11 stories
·
2 followers

Local and state police can’t use federal law to seize assets anymore

1 Share

Attorney General Eric Holder announced Friday that the Department of Justice would be putting a stop to local and state police participation in a federal asset seizure program called “Equitable Sharing.”

The program has allowed local and state police to seize assets—usually cash and vehicles—without evidence of a crime. If the former owner of the seized property fails to make a case for the return of his or her property, the local and state police were allowed to keep up to 80 percent of the assets, with the remaining portion returning to federal agencies.

"This is a significant advancement to reform a practice that is a clear violation of due process that is often used to disproportionately target communities of color," Laura Murph, the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington legislative office director told Ars in a statement.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation also did its own research into how much of the federal asset forfeiture funds were going back into surveillance and wiretapping, finding that California spent $13.6 million on spying.

“Holder’s announcement could have a significant impact on how law enforcement agencies fund electronic surveillance,” Dave Maas, an EFF spokesman, told Ars. “However, it’s important to remember that the next administration’s attorney general could easily reverse this policy decision. Further, many states also have their own asset forfeiture programs, so a whole second layer of funding remains on the state level.”

Billions and billions

The Washington Post reports that since 2008, local and state police departments have seized approximately $3 billion in assets from 55,000 seizures around the country. In an earlier article published by the paper, government documents detailed that police departments spent their share of that money on “Humvees, automatic weapons, gas grenades, night-vision scopes and sniper gear,” and “electronic surveillance equipment” as well as less high-tech items like coffee makers, “challenge coin” medallions, and clown appearances (“to improve community relations”).

Data collected by the Post revealed that as a whole, local and state law enforcement agencies spent at least $121 million of the funds springing from these asset forfeitures on electronic surveillance equipment. Such equipment purchases are usually made with little oversight, and can include stingrays, license-plate readers, or wiretap equipment.

The seizure program began three decades ago as part of the federal government's War on Drugs and was meant to confiscate airplanes and boats that drug smugglers used to transport narcotics. In the 1980s, the program expanded to permit the seizure of cash and, especially after 2001, upticks in seizures were seen and justified as part of the efforts to fight terrorists.

Holder's decision today still allows certain assets to be seized under the federal law without officially charging the owner for a crime, “including firearms, ammunition, explosives and property associated with child pornography,” the government's press release stated.

Federal authorities will still be able to seize assets as before, and local and state police departments often have their own seizure rules that won't be changed by this new policy. However, the Post notes that most states require seized assets to go into the general fund rather than directly to the police department, as the Equitable Sharing funds did.

The new policy also does not apply “to seizures resulting from joint operations involving both federal and state authorities, or to seizures pursuant to warrants issued by federal courts.” Such seizures have been used in high-profile cases that Ars has followed closely, such as the US government's case against Kim Dotcom (the federal complaint seeking the civil forfeiture of Dotcom's assets is here) or in the case of the US government versus Ross Ulbricht, alleged to be the kingpin of the Silk Road (you can follow Ars' coverage of Ulbricht's trial, which is ongoing).

Read Comments

Read the whole story
streeter
2765 days ago
reply
Share this story
Delete

API copyrights a “threat” to tech sector, scientists tell Supreme Court

1 Share

Dozens of computer scientists are urging the Supreme Court to overturn a May federal appeals court decision that said application programming interfaces (APIs) are subject to copyright protections.

The computer scientists, ranging from Vinton "Vint" Cerf—a father of the Internet—to Python creator Guido van Rossum, want the nation's high court to reverse the appellate ruling that said Oracle's Java API's were copyrightable:

The Federal Circuit’s decision poses a significant threat to the technology sector and to the public. If it is allowed to stand, Oracle and others will have an unprecedented and dangerous power over the future of innovation. API creators would have veto rights over any developer who wants to create a compatible program—regardless of whether she copies any literal code from the original API implementation. That, in turn, would upset the settled business practices that have enabled the American computer industry to flourish, and choke off many of the system’s benefits to consumers. [PDF]

The scientists are represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which describes APIs as "specifications that allow programs to communicate with each other. So when you type a letter in a word processor, and hit the print command, you are using an API that lets the word processor talk to the printer driver, even though they were written by different people."

Google asked the justices to review the decision last month. The court has not indicated whether it would do so. The scientists' so-called friend-of-the court brief, lodged Friday, urged the justices to hear the case.

The legal fracas stems from Google copying certain elements—names, declaration, and header lines—of the Java APIs in Android, and Oracle sued. A San Francisco federal judge largely sided with Google in 2012, saying that the code in question could not be copyrighted. But the federal appeals court reversed, and ruled that the "declaring code and the structure, sequence, and organization of the API packages are entitled to copyright protection."

