There’s a Secret Patriot Act, Senator Says

By Spencer Ackerman

You think you understand how the Patriot Act allows the government to spy on its citizens. Sen. Ron Wyden says it’s worse than you know.

Congress is set to reauthorize three controversial provisions of the surveillance law as early as Thursday. Wyden (D-Oregon) says that powers they grant the government on their face, the government applies a far broader legal interpretation — an interpretation that the government has conveniently classified, so it cannot be publicly assessed or challenged. But one prominent Patriot-watcher asserts that the secret interpretation empowers the government to deploy ”dragnets” for massive amounts of information on private citizens; the government portrays its data-collection efforts much differently.

“We’re getting to a gap between what the public thinks the law says and what the American government secretly thinks the law says,” Wyden told Danger Room in an interview in his Senate office. “When you’ve got that kind of a gap, you’re going to have a problem on your hands.”

What exactly does Wyden mean by that? As a member of the intelligence committee, he laments that he can’t precisely explain without disclosing classified information. But one component of the Patriot Act in particular gives him immense pause: the so-called “business-records provision,” which empowers the FBI to get businesses, medical offices, banks and other organizations to turn over any “tangible things” it deems relevant to a security investigation.

“It is fair to say that the business-records provision is a part of the Patriot Act that I am extremely interested in reforming,” Wyden says. “I know a fair amount about how it’s interpreted, and I am going to keep pushing, as I have, to get more information about how the Patriot Act is being interpreted declassified. I think the public has a right to public debate about it.”

That’s why Wyden and his colleague Sen. Mark Udall offered an amendment on Tuesday to the Patriot Act reauthorization.

The amendment, first reported by Marcy Wheeler, blasts the administration for “secretly reinterpret[ing] public laws and statutes.” It would compel the Attorney General to “publicly disclose the United States Government’s official interpretation of the USA Patriot Act.” And, intriguingly, it refers to “intelligence-collection authorities” embedded in the Patriot Act that the administration briefed the Senate about in February.

Wyden says he “can’t answer” any specific questions about how the government thinks it can use the Patriot Act. That would risk revealing classified information — something Wyden considers an abuse of government secrecy. He believes the techniques themselves should stay secret, but the rationale for using their legal use under Patriot ought to be disclosed.

“I draw a sharp line between the secret interpretation of the law, which I believe is a growing problem, and protecting operations and methods in the intelligence area, which have to be protected,” he says.

Surveillance under the business-records provisions has recently spiked. The Justice Department’s official disclosure on its use of the Patriot Act, delivered to Congress in April, reported that the government asked the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for approval to collect business records 96 times in 2010 — up from just 21 requests the year before. The court didn’t reject a single request. But it “modified” those requests 43 times, indicating to some Patriot-watchers that a broadening of the provision is underway.

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How Will States Tax Internet Downloads? Congress May Decide

By Matthew Lasar

Here’s an interesting conundrum, posed by Representative Dennis Ross (R-Florida), at a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing held on Monday:

“Imagine you are sitting in Dulles airport in Virginia, waiting for a flight back to Florida,” Ross began in his opening remarks. “You download a music file from Apple, which is headquartered in California. The music is sent to you via a server in Oklahoma.”

Which of these states should be allowed to tax the sale?

Without a “clear national rule,” he warned at the hearing, “all four states may attempt to tax the transaction.”

And so Congress is considering one such national standard: HR 1860, the Digital Goods and Services Tax Fairness Act of 2011. Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas) submitted the bill to the Judiciary committee two weeks ago. A similar law sponsored by Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) awaits consideration in the Senate.

The crux of the legislation centers around this sentence: “No State or local jurisdiction shall impose multiple or discriminatory taxes on or with respect to the sale or use of digital goods or digital services.”

The bill defines a “discriminatory tax” as a tax imposed by a State or local jurisdiction at a higher rate than “is generally imposed on or with respect to the sale or use of tangible personal property or of similar services that are not provided electronically.”

A “multiple tax” is defined as one in which that State or locality “gives no credit with respect to a tax that was previously paid on or with respect to the sale or use of such digital good or digital service to another State or local jurisdiction.”

Then come more specific limits on taxation. Any tax on the sale of digital goods and services can only be imposed on the state and its localities “whose territorial limits encompass the customer’s tax address.” This is understood as the address that the customer offered and which the seller received in good faith.

This legislation is strongly supported by the Download Fairness Coalition, which, not coincidentally, describes itself as “a partnership of businesses, associations, and consumers who have joined together to prevent multiple and discriminatory taxation of digital goods.”

The Coalition includes Apple, Time Warner Cable, Comcast, Verizon and, most notably, Amazon. The last mentioned company has been famously at odds with various states over taxes for years.

