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privacy

Ted Cruz has your personal data

Hope that doesn’t creep you out.

Not Ted Cruz

Sen. Ted Cruz is under fire for his connections with a voter targeting firm that used data taken from 50 million Facebook users without their knowledge.

The Cruz presidential campaign touted its collaboration with Cambridge Analytica as a sign of a cutting edge run for the White House, allowing the Texan to carefully identify likely supporters. The firm shifted allegiance to Donald Trump once the Texan dropped out of the GOP primaries.

Both campaigns pumped millions into the company, controlled by billionaire Robert Mercer — a key patron first of Cruz and then Trump in 2016.

Cruz continued work with Cambridge Analytica for six months after allegations surfaced in December 2015 that the firm was using Facebook data it had received illicitly. Recent revelations show the data harvesting was far more extensive than previously suspected, and possibly among the biggest privacy breaches in history.

“It was a grossly unethical experiment because you are playing with the psychology of an entire country… in the context of the democratic process,” whistleblower Christopher Wylie, a data scientist who worked for Cambridge Analytica, told The Guardian. “It is a full service propaganda machine.”

Texas Democrats blasted Cruz on Monday for benefiting from a “massive invasion of privacy” and demanded that Cruz explain when he knew the company had engaged in “deceitful activity.”

“Ted Cruz will stop at nothing to weasel his way into power, even if it means weaponizing stolen information to manipulate people to like him,” Texas Democratic Party deputy executive director Manny Garcia said in a press release. “Cruz’s campaign exploited personal information to create psychological profiles on millions of Americans. All to keep lining the pockets of Cruz’s billionaire super PAC donors — like Robert Mercer, who funded this propaganda machine.”

Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier declined a request for comment on Monday.

Boy, when was the last time Ted Cruz didn’t have something to say? (He has since offered a statement that puts all the blame on Cambridge.) There’s plenty more out there about Cambridge Analytica if you want to keep reading. If you’d like to ask Ted Cruz to give you your data back, you can call his office at (202) 224-5922. I look forward to seeing this subject explored in more detail in campaign ads later this year. RG Ratcliffe and the Dallas Observer have more.

Student RFID lawsuit rejected

A win for the school district in federal court.

A federal judge Tuesday ruled that Northside Independent School District can transfer a student from her magnet school for refusing to wear her student ID badge to protest a new electronic tracking system.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia rejected a lawsuit brought by Andrea Hernandez, 15, through her father, Steve Hernandez, backed by lawyers provided by the Rutherford Institute.

The lawsuit had sought an injunction so she could stay in Jay High School’s magnet school for science and engineering without having to wear the identification badge.

The badges contain a chip used to track students’ on-campus whereabouts but Northside ISD officials had offered to let her wear it without the chip.

Andrea refused, saying it violated her constitutional rights and religious beliefs, and after Northside officials reassigned her to Taft High School, her regular neighborhood school, the family filed suit in November.

“Today’s court ruling affirms NISD’s position that we did make reasonable accommodation” to Andrea’s religious concerns, the district said in an emailed statement. “The family now has the choice to accept the accommodation and stay at the magnet program, or return to her home campus” later this month.

[…]

Administrators use [RFID] mainly to identify students who are in the building but missed morning roll call, although the system also can locate individual students any time of day. It keeps an electronic history of each badge, so operators can retrace a student’s general movements. In a 25-page ruling, Garcia said the five claims of violations of federal and state civil liberties and religious laws that the lawsuit asserted failed to meet requirements to get the injunction.

The issue of school safety trumps some of the claims, he wrote, and cited examples from Northside Superintendent Brian Woods’ testimony that the RFID program has allowed educators to quickly find students during emergencies.

“In today’s climate, one would be hard pressed to argue that the safety and security of the children and educators in our public school system is not a compelling governmental interest,” Garcia wrote. “One could envision many different methods of ensuring safety and security in schools, and the requirement that high school students carry a uniform ID badge issued for those attending classes on campus is clearly one of the least restrictive means available.”

