Hill, The

Yahoo taps surveillance critic as security chief

Security expert and surveillance critic Alex Stamos is Yahoo's new Vice President of Information Security, the company announced.

Previously, Stamos was Chief Technology Officer at Internet security firm Artemis and is an organizer of TrustyCon, a technology conference organized and sponsored by anti-surveillance companies and advocacy groups.

Stamos "will lead all aspects of information security at Yahoo, including our team of Yahoo 'Paranoids,' charged with making our products as secure as possible," Yahoo Senior Vice President of Platforms and Personalization Products Jay Rossiter wrote in a company blog post. "This is a broad role which includes implementing top-to-bottom security for our products and systems but also to lead the company and the industry in not just how security works today but how it needs to work in the future."

[March 11]

Can Congress save TV?

Unless Congress acts, more than a million satellite TV subscribers could turn on their TV in a year and miss out on news, hit shows and sporting events.

On Dec 31, the law allowing satellite television companies like Dish and DirecTV to carry out-of-market broadcast channels to many rural customers expires. Unless Congress takes action, that means some subscribers won’t be able to watch ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox as of 2015. And it’s no sure thing Congress will act. While renewing the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA) is one of the few must-pass bills of 2014, many observers expect it to become entangled in larger fights between cable, satellite and broadcast providers. A deadlock might make a short-term extension of the law the only way out.

“You know, I suppose there’s always a possibility, like there is around here, that you get some sort of a short-term extension until we get a chance to do a more complete process with it, but we’ll see,” said Sen John Thune (R-SD) of the Senate Commerce Committee. “The goal is to try and get it done.”

The law allows satellite providers to import broadcast signals to an estimated 1.5 million rural consumers who are unable to pick up the broadcasts on their own. The legal authority for the companies to provide local broadcast channels to people who would otherwise be able to pick them up with an antenna does not expire.

[March 10]

Consumer groups protest TV bill draft

Public interest groups are opposing an effort to update cable TV laws, which they say would “eviscerate” protections for consumers.

In a letter sent to Capitol Hill, a coalition of groups including Public Knowledge, the National Consumers League and Consumer Action criticized part of a draft bill recently released by Rep Greg Walden (R-OR), the chairman of the Commerce subcommittee on Communications. Ending a requirement that all set-top boxes come with the same cards to descramble signals, they wrote, would lead to unequal treatment for customers who buy boxes at retail locations rather than rent them from their provider.

“This is the wrong time to step backward,” the groups wrote. Free Press, the Writers Guild of America and the AllVid alliance, which includes TiVo, Sony and Best Buy, also signed on to the letter. Rep Walden’s effort to update the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act (STELA) includes a measure to end the requirement on so-called CableCARDs in rented boxes as well as purchased ones.

[March 10]

Tech industry watching European privacy votes

The tech industry is bracing for an imminent vote at the European Union that could put its business on the continent at risk.

Despite assurances from the US government, some European officials are calling for changes to the rules and agreements that allow US companies to process data belonging to European citizens, in the hopes of keeping that data out of the hands of the National Security Agency (NSA).

The EU Parliament will consider two measures that would affect the way American tech companies do business in Europe. The first is a privacy regulation that would end the Parliament’s role in a two-year process to update, strengthen and make cohesive EU privacy law, heightening privacy and security standards for the companies that deal with European citizens’ data. Once the Parliament approves the regulation, which is the expected outcome of the upcoming vote, the EU legislators have to negotiate over the law with the individual governments of EU countries. The second measure is a report from the body’s Civil Liberties Committee, which opened an investigation into US government surveillance after the revelations about NSA electronic surveillance, including that of European officials. That report made a number of recommendations about US companies’ access to data belonging to European citizens, including the immediate suspension of international agreements between the EU and US that allow US companies to process European data.

[March 10]

Snowden to EU: NSA Spying distracts from real threats

The National Security Agency’s (NSA) controversial sweeping surveillance distracts the agency from real threats, former government contractor Edward Snowden told European lawmakers.

“Suspicionless surveillance not only fails to make us safe, but it actually makes us less safe,” Snowden wrote in testimony to European Union Parliament members. “By squandering precious, limited resources on ‘collecting it all,’ we end up with more analysts trying to make sense of harmless political dissent and fewer investigators running down real leads,” he said.

Snowden’s testimony is a response to a request from the European lawmakers, who are conducting a review of government surveillance -- including the NSA’s sweeping surveillance programs. Snowden pointed to government reports that questioned the efficacy of the mass surveillance programs as a tool to stop terrorist attacks, including a report from the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.

