Archives for category: Politics

Today, February 11, is The Day We Fight Back Against Mass Surveillance. I’ll leave it to you to visit the link and contact your elected officials (Congressman Gibson will likely be receptive). Many people and organizations are behind this first drive to pass the USA Freedom Act and implement other reforms to reign in NSA spying.

What I’d like to do in this post is give you a brief outline of how to do a better job of protecting your privacy online.

First, a word of warning: there is currently no foolproof way to guarantee your privacy, online or anywhere else. But a lot of talented people are working to change that, and I think we can look forward to better privacy safeguards down the road. I hope we can, anyway.

The Fundamentals

It makes a difference which operating system you use. Windows is far and away the most vulnerable, but both Microsoft and Apple have likely cooperated with the NSA despite their official denials. I’d trust OS X over Windows, but the open source Linux is safer than either.

I’m sure most of you aren’t going to switch to Linux to gain increased privacy online—there are a fair number of technical hurdles involved for ordinary users. That being the case, you need to pay attention to the software you use.

Open source software is safer than proprietary software. This is true for the simple reason that anyone can view the code. Therefore, you should use open source apps whenever possible.

Internet Browsing Software

Firefox is the only major open source browser. It is safer than Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, Google’s Chrome or Apple’s Safari. It is safer still if you use the HTTPS Everywhere extension, which encrypts connections to many sites. Still, even with Firefox, your browsing isn’t truly safe.

For genuinely safe browsing, use the Tor Browser Bundle. Tor software hides your location and prevents anyone from seeing your web travels or logging your web searches. The browser itself is based on an enhanced version of Firefox. The Tor Browser Bundle is easy to install, easy to use and available for all platforms. Even today, it should protect your browsing from the NSA.

Email Software

Currently, email—like chat or any social network—is pretty much a lost cause. It’s not safe, period. If you want to have minimal protection, then use the open source Thunderbird (from Mozilla, like Firefox) in conjunction with GnuPG encryption (Thunderbird has a plugin to enable this). But real security is down the road a ways, in the form of projects like Dark Mail.

The Cloud

Like Dropbox? So do I—but it and every other cloud storage provider has been targeted by the NSA. A safer alternative may be BitTorrent Sync, currently in beta. Because this service doesn’t store your files on a company-controlled server (or any server, for that matter), your data should theoretically be safer.

Bear in mind, though, that the NSA has succeeded in shipping computers from name-brand manufacturers with secret radio transmitters inside. These machines are compromised even if they never connect to the Internet. And if the NSA should decide to target you through a back door built into Windows or OS X to install a keylogger on your machine, there’s absolutely nothing that can help you. That’s how bad the situation currently is, and why we need serious reforms.

Before President Obama’s State of the Union address this evening, please take a moment to watch this short video on one of the country’s most urgent issues: gun violence.

Last night, at an organizational meeting of the Greene County Democratic Committee in Cairo, Sean Eldridge received the party’s endorsement for this year’s 19th Congressional District race against incumbent Chris Gibson.

The endorsement was a foregone conclusion but interesting nonetheless—Eldridge addressed the assembled group (it was the second time I’ve heard him speak), and he’s good. He does represent a convincing alternative to the Republican Gibson, and in the recently reconfigured 19th District, he stands a fighting chance.

Sean Eldridge
Sean Eldridge. Photo: seaneldridge.com.

Eldridge and his husband Chris Hughes represent something of a new wave in American politics: gay progressive power brokers. Both are young, bright and accomplished, and they enjoy substantial financial resources to support the goals they believe in.

Hughes co-founded Facebook while at Harvard and is the source of the couple’s fortune. He purchased and now publishes and edits the venerable journal, The New Republic. Hughes was also the coordinator of online organizing for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, an effort that was hugely successful and has influenced political campaigns ever since.

Eldridge runs Hudson River Ventures, based in Kingston, which has funded many area businesses, as well as the Hudson Valley Advanced Manufacturing Center at SUNY New Paltz, which is working to bring cutting-edge manufacturing technology—including 3D printing—to the region. Eldridge was also instrumental in getting marriage equality passed in New York, and he is involved in efforts to increase environmental protections and reform campaign finance laws.

