Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Independent Review of NSA Surveillance Not 'Independent'

A panel of so-called independent experts appointed by President Obama to review the federal government's surveillance programs "has effectively been operating as an arm of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the NSA and all other U.S. spy efforts," according to a report from the Associated Press. AP writes:

 The panel's advisers work in offices on loan from the DNI. Interview requests and press statements from the review panel are carefully coordinated through the DNI's press office. James Clapper, the intelligence director, exempted the panel from U.S. rules that require federal committees to conduct their business and their meetings in ways the public can observe. Its final report, when it's issued, will be submitted for White House approval before the public can read it.

 Even though no classified information has been discussed, the meetings have remained closed, and the press office for the DNI said that Clapper exempted the review panel from the Federal Advisory Committee Act due to the "highly classified nature of their review." The office also told the AP that, "We are conducting this review as openly and transparently as possible." In one meeting, representatives from tech giants including Microsoft and Apple advocated for more permission to be open with their users.

Read More at: The Atlantic

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The American Public's Foreign-Policy Reawakening

Political analysts over the next year or so, and historians well into the future, are likely to point to the fall of 2013 as a fundamental inflection point in American politics. That period, they will say, is when the American people forced a major new direction in American foreign policy. Before the events of this fall, the country’s electorate largely delegated foreign policy to its political elite—and largely supported that elite as it projected American military power with more abandon than the country had ever before seen. Even as the government steadfastly expanded the range of international problems that it said required U.S. military action, the electorate accepted that expanded international role and that increasingly promiscuous use of force.
Those days are gone now. The American people conveyed emphatically, in public opinion surveys and in communications to their representatives in Washington, that they did not want their country to launch air strikes against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Not even if Assad used chemical weapons against his people, as they generally believe he did. Not even if the strikes are limited in magnitude and duration, as Obama promises they will be. Not even if the president of the United States says the strikes are in the country’s national interest. They don’t buy it, and they don’t want it.
Poll numbers in recent days have demonstrated this turnaround in stark fashion. In addition, congressional reluctance to support the president’s authorization request was growing inexorably. The New York Times reported Tuesday that the president was "losing ground in both parties in recent days," while the Wall Street Journal said support for Mr. Obama’s position on Syria "was slipping in Congress." If Russia’s Vladimir Putin hadn’t interrupted the U.S. political process with his call for a negotiated end to Assad’s possession of chemical weapons, it seems inevitable that the president would have suffered a devastating political defeat in Congress. That’s still the likely outcome if it ever comes to a vote.
And there’s no doubt that his difficulties in Congress are driven in part by recent poll numbers, which are startling. Gallup reported recently, based on polling between September 3-4, that American support for the Syria attack was the lowest at this stage in a prospective military action seen over the past twenty years—36 percent, compared to 59 percent for the 2003 Iraq invasion, 82 percent for the initial Afghanistan action in 2001, 62 percent for the Persian Gulf War of 1991 and 43 percent for the Kosovo bombing of 1999.
But the 36 percent support number in the Gallup poll quickly was overtaken by lower numbers in subsequent polls. A later CNN poll showed that nearly 70 percent of respondents believed it wasn’t in the U.S. interest to get involved in Syria’s civil war, and a slightly higher percentage said airstrikes wouldn’t achieve any significant goals for the United States. A Reuters/Ipsos poll from September 5-9 pegged support for U.S. involvement in Syria at just 16 percent, down from 20 percent just a week earlier.
In a survey reported in Tuesday’s New York Times, the paper asked broader questions about American foreign policy, and the results were revealing. Fully 62 percent of respondents said the United States shouldn’t take a leading role in trying to solve foreign conflicts, while only 34 percent said it should. On a question whether the United States should intervene to turn dictatorships into democracies, 72 percent said no. Only 15 percent said yes. The Times said that represents the highest level of opposition recorded by the paper in various polls over the past decade.
To understand the significance of these numbers, along with the political pressures building on lawmakers on the issue, it’s important to note that American political sentiment doesn’t change willy-nilly, for no reason. What we’re seeing is the emergence within the American political consciousness of a sense that the country’s national leaders have led it astray on foreign policy. And, given the country’s foreign-policy history of the past two decades, it isn’t surprising that the people would begin to nudge their leaders with a certain amount of agitation.
They were told in late 1992 that the U.S. incursion into Somalia was for the benign purpose of merely feeding starving people. A year later that adventure ended in a disaster for America and a major embarrassment for President Bill Clinton, who had expanded the Somalia mission. The American people were told they had to invade Iraq because it had weapons of mass destruction and serious ties to Al Qaeda. Neither was true. They were told that the Iraqi people would embrace some form of Western-style democracy once Saddam Hussein was out of the way. Didn’t happen. They were told that Hosni Mubarak’s departure in Egypt would lead to the emergence of democratic institutions there. They got, first, an Islamist government through election, then another military coup of the kind that has characterized that country and region for decades. They were told the Libyan people would be better off without Muammar el-Qaddafi, and the result was societal chaos, with Qaddafi’s weapons streaming into the hands of Islamist radicals (and being used against U.S. diplomatic personnel). They were told to embrace "globalization," and it led to the worst economic dislocation since the Great Depression.
In other words, the country’s elites—of both political parties and across the political spectrum—have been wrong on just about everything they have done since the end of the Cold War. And the voters, as a collective, aren’t stupid. They know that these fiascos have been the products of particular philosophical concepts that have emerged since the beginning of America’s "unipolar moment" around 1990.
They may not understand these philosophical concepts in all their complexities and nuances, but they know the Republican neoconservatives and the Democratic humanitarians have been driving the agenda.
Thus, you can look now for the American people to take back the agenda. When this sort of voter clawback occurs in American politics, as it has from time to time, you see it first in the polls, then in defensive congressional actions, and then in voter punishment directed at those who can’t seem to get the message. It’s going to be an interesting time in the politics of American foreign policy over the next few years.