See background here and here, and via Wired you can see the court’s opinion here. The Rutherford Institute, which represented Andrea Hernandez, has said that it would support an appeal to the Fifth Circuit. I continue to not understand the fuss, given that NISD has allowed her to remove the RFID chip from her ID card. Requiring high school students to carry and display an ID card seems to me to be a pretty basic security measure. We’ll see what if anything happens from in the courts and the Legislature.

Student RFID case in federal court

Good luck sorting it all out, Your Honor.

Because she has a religious objection to Northside Independent School District’s new student tracking system, Andrea Hernandez and her father testified in federal court Monday, she should not be transferred to another school for refusing to carry a student I.D. badge.

Hernandez, 15, a sophomore in a science and engineering magnet program at John Jay High School, and her father, Steven Hernandez, each testified that they believe the tracking system — which uses radio frequency identification tags inserted in student badges — is a sign of submission to the Antichrist as described in the Bible’s Book of Revelation.

Northside began trying out the RFID technology at two schools this fall. It allows an attendance monitor to locate students at specific areas on campus in real time.

It’s a way to maximize state funding, which is partly based on daily attendance, to cope with budget cuts, Northside Superintendent Brian Woods told U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia. The system allows a more accurate count of which students are at school and could help locate individuals quickly in case of emergencies, Woods said.

[…]

Steven Hernandez teared up on the stand after reading a passage from the Bible and explaining how deeply he holds his faith on the issue. He said supporting the program “would compromise our salvation for NISD to make some money.”

Andrea told the judge that her educational goals would be harmed if she goes to Taft because she wouldn’t be able to take certain classes in pursuit of a career as an interface web designer. Garcia repeatedly asked Andrea and her father why she could not wear the badge with the chip removed. That would be “falling in line with the rest and showing support for the program,” Steven Hernandez testified.

After the hearing, when asked who he thought was assuming the role of the Antichrist, Steven Hernandez replied, “In this case, Northside is the Antichrist.”

Garcia said he would decide this week on Andrea’s request for a permanent injunction to keep her at Jay.

I can’t wait to see what he decides. See here and here for more.

The anti-student RFID movement has already begun

When I wrote about the battle over student RFID, I said it was just a matter of time before the Lege intervened. Turns out I was behind the curve on this.

Since first hearing about the use of radio frequency technology to track public school students in 2004, state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, has filed a bill during every subsequent legislative session to prohibit the technology’s usage. Now, with civil liberties proponents supporting one San Antonio student’s right to refuse the technology, her proposal might get wider attention.

Chris Steinbach, Kolkhorst’s chief of staff, said he thinks a court case — in which the San Antonio student is arguing that her school’s ID card pilot program violates her civil rights — might spark the necessary attention to move the bill forward. A hearing on that case was scheduled for Wednesday morning in a state district court, but it was removed to federal court.

“The stars are aligning with people on the left and right with people who are concerned about parental rights and privacy,” Steinbach said.

[…]

[Rep. Kolkhorst] has pre-filed two bills on the identification technology. HB 102 would bar school districts from using the radio tags. HB 101, on the other hand, would allow districts to only use the cards if their school boards approve them — and only if students who refuse the ID cards are given an “alternative method of identification” and not penalized for their refusal.

“There’s the easy way and the hard way,” Steinbach said. “She’s just going to gauge the temperature of the Legislature.”

I continue to be baffled by the vehemence some people feel about this. I just don’t see it as that big a deal. Of course, I don’t have non-standard religious beliefs, and as I noted in the previous post, we don’t generally give much credence to the idea of “freedom” for students in other contexts. Having said that, I have no objections to HB101, which seems like a reasonable approach to the issue. Surely if you believe in local control, it’s preferable to the blanket ban that HB102 would mandate. We’ll see what the Lege prefers.

Student RFID

I have three things to say about this.

A Texas high school student is being suspended for refusing to wear a student ID card implanted with a radio-frequency identification chip.

Northside Independent School District in San Antonio began issuing the RFID-chip-laden student-body cards when the semester began in the fall. The ID badge has a bar code associated with a student’s Social Security number, and the RFID chip monitors pupils’ movements on campus, from when they arrive until when they leave.

Radio-frequency identification devices are a daily part of the electronic age — found in passports, and library and payment cards. Eventually they’re expected to replace bar-code labels on consumer goods. Now schools across the nation are slowly adopting them as well.

