On Thursday, the House voted 303-121 to pass the USA Freedom Act, a bill intended to end the NSA's bulk collection of Americans' phone records, which privacy-minded House members on the left and right originally cheered. The measure lost support from NSA critics after the House Rules Committee gutted key reforms in the 11th hour. On the House floor Thursday, a largely bipartisan group of legislators who once supported the bill opposed the measure because they believe it will actually codify the NSA's controversial surveillance.
"I'm disappointed that this popular bipartisan bill has been so drastically weakened," Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), a sponsor of the original bill, said. Representative Rush Holt (D-N.J.) asked, "How could anyone vote for legislation that doesn't uphold the constitutional standard of probable cause?" Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich), also an original sponsor who voted against the new version, wrote in a lengthy Facebook post, that the revised bill "doesn't look much like the Freedom Act...It mocks our system of government that [President Obama and lawmakers] worked to gut key provisions of the Freedom Act behind closed doors."
It was an odd turn of events that led previous backers of the measure to now call for its defeat. One big issue was whether the revised version of the USA Freedom Act will really end the NSA's practice of hoovering up American's phone metadata in bulk. The bill's defenders include Republican and Democrat intelligence committee members—at the debate, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) referred to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden as a "traitor" who made "criminal" disclosures—and NSA critics who argued that the legislation is better than nothing. But the bill's critics charge that the language in the new version is so ambiguous that large-scale collection of phone records will still be permissible. Additionally, according to The Guardian, a tech coalition including Facebook, Google, Microsoft, AOL, Dropbox, Twitter, Yahoo and LinkedIn noted that the revised version creates an "unacceptable loophole that could enable the bulk collection of internet users' data."
The 51 Republicans and 70 Democrats voted against the bill make up an unusual political coalition. Republicans who voted no include Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), and Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) "Under the finalized floor version of the USA Freedom Act, it would be completely legal for the NSA to request all records for an area code, zip code, or even all of the emails for accounts that start with the letter ‘A,’ all without a warrant," Massie said on Facebook. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif) said at the debate that she could not support the bill because it did not end bulk collection. Rep. Peter Welch, (D-V.T.) tweeted, "It's progress, but doesn't do enough to rein in NSA."
With such a bipartisan group opposing the bill, the debate over NSA surveillance will continue, with reforms arriving further down the road. "The American people demand that the Constitution be respected, that our rights and liberties be secured, and that the government stay out of our private lives," Amash wrote. "Fortunately, there is a growing group of representatives on both sides of the aisle who get it."
On Monday, US officials announced the arrest of more than 90 people allegedly connected to an organization called Blackshades, which sold software that allows hackers to easily take over a Microsoft Windows computer remotely. Last year, a college student used the tool to take nude photos of Miss Teen USA via her personal computer's webcam. According to the FBI and law enforcement officials, the program has been sold and distributed to "thousands" of people in more than 100 countries since 2010, affecting some 700,000 victims. Here's why you might want to update your anti-virus software, or, if you're prone to dancing around your room naked, at least put a piece of tape over your webcam.
What is Blackshades?
Blackshades is the name of an organization allegedly owned by a Swedish 24-year-old named Alex Yücel. According to government officials, Yücel and Michael Hogue, a 23-year-old US citizen who was arrested in 2012 as part of the feds' tangential investigation into Blackshades, codeveloped the Blackshades remote access tool (RAT). This tool, which sold for as little as $40at bshades.eu and other sites, essentially allowed buyers to act as peeping Toms on strangers' computers. The organization made more than $350,000 between September 2010 and April 2014, according to the FBI.
How does the Blackshades Remote Access Tool (RAT) work?
The Blackshades RAT isn't any different than what your IT person at work uses to get remote access to your computer, explains Runa Sandvik, staff technologist at the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT). But if your IT department were accessing your computer, "you'd have a heads up," she says. "In this case you won't even know [the hacker] is on your computer."
