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Friday, 31 July 2015

TSA’s Behavior Detection Program Has a Newsletter, and It’s Ridiculous

The Transportation Security Administration’s embattled behavior detection program has not identified a single terrorist, but it has produced glossy bimonthly newsletters poking fun at the traveling public.

In these employee newsletters — six of which were obtained by The Intercept — behavior detection officers, who are supposed to help spot possible terrorists, sometimes make fun of inexperienced or nervous travelers, including one “sweet little old lady” who thought the bowl for metallic objects was a tip jar.

On their own, the newsletters could be regarded as light-hearted workplace fun, but they are also part of a controversial billion-dollar program, known as Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques, or SPOT, which employs specially trained officers, known as behavior detection officers, to rate passengers going through screening for signs of deception. Those alleged signs of deception, which the The Intercept revealed earlier this year, include “excessive yawning” and “wringing of hands,” and have been widely criticized for lacking any basis in science, or even common sense.

The Intercept also reported on the program’s flawed design that targets undocumented immigrants not potential terrorists.

The newsletter issues range from seven to nine pages and provide a forum for behavior detection officers to share stories about confiscated wine, showcase original poetry (an ode to Alaska, for example), and in one case, promote an officer’s dog-breeding business (the officer says her TSA training to spot deception helps her “read” potential dog buyers).

A section called “BDO Funnies” highlights na├»ve or nervous passengers, including an example of an officer successfully convincing one woman going through security that a swab used to detect explosives was instead testing for DNA. At other times, the newsletters praise behavior detection officers for providing “customer service” to the traveling public, by explaining security procedures or helping passengers. There are also mentions of various pilot program tests or attempts to test out metrics to track and evaluate the program overall.

Some offices detail their goals for the year. “This year’s goal is to visit the Botanical Garden which is adjacent to the beautiful and newly re-modeled airport and learn more about the indigenous plants and species that share in improving our air quality!” reads one item.

Others  highlight past memorable moments or achievements.  One team, for example, wrote about a botched attempt to reheat a chicken sandwich in the airport’s break room microwave. (Someone forgot to remove the foil wrapper, and the sandwich became engulfed in flames, then exploded.)

Much of the newsletter space is devoted to very lengthy regional articles about the weather, with headlines like, “Surviving the Snow in Bangor, Maine!” “Beating the Summer Heat in Milwaulkee!” and “Yes it Snows in Arizona!”

The newsletters also offer insights into the background of some behavior detection officers, who are supposed to be able to spot potential terrorists just by looking at them. “How many of us can look back about 20 years at the Susan Smith case, specifically at that famous news conference where she insisted there had been a carjacking and her children were in the car?” wrote one officer. “I know I turned to my husband and said, ‘She’s lying.’ I knew nothing about BDOs at that time; I just knew that her behaviors contradicted her words.”

Consumers Finally “Getting on with Their Lives” as Credit-Card Debt Slaves: Equifax

Equifax, which profits from the process when more people apply for credit and load up on debt, sees the miracles of the current economy this way: “American consumers continue to show signs they are recovering from the Great Recession by steadily increasing their credit card debt….”

In its report on credit card debt, Equifax raved about these newly empowered American consumers that are once again buying things they can’t afford and charging these purchases to their credit cards because they didn’t have enough money to pay for them otherwise, given their stagnating salaries. It shows up in the numbers:

Total credit card debt rose to $634 billion at the end of the second quarter, a 5% jump compared to $604 billion a year ago.

That’s nationwide. And 5% is a big gain, given that there was supposedly zero inflation over these 12 months, and that the economy over the last four quarters has grown at the blinding speed, based on the newly re-rejiggered methods of figuring GDP, by a whopping 1.8%.

But in a number of cities, credit card debt soared far beyond the national average. And in a few, the rate of growth is not only accelerating, it’s going through the roof. Equifax was practically giddy:

The rate of growth in credit card debt more than doubled year over year in many of the metro areas hit hardest by the housing market crash, and more than tripled in other cities less affected by the crash.

Even the credit-card-debt laggards among the metro areas are finally getting into the mood: in Detroit, the rate of growth of credit card debt – not total credit card debt – soared by 222% from a year ago, in Phoenix by 308%, and in St. Louis by 317%. These folks are really making an effort.

This is what we’ve all be waiting for, finally, the true recovery of the American economy when people once again borrow to the hilt to buy imported gadgets or clothes, when they charge even food to their credit cards, and rent payments, and certainly healthcare expenses, and when they charge down payments on their cars to their credit cards… in short, when they try to make up with debt what their stagnating salaries cannot deliver.