Oracle said the decision was "a win for the entire software industry that relies on copyright protection to fuel innovation."

The scientists, meanwhile, contend the exact opposite.

...if the Federal Circuit's view had been accepted at the birth of modern computing, many important technologies would never have existed, and/or succeeded. For example, the widespread availability of diverse, cheap, and customizable personal computers owes its existence to the lack of copyright on the specification for IBM's Basic Input/Output System (BIOS) for the PC. And open APIs were essential to many modern computing developments, including those of operating systems such as UNIX, programming languages such as "C," the Internet’s network protocols, and cloud computing.

The dispute is far from over, even if the Supreme Court declines to hear the case.

The appellate court's ruling [PDF] left open the door that Google may not be monetarily liable for infringement. The appeals court sent the case back to the lower courts to determine whether Google had a "fair use" right to infringe.

However, there's no clear answer as to what constitutes fair use and it's decided on a case-by-case basis.

"The distinction between what is fair use and what is infringement in a particular case will not always be clear or easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission. Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission," the US Copyright Office says.

Read Comments

Read the whole story
streeter
2833 days ago
reply
Share this story
Delete

Watches

6 Comments and 16 Shares
Old people used to write obnoxious thinkpieces about how people these days always wear watches and are slaves to the clock, but now they've switched to writing thinkpieces about how kids these days don't appreciate the benefits of an old-fashioned watch. My position is: The word 'thinkpiece' sounds like a word made up by someone who didn't know about the word 'brain'.
Read the whole story
streeter
2891 days ago
reply
Share this story
Delete
6 public comments
Dadster
2890 days ago
reply
Recently I bought my 1st (traditional) watch in years. Like it.
New Hampshire
Crowbeak
2891 days ago
reply
On watches.
Nakagawa, Hokkaido, Japan
orpheus17d
2891 days ago
reply
This is the main reason I don't want a smart watch yet
notadoctor
2888 days ago
watches are like, bronze age technology
Eldaria
2892 days ago
reply
Well I stopped using a watch sometime in end of 90's, right about the time I got a mobile phone. Did not start using one again until I got my Pebble from Kickstarter.
esm
2892 days ago
reply
Alt-text: Old people used to write obnoxious thinkpieces about how people these days always wear watches and are slaves to the clock, but now they've switched to writing thinkpieces about how kids these days don't appreciate the benefits of an old-fashioned watch. My position is: The word 'thinkpiece' sounds like a word made up by someone who didn't know about the word 'brain'.
Berkeley, CA USA
llucax
2892 days ago
reply
Free wrists! I'm never going back to watches, smart or otherwise...
Berlin
Ironica
2891 days ago
Same here. I stopped wearing watches in the mid-1990s because I kept taking them off and leaving them in random locations. Never again!

Dramatic Photos of California's Historic Drought

1 Comment and 2 Shares

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 82% of the state of California currently falls in the "Extreme Drought" category. The years-long dry spell has tapped groundwater reserves and left reservoirs at record lows. Shasta Lake and Lake Oroville are both down to 30% of full capacity, exposing steep shorelines that were formerly under hundreds of feet of water. Marinas are crowding into ever-smaller coves as the water recedes, and ramps and roads no longer reach the shoreline. Getty Images photographer Justin Sullivan traveled to a number of these reservoirs last month and captured dramatic images, evidence of the severity of the water crisis in California. [22 photos]



A section of Lake Oroville is seen nearly dry on August 19, 2014 in Oroville, California. As the severe drought in California continues for a third straight year, water levels in the State's lakes and reservoirs are reaching historic lows. Lake Oroville is currently at 32 percent of its total 3,537,577 acre feet. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)







Read the whole story
streeter
2900 days ago
reply
Share this story
Delete
1 public comment
dreadhead
2900 days ago
reply
Yikes, maybe they can pick up all the junk that is usually under water at least?
Vancouver Island, Canada

Most Of California Reported To Be In 'Extreme Drought'

1 Share

About 58 percent of California is currently in the worst of the four drought levels used by experts, in conditions normally seen only once every 50-100 years.

» E-Mail This

Read the whole story
streeter
2934 days ago
reply
Share this story
Delete

The beauty of zipper merging, or why you should drive ruder

1 Share
According to the world of zipper merging, just because you see this sign doesn't mean you should change lanes at that exact moment.

