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FBI violated Americans’ privacy by abusing access to NSA surveillance data, court rules

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

The Federal Bureau of Investigation made tens of thousands of unauthorized searches related to US citizens between 2017 and 2018, a court ruled. The agency violated both the law that authorized the surveillance program they used and the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution.

The ruling was made in October 2018 by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), a secret government court responsible for reviewing and authorizing searches of foreign individuals inside and outside the US. It was just made public today.

The program itself, called Section 702 and part of the broad and aggressive expansion of US spy programs in the years after 9/11, granted...

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mrobold
5 days ago
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Orange County, California
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The raging controversy over the NBA, China, and the Hong Kong protests, explained

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Hong Kong protesters carrying umbrellas dodge tear gas on the street. Protesters clash with police during a protest in Kowloon in Hong Kong, China, on October 6, 2019. | Laurel Chor/Getty Images

Globalization is exporting Chinese authoritarianism rather than American democracy.

On Friday, Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted something a bit outside his lane as a sports guy but fundamentally banal in the context of American public opinion: “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.”

Athletes and sports figures have sparked controversies for generations in American politics by wading into contested political issues. These controversies have only heated up in the Trump era.

But Morey turns out to have stepped onto a much bigger landmine — Chinese politics, just as the National Basketball Association grows more thirsty to get into the Chinese market.

Morey got himself denounced by the Chinese consulate in Houston and by the owner of his team. His tweet was deleted, the Chinese Basketball Association announced that it is suspending all cooperation with the Rockets, Morey was made to apologize, and the NBA put out a statement characterizing his tweet as “regrettable” and clarifying that his support for Hong Kong protesters “does not represent the Rockets or the NBA.” The Rockets are reportedly considering firing Morey in an effort to appease the Chinese.

Meanwhile, the NBA’s eagerness to squash a backlash in China is prompting its own backlash in American politics.

Ted Cruz, Beto O’Rourke, and Julián Castro were among those to swiftly denounce the NBA for giving in to Chinese denunciations.

Washington is otherwise consumed with investigations of Donald Trump’s corrupt activities and counter-investigations aimed at proving wild conspiracy theories, so the bipartisan nature of the backlash is a testament to international conflict’s enduring ability to bring people together.

But it’s also quite broadly illustrative of a much larger issue. Once upon a time, the American people were promised that the integration of China into the global economy would promote freedom and democracy there. That promise has not been borne out. And the Rockets ownership and the NBA as a league are giving us a vision of the frightening possibility that the reverse will happen, and American capitalists’ eagerness to please the Chinese government will become a threat to freedom at home.

The greatest Chinese basketball player ever played for the Rockets

The story behind all of this is that back in 2002, the Houston Rockets used their No. 1 draft pick to select a Chinese player, Yao Ming, a 7’6” giant who was also an unusually adept mid-range shooter for a big man of his era.

Yao was the first-ever foreign player to be selected with the No. 1 pick who hadn’t first taken a detour into playing NCAA basketball. And while by 2002, NBA teams were accustomed to drafting players with experience in European basketball leagues (some of them born in Europe, others from South America or Africa), the level of competition in the Chinese Basketball Association was not well understood or well respected.

Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets standing on the court with four other players during a basketball game. Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets during a game at the Guangzhou International Sports Arena in Guangzhou, China, on October 16, 2010.

Yao faced considerable skepticism from American sports fans (Bill Simmons labeled him “a disaster waiting to happen”) and his entry to the league was not without its share of cultural miscues, like a promotion for his debut game in Miami where the Heat passed out fortune cookies to the fans, seemingly unaware that fortune cookies are an entirely American invention.

But Yao turned out to be good (though he admittedly struggled with injuries) and his Rockets teams routinely made the playoffs.

