Author: Danielle Citron

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Keeping Track of Domestic Violence Abusers

120px-Old_bracelets_%28aka%29.jpgHawaii, Michigan, and other states now permit courts to grant protective orders requiring domestic violence abusers to wear GPS devices that would notify authorities and victims of an abuser’s whereabouts. In some states such as Illinois, the device would let the victim know if the defendant is within a certain distance from the victim’s home or work. Such protective orders have great potential to prevent or stop abuse–abusers often target victims at their workplaces. Some domestic violence advocates worry that the technology may give victims a false sense of security because technology is, of course, imperfect. A GPS system does a victim little good if a system provides notice of an offender’s location via cell phone and the victim has traveled to a spot with no cell service and the offender is too close to the victim to allow the authorities to come to her aid before the offender strikes. Aside from technical difficulties, victims surely leave their home and work areas and thus would be unprotected if the GPS device only notifies victims when an offender has traveled within the zone of exclusion, i.e., the victim’s home and work. Nonetheless, the use of a GPS system could play an important role in a larger effort to deter domestic violence. Harvard’s Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Journal has devoted scholarly attention to the issue that is worth serious study.

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The Bionic Eye

120px-Brushfield.jpgAccording to Government Technology, engineers at the University of Washington have developed contact lenses with integrated circuitry. Although the lenses have only been tested on animals, researchers are working on having electronic lenses overlay a display over a person’s visual field without impairing sight. Researchers hope that the lenses, once completed, will allow users to zoom in on distant objects and see useful facts. Future applications might allow drivers and pilots to see their direction and speed projected across their view or to surf the Web without a monitor. The circuit components would be powered by integrated solar cells and a wireless radio-frequency receiver.

Electronic contacts lenses gives rise to interesting questions about their potential use. Could a zoom function and connection to the Net allow drivers to record and transmit the license plates of reckless drivers to insurance companies and local police? Lior Strahilevitz’s superb article “‘How’s My Driving’ for Everyone (and Everything?)” contemplated the use of technologies to report driver misconduct to assist the police in combating dangerous driving, reduce information assymetries in the insurance market, improve the tort system, and alleviate driver frustration over the current feeling of helplessness in the face of reckless driving. As the article demonstrates, the virtual anonymity of drivers magnifies dangerous behavior on the road because drivers do not suffer social disapproval for poor driving and have a profound sense that they will never get caught. These lenses could fundamentally alter that sense of anonymity on the road and could deter antisocial behavior. The bionic eye could play an important role in altering behavior and may raise privacy concerns worth discussing.

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Social Pressure for a Green Good (and Perhaps Red, White, and Blue Too)

According to this month’s Scientific American, academics at UCLA have found that peer pressure does a better job of motivating people to conserve resources than do standard environmental messages. In an experiment, researchers presented two different signs to hotel guests: one had a typical conservation message and the other told guests that most of their fellow travelers had reused towels. The study found that the social-norm message worked 25% better than the generic environmental message in convincing guests to reuse their towels. It also found that telling guests that those who had stayed in same room had reused their towels worked even better than saying that other guests at the same hotel had done so.

Crowd motivation seemed at work yesterday as well. According to The New York Times, recent studies attribute our drive to cast a ballot to the desire to see ourselves as the kind of people who vote. In other words, we vote to maintain our moral self-image. This desire seemingly operates internally and externally. We vote because we want to feel good ourselves and because we want others to feel good about us too. Hence, so many kept on their “I Voted!” stickers throughout the day. As the UCLA study suggests, those “I Voted!” stickers likely motivated others to head to the polls, especially if they were worn by colleagues and friends. Although the heavy turn out was no doubt due to the historic nature of the race–an African American candidate (now President elect)–and the unbelievably high stakes given our economy and the war, it also created a contagion of the greatest kind, one that was red, white, and blue.

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Predictably Irrational

89px-Woody_Allen_%282006%29.jpgAs our readers at CoOp know well, my posts have highlighted concerns about the accuracy and security of our e-voting machines. See here, here, here, and here. My rational self thus tells me that the e-voting technology sitting in my precinct is problematic, plain and simple. With this in mind, I should have put my memory card into the Premier (formerly Diebold) voting machine with dread. I should have felt despair. But, truth be told, once I had touched the screen eleven times to cast my choices for the Presidential ticket, a Congressional race, local judges and numerous ballot initiatives and pressed enter (or something like that), I was filled with joy. The final screen told me that my ballots had been cast–and, in that moment, I believed. Behavioral economists unquestionably know of which they speak–optimism bias is a powerful thing. But now, as Alvy Singer told Annie Hall’s brother, it is time for me to return to planet earth.