After buying a copy of the RAT software, a hacker has to install the program on a target's computer, by, say, deceiving a person into clicking on a malicious link. Then, once the hacker has access to a computer, he or she can then use the RAT software to easily record a person's keystrokes or passwords, take screenshots, rummage through computer files, or turn on the person's web camera, according to the feds. Anything you can do on your computer, the hacker can do, too. And the software makes it all super easy. In fact, it's "marketed principally for buyers who wouldn't know how to hack their way out of a paper bag," writesKrebson Security. Here's what the command and control panel looks like:
The program also includes "spreaders," which help hackers send out malicious links from peoples' social-media accounts, and a file hijacker tool. That tool, according to the FBI press release, allows users "to encrypt, or lock, a victim's files and demand a 'ransom' payment to unlock them. The RAT even came with a prepared script demanding such a ransom."
What do hackers use remote access tools for?
The FBI says the Blackshades RAT has been used to exploit credit cards, bank accounts, and personal information. But perhaps the creepiest way people can use remote accessing tools is to take photos and video via webcam. In November of last year, a college student pleaded guilty to hacking the webcam of Miss Teen USA Cassidy Wolf with the Blackshades software, and attempting to blackmail her. He allegedly said he had up to 40 other "slave computers," according to the original criminal complaint.
Last year, Ars Technica wrote about a thread on a hacker forum that was more than 134 pages long and filled with images captured through unsuspecting women's webcams. Hackers wielding remote accessing tools—it's unknown whether they were using Blackshades or other software—called the women their "slaves" and wrote about picking out "the 'good' [sexual] stuff" and categorizing it using names and passwords, according to the news outlet. And last year, a 17-year-old boy in Detroit paid hackers in the Philippines more than $1,000in blackmail money after they collected video of him via webcam. This tool has been used for political purposes as well. In 2012, the software was sent by alleged pro-government attackers to try and infect the computers of anti-government Syrian activists.
Now that people have been arrested in connection with Blackshades, does this mean I'm in the clear?
Nope. While the sale of Blackshades software, whose main website has now been shut down, was already on the decline (there were more than 1,300 infections last spring, but fewer than 400 in April 2014, according to Symantec), there are other remote accessing tools out there. "Even if there are just 100 people using Blackshades, there are another 100 using a tool with a different name that works exactly the same way," says CDT's Sandvik. Additionally, it's not clear that the FBI will be able to get the Blackshades charges to stick. As the Daily Beast notes, it may be hard for prosecutors to prove whether the defendants who possessed the software used it for illegal activity.
What should I do to keep my computer private?
Follow best security practices. The FBI and security experts recommend that you update your software, including anti-virus software, install a good firewall, don't open suspicious email attachments or URLs—even if they come from people on your contact list—and create strong passwords. The FBI has also published a list of files that you can search for on your hard drive to see if your computer has been infected. "Regardless of the specific kind, if you get malware on your system, it's bad," says Christopher Budd, a spokesman for Trend Micro, a Japanese security software company. "But people shouldn't worry about malware, they should take concrete steps." And if you put tape over your webcam, too, no one will judge you. "I do," says Sandvik.
A few generations ago, American families could send their daughters to private, all-girl finishing schools, where they learned how to sit properly and nab husbands. Today, Florida families have the option of sending their daughters to all-girl public schools, where girls get perfume for doing tasks correctly, and educators are taught that girls "struggle with abstract thinking," "use relationships as weapons," and prefer to read about "emotional agonies" over spaceship how-to books, according to a Title IX complaint filed last week by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU alleges that the Hillsborough County public school district—which includes Tampa, has more than 202,000 students and a $2.8 billion budget, and operates both single-sex classrooms in coed public schools and single-sex magnet schools—is implementing teaching methods that discriminate on the basis of sex. Galen Sherwin, staff attorney at the ACLU Women's Rights Project, says these methods may soon spread to other parts of Florida.
The ACLU filed its complaint one day after Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a little-noticed bill that requires school districts that establish same-gender programs to mandate that educators participate in special training. Sherwin says that without federal or state intervention to ensure training programs do not promote sex stereotypes, it's likely that other schools will follow Hillsborough's model. (A spokesperson for the Florida Department of Education says that she can't comment on the complaint, but noted that, according to the law's language, the school districts are in charge of training.)
