How Does Anyone Protect themselves from Hacking

Little Rock   If we asked the question plainly: is there any way that we can be protected from hacking? The answer is likely either, “No,” or maybe more optimistically, “not completely.”

At some level this is a problem for everyone. Or at least everyone with access to the internet or perhaps a car or mobile phone or any number of other devices from household appliances to alarm systems to washing machines. Two consultants told a morbid joke among hackers that went like this: what is a self-driving car? Answer: a computer that can go 100 miles per hour. Working for various automobile companies they were fairly easily able to hack a car’s computer system and take over braking, steering and other functions.

The recent worldwide ransomware crisis that may have originated in North Korea, though no one seems positively sure, hit countries, businesses, and others, both high and low, for a potential take that, if fully paid, would have been close to half-a-billion dollars. The US and France have both identified hackers connected with Russia that have penetrated voting systems, though there is still no evidence that they actually tampered with voting. A brief period of inattention where you open a random email might introduce a virus that takes over your computer and compromises your email as we found in the trove of emails hacked from the Clinton campaign and then dumped into the middle of the political process.

Activists and organizers working in autocratic countries with fewer controls on the state are hugely at risk. In Egypt according to a report by The Economist, “nearly 100…hacking attempts” have been made “to gain information from some of the country’s most prominent NGOs and journalists.” There is a lucrative cottage industry of computer companies that sell spying and hacking services to Middle Eastern countries and others without robust local capacity. The Italian company, Hacking Team, was itself hacked in 2015, and it turned out they had contracts with Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. NGOs and others have tracked Fin-Fisher, a German outfit, to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Netsweeper, a Canadian company, won a $1.2 million contract from Bahrain that was disguised as a website solution contract, but seems to have been used to spy on dissidents. Citizen Lab, a renowned Canadian research institute that tracks these matters followed up on a UAE text message to a human-rights advocate there at his request and discovered the link was from NSO, an Israeli company in the spyware sales business with governments. Citizen Lab found software flaws that allowed NSO to turn an iPhone into a cyberweapon that may have cost as much as $1 million.

Meanwhile the ransomware crisis was the result of a hacked NSA tool, and NSA is now hoping for reauthorization of its phone spying, metadata operation in the USA. When the government is doing it, there’s no way to get governments to crackdown on the abuses. When techies are willing to sell back doors to anyone, locking the front door hardly matters.

For now, Moxie Marlinspike and face-to-face conversations seem like the only sure things out there, and the only one with a 100% guarantee is face-to-face. No sense in being paranoid, but you sure can’t be too careful. Oh, and speaking for the techno-peasants among us, do what I say, not what I do!

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New Orleans Monument Fight Triggers Newspaper Rich Spit Wars

Removable of Robert E Lee Statue at Lee Circle in New Orleans

New Orleans   One footnote of the fight to take down four racially divisive Civil War and segregation monuments in New Orleans, has been a seldom seen dogfight highlighting the divisions among the rich elites that are rarely publicly displayed in front of the city’s commoners. Locals might argue that too much has been said and written about the contrasts in leaders, ideology, and positions stated by the various sides publicly contending for prominence in the dispute. Most of that is just the usual bare knuckled grist for the mill of local issues and politics, but the “ad” war has brought a new dimension to this bizarre and overdue dismantling.

Mitch Landrieu, the Mayor of New Orleans, has obviously been the man in the middle of the monument dispute every bit as much as he has been the public leader who invested the greatest political capital in getting the job done over the last several years. The Landrieu name owns a rich political legacy in the city. Maurice “Moon” Landrieu was a transitional mayor in what had seemed the permanent exchange of power from white to black political leadership finally recognizing the emerging demographic majority of African-Americans moderating the tensions of the civil rights struggle by diversifying public employment practices and modernizing the city’s position in the South, while later serving nationally as Secretary of HUD and then retiring as a Louisiana elected appeals court judge. Mary Landrieu his daughter of course, served several terms until recently in the US Senate as a moderate Democrat. Mitch Landrieu before winning two terms as the first white mayor in New Orleans after a generation and losing a previous contest, had been Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana for several terms.