He is sharp and quick on his feet, in contrast to his sometimes plodding Congressional opponent. In fielding questions from the audience last night, Eldridge gave succinct but compelling answers which underscored his progressive views on a wide range of subjects, including economic inequality, NSA spying and gun control. (I do wish progressive politicans didn’t feel the need to preface their remarks on gun control with lines like “I myself am a gun owner,” but that’s another story.)

In short, Sean Eldridge is an exciting new candidate who has a solid chance of unseating Chris Gibson this fall.

Yesterday’s long-awaited speech by President Obama on government spying and citizens’ privacy rights was largely anticlimactic. Most observers expected superficial, cosmetic “fixes”, and that is precisely what the president delivered. The NSA will basically continue to scoop up whatever it wants, whenever it wants, with very little oversight.

Don’t give up hope, though—Obama’s compromised stance on national security vs. privacy rights is unlikely to be the last word.

As Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, put it: “Now it’s up to the courts, Congress, and the public to ensure that real reform happens, including stopping all bulk surveillance—not just telephone records collection.”


NSA: Eyes and Ears Everywhere. Graphic: Wikipedia.

Some groups were more critical still. Steven Hawkins, the executive director of Amnesty International, said Obama’s remarks would be remembered as “music on the Titanic”. Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, added that the government “is engaging in a textbook example of an ‘unreasonable search’ that violates the constitution”.

There’s already action in the works to go further toward genuine reform. The USA Freedom Act sounds uncomfortably like the Patriot Act, and in fact it was co-launched by one of the Patriot Act’s authors, Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, together with Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Sensenbrenner has had grave second thoughts about the way the Patriot Act turned out, and the USA Freedom Act is intended to counter some of the earlier bill’s worst effects. 120 congressmen have already signed on, including our local Congressman Chris Gibson.

There are other powerful forces lined up against NSA overreach as well. One is the Reform Government Surveillance group founded by some of technology’s biggest companies, including Apple, Google and Microsoft. They want to undue the damage that NSA spying revelations have done to American business interests abroad, which has been substantial.

The NSA also has powerful allies, though, and true reform will not be easy. But I believe we can go much further than the president suggested yesterday. I work in the technology sector, and I’ll outline some personal steps you can take to protect your individual privacy in a future post.

The new year is nearly upon us—what to expect is anyone’s guess, but what we should strive for is increasingly clear. Broadly, we need more equality, greater justice and a more peaceful, sustainable world. Here is an excellent outline of some of the specifics, courtesy of Senator Bernie Sanders from neighboring Vermont.

Dear Thomas,

I want to take this opportunity to wish you and yours a very happy new year. I also want to express my gratitude to you for the political support that you have given to me, and for all of your efforts in trying to move our country and the world in the direction of peace, justice and environmental sanity.

As we survey our country at the end of 2013 I don’t have to tell you that the problems facing us are monumental, that the Congress is dysfunctional and that more and more people (especially the young) are, understandably, giving up on the political process. The people are hurting. They look to Washington for help. Nothing is happening.

  • The middle class continues to decline with median family income some $5,000 less than it was in 1999.
  • More Americans, 46.5 million, are now living in poverty than at any time in our nation’s history. Child poverty, at 21.8 percent, is the highest of any major country.
  • Real unemployment is not 7 percent. If one includes those who have given up looking for work and those who want full-time work but are employed part-time, real unemployment is 13.2 percent — and youth unemployment is much higher than that.
  • Most of the new jobs that are being created are part-time work at low wages, but the minimum wage remains at the starvation level of $7.25 per hour.
  • Millions of college students are leaving school deeply in debt, while many others have given up on their dream of a higher education because of the cost.
  • Meanwhile, as tens of millions of Americans struggle to survive economically, the wealthiest people are doing phenomenally well and corporate profits are at an all-time high. In fact, wealth and income inequality today is greater than at any time since just before the Great Depression. One family, the Walton family with its Wal-Mart fortune, now owns more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of Americans. In recent years, 95 percent of all new income has gone to the top 1 percent.
  • The scientific community has been very clear: Global warming is real, it is already causing massive problems and, if we don’t significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the planet we leave to our kids and grandchildren will be less and less habitable.