So what does the Hillsborough program look like? According to the complaint, "trainings relied heavily on stereotypical emotional differences between boys and girls," such as the idea that "girls do not like to take risks and believe success is from hard work," while boys "show love through aggression." The complaint lists techniques employed in classrooms across the district: One teacher gave each girl a dab of perfume on her wrist for doing a task correctly, teachers comforted girls when they made a mistake, and teachers "spoke in a firmer and more authoritative and loud voice with the boys." Boys were also instructed to do jumping jacks before math and were allowed to bring their electronics to school if they behaved.
According to the complaint, the teachings also rely on the controversial idea that schools should be tailored based on innate biological differences between male and female brains—for example, that girls struggle with abstract thinking as it relates to math. "The assumption that such differences are innate or 'hardwired' is invalid," noted Scientific American in 2009. "Experiences change our brains."
Gender-based educational programs are not unique to Florida. The ACLU has filed complaints against school districts in other states, including West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Idaho. The National Association for Single Sex Public Education, which supports these kinds of programs, notes, "We understand that some girls would rather play football rather than play with Barbies," and "girls in single-sex educational settings are more likely to take classes in math, science, and information technology." Sherwin, from the ACLU, says she doesn't see anything wrong with single-sex schools that don't use different teaching methods for boys and girls. But she adds, "Whenever you make sex the most salient category for grouping children, it certainly sends a message about sex difference."
Steve Hegarty, a spokesman for Hillsborough schools, says that that no one is assigned or zoned to same-sex programs. "You have to apply, if you think it would be a good fit for your son and daughter," he says. He wouldn't comment specifically on the complaint, but notes that in Florida at least, parents are enthusiastic about the programs: "They seem to be really popular."
Update, May 19, 2014: On Monday, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri denied the stay of execution request of Russell Bucklew.
Next week, Missouri is scheduled to execute Russell Bucklew, who has a serious health condition, with a lethal drug whose source is being kept secret from the public. On Friday, Bucklew's attorneys filed a motion requesting that a videographer be allowed to tape the execution in order to preserve evidence. Bucklew has tumors partially blocking his airway, and attorneys allege that there is "a very significant risk" that he will die "a torturous death" in violation of the Eighth Amendment, which bars cruel and unusual punishment.
According to the motion:
Mr. Bucklew seeks this Order so he can preserve vital evidence of the events occurring during his execution. His head, neck, throat and brain are filled with clumps of weak, malformed blood vessels that could rupture, causing coughing, choking and suffocation, or impairing the circulation of the lethal drug, causing a prolonged and excruciating execution while he struggles for air. Mr. Bucklew seeks to document these events.
Dr. Joel B. Zivot, a professor of Anesthesiology and Surgery at the Emory University School of Medicine who examined Bucklew, filed an affidavit noting that, "To my knowledge, Missouri's execution protocol provides no contingency for a failed execution, or a situation in which the prisoner starts gasping for air or experiences hemorrhaging."
Missouri sentenced Bucklew to death for kidnapping and raping his ex-girlfriend and murdering her partner. Bucklew's execution arrives less than a month after Oklahoma horribly botched the execution of Clayton D. Lockett, leaving him twitching in pain and partially conscious. (About 15 minutes into that execution, officials closed the blinds, so witnesses couldn't see.) Like Oklahoma, Missouri is using a secretly-acquired drug cocktail. On Thursday, the Guardian, the Associated Press, and three Missouri newspapers filed a lawsuit arguing that the public has a right to information about the drugs Missouri is using for its executions. The Guardiannotes that the state publicized where it obtained its lethal injection drugs until last year, when, like other death penalty states, Missouri faced a shortage of lethal injection drugs in wake of European restrictions.