Chinese basketball fans followed his career closely. But critically — and somewhat unexpectedly — Chinese Yao fans became Houston Rockets fans. By 2006, the bestselling basketball jersey in China wasn’t Yao’s — it was Tracy McGrady’s. McGrady was an African American wing player with no connection to China other than that he played on the same team with Yao. It’s typical for wing players to be more popular with fans than big men, so in the abstract there’s nothing particularly surprising about McGrady rather than Yao being the Rockets’ big star. But the fact that Chinese loyalties transferred so rapidly to Yao’s teammate laid the foundation for an enduring business relationship not just between the NBA — which has an audience in many foreign countries — and China, but very specifically between the Rockets and China.

Yao retired in 2011, but the Rockets are still the second-most popular team in China (behind the Golden State Warriors who’ve dominated the league in recent years) and their games were routinely shown on Chinese state television — at least until the current controversy, which has CCTV saying they’re cutting the Rockets off.

Chinese opinion is very different from American opinion

One thing you will notice if you compare the anti-Morey statements coming out from NBA stakeholders to the anti-NBA statements coming out from American politicians: The anti-Morey statements emphasize the idea of giving offense to Chinese basketball fans while the anti-NBA statements emphasize the idea of bowing to the demands of the Chinese government.

These are, of course, in practice somewhat different things.

Chinese public opinion exists in a context that is profoundly shaped by government control of television broadcasting; government censorship of the internet and domestic publishing; and an overall situation in which even people with access to outside sources of information know better than to publicly relay an understanding of world events that’s at odds with the government’s official line. So any backlash among Chinese fans to Morey’s tweets would necessarily be a reflection, in large part, of the Chinese government’s own propaganda efforts. It’s the Chinese government that has worked to convince the Chinese public that the Hong Kong protesters are leading a foreign-backed separatist movement rather than standing up for rights they were promised under the terms of Hong Kong’s reunification with China.

General Manager Daryl Morey of the Houston Rockets speaks to the Chinese media in 2016. Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images
Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey speaks to reporters after the Special Olympics NBA Cares Clinic, in Shanghai, China, on October 8, 2016.

At the same time, by most accounts, grassroots nationalist sentiment in China is authentic and sincerely felt by the Chinese mass public — albeit felt in large part as a result of government policy.

Consequently, American companies eager to march to the tune set by the Chinese leadership can always point to the more respectable-sounding desire to cater to the views of Chinese people and be not necessarily incorrect. That said, this isn’t how globalization was supposed to play out.

Globalization was supposed to promote democracy in China

Back in 1999, then-President Bill Clinton signed legislation establishing Permanent Normal Trade Relations with the United States and paving the way for China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. This was intended primarily as an economic policy measure, and indeed it turned out to have much larger economic effects (both for good and for bad) than the Clinton administration anticipated.

But Clinton also argued in his statement celebrating the signing of the bill that “China is not simply agreeing to import more of our products; it is agreeing to import one of democracy’s most cherished values: economic freedom.” Economic freedom, he believed, would lead to political freedom. “The more China liberalizes its economy, the more fully it will liberate the potential of its people,” Clinton said. “And when individuals have the power, not just to dream but to realize their dreams, they will demand a greater say.”

Oftentimes, this was tied to a specific theory about the internet and modern communication technology.

Bill Clinton sits in front of the Chinese flag. Dirck Halstead/Liaison/Getty Images
Then-President Bill Clinton addresses an audience of Asia experts in Washington, DC, on October 25, 1997.

In October 2000, Thomas Friedman, the influential New York Times foreign affairs columnist, wrote that “the leadership here knows that you can’t have the knowledge that China needs from the Internet without letting all sorts of other information into the country, and without empowering more and more Chinese to communicate horizontally and create political communities.” His view was that China would face a sharp choice: either stay poor and authoritarian, or else get rich by embracing modern technology and letting in the flow of information.

Nobody was necessarily promising a rapid march to democratization. But the consensus view of the American establishment was that economic integration between China and the West — and China obtaining prosperity through the adoption of western technology — would at least directionally shift Chinese politics in a liberalizing direction. In practice, the opposite seems to have happened.

