2013 9:46 AM PDT

A new study released Monday suggests that many, and perhaps most, 911 emergency calls made on cellphones do not include accurate location data. More than half of cellphone 911 calls in the California-focused study—and over 80 percent of those in San Francisco—failed to transmit the caller's address, according to the report, which was compiled by the California Chapter of the National Emergency Number Association (CALNENA). That's bad news: In emergencies, it's crucial that responders automatically receive accurate location information in case a victim is lost, passes out, doesn't speak English, or is otherwise incapacitated.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, 70 percent of 911 calls are placed on cellphones, and that number is growing. When 911 calls are made on land lines, location data is transmitted to a dispatch center using the same system phone companies use to determine how much to charge for long-distance calls. But cellphone companies have to contend with loss of coverage in rural areas and increasingly, inside high rises.

CALNENA, which advocates on behalf of California emergency dispatchers, looked at millions of 911 calls made in five geographic areas in California—Bakersfield, Pasadena, San Francisco, San Jose, and Ventura County—and found that accurate transmission of location data has been steadily declining since 2008. It also found that certain carriers performed better than others: In January 2008, AT&T was sending location data on 92 percent of calls, a percentage that dropped to 31 percent by December 2012, according to the report. T-Mobile's coverage dropped from 47 percent to 19 percent in the same time period, and a spokesperson for the company told the Los Angeles Times that the company was reviewing the report. Verizon and Sprint are getting slightly better at finding 911 callers, with Verizon sending accurate location data 57 percent of the time in late 2012.

"This is a serious public safety concern and a significant stress on our public safety assets, both the dispatchers and first responders who have to spend considerable time obtaining the location of wireless 911 callers," wrote CALNENA president Danita Crombach in a letter sent yesterday to the FCC. "Lives are at stake."

The CALNENA study only looked at California—but as our recent investigation into the failure of 911 computer system shows, when one city is having life-threatening problems with its emergency equipment, other cities often have similar problems. That's likely the case here: Last month in New York City, it took emergency responders nearly eight hours to track down a stroke victim who called 911 but was unable to say her address. The only information rescuers had was the location of the nearest cellphone tower.

DOJ to Stop Packing Prisons With Minor Drug Offenders (Full Transcript)

| Mon Aug. 12, 2013 7:11 AM PDT

Update: Here is a full transcript of Eric Holder's prepared remarks and here is the corresponding memo he issued to US attorneys.

Attorney General Eric Holder is proposing a groundbreaking reform package to fix America's increasingly overcrowded prisons, which includes doing away with mandatory minimums for certain nonviolent drug offenders, the Washington Post reports. The Justice Department also plans to reduce sentences for certain elderly prisoners, champion drug treatment programs as an alternative to prison, and bar prosecutors from listing quantities of drugs when charging minor drug offenders. 

"This is a win for people concerned about overfederalization as well as overcriminalization—we just can't keep making a federal case and a 10-year federal prison stay out of all these nonviolent drug offenders," says Monica Pratt Raffanel, a spokesperson for Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). "States can handle drug offenders like these and, in many instances, give them better access to the treatment and supervision they need to turn their lives around."

The way the law stands now, drug offenders caught with a certain amount of illegal drugs automatically face years in prison. A person arrested with one gram of LSD, for example, will face a 5-year mandatory minimum without parole, the same sentence doled out to Americans caught with 100 marijuana plants (see full chart below). Civil liberties advocates argue that these minimums are Draconian, expensive, and don't give judges discretion to make sure the punishment fits the crime. 

Families Against Mandatory Minimums

As the Post notes, under Holder's new policy, mandatory minimums as they apply to specific quantities of drugs will no longer be used against offenders whose cases do not involve violence, a weapon, and selling to a minor, and they will also not be used against offenders that do not have a "significant criminal history" and ties to a "large-scale" criminal organization. A bill introduced by Sens. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in March would codify Holder's recommendations, giving judges the ability to hand out sentences lower than the current mandatory ones. As Molly Gill, government affairs counsel for FAMM explains, "DOJ policies change with administrations--what is really needed is a full-scale reassessment of this system by Congress, to fix this problem for good."

Based on how Republicans have reacted to sentencing reform efforts in the past; it shouldn't take long for conservative lawmakers to start spreading the word that the sky is falling. But as we reported last week, sentence reductions have already been retroactively applied to crack cocaine offenders—and the US Sentencing Commission has found the program to be a success. At least 7,300 prisoners sentenced under mandatory minimums have had their sentences reduced by an average of 29 months, saving taxpayers an estimated $530 million. Given that the Associated Press found that US federal prisons are 40 percent over capacity, advocates say reform can't come soon enough.

To see how states have already been implementing sentencing reforms for crack cocaine offenders, check out the map below (unshaded parts mean that no data is available):

QUANTUM LEAP: The US Special Ops Project to Exploit Your Twitter Account

| Wed Aug. 7, 2013 7:33 AM PDT

"Quantum Leap" was the name of a popular TV show from the early nineties about a quantum physicist who jumps through time inhabiting different bodies with each leap. It is also the name the US Special Operations Command's DC-area branch gave to an unusual project investigating how to combat crime by exploiting social media. An unclassified document, dated September 2012 obtained by Steven Aftergood's Secrecy News, reveals that this special ops division met with at least a dozen data mining companies in the last year in an effort to utilize sophisticated tech tools to the exploit the personal information Americans publicly post on the web. The US Special Operations Command now claims that the project has been disbanded—but the report describes QUANTUM LEAP as a success. 

The goal of QUANTUM LEAP, according to the report, was to conduct multiple experiments over a period of six months to explore how open source applications could be used to combat a range of crimes, including human and drug trafficking and terrorism. The first experiment, assisting with a money laundering case, involved approximately 50 government and industry participants. "Overall the experiment was successful in identifying strategies and techniques for exploiting open sources of information, particularly social media," the report notes. 

The most heavily used tool in this experiment, according to the report, was Raptor X—which included a plugin called "Social Bubble" that allowed special ops to summon "data via the Twitter API to display Twitter users, their geographic location, posted Tweets and related metadata in the Raptor X geospatial display." Other tools created by industry partners included one that could "index the internet...as well as collect large quantities of data from the deep web," and another that performed "real time and automated analysis of publicly available data in all media channels, especially the social media, in many languages." All in all, during the financial crime scenario alone, the the DC special ops divisions identified more than 200 open-source tools that could be useful. 

"This report suggests that a lot can be accomplished...before even taking advantage of clandestine collection capabilities," says Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy. "And the prominent role played by industry is striking. Private firms are the ones providing the tools and tactics to the military for data mining open sources."

Ken McGraw, a spokesman for U.S. Special Operations Command, said in a statement that "We cannot confirm the validity of any of the information listed in the After Action Report. The only information we have received so far is the program is no longer in existence and the people who worked on the program are no longer there."

But Aftergood notes that based on the report, "the initial results were promising. They produced useful leads. So either the initial results did not pan out, or else the subsequent work was moved elsewhere."

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