In Missouri, Bucklew's attorneys also want to videotape the execution in case Bucklew survives and needs evidence to oppose another execution attempt. "Until the botched execution in Oklahoma of Mr. Lockett, the possibility of a prisoner surviving an execution seemed perhaps remote. Now, the possibility of a failed execution is plain," the motion reads.
In a little-noticed 2012 interview, Rep. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), the front-runner in Montana's open 2014 Senate race, expressed support for teaching creationism in public schools.
In an interview that aired on November 2, 2012, Sally Mauk, news director for Montana Public Radio, asked Daines, who was then running for Montana's lone House seat, whether public schools should teach creationism. Daines responded, "What the schools should teach is, as it relates to biology and science is that they have, um, there's evolution theory, there's creation theory, and so forth. I think we should teach students to think critically, and teach students that there are evolutionary theories, there's intelligent-design theories, and allow the students to make up their minds. But I think those kinds of decisions should be decided at the local school board level." He added, "Personally I'd like to teach my kids both sides of the equation there and let them come up to their own conclusion on it." Here's a recording of the exchange:
Daines did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Lauren Passalacqua, a spokeswoman for Democratic Sen. John Walsh—who was appointed in February by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock to replace longtime Democratic Sen. Max Baucus and could potentially face Daines in the general election—says, "Sen. Walsh respects everyone's right to practice their faith but believes public school is a place for science, not religion."
The radio interview wasn't the first time Daines dabbled in creationism. On July 31, 2012, Don Pogreba, a Montana high school teacher who blogs about politics, reported that Daines was scheduled to attend a breakfast fundraiser for his campaign at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky—an establishment that says it "brings the pages of the Bible to life." Visitors to the Kentucky museum learn about what the world looked like "6,000 years into the past"—at "the dawn of history"—and can see "children play and dinosaurs roam near Eden's Rivers." A notice for the event was reportedly posted on Daines' campaign website. A few days later, Alex Sakariassen, a reporter for the Missoula Independent, asked Daines' campaign why the congressman was holding a campaign event at the controversial museum. Zach Lahn, Daines' campaign manager at the time, replied that "all location details and speaker invitations have been made by [Daines] supporters," not the campaign itself. After the Independent published a story about the event, the announcement for the fundraiser disappeared from the Daines campaign's website. And a spokeswoman for the Kentucky museum says the fundraiser never took place there.
On the campaign trail, Daines points to his executive experience at a Bozeman-based tech firm, RightNow Technologies, as evidence he's a pragmatic businessman focused on economic issues. Greg Gianforte, a longtime Daines ally and donor who founded RightNow and sold it in 2012 for more than $1.8 billion, also has a history of supporting creationism. In 2009, his charity, the Gianforte Family Foundation, helped fund the $1.5 million creationist dinosaur museum in Glendive, Montana. According to the Billings Gazette, Gianforte's foundation made "the largest donation for a specific exhibit," funding a display featuring Tyranosaurus rex and Acrocanthosaurus. In the years since that museum opened, Gianforte has become one of Daines' campaign backers; he sued the Montana Democratic Party in 2012 for allegedly making false claims about Daines and RightNow, he contributed the maximum $5,200 to Daines' campaign in 2013, and the two men appeared together publicly as recently as March 2014, at a Yellowstone County Republicans dinner. (Gianforte did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
The Glendive museum's website contends that "the wonders of God's creation are prostituted for evolutionism." The museum promises to tell visitors whether "the dinosaurs die[d] out 65 million years ago" or "co-exist[ed] with man and diminish[ed] within the last five thousand years." (Spoiler alert: The museum sides with the latter.) Otis Kline, president of the Foundation Advancing Creation Truth, which runs the museum, says that he knows Daines, but hadn't "seen him for quite some time." Kline would not say whether Daines had donated to or supported the Glendive museum.
Although it may give pause to some scientists and educators, Daines' advocacy for "teaching the controversy" won't necessarily hurt him in the polls. A Pew Research Center poll conducted last year found that 33 percent of US adults say they do not believe in evolution. Of the 60 percent who indicated that "humans have evolved over time," a little less than half said that a "supreme being guided evolution."