Globalization is letting China export censorship

First, simply on a technical level, it turns out that utopian globalization proponents were massively understating the feasibility of building a censored version of the internet.

Second, they underrated the extent to which the entirety of the modern technology industry would end up looking like a massive surveillance machine. In the specific context of western capitalist economies, that’s largely a privatized surveillance machine whose goal is to deliver targeted advertisements. But the same mechanisms that let internet ad brokers know I’ve been considering buying a new wallet and planning a family beach vacation in Mexico this coming winter can (and are) used by authoritarian regimes for political purposes.

Consequently, Chinese authoritarianism seems to have been — if anything — strengthened by modern digital technology. It’s easier than ever to know where everyone is at all times and who they are talking to.

A large crowd gathers for a candlelight vigil at night in Hong Kong. Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images
People arrive in Victoria Park ahead of a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong on June 4, 2018, to mark the 29th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown in Beijing.

Last, as Bill Clinton predicted, as China has gotten richer they now “import more of our products.” That means American companies are changing what they do to access the Chinese market. It’s become increasingly common for Hollywood studios to bend over backward to appease the Chinese authorities. The Tilda Swinton character “The Ancient One” in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, for example, is specifically a Tibetan monk in the comics. Screenwriter Robert Cargill says she was transformed into a white woman of no specific national origin or religious tradition because otherwise there’s the risk of “the Chinese government going, ‘Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.’”

In a practical sense there probably isn’t very much the United States can do to prevent the Chinese government from repressing Chinese culture and there never would have been under any sort of policy choices. But the intermingling of the US and Chinese economies that was supposed to generate liberalization in China instead seems to be leading to the erasure of Tibet from American cultural products.

The Morey incident is a further intensification of that trend. Nobody was talking about the Rockets addressing the situation in Hong Kong during the game or flying a “stand with Hong Kong” banner in the arena where a global television audience could see it.

What happened was simply that a high-ranking Rockets executive offered an opinion on the subject in English on a platform that’s banned in China. In effect, the Chinese government is trying (and seemingly succeeding) in getting the NBA to censor participation in the American public square.

In theory, the same logic could lead China to trawl the social media posts of every employee of every Western company that does business in China and start making complaints. Obviously in practice they’re not going to start worrying about the tweets of random Apple Store employees tomorrow. But what happened to Morey is disturbing in large part because it’s not at all clear how far this slope will slip.

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freeAgent
7 days ago
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Sad.
Los Angeles, CA
mrobold
6 days ago
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Orange County, California
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Hyundai’s 45 electric concept car is a futuristic blast from the past

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Image: Hyundai

Hyundai’s all-electric concept car, unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show on Tuesday, is a retro-futuristic stunner that harkens back to the automaker’s first foray into mass-produced vehicles over four decades ago.

There’s a distinct late-‘70s / early-‘80s vibe at work here, which is by design. “Inspired by looking back at the brand’s first model in the 1970s, the『45』fully-electric concept car will act as a symbolic milestone for Hyundai’s future EV design,” Hyundai said in its press material.

For what it’s worth, those weird brackets around “45” are Hyundai’s addition, not mine. The South Korean automaker says the name and the brackets are partly a reference to the 45-degree angles...

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mrobold
30 days ago
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Want
Orange County, California
freeAgent
28 days ago
I like a lot of things about it. They really need to rethink those wheels, though. I don't know why some manufacturers seem to think that EVs need ridiculous-looking wheels.
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Apple, Foxconn caught breaking Chinese labor laws while making iPhones

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An industrial building at night

Enlarge / A Foxconn facility. (credit: Ken Marshall / Flickr)

Apple and Foxconn violated a Chinese labor rule by using too many temporary staff at a major factory that makes iPhones. As reported by Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman, the two companies confirmed the allegation.