It’s once again the era when American consumers live beyond their means, slither ever deeper into the glorious condition of debt slaves, all in order to crank up the economy and make it grow at, well, that measly 1.8%.

“This suggests that consumer confidence in the American economy is growing across the board,” Equifax sums it up – even as consumer confidence is plunging – aptly equating “consumer confidence” with sinking ever deeper into credit card debt. So it may not be confidence that’s driving this, but desperation or necessity.

At any rate, the credit-card debt binge is picking up speed:

“Every major market has seen increases in credit card debt, even those cities where the housing market issues are not completely resolved,” the report said, given that Housing Bubble 2 is now even more magnificent on a national basis than the prior one that turned into such splendid debt-fueled fireworks, though there’s a bitterly ironic twist this time [read… What’s Left of the American Dream Withers at Record Pace].

The importance to the economy of this consumer binge on expensive credit card debt cannot be underestimated. Equifax:

This shows that American consumers are more confident about their financial futures, and that means the U.S. economy has entered an expansion mode.

Consumers are doing the greatest job in Miami, where total credit-card debt soared 9.5% from a year ago, in Las Vegas (9.4%), in Orlando (9.3%), in Houston (9.1%). These are the cities where consumers have been most actively engaged in cranking up the economy by buying things they can’t afford. Here is the growth of total credit card debt in the largest 25 metro areas:

US-credit-card-debt-growth-by-city-Q2-2015-v-Q2-2014

This is the final effort in the debt-fueled “recovery” of the US economy. Companies have gorged on debt. The federal government has piled on the most debt at the fastest rate ever. State and local governments, despite any balanced budget requirements, and even public pension funds have loaded up on debt. And consumers have been binging on debt to buy cars and get an education and buy homes at a feverish pace. Outstanding auto loans now amount to over $1 trillion. Payments are routinely extended over 72 months. Loan-to-value ratios have jumped. And automakers have become outright ecstatic.

What had been missing? Consumers charging up their credit cards. Now finally, the US economy has jumped over that hurdle too. Equifax explained in its eloquent manner, “These trends suggest that American consumers are getting on with their lives.”

The lives as debt slaves. Because they can’t maintain their standards of living with their stagnating household incomes. This too was part of the movie we’ve seen before.

But not everything may be this rosy. At first, it’s a sampling error, a statistical fluke, or the weather, but suddenly it’s serious. Read… Americans’ Economic Confidence Gets Mauled

Feds: 664,607 illegals granted amnesty, some linked to terrorism, gangs

The administration’s program to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program has given the green light to 664,607 since 2012, including several linked to fraud, terrorism and gangs, according to the U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services agency.

What’s more, applications for permanent residence have surged from 3,000 to 7,500 a month, far above projections, according to agency answers provided to Senate Judiciary Immigration and the National Interest Subcommittee Republicans and obtained by Secrets.

USCIS said it is also producing 144,275 “employment authorization documents” each month, and has the capability to approve 400,000 work permits a month.

President Obama proposed DACA in 2012. It allows younger illegals who entered prior to June 2007 to get a renewable work permit and exemption from deportation. Since then, 243,872 renewals have been granted.

DARPA’s Plan X to bring ‘military mindset’ to cyber-war

Army DARPA Plan X

Ask most “real” computer security experts, the guys and gals who have been cracking and/or protecting networks since before Windows were NT, and they’ll tell you the best way to protect a network is simply to know everything about it. They take pride in being able to quickly navigate arcade database structures and monitor access using only a text-based interface — but with virtually every organization of any real size now turning to computer security experts to protect their business, these sorts of security hardcores are getting washed out by snot-nosed millennials who think Unix is how you used to play Ubisoft games online.

That’s especially true in the military, which misses a good portion of the libertarian-minded hacking set right off the bat. What is the biggest military in the world to do, when one of the most important upcoming industries simply can’t provide the volume of talent they require to keep their operations safe? DARPA’s Plan X is an attempt to answer that question.

Plan X takes a very simple approach to solving the talent crisis: Rather than increasing the amount of talent being produced (this has been tried for several years), instead try simply lowering the amount of talent needed to do the job. The goal is to make basic monitoring of network security a whole lot more approachable, using an intuitive user interface and easily digested symbology to make it easy — and, more importantly, quick — to keep tabs on the source and type of any access to a particular network.