The suspended student, sophomore Andrea Hernandez, was notified by the Northside Independent School District in San Antonio that she won’t be able to continue attending John Jay High School unless she wears the badge around her neck, which she has been refusing to do. The district said the girl, who objects on privacy and religious grounds, beginning Monday would have to attend another high school in the district that does not yet employ the RFID tags.

The Rutherford Institute said it would go to court and try to nullify the district’s decision. The institute said that the district’s stated purpose for the program — to enhance their coffers — is “fundamentally disturbing.”

“There is something fundamentally disturbing about this school district’s insistence on steamrolling students into complying with programs that have nothing whatsoever to do with academic priorities and everything to do with fattening school coffers,” said John Whitehead, the institute’s president.

Like most state-financed schools, the district’s budget is tied to average daily attendance. If a student is not in his seat during morning roll call, the district doesn’t receive daily funding for that pupil because the school has no way of knowing for sure if the student is there.

But with the RFID tracking, students not at their desk but tracked on campus are counted as being in school that day, and the district receives its daily allotment for that student.

1. School districts have a strong incentive to ensure that their weighted average daily attendance (WADA) figures are as high as possible because that’s how their funding is determined. This is the system that the Legislature has set up. I’m not an expert in these matters so I can’t say whether this is the best way to dole out funds to schools and school districts or not, but it’s what we’ve got whether you like it or not, and especially in the current climate of budget cuts and funding levels being frozen since 2006, I hardly see how you can blame NISD for trying to ensure it’s getting all the resources it’s owed. I strongly object to the Rutherford Institute’s classification of this as NISD “enhancing its coffers”, as if there’s a CEO behind the scenes seeking to maximize his profits. The money NISD would lose out on for undercounting their attendance hurts their students; getting all the resources they are owed helps them. One can make the case that they’re simply fulfilling their fiduciary responsibility to local taxpayers, since funds they forfeit by not getting an accurate count of their WADA may need to be recouped by an increase in property taxes. If you don’t like the system, blame the Legislature for it, as only they can change it. NISD is just playing by the rules as they are written.

2. Attacking NISD’s policy on privacy grounds seems like a losing strategy to me, since it’s fairly well established that students have fewer rights than adults and that school administrators have a lot of leeway in dealing with students. If you find the idea of a school tracking the whereabouts of its students outrageous, all I can say is are you sure your boss isn’t keeping tabs on where you are right now? We’re sufficiently far down this rabbit hole that the only way we’ll be able to find our way back out is if someone has been tracking our movements. Like it or not, I don’t see how what NISD is doing is out of bounds. There’s a much bigger conversation that we need to have about all this, but the outcome of this case one way or the other isn’t going to have any effect on that.

3. Objecting to NISD’s policy on religious grounds, however, may be the golden ticket. I don’t know how that may play out in the courts, but I’ll bet that this issue rises to the point where some enterprising GOP member of the Legislature takes it up. I can already see the bill, and the press conference announcing the bill, from here. It’s just a matter of time.

So that’s where we stand now. A judge temporarily blocked Hernandez’s suspension on Wednesday pending further hearings this week, so stay tuned. For more on this story, see here or just google “Andrea Hernandez RFID”. For a typically thoughtful analysis from a religious perspective, read The Slacktivist.

Environmental drones

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! A plane! A drone!

One year into a $260,000 two-year grant from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, [civil engineer Thom] Hardy and his crew of biologists, geographers and spatial analysts have used the drone to track bird habitat in Galveston Bay and the growth of invasive tamarisk on Texas rivers.

It has identified pockets of water in the drought-ravaged Blanco River for removing nonnative fish and conducted surveys of fly-fisherman on a portion of the Guadalupe River. The drone can track ecosystems along a proposed pipeline or power line route, Hardy said, and map canal vegetation to help weed control.

“If you need an image and take the pilot out of it, this is cheaper and quieter” and safer, he said.

Once launched, via a kind of bungee cord, the battery-powered plane can reach 60 miles per hour, though it typically flies at half that speed.

