April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month, a time when safety and transportation experts beg, plead and cajole Americans to put down their phones while driving, lest they become a murderer behind the wheel. It's a thankless job, as American drivers suffer from some serious delusions about their abilities to pilot a car safely while texting their girlfriends, shopping on eBay, or dialing in to Rush Limbaugh. Despite the fact that a quarter of all motor vehicle crashes today involve cellphone use, Americans still think it's only other drivers who are the problem. More than 90 percent of drivers think other drivers texting or using cellphones behind the wheel are a threat to their personal safety, yet two in three of them do it anyway, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Elected officials have been reluctant to address the problem, passing legislation that reinforces drivers' delusions—like the law here in DC that allows people to drive and talk on the phone so long as they use a hands-free device, even though there's no evidence that talking on a Bluetooth is any safer than just holding up the old phone. (Spend some time in DC cabs to get a sense of how well this law is working out.)

Phone companies have been trying to come up with technical solutions that might head off further attempts by lawmakers to curb cellphone use while driving. The latest of these has been the suggestion that Siri can help. The idea is that simply talking to your phone to send a text rather than punching in the message would somehow allow people to keep their eyes on the road and drive safely while texting. As it turns out, the notion that an app will save lives is as faulty as the promise that the Bluetooth would.

A new study out from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute this month found that:

  • Driver response time was terrible regardless of whether the driver was manually texting or using Siri.
  • Texting drivers of any sort took twice as long to react to roadway hazards than when they were off the phone.
  • Texting drivers spent a lot of time not looking at the road, regardless of whether they were using a voice-to-text app.
  • Manual texting was actually quicker than using a voice app, but driving performance was equally bad in both cases.

The new study also found a new form of distracted driving delusions: Drivers felt less safe when they were texting, but they felt safer using a voice app than texting manually, even though their performance on the road was equally dangerous. 

Moral of the story: When you get behind the wheel of a motor vehicle, just put down the damn phone! And just as a chilling reminder of why this is important, watch this video:

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) cast a critical vote against President Obama's gun control agenda—then he retired.

Last Wednesday, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) was one of four Democrats to vote against the Manchin–Toomey amendment to extend background checks to private gun sales. His vote helped kill the bill. On Tuesday, Baucus announced he would be retiring from the Senate at the end of next year.

Baucus' vote made some sense at the time, considering that Montana has more gun businesses per capita than any other state (it's not even close). But now that he's officially a lame-duck, the decision is a bit more curious. It's possible that Baucus really does think extending background checks are a stupid idea and stood on principle. It's also possible that Baucus was simply being loyal to his allies in the firearms industry (He has a lifetime A+ rating from the National Rifle Association). But given the intense lobbying effort from President Obama—and the fact that the senator's former chief of staff and campaign manager, Jim Messina, was leading the effort by Organizing for Action, the president's re-purposed campaign organization, to build support for the background check measure—you can understand why the most common reaction on the left to Baucus' retirement was "good riddance."

The background checks vote is just one of many reasons why liberals won't miss Baucus, the Senate Finance Committee chairman whose office came to embody the term "revolving door." Twenty-eight (28!) former Baucus staffers are currently employed as tax lobbyists. The senior counsel who drafted the health care legislation that would become the Affordable Care Act came back to Baucus' offices after several years at the health care giant Wellpoint. (The Onion perhaps best summarized the liberal Baucus-hate here.)

That said, Baucus did have some redeeming qualities. Here are three interesting things I discovered while reporting on former-Rep. Denny Rehberg, the man he beat in his 1996 re-election fight:

  1. A River Runs Throught It was filmed on Baucus' ranch.
  2. Twice—in 1978 and in 1996—Baucus walked the length of the state (820 miles) from East to West.
  3. When Rehberg decided to run for Congress in 1999, Baucus' brother, John, signed a contract to care for Rehberg's 600 cashmere goats.