Americans Must Sacrifice Some Security for Freedom

Gen. Keith Alexander, NSA Director // Jeff Chiu/AP File Photo
By Bruce Schneier
The Atlantic

Leaks from the whistleblower Edward Snowden have catapulted the NSA into newspaper headlines and demonstrated that it has become one of the most powerful government agencies in the country. From the secret court rulings that allow it collect data on all Americans to its systematic subversion of the entire Internet as a surveillance platform, the NSA has amassed an enormous amount of power.

There are two basic schools of thought about how this came to pass. The first focuses on the agency’s power. Like J. Edgar Hoover, NSA Director Keith Alexander has become so powerful as to be above the law. He is able to get away with what he does because neither political party -- and nowhere near enough individual lawmakers -- dare cross him. Longtime NSA watcher James Bamford recently quoted a CIA official: “We jokingly referred to him as Emperor Alexander -- with good cause, because whatever Keith wants, Keith gets.”

Possibly the best evidence for this position is how well Alexander has weathered the Snowden leaks. The NSA’s most intimate secrets are front-page headlines, week after week. Morale at the agency is in shambles. Revelation after revelation has demonstrated that Alexander has exceeded his authority, deceived Congress, and possibly broken the law. Tens of thousands of additional top-secret documents are still waiting to come. Alexander has admitted that he still doesn’t know what Snowden took with him and wouldn’t have known about the leak at all had Snowden not gone public. He has no idea who else might have stolen secrets before Snowden, or who such insiders might have provided them to. Alexander had no contingency plans in place to deal with this sort of security breach, and even now -- four months after Snowden fled the country -- still has no coherent response to all this.

For an organization that prides itself on secrecy and security, this is what failure looks like. It is a testament to Alexander’s power that he still has a job.