Chinese labor law allows facilities like Foxconn’s Zhengzhou plant to operate with no more than 10% of the staff being temporary workers in August 2019, according to non-profit watchdog China Labor Watch, which released the initial report to which Apple and Foxconn responded. The report also made allegations about worker hours and compensation, but Apple denies those.

According to that report, 50% of the workforce were temporary staff. However, many were students who have now returned to school, bringing the number down to 30%.

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mrobold
34 days ago
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50 states and territories launch massive joint probe into Google

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Two men stand in front of an array of microphones before a Federal-style federal building.

Enlarge / District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine (L) and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speak during the launch of an antitrust investigation into large tech companies, outside of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on September 9, 2019. (credit: Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images)

A coalition of attorneys general representing 50 US states and territories today announced a long-awaited joint probe into antitrust complaints against one of the biggest tech companies in the world, Google.

The office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is spearheading the bipartisan investigation, which is beginning with the search and digital advertising markets. Google "dominates all aspects of advertising on the Internet and searching on the Internet," Paxton told reporters during a press conference.

The group includes attorneys general from 48 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. (Alabama and California are the two states not participating.) The states' action is independent of several different federal actions, participating attorneys general stressed.

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mrobold
34 days ago
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It’s time to talk about James Mattis’s involvement with the Theranos scandal

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Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis arrives for a closed intelligence briefing at the US Capitol in December 2018. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

He’s selling a book, not saving the country from Trump.

Former Defense Secretary James Mattis is back in the public eye with a book to promote, doing interviews and speaking in public about his career in government service.

That’s a golden opportunity to finally ask some tough questions about his prior service on the board of Theranos, a company that allegedly peddled fake blood tests and peddled connections to influential people in the national security world to get away with it for years.

Theranos was one of the largest business scandals of the past decades, described by the Securities and Exchange Commission as an “elaborate, years-long fraud” in which CEO Elizabeth Holmes and President Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, “exaggerated or made false statements about the company’s technology, business, and financial performance.”

Mattis not only served on Theranos’s board during some of the years after he’d retired from military service, while it was perpetrating the scheme, but he earlier served as a key advocate of putting the company’s technology (technology that was, to be clear, fake) to use inside the military while he was still serving as a general. Holmes settled the SEC case, paying a $500,000 fee and accepting various other penalties, while Balwani is fighting it out in court. (Holmes and Balwani are both battling criminal fraud charges.)

Nobody on the board has been directly charged with anything. But accepting six-figure checks to serve as a frontman for a con operation is the kind of thing that would normally count as a liability in American politics.

While the Theranos scandal was on the front burner of American politics, nobody wanted to talk about Mattis’s involvement. Trump and his co-partisans in Congress didn’t want to talk about it. But the Democratic Party opposition was also inclined to give Mattis a pass. Everyone in Washington was more or less convinced that Mattis’s presence in the Pentagon was the only thing standing between us and possible nuclear Armageddon.

But Mattis isn’t “the adult in the room” anymore, the supposed savior of the country. He’s just a guy trading on his reputation to try to sell books. And his prior use of his position to profit from a massive scheme deserves scrutiny.

James Mattis profited from helping Theranos

Theranos was the kind of story that a lot of people wanted to believe in. A technology startup led by a bright, young Stanford dropout that, unlike so many essentially frivolous apps, was actually going to solve the urgent problem of making health care cheaper and easier to access. The problem, as revealed by the Wall Street Journal’s John Carreyrou in an October 2015 exposé, was that the whole thing was a sham.

Theranos’s key technology, called Edison machines, didn’t really work, and Theranos wasn’t actually using them to perform its blood tests, relying instead on older Samsung equipment. Theranos offered lower prices than the competition not because it had an innovative new product, but because it was a money-losing startup burning cash raised from venture capitalists.