Clearly, if we are going to save the middle class and protect our planet, we need to change the political dynamics of the nation. We can no longer allow the billionaires and their think tanks or the corporate media to set the agenda. We need to educate, organize and mobilize the working families of our country to stand up for their rights. We need to make government work for all the people, not just the 1 percent.

Before we talk about 2014, let me ask you a favor. Do you know of friends, family or co-workers who might be interested in receiving our email newsletters and updates? If you do, please forward this email and encourage them to sign-up for occasional updates. They can sign-up for our emails by clicking here.

When Congress reconvenes for the 2014 session, here are a few of the issues that I will be focusing on.

WEALTH AND INCOME INEQUALITY: A nation will not survive morally or economically when so few have so much while so many have so little. It is simply not acceptable that the top 1 percent owns 38 percent of the financial wealth of the nation, while the bottom 60 percent owns all of 2.3 percent. We need to establish a progressive tax system which asks the wealthy to start paying their fair share of taxes, and which ends the outrageous loopholes that enable one out of four corporations to pay nothing in federal income taxes.

JOBS: We need to make significant investments in our crumbling infrastructure, in energy efficiency and sustainable energy, in early childhood education and in affordable housing. When we do that, we not only improve the quality of life in our country and combat global warming, we also create millions of decent paying new jobs.

WAGES: We need to raise the minimum wage to a living wage. We should pass the legislation which will soon be on the Senate floor which increases the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour, but we must raise that minimum wage even higher in the coming years. We also need to expand our efforts at worker-ownership. Employees will not be sending their jobs to China or Vietnam when they own the places in which they work.

RETIREMENT SECURITY: At a time when only one in five workers in the private sector has a defined benefit pension plan; half of Americans have less than $10,000 in savings; and two-thirds of seniors rely on Social Security for more than half of their income we must expand Social Security and make sure that every American can retire with dignity.

WALL STREET: During the financial crisis, huge Wall Street banks received more than $700 billion in financial aid from the Treasury Department and more than $16 trillion from the Federal Reserve because they were “too big to fail.” Yet today, the largest banks in this country are much bigger than they were before taxpayers bailed them out. It is time to break up these behemoths before they cause another global economic collapse.

CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM: We are not living in a real democracy when large corporations and a handful of billionaire families can spend unlimited sums of money to elect or defeat candidates. We must expand our efforts to overturn the disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision and move this country to public funding of elections.

SOCIAL JUSTICE: While we have made progress in recent years in expanding the rights of minorities, women and gays, these advances are under constant attack from the right wing. If the United States is to become the non-discriminatory society we want it to be, we must fight to protect the rights of all Americans.

CIVIL LIBERTIES: Frankly, the National Security Agency (NSA) and some of the other intelligence agencies are out of control. We cannot talk about America as a “free country” when the government is collecting information on virtually every phone call we make, when they are intercepting our emails and monitoring the websites we visit. Clearly, we need to protect this country from terrorism, but we must do it in a way that does not undermine our constitutional rights.

WAR AND PEACE: With a large deficit and an enormous amount of unmet needs, it is absurd that the United States continues to spend almost as much on defense as the rest of the world combined. The U.S. must be a leader in the world in nuclear disarmament and efforts toward peace, not in the sale of weapons of destruction.

Let me conclude by once again wishing you a happy and healthy new year — and by asking you to share this email with friends, family and co-workers. They can sign-up for our occasional emails by clicking here.

This is a tough and historical moment in American history. Despair is not an option. Let us stand together as brothers and sisters and fight for the America our people deserve.

Thank you for your continued support.

Sincerely,

Senator Bernie Sanders

To the Senator’s worthy agenda, I would only add this:

GUN VIOLENCE: It’s time we treated gun violence as the public health menace it is. That means real legislative reform and much tougher regulation. This is one of the most, if not the most, politically difficult fights that rational Americans face today, but it is increasingly urgent.