The second school of thought is that it’s the administrations’ fault -- not just the present one, but the most recent several. According to this theory, the NSA is simply doing its job. If there’s a problem with the NSA’s actions, it’s because the rules it’s operating under are bad. Like the military, the NSA is merely an instrument of national policy. Blaming the NSA for creating a surveillance state is comparable to blaming the U.S. military for the conduct of the Iraq war. Alexander is performing the mission given to him as best he can, under the rules he has been given, with the sort of zeal you’d expect from someone promoted into that position. And the NSA’s power predated his directorship.

Read More at: The Atlantic

Friday, September 6, 2013

NSA Has Backdoors in Commercial Products

New IRS Rule Counts Automatic Tips As Income

An updated tax rule is causing restaurants to rethink the practice of adding automatic tips to the tabs of large parties.  Starting in January 2014, the Internal Revenue Service will begin classifying those automatic gratuities as a service charge.

What most people don't know is that restaurants pay their staff around $4 or less per hour.  Tips or "gratuities" are allowed by law to make up the difference to the minimum wage.  Restaurants, no matter what you receive in tips for the day, will add your tips to your income earned for the day (based on sales) to ensure you make minimum wage.  No, that does not mean they actually pay you, the restaurant "assumes" you've earned the difference.  Yes, those coupons and early bird special hurt.  Currently, restaurants are required to report to the IRS what its employees report receiving for tips and to pay Medicare and Social Security taxes on those amounts.  Naturally, restaurants are able to save millions collectively on payroll and income taxes.  Servers, at least at the expensive places, can earn quite a bit and avoid the tax man on a good portion...assuming they aren't completely honest.

Restaurants in many European countries pay their staff full wages.  Tips are a Euro or two in German, 20-20 cents in Belgium, and a Euro at most in Austria....just enough to round up.  That's a win-win for everyone involved.  The staff get paid a steady wage, with extra for a good job...plus there is no rushing you out the door so they can get the next table seated.  Put the bill on the table before the customer has asked for it is liable to get you yelled at.

What gets this authors goat is the automatic tip added to the bill if you have, generally, six or more people at the table.  Frankly, when that happens I don't give my usual 20%.  I do that on principle.  Restaurants supposedly adopted automatic gratuities to help ensure that their servers weren't stiffed on large tabs, which I frankly doubt.  Most business adopt policies to help themselves, not their employees. But the new IRS ruling (from 2012) is getting frosty support from many servers and restaurants who don't like the idea of tips being treated as wages.  Wages requires upfront withholding of federal taxes, and that money will have to be paid out on a payday vs. in cash that day.  Likewise, restaurants will have to pay additional income, social security, medicare and other taxes on those wages.

The IRS ruling was issued in 2012 to clarify earlier tax guidance on tips, and note how automatic tips were to be treated.  The updated rule says the automatic tips are service charges because they aren't voluntary. However, the IRS did say that suggesting different tip amounts isn't subject to federal withholding because the customer is still free to choose whether and how much to tip.

Personally, I want tips eliminated altogether.  Let the restaurants pay a wage like any other business.  If I choose to leave an extra few dollars for outstanding service, then that should be my choice, not a social obligation.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

HDMI 2.0 officially announced

HDMI 2.0 officially announced and bringing you 18Gbps bandwidth, 60fps 4K, 32 channel audio.  Shortly after the new specs leaked out, the HDMI Licensing group are announcing HDMI 2.0 officially.  This announcement arrives just in time for the rollout of a new generation of Ultra HDTVs, adding key capabilities to the HDMI connection standard. The bandwidth capacity of up to 18Gbps, has enough bandwidth to carry 3,840 x 2,160 resolution video at up to 60fps, and 32 audio channels. 

Fortunately, the connector's shape has not changed. allowing for backwards compatibility with previous HDMI connectors.  This may disappoint those hoping for a sturdier socket to help support those suddenly-popular dongles. The cables will also remain the same, as the group states that the current version of high-speed Category 2 wires can handle the increased bandwidth.  
The HDMI Forum has listed additional specs in its FAQ, including that HDMI 2.0 is able to handle up to 1536kHz audio sample frequency, dual video streams for multiple users on a single screen, multi-stream audio up to 4 users at once and support for 21:9 widescreen displays.