Baucus' most talked-about potential replacement is former two-term Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who had hinted at a run earlier this year. Here's a video of Schweitzer vetoing a piece of legislation with a cattle brand:

Lance Cpl. Pablo Perez, a rifleman with Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, provides security during Counter Improvised Explosive Device training at Camp Leatherneck, Helmand province, Afghanistan, April 3, 2013. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Tammy K. Hineline.

You know how it's supposed to work. There's a movie about the future with a bad guy and some good guys. The good guys scan a picture of the bad guy into a computer, the computer quickly cross-references the image against enormous, ominous databases, up pops his name, and they go after him.

Not so much in real life.

For a few hours each year, during the Boston Marathon, the 600 block of Boylston Street is the most photographed place on Earth, what with all the family, friends, tourists, news crews, and commercial photographers. So it was a perfect setting for the FBI to make use of facial-recognition technology. But even though Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev's images existed in official databases, the brothers were not identified that way—because we just aren't that advanced yet.

Facial-recognition technology turns a photograph into a biometric template that can be matched with photos attached to names in other databases. Last summer, the FBI launched a $1 billion facial-recognition program called the Next Generation Identification (NGI) project as a pilot in several states. Once fully implemented, the security program is designed to include some 12 million searchable mug shots as well as voice recognition and iris scans. The FBI would not confirm if the program is being piloted in Massachusetts, but even if it were, it may not have been useful since it is unclear whether the brothers had criminal records. But the FBI also has access to the State Department's passport and visa facial-recognition databases, and can get similar DMV information from the 30-odd states that have it, including Massachusetts. Both brothers had Massachusetts driver's licenses, so it would seem they would be traceable. (Tamerlan's name was also included in a federal government travel-screening database in 2011 after the FBI investigated him for possible terrorist activity at Russia's request, but the government's databases related to immigration, customs, and border-related interactions do not yet have facial-recognition capabilities.)

But in order for facial recognition to work, you need a high-quality frontal photo of the face you want matched. If you have that, research shows, you can pick a suspect out of more than a million mug shots 92 percent of the time. But the image that the FBI captured of the Tsarnaevs from surveillance camera images was grainy and taken from far away, which would have drastically limited the effectiveness of the technology.

Paul Schuepp, CEO and president of Animetrics, one of the facial-recognition companies the FBI contracts with, says that by the time the suspects' faces were zoomed in on, there were only a few dozen pixels per face. "When you've got like five pixels between the eyes, you're done," he says. "There's just not enough data on the face [and] the computer has a impossible time." Schuepp says that the Tsarnaevs' faces were also angled away from the camera, and Tamerlan's sunglasses and hat didn't help either. "Some [news] networks were saying they got good pictures, but the pictures really sucked," he says.

Instead, the FBI released the photos of the two suspects last Thursday and depended on old-fashioned eyeballs to do the work. "It’s likely that the breakthroughs in the case were made by sharp-eyed investigators," Bloomberg News reported, "spotting one of the suspects dropping a bag at the site of one of the two bombings in the surveillance footage, then matching the face with an image from the security camera of the 7-Eleven in Cambridge" that was the scene of an armed robbed on Thursday. Jeff Bauman, the runner who lost both his legs in the explosion, also helped ID the suspects after he woke up in the hospital.

"Even at a distance, as a human being you could recognize that person," Schuepp says.

But facial-recognition technology has been used successfully in another bombing case; it helped in the investigation of of the Times Square bombing attempt in in 2010. And the FBI is hard at work to expand the NGI program. Bloomberg News reported that "the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the NYPD have also expressed interest in more exotic technologies, including one that analyzes people's gait for clues as to whether they're carrying a bomb. Programmers are developing machine vision techniques that can link images of the same person across different video cameras or spot behaviors that are out of the ordinary for a certain setting (e.g., leaving a bag unattended in a public place)."