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EPA Ditches letter grade for MPG ratings, put $$$ up front

By Christopher DeMorro

I think we can all agree that nobody wants to be reminded of high school when trying to determine the fuel efficiency of a new car. Thankfully the EPA has yanked the letter grades and replaced it with dollar signs.

The new mpg system will be applied to all 2013 model year cars. Before I go further, I will say that the EPA has quite the task ahead of them, trying to figure out a ratings system that fits a variety of new cars and technologies, from pure electrics extended-range plug-in hybrids to mild hybrids. Not an easy task to be sure, and such information can only be presented a certain way as to remain objective. The letter grading system was not objective, no matter which way you cut it. It was just an awful idea from beginning to end, and if you really want to sell green, you’ve got to put the cost savings up front and center.

The new rating system provides several critical information points up front and center, including how far a full charge is estimated to take you, how long the battery takes to charge and, most importantly, how much money this car will save you compared to the “average” car. I took a look at the fine print, which says that the formula will be based on fuel price projections put out by the U.S. Energy Information Administration every year and a 15,000 miles of driving annually. It also will include an app and smartphone scanner so you can compare one car to another.

Story Continues -> EPA Ditches letter grade for MPG ratings, put $$$ up front

Senate votes down bill to end oil company subsidies, see how they voted and who gets oil money

by Autoblog Staff

As expected, a Democratic bill that would have put an end to the multi-billion-dollar annual tax subsidies for oil companies Chevron, Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil failed to overcome a Republican filibuster on Tuesday evening. The heavily partisan 52-in-favor, 48-against vote fell eight shy of the 60 required to bring the bill to the floor.

If passed, the bill would have eliminated $12 billion in subsidies for production of oil within the U.S. and cut $6 billion in credits for taxes that oil companies pay to foreign governments. Finally, the bill would have put an end to oil companies writing off some drilling and development costs.

According to the Huffington Post, Republicans say that the bill unfairly singles out oil companies and would hinder their ability to hire American workers, thus leading to reduced oil production and increased dependence on foreign oil. Democrats argue that subsidies are unnecessary given that oil companies typically report profits in the multi-billion dollar range.

Three Democrats – Mary Landrieu (D-LA, pictured), Mark Begich (D-AK), and Ben Nelson (D-NE) – voted with Republicans to maintain the subsidies, while Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Susan Collins (R-ME) sided with the Democrats.

As this chart – based on data from the Center for Responsive Politics– shows, the 48 senators who voted with the oil industry received over $21 million in oil-related contributions, while the 52 senators who voted to eliminate subsidies received a mere $5.4 million. Looks like money talks.

[Source: Talking Points Memo, The Huffington Post | Images: Kris Connor/Getty]

Senate votes down bill to end oil company subsidies, see how they voted and who gets oil money

China Shuts Down 1,611 Illegal Coal Mines

BEIJING — China has shut down more than 1,600 small, illegal coal mines this year as part of an effort to improve safety standards in a mining industry that is the most dangerous in the world.

The state-backed People”s Daily newspaper reported Thursday that 1,611 small mines across China with outdated facilities were closed this year, citing the National Energy Bureau.

More than 2,600 people died in mining accidents in China last year, though deaths have decreased in recent years as the government increased safety inspections and shut down illegal mines.

In October, the State Administration of Work Safety said mine managers and bosses who do not accompany workers down into mine shafts would be severely punished.

Government uses social networking to infiltrate people''s lives

By David Gomez

As part of a lawsuit against half a dozen federal agencies, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)  has obtained chilling documents that reveal how the government routinely monitors people online.

According to an EFF blog post, government officials have been using surveillance of social networks to investigate citizenship petitions and the Department of Homeland Security established a “Social Networking Monitoring Cente” to collect and analyze online public communication during President Obama’s inauguration.

In the information the EFF received, there is a memo (dated May 2008) by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services entitled “Social Networking Sites and Their Importance to FDNS” (Office of Fraud Detection and National Security).

This memo is disturbing because of the assumptions the government makes about people who use social networking. The government uses deception to friend people with pending applications for citizenship in the US, and then they use social networking to gather information about that person’s life.

Their hope is to catch people engaged in lying to USCIS. They want to catch people whose relationships might not live up to the USCIS standard of a legitimate marriage. So while using social networking to expose people who scam the system isn’t an act of pure evil, it does make one suspicious of government monitoring of social networking.

This memo makes no mention of how solid the government’s information on a person has to be before surveillance is conducted. This makes is seem as if everyone who uses social networking is a potential target for spying. It also doesn’t say if the government officials who make friend requests to the people they want to spy on actually have to admit their connection to the government.

Based on the memo it would be easy for the government to use social networking to spy not only on individuals who have a citizenship application pending, but their friends and families also.

The EFF also received another bit of information in the form of some slides from a presentation about the Department of Homeland Security starting a Social Networking Monitoring Center. SNMC was created before President Obama’s inauguration to monitor social networking sites for so-called “items of interest.”