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Certification of Voting Machines: Little Reassurance to Voters

120px-Ecounting-scanning3.jpgElection officials try to alleviate voters’ concerns about the reliability of e-voting machines with the following refrain: labs ran our machines through rigorous testing and certified them as reliable and safe. But, of course, those officials fail to explain that many of the e-voting machines in use today were certified by labs whose credibility has been seriously called into question. The Election Assistance Commission has just suspended SysTest Labs, a company that tested and certified voting machines since 2001, due to their “failure to conform to procedures and requirements set by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.” According to the EAC, SysTest failed to create and validate testing methods, maintain proper documentation of its testing, and employ properly trained or qualified personnel. The key question is really: if all of that is true, what did the testing lab do at all?

To add to voters’ worries, another lab involved in testing today’s e-voting equipment, CIBER, similarly faced suspension by the EAC in January 2007 due to its lax oversight of vendors’ e-voting systems. And even long before CIBER’s suspension, it was roundly criticized for its security and reliability problems. (CIBER appears to be back in the testing game, along with three other companies).

All of this suggests that the certification of these machines should give us little comfort–two of the four testing labs that certified the software running our voting machines were less than reliable. Moreover, as for all of the e-voting machines that we will use on Tuesday, vendors paid for the testing labs’ services and the certification reports were never released to the public, raising concerns about the lack of impartiality of all of the testing labs.

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Fairfax on Gambling

Lisa Fairfax at the Conglomerate has a thoughtful post on state ballot initiatives to legalize gambling. She writes:

“[T]his election day, voters in several states will be considering ballot initiatives involving gambling or lotteries. Indeed, my own state of Maryland has proposed such an initiative, which would add a new constitutional amendment approving up to 15,000 “video lottery terminals” in five locations throughout the state. Like other states, Maryland’s initiative aims to raise money to cover its significant budget shortfall—a shortfall of about $430 million. As one can imagine, these initiatives have sparked considerable debate, and that debate seems to be heightened when viewed in the context of the current financial and economic crisis.

Proponents of the Maryland measure contend that the initiative could potentially raise $600 million, a significant portion of which would go to fund public education. From this perspective, in a time when states are strapped for cash and thus not only have had to increase taxes, but also have had to take measures such as slashing budgets and instituting hiring freezes and/or mandatory furloughs, it is hard to argue with a proposal designed to inject $600 million into the state’s coffers. As the Baltimore Sun noted in its recent endorsement of the measure, while raising revenue from gambling is not ideal, it may be better than the alternative choices of higher taxes or allowing public education and health care to suffer if budget cuts continue unabated. Proponents also point out that many Marylanders travel out of state to nearby states like Delaware or West Virginia where gambling is allowed, and hence we might as well enable these Marylanders to spend those funds in their own state.

Opponents first question whether gambling initiatives can be counted on to raise significant revenue. Given recent reports indicating that revenue has fallen sharply in many casinos, this is not an idle question. These reports reflect the reality that people no longer have discretionary funds to spend on activities like gambling. Then too, opponents insist that gambling has costly secondary effects because, as studies suggest, it is addictive, leads to increased alcoholism and otherwise negatively impacts other businesses and the surrounding community. Moreover, opponents express concern that gambling measures will prove especially harmful to lower class communities, imposing what some describe as a regressive tax on those communities. Again, such an argument has particular salience in these economic times. Indeed, if more people are living paycheck to paycheck, can or should we pin even part of our economic recovery on the hope that they will use part of their paychecks to gamble?

In the end, much like recovery/bailout measures at the federal level, these gambling initiatives sorely test our ability to find solutions that do not exacerbate our problems or otherwise offer short-term fixes that undermine our long-term ability for economic growth and financial health. In its opposition to the initiative, the Washington Post insisted that the gambling measure will not promote healthy economic growth and hence voters should resist the “false promise of pain-free revenue” that the gambling measure represents. The Baltimore Sun also recognizes the problems associated with relying on gambling revenue to finance government, but nevertheless suggest that while relying on such revenue represents a painful choice for voters, these extraordinary times require us to make painful choices.”

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Voting 2.0

A cherished right in the United States is to vote in secrecy. But what if we don’t want to exercise that right in secret? What if in this age of insecure and inaccurate e-voting machines we want to record our votes and our voting experiences, say with cell phones or video cameras? According to The New York Times, many voters plan to do just that, making it likely that this election will be the “most recorded in history.”