Of all of the reasons for traffic snarls, impending lane closures bring out a particularly brutal combination of road rage and etiquette confusion. Most drivers know the pain of approaching two lanes in this situation; the left one is backed up much further because the right one will close in less than a mile thanks to, say, construction.

Which lane should a driver pick in this scenario? Steer to the left as soon as you see a closure notice and you'll almost certainly go slower; stay in the right and you'll catch stink-eye, honks, and even swerving drivers. Everyone is upset that you're about to essentially cut in line—an act that will require a tense, last-minute merge of your own.

Most driving schools and transportation departments in the United States don't instruct drivers on how to handle this situation or whether they must merge within a certain mileage, leaving this kind of merge up to the grace of your fellow, angry commuters. This week, however, Washington state State joined Minnesota in sending a clear message to drivers: merge Merge rudely. It's actually faster and safer.

“You don’t put your foot on the brake at all”

How to zipper merge.
There's a name for it: late merging, though advocates prefer the term "zipper "zip merging" because it doesn't have a negative connotation. According to Ken Johnson, a Minnesota State Work Zone, Pavement Marking, and Traffic Devices engineer, Engineer, "We want people to merge at the point we’re asking them to, so it’s not 'late,' per se."

It works as follows: in In the event of an impending lane closure, drivers should fill in both lanes in equal measure. Within a few car lengths of a lane ending, both lanes' cars should take turns filling in the open lane and resuming full speed.

If roads are clear enough that everyone is already driving close to the speed limit, zipper merging isn't as effective, but in the case of congestion, Johnson said that this method reduces backups by a whopping 40 percent on average, since both lanes approach the merge with equal stake in maintaining speed. "When the queue backup is reduced, the access points behind a work zone, like signals or ways to get on and off the freeway, those aren’t blocked," Johnson pointed out. "People have a better opportunity to get off or on the system at that point.

"I’ve been amazed at how consistent the flow is," Johnson added. "You don’t have to put your foot on the brake at all. You just coast ahead and take turns at the merge point."

The state of Minnesota Minnesota State began openly advertising the zipper merge in the early 2000s, even including its description in the state's driver's manual, but the measure didn't begin to widely catch on until a few years ago, ago  thanks to a state-wide advertising campaign in both traditional and online platforms. Now Washington state State has followed suit to encourage zipper merging as the result of highly publicized construction zones, particularly on bridges that connect Seattle to many tech offices (including Microsoft's campuses) in Bellevue and Redmond.

"There can be a weird idea going through people's heads of, like, 'Oh, these people are cheating, cutting in line!'" Washington State Department of Transportation representative Travis Phelps said to public radio station KUOW on Tuesday. "Well, it actually lets traffic flow if you can let folks in. Play nice. Treat traffic like a team sport. You gotta play the assist role. It's gonna help lessen the backups."

“People voluntarily leave a lane?”

Washington state State has a ways to go to catch up to Minnesota's efforts, however. In particular, the Minnesota Department of Transportation has added sensors to key roads; when they recognize pile-ups and congestions, electronic signs turn on and tell drivers to fill both lanes and merge at a later point.

Johnson said that electronic, conditional signs have proven more effective than static ones, and he pointed to a study from 2010 which revealed that 80 percent of Minnesota drivers still considered themselves "early mergers." An advertising and public outreach campaign followed, and a follow-up study in 2012 showed a massive turnaround in thinking in which 73 percent of respondents thought zipper merging was a good idea after all. ("When we were starting the campaign," Johnson added, "we worked with an east coast advertising firm who said, 'Wait, you have people who voluntarily leave a lane?'")

The zipper's catch, of course, is that every driver on the road has to be aware of, and believe in, the style of merging before it reaches maximum efficiency. So long as enough drivers don't fill both lanes or intentionally block the soon-to-end lane in the form of vigilante car justice, the concept still has to contend with confusion, whether from out-of-town travelers or oblivious commuters.

"People have learned that it's polite to move over sooner," Johnson said, and that fact means his research and tweaking will continue for years to come to get his state—and hopefully others, as he's been consulted by other transportation departments—into a zipper-merging mindset. He encouraged other states to join in and advised them to try things like updated driver's manuals, public outreach campaigns, and partnerships with local law enforcement to stop lane-blockers.

This early on, at least, the results are clear enough for other states to take notice. The state's congestion reduction is easily measurable, and while crash reports can't be easily pinned to zipper-merging zones, Johnson is confident that "when both lanes travel at the same speed, we have fewer crashes across the board."

Read Comments

Read the whole story
streeter
2937 days ago
reply
Share this story
Delete
Next Page of Stories