Outsiders would have thought just a strong political blood line would make the family immune from personal attack even when there were political disagreements, especially in a city like New Orleans that likes to only reveal the comings and goings of the rich elite in the stagedpageantry of Mardi Gras. As the monuments came down, so did the darker “uptown” veil. Frank Stewart, the former kingpin of Stewart Enterprises, and its efforts to build a national network of funeral homes, until its sale, has always been a crotchety conservative voice in business circles, but suddenly he was signing one and two full page ads in both of the local newspapers regularly attacking the Mayor, derisively calling him “Mitch” in the ads with ad hominem slaps at his monument positions as being nothing but ambition and opportunism. His inner bad dog was off the chain. As one monument after another came down and his pro-monument position was rendered increasingly impotent, it seemed to mainly loosen his checkbook to pen even lengthier, largely incoherent “letters to Mitch.” And, that’s not all. Some side swipes he took at John Cummings, rich lawyer and owner of the Whitney Plantation, which has become a well-regarded destination for many to learn about the impact of slavery, prompted Cummings to also take out a full-pager to defend his operation and family from Stewart’s claims he was just money grubbing. Pres Kabacoff, a local developer in an after the fact “letter to the editor,” felt it necessary to weight in.

Wow! Rarely do New Orleanians ever get to witness such a bizarre public revealing of the fissures of the local ruling class. The last time may have been when former Councilwoman Dorthy Taylor led the fight to integrate the Mardi Gras clubs forcing the big whoops to come plead their case in open hearings in council chambers.

Sadly, this is still all about race, more than class, and the roots of these divisions are not as old as the Civil War, but are certainly embedded in the civil rights and desegregation fights. Any rudimentary scrutiny of voting records in the precincts of Uptown New Orleans over many decades bares the continued grievance that the Landrieus somehow “sold out” the white elite. From Moon to Mary to Mitch, their political lives have depended on strong black majorities. Often they have lost or only narrowly carried a majority of white votes.

Stewart and the circle of friends, associates, and others in his echo chamber may continue to egg him on, but he’s not fighting the last battle of the Civil War, but the ongoing struggle around civil rights and equality for African-Americans. He and the many like him will lose this fight, just as they have had to watch the monuments come down, and they can shout their rationalizations as often as they want to pay for the newspaper ads, but, tragically, this an is uncivil war that will continue for many years to come.

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Melissa Harris-Perry’s Critique of the NAACP and Her Call for the “Bloody Years”

New Orleans   In a provocative, important, and much discussed op-ed in the New York Times, Melissa Perry-Harris, professor at Wake Forest, former television commentator, and widely regarded African-American public intellectual, jumped in feet first and fists swinging into the question of the NAACP’s board’s recent decision to change leadership to set itself on a more dynamic course in this age of Trump and in this challenging and activist time for the black population in America.

Her case rested on three points.   One, bemoaned the tediousness of the daily tasks of organization for a far flung, institution like the NAACP with a long and storied history. Another called for more activist and diverse leadership for the organization and in a larger way for the struggle itself.  Both of these points warrant serious discussion, and I’ll address them at a later time, but the more powerful and dramatic argument that Harris-Perry makes, which is the flash point for much of the attention it is getting, is her call for a renewed struggle evoking the “bloody years” of the civil rights struggle to be re-engaged now.

And, when she talks about the “bloody years,” this is not just a rhetorical flourish for her. The NAACP has had a mixed history over its 108 years, but she powerfully pulls up evidence of the terrible, racist killings of NAACP leaders, writing:

One night in June 1940, police in Brownsville, Tenn., dragged Elbert Williams from his bed, beat him, shot him in the chest and dumped him in the Hatchie River for the transgressions of helping to form a chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. and trying to register voters. On Christmas Day 1951, a Ku Klux Klan bomb ripped through the bedroom of Harry Moore, the director of the Florida N.A.A.C.P., killing him and his wife, Harriette. In June 1963, the white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith murdered Medgar Evers, a field secretary for the group, in the driveway of his home, in Jackson, Miss.

Make no mistake, Harris-Perry’s call to action goes way past the NAACP, broadly signally a call for more than mere picket lines and protest posters.  She is calling for a more visceral, face-to-face, confrontation and direct action which involves organizational and even personal risk.  She flatly argues that the NAACP, and by inference, other organizations committed to act for justice, social change, and racial equality, have to step aside or step up.  In her words, the NAACP,

… must be ready for a return to the bloody years. It must become radical and expect a time when people will be mocked and potentially even harmed simply for being aligned with it.  This will happen only if the organization commits itself to making substantive change that disrupts the balance of power for the most vulnerable.