Much like the online communities that came together to expose flaws in Diebold’s source code in 2003 after activist Bev Harris discovered the code on an unsecured website, Web 2.0 platforms are emerging for the sole purpose of recording voting problems. Jon Pincus’s Voter Suppression Wiki will let voters collaborate to collect examples of problems with voting, from exceptionally long lines or more direct actions to intimidate voters. Allison Fine and Nancy Scola are using Twitter to monitor voting problems. YouTube has created a channel, Video Your Vote, to encourage submissions. Even The New York Times has a Polling Place Photo Project on its website. Such public participation will no doubt generate crucial information for states and the Election Assistance Commission to study and may even enhance the legitimacy of this election.

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An Important Resource for Combating Online Fraud: State Attorneys General

96px-Honor%C3%A9_Daumier_018.jpgThe Center for Democracy and Technology and the Center for American Progress have published a report entitled Online Consumers at Risk and the Role of State Attorneys General. According to the Report, the FTC received over 200,000 Internet-related fraud complaints this year, up from 16,000 in 2006 and 24,000 in 2005. And such numbers may be under-inclusive as consumers often do not know when they are victimized by malware.

The Report argues that state attorneys general need to devote more resources to combating online fraud as state consumer protection laws often offer greater protection to consumers than federal laws. To date, state action against online fraudsters has been limited—for example, in the past three years, state attorney generals have brought only 11 cases against spyware distributors, the same number as the Federal Trade Commission. The Report offers a number of strategies to assist a state attorney general’s office, such as additional training of investigators and prosecutors on how to identify online fraud and abuse, enhanced computer forensic capabilities to trace and catch Internet fraudsters, and expanded partnerships with commercial and public-interest coalitions to fight online fraud. More aggressive action by a state attorney general’s office would combat the notion that online fraud is an easy and cost-free way to make serious money.

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E-voting Machine Glitches: Depressingly Reliable

Today’s New York Times blog reports that early voters in West Virginia have found that e-voting machines manufactured by ES&S recorded their votes for Democratic candidates as Republican candidates. For instance, Calvin Thomas of Ripley, West Virginia explained that when he tried to vote for Senator Barack Obama, it registered the vote for Senator John McCain. He noted that his daughter had the same problem. ES&S voting machines in Tennessee reportedly have similar troubles, but in reverse: at least three voters compained that their machine registered votes for McCain as votes for Obama.

Such “vote switching” is a well-known problem and has occurred in prior elections. Indeed, a July 2007 investigative report revealed that 30 to 40 percent of ES&S’s e-voting machines under review changed voters’ selections. And Colorado’s Secretary of State decertified e-voting systems manufactured by ES&S because tests demonstrated that the machines could not accurately count votes. Now we can add another certainty in life aside from death and taxes: e-voting machine glitches.

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Skepticism About Fighting Terrorists With Data Mining

According to the New York TImes, the British government is considering setting up a database of all phone, email, and Internet traffic in the country to assist in efforts to fight terrorism and crime. Officials suggested that a database could store all phone numbers dailed, web sites visited, and email addresses contacted by everyone in Britain without storing the content of the phone calls or email messages.

To be sure, such a database would raise serious privacy concerns. But it also provokes a first-order question of whether such databases are even useful in spotting terrorists. The answer to that question appears to be “no.” Recent reports suggest that “data mining is not the silver bullet that that architects of programs such as Total Information Awareness believe them to be.” The National Research Council recently produced a 376-report on data mining, counter-terrorism, and American democracy, which explains that “[a]utomated identification of terrorists through data mining (or any other known methodology) is neither feasible as an objective nor desirable as a goal of technology development efforts.” Although data mining has remarkable success in predicting consumer behavior for advertising and credit card reporting agencies, it has much less success predicting the behavior of terrorists. As ars technica reporter Jon Stokes explains, unlike a computer program’s ability to compare a consumer’s credit history with the history of millions of consumers to predict a person’s likelihood of delinquency, no large dataset of terrorist behavior exists that “can be used to train a data mining application to predict an individual’s intention to commit an act of terror with any degree of confidence.” The NRC report also explains that not only is the training data lacking but the data that the program would be mining has been purposefully corrupted by the terrorists themselves. Terrorists disguise their activities using operational security measures such as code words and encryption, rendering the data that would be mined suspect. In much the same way that credit scores would be worthless if borrowers could manipulate their credit history, data mining for terrorist activities may be a non-starter as terrorists no doubt manipulate the data trails that they leave as they make phone calls and surf the Internet.