This scheme worked because Theranos was deeply tied in with the American political, business, and media establishment — counting former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz as board members, and maintaining sufficient clout that Hillary Clinton’s campaign was unwise enough to schedule a high-profile fundraiser with Holmes months after the publication of Carreyrou’s exposé.

But perhaps none of these elite supporters was as valuable as Mattis.

As the SEC complaint describes, a main element of the scheme was that “Holmes, and Balwani claimed that Theranos’ products were deployed by the U.S. Department of Defense on the battlefield in Afghanistan and on medevac helicopters and that the company would generate more than $100 million in revenue in 2014.”

Holmes, the SEC alleged, “knew, or was reckless in not knowing, that these statements were false and misleading.” It’s easy to see, however, why investors might be fooled about this because one of the company’s board members, Mattis, joined Theranos in 2013 immediately after retiring from a long career of military service that concluded with a stint leading CENTCOM, the US combatant command that is responsible for, among other things, Afghanistan.

Mattis (who, obviously, has no expertise in medical testing) pushed for the military to use Theranos technology, but it was never used because it didn’t work.

Nonetheless, as of December 2015, Mattis was still vouching for the company, telling the Washington Post that he “had quickly seen tremendous potential in the technologies Theranos develops, and I have the greatest respect for the company’s mission and integrity.”

The technology, it is now clear, had no potential, and the company had no integrity.

Nobody has properly questioned Mattis about this

By the time Mattis was selected to serve as Trump’s secretary of defense in January 2017, the scope of the Theranos scandal was already well-known to the public thanks to diligent journalistic work. So was the fact that Mattis was not only earning $150,000 a year for his service on the Theranos board but also advocated for the company while on active military duty.

He resigned from Theranos on January 5, 2017 — by which time the company was already commonly described as “embroiled in scandal” by press reports — but, remarkably, the whole affair didn’t come up at his confirmation hearings.

It’s not exactly rare for members of a corporate board of directors to serve as window dressing with no actual involvement in or knowledge of a company’s operations, so the mere fact that the whole company seems to have been a giant scam doesn’t necessarily reflect any action on Mattis’s part. That said, at least in theory, directors are supposed to do something, and serving as window dressing for alleged fraud is the kind of thing that normally reflects poorly on a person’s reputation.

What’s more, as Paul Szoldra writes at Task and Purpose, pre-retirement Mattis genuinely seems to have been actively involved in trying to help Theranos bypass the regulatory process:

“I would very much appreciate your help in getting this information corrected with the regulatory agencies,” Holmes wrote in an email to Mattis, also obtained by the Post. “Since this misinformation came from within DoD, it will be invaluable if this information is formally corrected by the right people in DoD.”

The general then forwarded the email chain on and asked, “how do we overcome this new obstacle?”

“I have tried to get this device tested in theater asap, legally and ethically,” Mattis wrote. “This appears to be relatively straight-forward yet we’re a year into this and not yet deployed.”

Yet even once the SEC threw the book at the company, nobody in Congress was interested in asking Mattis what, exactly, he knew about Theranos and when. And in a perverse way, that made sense. Safeguarding the country from Trump’s worst geopolitical instincts was more important than accountability for a financial scheme.

But Mattis isn’t out babysitting Trump anymore. He’s trying to sell books. And while his thoughts and reflections on his time in the Trump cabinet are certainly somewhat interesting at this point we hardly need another person to tell us that the president is erratic, uninformed, impulsive and all the rest. This stuff isn’t highly guarded state secrets, it’s out in public on Twitter for everyone to see. Rather than dwelling on this stuff that’s out there and obvious, it would be nice for journalists granted access to the retired general to ask some questions about Theranos.

Fundamentally, Trump’s rise to power is part of a broader epidemic of elite impunity in the United States. And Mattis’s ability to dabble in questionable activity, cash a few checks, and then skate away with his reputation intact is very much part of the problem.

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freeAgent
43 days ago
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mrobold
43 days ago
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