[March 7]

Court rejects NSA request to keep data

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has denied the National Security Agency’s (NSA) attempt to hold onto people’s phone records for longer than the law allows. In an order, the court said the Justice Department’s attempt to authorize keeping the records beyond the current five-year legal limit “is simply unpersuasive.” “The Court has not found any case law supporting the government’s broad assertion that its duty to preserve supersedes statutory or regulatory requirements,” Judge Reggie Walton wrote in the court’s decision. [March 7]

Privacy is in our blood, says NSA official

Civil liberties are a top concern at the National Security Agency (NSA), the agency’s new privacy chief said.

“In their blood is [the] protection of your privacy,” Rebecca Richards said. Richards has been the NSA’s privacy and civil liberties officer for a little over a month. The creation of the position was announced in 2013, as the Obama Administration responded to a series of controversial revelations about sweeping US government surveillance. Richards said that her agency is “very compliant” with its own internal privacy protections, along with the safeguards set by policymakers and the courts.

Under Richards’s direction, the NSA is working on a report to document the privacy protections it enforces under each of its surveillance authorities, including Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows for the collection of phone call data. Richards said her next focus will be incorporating privacy protections into the ways the agency collects information and uses new technology. The agency should “build the concept of the [privacy] assessments into the core of what the NSA does,” she said.

Senators urge ban on in-flight calls

Two senators are urging the Department of Transportation to ban in-flight calls to prevent fights from breaking out among passengers.

Sens Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) wrote to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to encourage him to follow through with the ban the Transportation Department proposed in February 2014.

“We strongly support the agency's efforts to preserve the last vestige of quiet in our busy skies,” the senators wrote in the letter. The senators, who introduced the Commercial Flight Courtesy Act in December to ban in-flight calls through legislation, say cellphone conversations could create a “hostile atmosphere” for passengers. They said they worry flight crews might have to referee “senseless disputes” between passengers -- or even force air marshals to reveal their identities to break up physical altercations. “We are concerned that the addition of this entirely avoidable aggravation of a confined space will create a possibly hostile atmosphere on commercial flights,” the senators wrote.

Taking From the poor and giving to the ConnectED

[Commentary] The White House is touting its plan to upgrade Internet connections to schools, and the Federal Communications Commission -- nominally, an independent regulatory agency -- has announced a $2 billion “down payment” using cash from “reserve funds.” Why, one might ask, does the Federal Communications Commission have bigger reserves than a Fortune 500 corporation? The FCC has over a billion dollars, growing fast and burning a hole in its pocket, due to recent “reforms” of the scandal-plagued high-cost portion of the Universal Service Fund (USF).

The program is supposed to extend phone service to outlying areas via the “High Cost Fund,” recently renamed the “Connect America Fund.” Rather than let the program wither, the FCC continued to collect USF taxes, diverting them to a slush fund. In 2012, $560 million poured into it; in 2013 it collected $700 million more. Stunning as it may sound, the money comes largely from low-income telephone users who pay a hefty 16.4 percent tax to make long-distance phone calls the old-fashioned (pre-Skype) way.

“E-Rate” is now called “ConnectEd.” Proponents of increased spending have not presented a shred of evidence that additional spending on the program is worth the cost, and act as if dreamy stories about “ultra broadband” and “technology in the classroom” justify the mission. Yet, while the asserted results are illusory, the costs are real, and the tax that funds it falls disproportionately on low-income consumers. It’s a “soak the poor” scheme that has no justification in law or policy.
[Hazlett is H.H. Macaulay Endowed Professor of Economics at Clemson University. Wallsten is vice president for Research and senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute and senior fellow at the Georgetown University Center for Business and Public Policy]

FCC: ‘No intention’ of muzzling press

The Federal Communications Commissions (FCC) is trying to reassure House Republicans that it has no plans to restrict the freedom of the press. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler told Republican leaders of the House Commerce Committee that his commission “has no intention of regulating political or other speech of journalists or broadcasters.”

Chairman Wheeler defended new FCC research as the first step toward pinpointing “market barriers” that may make affect the “diversity of media voices.” Republicans expressed concern that the FCC's study was an attempt "to control the political speech of journalists” by reviving the Fairness Doctrine, now-extinct rules that required radio and TV broadcasters to air opposing viewpoints on major issues. FCC Commission Ajit Pai raised alarms about the study.