The drone generally flies at an altitude of 400 to 600 meters and has a range of roughly 10 miles. In each trip, the cameras can take up to 700 overlapping images, which the researchers upload to computers and inspect using spatial analysis software. After a whoosh on launch, the plane has a soft whinny, and silhouetted against the sky, it looks like a miniature version of a stealth fighter plane.

[…]

The Texas State drone program is one of several state or local agencies authorized to fly unmanned craft in Texas, according to a list the Federal Aviation Authority released in April in response to a suit from the Washington-based Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, the A&M Texas Engineering Experiment Station headquartered in College Station, the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Houston Police Department also have had authorization to operate drones, according to the list.

Seems like a pretty reasonable use of the technology, and as the story notes it’s a lot cheaper for researchers like these than hiring a Cessna to do the same work. But if you think this is a conspiracy theory waiting to happen, you’re not wrong.

In April, U.S. Reps. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Joe Barton, R-Ennis, co-chairmen of the congressional bipartisan privacy caucus, told the FAA acting administrator that they were concerned about “potential privacy implications” involving drones.

Austin-based conservative talk show host Alex Jones has taken those anxieties and amplified them. In a YouTube video taken at the Steiner Ranch and posted in late May, Jones and members of the Steiner family take turns firing weapons at remote-controlled helicopters meant to stand in for the drones. The video has been viewed nearly 500,000 times.

See the recent kerfuffle about non-existent “EPA drones” in Nebraska for the way this will eventually play out. I’d post a link to the Jones video but I fear for my sanity even looking for it.

Body scanners

Ready or not, they’re coming to Hobby Airport.

Full-body scanners for airline passengers, the devices that have stirred controversy over personal privacy, are being deployed at Houston’s Hobby Airport this summer, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Friday.

[…]

The images generated by the advanced imaging technology devices have prompted TSA to try to reassure passengers that their privacy will be protected.

A privacy filter blurs the X-ray-style images. Images are permanently and immediately deleted after being viewed by a TSA screener.

The TSA officer viewing the images is stationed in a remote location at the airport so that the screener does not to come into personal contact with the passengers who are being screened, Napolitano’s office said.

IAH, from which I do most of my flying, has not yet been designated to get one of these yet. I’m not terribly concerned about privacy with these things. If the images shown in the Chron story are at all representative, there’s nothing there to get worked up about. I’m more concerned about whether or not they actually work as advertised, and how expensive they’re going to be. It sure would be nice to have more information about their effectiveness before we dive in like this.

Let’s see those files

This is a good thing.

Working to make good on a campaign promise, recently elected Harris County District Attorney Patricia Lykos agreed on Monday to provide copies of police offense reports to criminal defense lawyers, changing the longstanding practice of allowing attorneys to only take notes from reports.

One of the most divisive issues in the criminal courthouse, defense lawyers often complain about the hours spent taking notes from a document that prosecutors have instant access to, which can include witness statements, photographs and other evidence prosecutors intend to introduce at trial.

Mark Bennett, president of the Houston’s criminal defense lawyers association, gave Lykos high marks for the change in policy.

“It’s an excellent move forward,” Bennett said.

I have to say, I don’t fully understand why this wasn’t always the case. Seems to me this was a petty policy, one designed to hinder the defense bar more than anything else. Good on Pat Lykos for changing that.

Assistant District Attorney Scott Durfee said the release of the actual document requires additional safeguards. Prosecutors are now marking out information that is private under Texas open records law, including Social Security numbers and Texas driver’s license information.

Defense attorneys also have to sign a confidentiality agreement that mandates that the information can be used only for the case at hand. If they don’t sign the agreement, Durfee said, they can work to get the information though a formal discovery process.

I also don’t quite understand the issue here. I mean, if these documents weren’t redacted before, what was to keep a defense attorney from simply jotting down this sensitive information? I don’t object to having this stuff redarcted first as a general rule, assuming that doesn’t turn into a new kind of diversionary tactic, I just don’t see why that wasn’t always the policy if it’s so important now.

Anyway. For a more detailed discussion of the ins and outs of this practice, see Murray Newman and Mark Bennett. May there be more reforms like this coming from the DA’s office soon.