World Bank Peddling Private, For-Profit Schools In Africa, Disguised As Aid

Young students in a Bridge International Academy school in Nairobi, in September. (Frederic Courbet/NPR)

EDINBURGH — Private, for-profit schools in Africa funded by the World Bank and U.S. venture capitalists have been criticized by more than 100 organizations who’ve signed a petition opposing the controversial educational venture.

A May statement addressed to Jim Kim, president of the World Bank, expressed deep concern over the global financial institution’s investment in a chain of private primary schools targeting poor families in Kenya and Uganda and called on the institution to support free universal education instead.

The schools project is called Bridge International Academies and 100,000 pupils have enrolled in 412 schools across the two nations. BIA is supported by the World Bank, which has given $10 million to the project, and a number of donors, including U.S. venture capitalists NEA and Learn Capital. Other notable investors include Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Pierre Omidyar and Pearson, a multinational publishing company.

In a speech delivered in April, Kim praised BIA as a means to alleviate poverty in Kenya and Uganda. Critics responded that many Kenyans and Ugandans cannot afford private education, further arguing that this type of investment merely supports Western businesses at the expense of local public services.

A section of the letter addressed to Kim asserts:

“We, civil society organisations and citizens of Kenya and Uganda, are appalled that an organisation whose mandate is supposed to be to lift people out of poverty shows such a profound misunderstanding and disconnect from the lives and rights of poor people in Kenya and Uganda. If the World Bank is serious about improving education in Kenya and Uganda, it should support our governments to expand and improve our public education systems, provide quality education to all children free of charge, and address other financial barriers to access.”

Opposition to educational neocolonialism

The statement reflects a growing global movement questioning Western policies pushing private education in developing countries. It was written and signed by 30 organizations in Uganda and Kenya and supported by 116 organizations around the world, including Global Justice Now and ActionAid. They claim BIA uses highly standardized teaching methods, untrained low-paid teachers, and aggressive marketing strategies targeted at poor households.

In his speech supporting BIA, Kim said that “average scores for reading and math have risen high above their public school peers.” Opponents questioned these figures, noting that they appear to have been taken directly from a study conducted by BIA itself.

Bridge co-founder Shannon May on a video monitor in the company's Nairobi headquarters. (Frederic Courbet/NPR)

Bridge co-founder Shannon May on a video monitor in the company’s Nairobi headquarters. (Frederic Courbet/NPR)

Global Justice Now added that the World Bank president’s assertion that the “the cost per student at Bridge Academies is just $6 dollars a month” was misleading.

“This suggestion that $6 is an acceptable amount of money for poor households to pay reveals a profound lack of understanding of the reality of the lives of the poorest,” Global Justice Now, a London-based organization promoting social justice, wrote on its website in May.

A spokesperson added that Kenyan and Ugandan organizations calculated that for half their populations, the $6 per month per child it would cost to send three primary school age children to a Bridge Academy, is equal to at least a quarter of their monthly income. Many families are already struggling to provide three meals a day to their children.

Moreover, Global Justice Now claimed that the real total cost of sending one child to a Bridge school is between $9 and $13 a month, and up to $20 when including school meals. “Based on these figures, sending three children to BIA would represent 68% (in Kenya) to 75% (in Uganda) of the monthly income of half the population in these countries,” the organization stated.

Another signatory to the letter was Salima Namusobya, director of the Initiative for Socio-Economic Rights in Uganda, who said:

“If the World Bank is genuine about fulfilling its mission to provide every child with the chance to have a high-quality primary education regardless of their family’s income, they should be campaigning for a no-fee system in particular contexts like that of Uganda.”

However, the World Bank insists that it remains a strong supporter of free public education and that the vast majority of its funding was directed to support this sector.

“We at the World Bank Group believe that no child should be out of school because of an inability to pay fees and that all children have a right not just to be in school but also to be learning basic skills for life while they are there,” a spokesperson for the World Bank told MintPress News in an email.

“While our investment in Bridge Academies is US$10 million, our current education portfolio exceeds US$14 billion, of which 95% is support for public education. Of our relatively small support for private education, the majority is for higher levels of education.”

Pointing out that the World Bank is working closely with the governments of Kenya and Uganda to help strengthen their respective public education systems, the spokesperson added that BIA were “complementary” to ensure that parents who invest in private schooling were getting the best possible education for their children.

“Surveys show that in these countries—as in many developing countries—the average quality of education is low across both public and private schools, making it an urgent priority to gather evidence on what works and ensure that all children are not only in school but also actually learning,” the World Bank spokesperson said.