Civil libertarians worry that eventually these kinds of technologies could soon become all too effective, tracking people in the streets whether they’re suspected of a crime or not. And the Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties group, calls the NGI a huge boondoggle. "With technology moving so fast and assaults on our freedoms, privacy and otherwise, occurring with increasing frequency," charged the group in a September 2012 statement on the NGI project, "there is little hope of turning back this technological, corporate, and governmental juggernaut."

This article has been revised.

On Saturday evening, the 60 Minutes Twitter feed began looking suspiciously authoritarian and conspiracy-minded:

60 minutes Syria assad hack


Needless to say, this is not how the investigative news program typically does business. The torrent of anti-Americanism is widely believed to have been the result of hacking by pro-Assad elements irked by the State Department's announcement on Saturday that the US would double non-lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition and provide new humanitarian aid. Since Saturday, the 60 Minutes Twitter account (as well as CBS' 48 Hours account) have been suspended.

"We are resolving the issue with Twitter now," a spokesman for 60 Minutes told me late Monday afternoon, insisting on anonymity. (At the time of this post's publication, the show's account remained suspended.)

CBS is hardly the first institution targeted by the armada of pro-Assad, pro-mass murder hackers. Since early 2012, the loosely defined Syrian Electronic Army (yes, that's SEA) has disrupted the online and social-media operations of NPR, BBC Weather, AFP, Reuters, FRANCE 24, Al Jazeera, Human Rights Watch, and others. A Twitter account associated with the group was indeed recently suspended, though there's no indication of US government involvement.

"We had a breach that stemmed from a successful spearphishing attack," Emma Daly, communications director at Human Rights Watch, says, regarding the incident in March. "Someone was able to get access and post a message on the site, and posted it in such a way that it was automatically sent to our Twitter feed...I don't want to say it was a minor [incident], but it was not a sophisticated attack. [Whoever did it] obviously didn't like our reporting on Syria."

UPDATE (4/23, 4:18 p.m. EDT): The Syrian Electronic Army claimed responsibility for hacking the Associated Press Twitter account on Tuesday, and sending out a Tweet falsely claiming that President Obama had been injured after two explosions rocked the White House. That tweet caused a brief stock market panic.

UPDATE (4/24, 8:30 p.m. EDT): The 60 Minutes Twitter account is no longer suspended.

Remember how the Mitt Romney-espoused "self-deportation" rhetoric was supposed to end up in the dustbin of history following President Obama's huge margins among Latino voters back in November? Apparently no one told Kris Kobach.

The Kansas secretary of state and intellectual author of harsh laws in states like Arizona and Alabama was back at it again earlier today, this time at the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearings on the Gang of Eight's immigration bill. In response to questions from Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Kobach said that "self-deportation is not some radical idea. It is simply the idea that people may comply with the law by their own choice."

The poised Kobach has seemed undeterred by his party's shift away from the attrition-through-enforcement framework, telling the Kansas City Star in February, "It's not my voice—it's the voice of the American people." (Just a couple of days earlier, for example, Newt Gingrich had appeared on CNN's The Situation Room and said of self-deportation, "That is the most anti-human phrase you can imagine…I think it was very unfortunate and frankly helped cost us the election.")

But Durbin, a longtime immigrant advocate and one of the original cosponsors of the DREAM Act, was all too happy to remind Kobach of the GOP's lingering Latino (and Asian American) problem. "The voters had the last word on self-deportation on November 6th," he said. "So we're beyond that now. You can stick with that theory as long as you'd like."

If his testimony is any indication, Kobach won't be changing his tune anytime soon.

Dzhokar Tsarnaev was found by police hiding in a boat after a nearly 24-hour manhunt in Watertown, Mass.

On Monday, it became official: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was charged with "use of a weapon of mass destruction" and "malicious destruction of property resulting in death" for his alleged role in last Monday's bombing of the Boston marathon. The federal criminal complaint comes three days after police captured Tsarnaev in a boat in Watertown, Massachusetts, and four days after a manhunt for these specific suspects began in earnest. For the time being, law enforcement officials believe Dzhokhar and his older brother, Tamerlan, who was killed Friday, acted alone.