 

Harris-Perry is asking everyone to take on some heavy weight now.  She’s unabashedly demanding a course correction.  This is not a North Carolina professor calling for a two-handed approach, either this or that.  This is not a call for simple resistance.  This is bold and has brass, so hear it clearly, because she’s really talking to all of us, not just the NAACP, and she’s saying we all “must be ready to return to the bloody years.”  We all “must become radical” and be ready to “be mocked and potentially harmed.”

She wants to move past debate.  Let’s see who answers the call.

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PriceCheck Tools Can Save Big Money on Health Costs

New Orleans   Recently I read a disturbing and powerful indictment of the cost and provision of health care, An American Sickness: How Health Became Big Business and How You Can Take it Back by former New York Times reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal. In devastating detail, she documented the wide variety of prices for basic and specialized medical procedures and drugs between hospitals in different cities, different countries, and within the same communities. Finishing the book, I couldn’t help but think about whether her work was citizen empowering or would simply be too complex and confusing for regular folks to sort out for themselves, especially when sick and fearful in the face of medical issues.

I am finding some comfort in reading that some local newspapers, including one of my own in New Orleans, The Times-Picayune, have gotten their arms around this problem in a very helpful way, that needs to be replicated everywhere. Working with Clear Health Costs, a new journalism enterprise based in New York City, they developed a tool they call PriceCheck. In a partnership, which also included the local Fox station, they launched with 700 prices from area outfits obtained in an initial survey. Subsequently, readers have crowd sourced another 700 prices from their own inquires and experience. All of that triggered, or perhaps shamed, providers into submitting another 2000 prices for common procedures

Obviously the news sources are heavily promoting their project, as rightly they should, and from the stories they report, it is having an impact.

Powerfully, they are collecting great first-person stories from people who have resisted predatory pricing from their own provider, gone to the online PriceCheck tool at www.NOLA.com/health or www.Fox8live.com/health and done their own comparison shopping to great advantage. One woman faced with an estimate for an MRI that was over $4000 used the tool to cancel that appointment and visit a local clinic for the same examination and only paid $672, saving thousands obviously. She was in good company as others were trying to also hold their providers accountable.

I found it interesting, and disturbing, that almost all of the reporters found almost all of the patients unwilling to reveal their names. Between the line that speaks to a fear of retaliation from medical facilities and professionals or of being black-balled for needed health care. Whatever happened to the dictate of the Hippocratic Oath for doctors to “do no harm?”

Not surprisingly, many institutions were resisting transparency and refusing to share pricing information with either their patients or the public. The privately operated Tulane Medical Center, an HCA facility, which at least used to stand for Hospital Corporation of America, in partnership with Tulane University, was militantly opposed and resisting. The Times-Picayunealso noted that the insurer Blue Cross/ Blue Shield was also resisting.

This is going to be a door-to-door dogfight, and as long as its each family facing off by itself against these huge institutions, the immediate odds are against them, no matter how many stories are in the news. Nonetheless these kinds of tools put bullets in a consumer’s gun, so let’s hope a thousand similar flowers bloom, so that consumers can vote with their feet and force prices to leave the stratosphere and come back to eye level.

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Technology in the Service of Social Change

Santa Cruz   I drove over the mountain, as they say in this area, and ended up on the top of a hill with a dramatic view of the valley and water, while visiting the stunning campus of the University of California at Santa Cruz. I was there to talk to students who are part of the Everett Program there, where ACORN is new partner, along with other nonprofits. My other motivation was an effort to get a better grip on what the program was all about, as a rookie to the enterprise.

I had gained some sense of the operation over the last year through a series of Skype calls and emails. We are fortunate to have three of the Everett Program students working with our organizers in Bengaluru, India this summer to help create a CiviCRM database for ACORN’s 35,000 member hawkers union there, so this also offered the opportunity to meet the interns face-to-face and shape the effectiveness of their upcoming two months in India with us.