Moving forward, more evidence is required to determine which programs work best and the World Bank is to embark on a rigorous evaluation of the BIA program in Kenya, the first large-scale trial of fee-paying schools in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the World Bank, measuring effectiveness of these schools will help governments, policymakers and parents determine how to ensure that all children can access a good education.

 

Concern over upsurge of private education in developing nations

The speech from Kim, president of the World Bank, came shortly after representatives of civil society from several countries, including Uganda, met with education officials of the World Bank to discuss its support for BIA and fee-charging primary schools. The subsequent statement of opposition from NGOs follows an upsurge in the financing of private education across the world, especially in Africa, often with the support of foreign investors.

These investments have attracted growing condemnation, including criticism from Kishore Singh, the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to education, who argues that private schools must be resisted because they aggravate inequality.

Writing for The Guardian on April 23, Singh cited a study on private education by the U.K.’s Department for International Development that said a large number of low-fee private schools targeting poorer families in developing countries were unregistered.

Every lesson is tightly scripted. The teachers deliver lessons by scrolling through the scripts on a tablet. Even small details such as praising students are listed in the class instructions. (Frederic Courbet/NPR)

Every lesson is tightly scripted. The teachers deliver lessons by scrolling through the scripts on a tablet. Even small details such as praising students are listed in the class instructions. (Frederic Courbet/NPR)

“These schools save costs by hiring ill-trained teachers and running large classes in substandard school buildings,” Singh wrote, adding: “Such ‘edu-businesses’, as they have come to be known, are an unsatisfactory replacement for the good public education governments should be providing.”

Despite these findings, DFiD has also invested in BIA, prompting criticism from Global Justice Now. A spokesperson for the social justice organization told MintPress News: “British taxpayers are forcing private education systems on countries like Uganda and Kenya through schemes like this backed by DfID and the World Bank.”

Aid is being used as a tool, Global Justice Now added, to compel the majority of the world to undertake policies which help Western business while undermining public services in emerging nations.

The spokesperson added:

“The introduction of universal education, the increasing length of compulsory education, the creation of comprehensive schools — these are some of the greatest social achievements we have ever made in the U.K., and we remain rightly proud of them. The U.K. aid budget and World Bank development policies could and should be used to help others to achieve these vital components of a decent society.”

MintPress contacted DFiD for comment but no response had been received at time of writing.

However, BIA did respond to the offer of right to reply and said the above statement released by the NGOs included numerous “inaccurate” and “misleading” statements. The BIA spokesperson told MintPress:

Bridge International Academies exists for one purpose: to ensure that every child, regardless of the location of her birth or income of her parents, receives an education

that engages her mind and heart, and enables her to succeed academically, socially, and professionally in her country.”

Earlier this month, United Nations Human Rights Council urged states in a resolution to regulate and monitor private education providers for the first time. The resolution demands that states implement regulatory framework that establishes minimum norms and standards for private education providers, as well as “monitor private education providers.”

The HRC resolution also calls on states to ensure that “education is consistent with human rights standards and principles.”

Following the announcement of the resolution, Katie Malouf Bous, of Oxfam International, is quoted by Action Aid as saying:

“Too many governments have neglected their duty to adequately finance education, leading to weakened public schools and increased privatization as the inevitable result. Serious and substantial investments to provide good quality public education must be the antidote to privatization.”

Facebook’s Solar-Powered Internet Plane Looks Like a Stealth Bomber

Facebook’s plans to become a flying internet service provider for the developing world are coming to fruition. The company today introduced Aquila, a high-flying, long-endurance plane that will bring basic internet access to the developing world. A working model of the plane is now ready for testing, Facebook said.

Facebook’s shallow, V-shaped plane has the wingspan of a Boeing 737. But even fully loaded down with communications gear, Aquila only weighs between 880 to 1,000 lbs — about a third the weight of a Prius. “When deployed, it will be able to circle a remote region for up to 90 days, beaming connectivity down to people from an altitude of 60,000 to 90,000 [feet],” the company said in a blog post. This means the planes will be flying at an altitude above commercial aircraft, and even above the weather.

This is how it will work: Facebook will have lasers on the ground that can locate the dome-shaped optical head, located on the bottom of the plane, in the air — basically shooting a laser at a dime-sized target that is more than 10 miles away. The plane will first hone in on the general location of the laser on the ground, proceeding to target it further and lock onto the location so that it can start beaming down the internet. Because the plane requires a connection with the lasers on the ground though, you might experience a slower connection when it’s raining or cloudy.