Dzhokhar and Tamerlan's motive—or motives—is still unclear. But that's not the only unknown. Many of the Tsarnaevs' actions last week seem baffling in retrospect. Here are some of the most confounding things they did:

  1. Wear a backwards hat and no sunglasses. Unlike his older brother, Dzhokhar made little effort to prevent cameras from capturing his face, making him easier to identify when the FBI released security camera photos on Thursday. Indeed, classmates at University of Massachusetts–Dartmouth did see him in the photos, but dismissed the similarity because it seemed so far-fetched.
  2. Not react to the explosions. For three days, investigators pored over all available photos and surveillance videos of the blast area searching for abnormal reactions. The complaint filed in federal court on Monday specifically cites Dzhokhar's reaction to the first explosion as a giveaway; per the complaint, he glanced in the direction of the first blast only briefly.
  3. Leave the car in the shop. The Wall Street Journal reported that Dzhokhar stopped by an auto-body shop in Watertown on Tuesday to pick up the Mercedes he'd brought in for repairs.
  4. Stay in Boston. The second bomb exploded at 2:49 p.m. last Monday. Tamerlan carjacked a Mercedes at 10:39 p.m.* on Thursday. What did they do in the interim three days? Go to the gym, check in on their busted car, and, in Dzhokhar's case, go to a party on the UMass–Dartmouth campus. During the three-day window in which their involvement was unknown, they made no attempt to flee.
  5. Kill an MIT police officer. Why did the brothers shoot 26-year-old Sean Collier? The murder at 10:30 p.m. on Thursday set in motion the events that would ultimately lead to their capture.
  6. Run out of cash. When Tamerlan carjacked a Mercedes on Thursday night, he and his brother had one thing in mind: Get cash, and fast. They emptied $800 from an ATM using their victim's PIN number, before they reached the account limit. Holding up a stranger for money suggests a woeful lack of planning on their part (they hadn't budgeted) that helped alert them to the authorities.
  7. Not understand how ATMs work. After reaching the daily withdrawal limit at one ATM, the Tsarnaevs, apparently not realizing that the machines are part of an interconnected system, decided to try their luck at two different machines. The quest to find a working ATM was how they ended up, coincidentally, at a 7/11 in Cambridge around the same time it was the scene of an armed robbery, and were spotted on the store security camera.
  8. Confess to the hostage. According to the complaint, when Dzhokhar got into the Mercedes, he immediately told the driver, "Did you hear about the Boston explosion? I did that." That meant their cover would be immediately blown if the driver escaped. Which brings us to…
  9. Stop for snacks. The Los Angeles Times reported that the hostage escaped after the brothers stopped at a gas station on Memorial Drive to buy snacks.
  10. Keep the hostage's phone. The Tsarnaevs continued on without their hostage—but they did have his phone, which allowed police to track their location via GPS.
  11. Bring a BB gun. The weapons used by the two suspects, according to police: a pressure-cooker bomb, seven IEDs, an M4 carbine, two handguns, and a BB gun. Why a BB gun?

Update: This Boston Globe interview with the carjack victim goes a long way toward answering question nine.

*Correction: This piece initially confused the timing of the bombing and carjackings, as well as the identity of the carjacker.

A memorial honoring the victims of the Boston Marathon explosions

Dhzokhar Tsarnaev slung his backpack off his shoulder and dropped it on the ground. A few minutes later, an explosion ripped into the crowd that had gathered to watch the Boston marathon. As the frightened people around him turned and looked in the direction of the first explosion, Dhzokhar Tsarnaev glanced toward the chaos and then "calmly but rapidly" headed the other way. Ten seconds later, the bomb in Dzhokhar's backpack went off.