The background I learned from the director, Chris Benner, and veteran staffer and organizer, Katie Roper, indicated that it had been a program for several decades at UC Santa Cruz, but has recently been expanding. Every fall, they begin with about 100 students and by the end of the spring quarter they have about 30 ready to embed in various projects. Historically a lot of the efforts have been California-based, so ACORN is a beneficiary of their growth and expanding vision. Being on the ground I was able to do an early pitch for a team in 2018 to work out of New Orleans to support the tech needs of our organizing both domestically and internationally, which was a nice piece of lagniappe.

Most interestingly was the opportunity to talk to the students for a minute and more importantly to hear their questions and get a feeling for what they were thinking. Spoiler alert: they have a foreboding sense of the world and how it views change and organizers who are part of that process.

Over the years I’ve talked to a lot of classes and groups of young people, but now in the Age of Trump and hyper-polarization,  I was still surprised when the first question asked me whether or not I had ever been threatened in the work and how frequently organizers were assaulted. Later in the session, another young woman asked a question that went to the heart of whether or not a young person in their early 20’s could even play a role in the work and whether or not it was worth the risk to jump into the struggle. At one level, this is encouraging. Young people are taking the temperature of the times, and learning that it’s not pretty out there with love, flowers, and constant applause. If these kinds of questions are any true sampling, they are less naive, and therefore will be better prepared, if they take the leap into the work, to weather the constant storms and flying brickbats. On the other level, it is worrisome whether in these beautiful, redwood towers, people might feel intimidated and fearful of taking the plunge to work in the hardscrabble countrysides and mean streets of the city.

We need an active army of organizers and people ready to work in the allied trades, and that was my message: there’s a role for all of you, but everyone has to put their shoulder to the wheel and help to win the fight in this struggle. I hope they heard me. We need their help.

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Tech Monopolies are Getting Like Airlines in Disregard for Consumers

New Orleans   The current global ransomware hack impacting 74 countries could gross the bad guys up to $3 billion, experts say. A couple of intrepid computer guys, one in Britain and another in the US, thwarted the hacking temporarily in a couple of lucky moves, reportedly. Many believe its impact will continue to be felt as more computers fire up this week.

Digging deeper it turns out once the finger pointing starts that computers are susceptible when they are not updated. A kneejerk reaction is to say, whoops, someone got lazy here or there, but it’s more complicated. Much of it has to do with the business model of Microsoft and the rest of the tech monopolies. They discontinued “supporting,” which really means fixing, Microsoft XP, so if you were a huge outfit that had paid them millions for XP, like FedEx or the British National Health Service, if you didn’t move all of your thousands of computers over to whatever their latest product was, then you were a sitting duck.

Anyone who has a computer operating on Microsoft Windows has mixed feelings about the way they do these updates. On Windows 7, the number of times I might wake up and find that overnight my computer had been updated without so much as a nevermind, and I had lost whatever websites were on my browser for study or had to recover Word and Excel files endlessly, there was time lost and cursing involved. Then in an update recently my computer was caught in an endless update cycle until Windows 10 was installed, their latest shot at the world, forcing me to start all over on everything. Suddenly, 10 doesn’t recognize my camera, and it won’t let me send emails from a right-click from my Passport or tape recorder. They do kind of let you schedule updates, but it’s all brute force. Bottom line, it’s easy to imagine tech departments in a lot of big shops, deciding to pick and choose and turn off updates until they are good and ready, but the notion that Microsoft can sell a product and then stop supporting it is absurd. When my car breaks, GM and Ford will still have the parts and fix it, regardless of how old my vehicle or how many miles I have on it.

Apple is certainly no better, and possibly worse. I’m still trying to figure out how to recover all my iTunes that are supposedly on their cloud, but now they are claiming they don’t recognize any of my passwords, and don’t email me a the protocol for a new one. A friend lost all of what they had on their iPod when they got a different computer. I have the same old, beat-up computer, but I’m in a new world. Google…hmm… maybe better but trying to get on their Project Fi phone program for international calls, they didn’t ever say exactly that the version of the phone it accepted has an X on it, and won’t take any responsibility. Wonder why so many people buy stuff from Amazon, they actually refund on mistakes and have some customer service.

So, hey, we’re all on computers, and we’re all vulnerable, and a lot of us are techno-peasants, and I’ll admit it, so we’re going to mess up, but these huge tech monopolies are treating us like cattle, rather than customers, and that’s going to mean more worldwide computer meltdowns. Don’t blame the victims, and be careful even on the criminals, because the tech monopolies are creating and enabling these disasters.

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