Here’s to a better world in 2014. Happy New Year, everyone.

As I wrote earlier today, it has been one year since the atrocity at Newtown. Since then, some 1,000 people have lost their lives to guns in America every month. It’s time for New York State to stop participating in this insanity.

That’s why BlueInGreene created a petition to The New York State House, The New York State Senate, and Governor Andrew Cuomo, which says:

“Divest New York State’s pension funding from companies that invest in or profit from the gun industry.”

Please click here to sign the petition.

Thank you.

In the immediate aftermath of the Newtown murders, one year ago today, it seemed as if the horror of the crime finally broke through Americans’ collective rationalizations regarding gun violence. But only for a moment.

Some states, including New York, passed laws intended to curtail the violence. Insane protests sprang up at once, as the right frothed and spewed over the trampling of their God-given freedoms. Many more states passed laws relaxing gun controls.

A number of well-meaning groups were formed to address the “problem” (such an inadequate word, in the context) of gun violence in America. Mayors Against Illegal Guns, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s finest legacy, is the best known. That group recently partnered with another group called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America to produce the message shown below. It is the centerpiece of the groups’ plans to “gather at over 50 events in more than 35 states to honor the victims of the tragedy in Newtown.”

As for the residents of Newtown itself, they’ve told the media to stay away. Joe Nocera, writing in today’s New York Times, highlights some of the reasons why.

In the 12 months since Newtown, anywhere from 11,484 to 33,373 people have died from guns in America, depending on who’s counting.

It’s hard to be optimistic.

I recently had to renew the lease to this website, and nearly didn’t. It’s an uphill battle to carry the progressive blue flag in Greene County—lots of negative feedback, no tangible rewards. Apart from that, it is simply an increasingly difficult task to keep up with the accelerating news cycle. It’s one over-the-top event or revelation after another. The Tea Party shutdown and the threat of default, which will soon recur. The disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act, still ongoing. The ever-more-sweeping revelations of American spying, courtesy of Edward Snowden. And of course the local news, or lack of same. Why bother to comment on, or try to make sense of, any of this?

The answer I arrived at, boiled down to its essence, is that not to engage with today’s events would be tantamount to giving up. Too many people have done that already. Greene County, NY amounts to a tiny sliver of this critical juncture in America’s history, but it’s important to those of us who live here. And too many of its residents stand outside the mainstream of progress.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the referendum on casinos coming up next Tuesday. A “Yes” vote is being pitched as a panacea for upstate New York’s economic ills. This is untrue. The jobs a casino in the Catskills would create would be menial, for the most part. Many of the better jobs wouldn’t even go to local residents, but to people from out of state. And the squalid social conditions associated with gambling’s downside (see: Atlantic City) would only make life upstate worse, and push genuine opportunities even further away.

Vote No on Tuesday.

Human progress is measured in inches, painfully gained over decades or longer. Any student of history can tell you that, and can also tell you that we are living in an era where progressive gains are especially difficult.

The Affordable Care Act, due to launch this Tuesday (although few would know this from its low-key promotion), remains an affront to the Republican far right. (It remains an affront to the American left as well, for different reasons.) Nonetheless, the new law is set to inch American standards of medical care forward, and move the country slightly closer to the more advanced health care standards prevalent in Europe. It will do this primarily by offering needed medical care to more Americans than presently receive it.

Eric Cantor, Enemy of Progress
Eric Cantor, Enemy of Progress. Source: NY Times

But not if the Tea Party can help it. Their impetus is to roll back progress and shrink government, and shutting down the federal government puts them in a partying mood. Listen to Representative John Culberson of Texas:

“I said, like 9/11, ‘Let’s roll!’ I can’t control what the Senate does. Ulysses S. Grant used to say, ‘Boys, quit worrying about what Bobby Lee is doing. I want to know what we are doing. And that’s what the House is doing today, thank God.”