That's all on video captured by a local surveillance cameras, according to the criminal complaint filed Monday against the Dhzokhar Tsarnaev, the only surviving suspect in last week's bombings, which killed three people and maimed more than two hundred others. The complaint lays out the government's view of events, but it's not proof of guilt, Tsarnaev's culpability will be decided in court. The document charges Tsarnaev with using a weapon of mass destruction (federal law defines almost any explosive as WMD) and malicious destruction of property causing death. More charges could be forthcoming. Republican lawmakers had demanded that Tsarnaev, a naturalized American citizen, be held in indefinite military detention, the complaint affirms the Obama administration's decision to keep Tsarnaev within the federal criminal justice system. It also upholds Obama's promise not to put an American citizen in indefinite military detention. American citizens are not eligible to be tried by military commission, but more detainees at Gitmo have died than have been successfully tried in that system anyway. 

The complaint goes into detail about how the police found the Tsarnaev brothers after they allegedly carried out the bombing. "Did you hear about the Boston explosion? I did that," one of the brothers told a man they allegedly carjacked Thursday night, according to the complaint. The carjacking victim escaped while the brothers were shopping at a convenience store. The ensuing gunfight during which Dzhokhar's brother Tamerlan was killed occurred when local Boston police located the stolen car, which, according to the complaint, contained two additional unexploded homemade bombs. Tsarnaev was found several hours later hiding in a boat in a Watertown backyard, with gunshot wounds to his neck, head, legs and hand.

It remains unclear whether Tsarnaev has been read his Miranda rights, though he has the right to an attorney and the right to remain silent whether law enforcement officers inform him of those rights or not.  

You can read the whole complaint here:



Update: As of Monday evening, about 900 websites are participating in the protest

About 400 websites are taking part in an online blackout today to protest the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA). The web-based demonstration, organized by the hacktivist organization, Anonymous, is not likely to interfere with the average web user's day, unless that user frequently posts funny videos on Reddit. CISPA, a controversial bill that aims to boost cybersecurity by removing legal barriers that prevent tech companies and the government from sharing sensitive information about web users, sailed through the House last week, despite strong opposition from privacy groups and President Barack Obama, who is threatening to veto the current version of the bill. Early last year,  the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), two online copyright enforcement bills, spurred widespread blackouts involving more than 7,000 websites and tech giants, including Wikipedia and Google, yet the biggest websites willing to take a public stand against CISPA merely include various subsections of Reddit and a Facebook page for the Libertarian party

"Unfortunately, there have not been any confirmed reports of larger companies joining the protest," says a spokesperson for Anonyops, a website that reports news on the activities of Anonymous. "SOPA threatened to take down websites that even linked to copyright infringed material, so for companies that allow their users to post freely on their sites [like Facebook, Google+, and Reddit] this would have been devastating. CISPA mostly effects the user's of these services, and doesn't cut into profits of these big companies, and let's face it, that's why they're a business, to make a profit."

"We've been running ads against CISPA for the past few months, but we didn't think the timing was right for us to participate in today's blackout," says Erik Martin, general manager at Reddit, the social news site. "We're going to plan more action closer to the vote in the Senate, but in the meantime, the [independently controlled] subreddits are becoming kind of a lab for how you raise awareness on something important like this. Some of them are blacked out, others are posting about it."

Molly Schwoppe, a spokesperson for the Libertarian party, tells Mother Jones that the party is "vehemently opposed to CISPA" but refused to confirm whether or not the Facebook page holding the blackout officially belonged to the party.

CISPA was first introduced in late 2011 by Rep. Michael Rogers (R-Mich.), but the measure failed to advance through the Senate. Rogers and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) reintroduced the bill in February of this yearDozens of civil-liberties-minded groups have cried foul and opposed the bill on the grounds that it delivers personal information like emails and Internet records straight to the hands of the government, which could freely use all this information for vague national security purposes. "This bill undermines the privacy of millions of Internet users" Rainey Reitman, activism director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation said in a press release. The Obama administration last week declared that it "remains concerned that the bill does not require private entities to take reasonable steps to remove irrelevant personal information when sending cybersecurity data to the government or other private sector entities."