The slides describe the tremendous amount of information that DHS collected from social networking sites about people who have accounts. As you might have guessed, nearly every popular form of social networking is being watched.

SNMN goes a bit further than just profiling general social networking sites. They have also been targeting sites with a specific demographic as well. Sites like MiGente and BlackPlanet have been subjected to government profiling as well as political sites like DailyKos.

The slides released to the EFF suggest that the government was collecting information on social networking tied to political events and people’s political beliefs prior to and during the president’s inauguration.

And while the slides attempt to minimize the action of collecting of “Personally Identifiable Information,” it also says “openly divulged information excluding PII will be used for future corroboration purposes and trend analysis during the Inauguration period.”

So, yeah, it’s kind of hard to understand based on the contradictory language in the slides, when the government keeps and deletes certain personal information obtained from social networking.

While some people will gripe and defend the government’s recently revealed activities; the language in the government documents is too unclear to justify any kind of monitoring of social networks.

The thin line between evil spying and government protection is getting erased by this type of activity. The EFF shouldn’t have to file a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit just to find out that the government is sitting around taking copious notes about Facebook and Twitter.

Why all the secrecy over the last few years?

Japan Wants To Sell Energy-Efficient ''Smart'' Cities To The World: Ceatec 2010


CHIBA, Japan — There were gadgets and robots galore at Japan”s premier electronics show this week. But one of the biggest attractions wasn”t anything you could touch – an energy efficient city of the future.

For the first time, the Combined Exhibition of Advanced Technologies, better known as Ceatec, devoted one area of the show floor to selling a vision of urban life in 2020 and beyond.

The Japanese version of the so-called “smart city” exists in a post-fossil fuel world. Alternative sources like the sun, wind and nuclear power are harnessed in mass quantities. That power is then distributed to buildings, homes and electric cars connected to each other through “smart grids,” which monitor usage throughout the network to maximize efficiency.

The goal is to drastically cut carbon emissions, which many scientists believe cause global warming – ideally to zero. The bigger dream is for the smart city to become Japan”s next big export, fueling new growth and ambition at a time when the country finds itself in an economic rut and eclipsed by China as the world”s second-biggest economy behind the U.S.

The city of Yokohama, just southwest of Tokyo, is the site of a social and infrastructure experiment to create a smart city for the rest of the world to emulate. Launched this year, the “Yokohama Smart City Project” is a five-year pilot program with a consortium of seven Japanese companies – Nissan Motor Co., Panasonic Corp., Toshiba Corp., Tokyo Electric Power Co., Tokyo Gas Co., Accenture”s Japan unit and Meidensha Corp.

“We want to build a social model to take overseas,” said Masato Nobutoki, the executive director of Yokohama”s Climate Change Policy Headquarters, during a keynote event at Ceatec this week. “Yokohama is a place where foreign cultures entered Japan 150 years ago and then spread to the rest of the country.”

Now, he said, it”s where the best of Japan is converging, preparing for launch to the wider world.

Japan certainly isn”t the only country working on smart grids.

Australia has committed $100 million and is developing its first commercial-scale smart grid in Newcastle, a city a New South Wales state. South Korea is embarking on a $200 billion smart grid project on Jeju Island as part of efforts to cut national energy consumption by 3 percent by the year 2030. China is expected to invest a world leading $7.3 billion toward smart grids and related technologies in 2010, ahead of Washington”s $7.1 billion in Department of Energy grants, according to market research firm Zpryme.

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Zpryme estimates that the global smart grid market will be worth $171.4 billion in four years, up sharply from $69.3 billion in 2009.

On Tuesday, Toyota Motor Corp. separately announced the launch of its own home smart grid system in Japan to coincide with its plug-in hybrid cars going on sale in early 2012.

Called the Toyota Smart Center, it calculates the most efficient way of using energy, eliminating waste by shutting off gadgets when they aren”t being used and maximizing the recharging benefits of hybrids, which recharge as they run. Utilities can also be used when rates are cheapest such as overnight to heat stored water.

With competition heating up and so much business at stake, Japan is hoping to aggressively court customers overseas, especially in emerging economies, with not only its vision but also its long-standing reputation for reliability and quality.

If it”s all a little hard to imagine, Nissan was offering a peek into the future at Ceatec. The centerpiece of the automaker”s pavilion was a 3-D theater with a 275-inch screen giving viewers a virtual reality drive through a “near future” Yokohama. The virtual city tour will be replicated for leaders from around Asia when they gather in Yokohama next month for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings.

“We need to turn talk into reality,” said Minoru Shinohara, senior vice president for technology development at Nissan, which will begin selling its Leaf electric car in December.

“If all we do is talk, I have a great fear that we will be surpassed,” said Shinohara.