Talk about mixed metaphors—Culberson invokes 9/11 and the Civil War in the same breath, but by citing U.S. Grant he places himself on the wrong side. He and his fellow freak-show Congresspeople are more akin to the most rabid elements of the Confederacy, united in their hatred of the U.S. Government.

Over and over this weekend, Republicans justified the coming government shutdown as necessary to give the American people what they want, i.e., the end of Obamacare. The fact that they lost the last two presidential elections is meaningless in their eyes—it’s their view that counts, and no one else’s. The majority who actually voted Obama into office don’t factor into their conception of “the American people” at all.

We can only hope that the fallout from the looming shutdown is punishing enough to the crazies that they will back away from forcing a U.S. default in October. Given the tenor of the times, though, anything could happen.

The situation in Syria represents one of the thornier moral problems in recent years. Not in terms of the recent chemical weapons attack—that is clearly a moral outrage, and its perpetrators (the Assad regime, in my view) are war criminals. But Syria is complicated by recent American history and widespread moral ambivalence among U.S. citizens and others.

No one wants another Iraq. The resolution currently before Congress imposes strict qualifications on any American intervention to “punish” the Syrian regime. Yet there is a widespread belief among the American public (and the British public, and many other citizens in many other countries) that these qualifications are meaningless, and any American intervention would automatically lead to escalation and U.S. involvement in Syria’s horrific civil war. There is also a strain of xenophobia at work, in which ordinary people shrug off the gassing of some 1400 civilians in Syria and focus on more prosaic mattters at home.

Bashar al-Assad, war criminal
Bashar al-Assad, war criminal

Yet another argument against intervention is that the U.S. is applying selective morality in targeting Syria. After all, we didn’t go after Saddam Hussein for gassing the Kurds (though we soon went after him for other reasons). This is a valid argument, in that we have been selective in our moral criteria. But I don’t believe it is a sufficient argument against intervention in this case.

I am for U.S. strikes against Assad, for the following reasons:

1. Assad and his top officials are guilty of violating military and moral conventions that go back nearly a century. Chemical weapons are universally agreed to have no place on the battlefield, or elsewhere. Their use is an atrocious human rights violation, and the people who use them are justifiably regarded as criminals. We need to maintain this convention, along with the prohibition against biological and nuclear weapons.
2. The fact that the U.S. is being selective in its moral criteria, or for that matter has been guilty of its own criminal behavior in the past, does not render Assad’s behavior moot. Obama has a more developed moral sense than his predecessors, at least as regards this behavior. Just because we have not acted correctly in the past does not mean we should not do so now.
3. Failure to punish the perpetrators for the use of these weapons will put us on a slippery slope where they will be used again, and with increasing frequency. It also opens the door for other totalitarian regimes to test the world’s will when it comes to forbidden weapons. There are already rogue actors on the nuclear stage; do you want them to feel the world is powerless to intervene?
4. Given recent revelations about the NSA’s overwhelming technical capabilities, and our track record with special forces and drones, I have to think the U.S. is capable of targeting Assad himself and his henchmen, while selectively degrading the Syrian regime’s military capability overall. And targeting Assad, along with top military officials, is probably the most effective—and just—punishment we can devise.

Having outlined these reasons, it is still necessary to add caveats. We DO need to avoid indiscriminate use of force and civilian casualties in Syria. Killing more Syrians makes no sense on any level. Obama needs to make a strong case that we can act with precision and restraint, and only destroy what should be destroyed, then get out.

I realize there is a strong chance that Congress will not approve U.S. action. In that case, there should be no American intervention. Obama made a conscious decision to go to Congress (misguided, in my opinion, given the dysfunctional nature of the current Congress), so he needs to abide by their decision. There would still be things the U.S. could do, though. One is labeling Assad as the war criminal he is, and pursuing charges against him. That might take years, but so be it. We don’t know what the outcome in Syria is going to be; Assad might still be captured. If he is, he should stand trial for his crimes.

We will most likely have a chance to see the U.N. report from Syria before any U.S. action occurs. Assuming it verifies that the Assad regime was responsible for the August 21 chemical weapons attack, a strong, targeted and punitive U.S. response remains the best choice.

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