But privacy concerns may not be enough to stop the bill. CISPA supporters spent 140 times more money on lobbying for the bill that its opponents, according to the Sunlight Foundation. Big-name companies that openly support CISPA include AT&T, Intel, IBM, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon, and other tech giants are  quietly on board, including Google and Facebook, which released a statement arguing that "if the government learns of an intrusion or other attack, the more it can share about that attack with private companies (and the faster it can share the information), the better the protection for users and our systems." Facebook also claims that if shares data with the government, it will safeguard user information. 

Anonyops isn't so optimistic. "Do I find it hypocritical [that tech companies are supporting CISPA]? It could be seen that way, after all," its spokesperson says. "These companies do have privacy policies, which is the very thing that CISPA would basically make void."

Boston bombing suspects Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev in an image taken at the Boston Marathon.

Update: White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday afternoon that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev would not be held as an "enemy combatant." President Barack Obama has previously stated that he "will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens." The US Attorney's Office-District of Massachusetts confirms that "Dzhokar Tsarnaev [is] charged with conspiring to use weapon of mass destruction against persons and property in [the] U.S. resulting in death[.]"

Before Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving suspect in the attack on the Boston Marathon, was even captured, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) wanted the the 19-year-old be held in indefinite military detention as an "enemy combatant."

"If captured, I hope [the Obama] Administration will at least consider holding the Boston suspect as enemy combatant for intelligence gathering purposes," Graham tweeted last Friday. In an interview with the New York Times' Charlie Savage over the weekend, Graham, who is up for reelection in 2014, elaborated on his reasoning:

You can't hold every person who commits a terrorist attack as an enemy combatant, I agree with that. But you have a right, with his radical Islamist ties and the fact that Chechens are all over the world fighting with Al Qaeda—I think you have a reasonable belief to go down that road, and it would be a big mistake not to go down that road. If we didn't hold him for intelligence-gathering purposes, that would be unconscionable."

Graham is wrong. The government cannot hold Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as an enemy combatant. Under current law, the fact that Tsarnaev shares an ethnicity and religion with other extremists is insufficient grounds to detain him militarily. The 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, which Graham vocally supported, defines as eligible for military detention "a person who was a part of or substantially supported Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners." There's no evidence yet that the suspects in the Boston bombing acted with the support of or at the behest of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces. Unless that evidence emerges, it wouldn't be legal to hold Tsarnaev as an enemy combatant, even if he and his brother were motivated by extremist religious beliefs. 

"It's actually not a close question," says Ben Wittes, a scholar with the Brookings Institution and writer at the national security blog Lawfare who supports military detention under some circumstances. "'Substantially support' is a reference to providing some material aid to the forces of the enemy…It means giving active aid to the enemy forces, it doesn't mean taking independent action that happens to be congenial for them."

Even if evidence emerges that the suspects in the Boston bombing acted with the support of or at the behest of a foreign group, the Supreme Court has not settled whether the military can detain people who are apprehended in the United States. Both the Bush and Obama administrations dodged potential Supreme Court cases that would have decided that question, precisely because the odds are good that holding someone suspect of a crime who is arrested on American soil in military detention is unconstitutional. Having the military detain someone captured on US soil could also jeopardize prosecution: In the three cases where Americans or legal residents have been held in military detention, those suspects got lighter sentences than they probably would have otherwise, Wittes says.

Graham has said he wants Tsarnaev held in military detention so the suspect won't "lawyer up." In other words, Graham would like to deprive Tsarnaev of his constitutional rights before he's even been charged with a crime, let alone convicted of one. 

"We live in a system where there's a Sixth Amendment," says Wittes. "There's a reason why we have that right, and I can't do anything about it and I don't want to."