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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Texas Wouldn't Let This Afghanistan Vet Vote in the Last Presidential Election

| Fri Dec. 13, 2013 7:00 AM EST

Last month, I collected reports from voters across the United States who had trouble casting a ballot because of the growing number of strict voter identification laws. When Ben Granger, an Air Force captain who was deployed during the 2012 presidential election read the piece, he came forward with his own story—about the time he was turned away from voting for the US president by a conservative county in Texas, after mailing his ballot from a war zone. 

Texas has come under fire for its new law requiring poll workers to apply extra scrutiny to voters' state identification, in a way that potentially discriminates against married women. Although voter ID laws garner the most attention for turning voters away from the polls—longstanding laws in Texas and other states still require election boards to use a voter's signature to verify absentee ballots.

Granger, who was deployed for seven months in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan in 2012, says he's voted in every presidential election since he turned 18. But after he sent his absentee ballot to Tom Green County, Texas, to vote in the 2012 general election, he received a rejection notice claiming that his vote was discarded because his signature on the ballot application and the signature on the ballot's envelope were signed by different people:

"I was surprised and aggravated," says Granger, who, having spent four and a half years on active duty, now lives in Belleville, Illinois, supporting U.S. Air Force Air Mobility Command on active reserve. "As the guy that requested the ballot, carefully looked over the candidates, carefully signed the envelope and the ballot with a good pen, and then walked across my base to the post office to mail it personally, the rejection was insulting."

Under Texas law, in order to vote by absentee ballot, a voter must sign a ballot application, and then after receiving the ballot some weeks later, must sign the sealed ballot's carrier envelope. In Tom Green County—where 73 percent of residents cast a vote for Mitt Romney last November—the law allows a county to appoint a five-person board tasked with deciding, by majority vote, whether the two signatures match (they can even request to see the voter's registration signature). In Granger's case, they claimed that the application and the ballot envelope were signed by different people. He adds that while he doesn't specifically remember signing the application before successfully receiving his ballot about six weeks later, "I was pretty busy at the time...I [always] sign my name the same way."

This law is much older—more than a decade—than the one requiring that poll workers make sure a voter's driver's license "substantially" matches the name on the voter registration. Marian Schneider​, an attorney with the Advancement Project, a voting rights group, says that "every state has a process where they compare a voter's signature with another signature on file"—even if you vote in person—and she doesn't necessarily consider that a barrier to voting, in the way that voter ID laws are. But she notes that incidents of people committing fraud and forging signatures are nonetheless, "exceedingly rare."

Logan Churchwell, a spokesman for True the Vote, which argues that voter fraud is common, says that checking signatures is a good way to stop a criminal from "purchasing a ballot in a military installation and sending it on someone else's behalf." (There were only 13 credible cases of in-person voter impersonation between 2000 and 2010.) Churchwell doubts Granger's claim of voter suppression.

But Doug Chapin, the director of the Program for Excellence in Election Administration at the University of Minnesota, says that barring people from voting because their signatures don't match "is a growing problem in the field" and "an issue that’s increasingly on the radar.​" While every state has a different process for verifying signatures, "This example is definitely at the stricter end," he says. Rick Hasen, a voting expert and law professor at the University of California, Irvine, agrees that, "signature matching has been studied and it is not a perfect system." (Kansas has​ done away with it entirely, allowing voters to enter a verification number, such as a driver's license or social security number, instead.) 

Granger says that if the Election Board truly thought someone had stolen his ballot envelope or application, "isn't that cause for the launch of a criminal investigation?" Vona McKerley, the election administer in Tom Green County, tells Mother Jones that "several" ballots were turned away in last year's election because of non-matching signatures. "The ballot board was following the law as prescribed in processing the ballots. No, there was no investigation."​

Granger is, nonetheless, concerned that this is just another way to disenfranchise voters: "I am a young educated military officer and I know how to sign my own name for God's sake. And even if I didn't, is poor penmanship good cause for disenfranchisement? What about the elderly whose hands may shake?"​

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8 Big-Name Tech Companies Demand End to Bulk Internet Surveillance

| Mon Dec. 9, 2013 12:01 PM EST

On Monday, eight major tech companies launched an unprecedented campaign asking President Obama and Congress to make sweeping reforms to the surveillance programs first revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The companies—AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo—asked for an international ban on bulk Internet data collection (like that reportedly permitted under the NSA's PRISM program), as well as more public reports and independent oversight.  

"We understand that governments have a duty to protect their citizens. But this summer’s revelations highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide," the companies wrote in an open letter to the president and members of Congress. "The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual ­­rights that are enshrined in our Constitution. This undermines the freedoms we all cherish. It’s time for change."

The companies asked governments worldwide to enact five major reforms: End bulk collection of Internet communications; Ensure that courts reviewing the decisions made by intelligence communities are independent and push back (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has been criticized as a "rubber stamp"); allow tech companies to publish the number and type of government demands; establish a treaty to govern "lawful" data requests worldwide; and make it easier for companies to exchange data across borders. (My colleague Kevin Drum outlined these demands in more detail here.) 

Tech companies have been vocal about their desire to publish more information about government demands before, and they've also been independently rolling out "Perfect Forward Secrecy"—encryption that makes it much harder for the NSA to snoop. But this is the first time that these companies have joined together to explicitly ask the US government to "limit surveillance to specific, known users for lawful purposes, and [not] undertake bulk data collection of Internet communications." The reforms closely mirror those included in the USA FREEDOM Act, introduced by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and go much further than the reforms proposed in a competing bill backed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chair of the Senate intelligence committee. 

The Guardian notes that these companies are asking for global reforms, likely because they're concerned that "competing national responses to the Snowden revelations will not only damage their commercial interests but also lead to a balkanisation of the web as governments try to prevent internet companies from escaping overseas." Brad Smith, General Counsel and Executive Vice President of Legal and Corporate Affairs at Microsoft, confirmed that there is an obvious business incentive for tech companies to stand against NSA spying: "People won’t use technology they don’t trust. Governments have put this trust at risk, and governments need to help restore it."

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

| Fri Dec. 6, 2013 11:50 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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