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Nobody working to bring a $346 million Microsoft project to rural Virginia expected to find graves in the woods. But in a cluster of yucca plants and cedar that needed to be cleared, surveyors happened upon a cemetery. The largest of the stones bore the name Stephen Moseley, “died December 3, 1930,” in a layer of cracking plaster. Another stone, in near perfect condition and engraved with a branch on the top, belonged to Stephen’s toddler son, Fred, who died in 1906.
“This is not as bad as it sounds,” an engineering consultant wrote in March 2014 to Microsoft and to an official in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, who was helping clear hurdles for the project — an expansion of a massive data center. “We should be able to relocate these graves.” Continue reading →
A number of high-profile whistleblowers in the technology industry have stepped into the spotlight in the past few years. For the most part, they have been revealing corporate practices that thwart the public interest: Frances Haugen exposed personal data exploitation at Meta, Timnit Gebru and Rebecca Rivers challenged Google on ethics and AI issues, and Janneke Parrish raised concerns about a discriminatory work culture at Apple, among others.
Two centuries of burning fossil fuels has put more carbon dioxide, a powerful greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere than nature can remove. As that CO2 builds up, it traps excess heat near Earth’s surface, causing global warming. There is so much CO2 in the atmosphere now that most scenarios show ending emissions alone won’t be enough to stabilize the climate – humanity will also have to remove CO2 from the air.
The U.S. Department of Energy has a new goal to scale up direct air capture, a technology that uses chemical reactions to capture CO2 from air. While federal funding for carbon capture often draws criticism because some people see it as an excuse for fossil fuel use to continue, carbon removal in some form will likely still be necessary, IPCC reports show. Technology to remove carbon mechanically is in development and operating at a very small scale, in part because current methods are prohibitively expensive and energy intensive. But new techniques are being tested this year that could help lower the energy demand and cost.
We asked Arizona State University Professor Klaus Lackner, a pioneer in direct air capture and carbon storage, about the state of the technology and where it’s headed. Continue reading →
Over the past six years, Iceland has been quietly conducting a major economic experiment. More than 2,500 public sector employees – representing over 1% of the country’s entire working population – reduced their working hours from 40 hours per week to 35 or 36 hours, with no loss of pay.
Trials of shorter working weeks are not new: in recent years a number of ‘four-day week’ experiments have taken place around the world – from Microsoft’s trial in Japan to Unilever’s experiment in New Zealand. But Iceland’s two trials, which took place between 2015 and 2021 among employees of the country’s national government and Reykjavík City Council, are unparalleled in terms of scale and scope. Progress was meticulously monitored by Icelandic researchers, which generated an unrivalled amount of evidence on the impact of shorter working hours. This week the key findings were published in a joint report published by Alda (Association for Sustainable Democracy) and Autonomy. Continue reading →
“It is now more urgent than ever to build a just transition away from fossil fuels and fight off attacks against protest and our freedom to vote, so that we can have a planet our communities can thrive on.”
Washington, DC erupts in celebration following the defeat of Donald Trump. Photo: Heartland Alliance
Numerous corporations have funded the political action committees of state lawmakers backing the recent spate of anti-voter and anti-protest bills, even as many of the companies have spoken out in defense of voting rights and democracy, a report published Monday by Greenpeace USA revealed
The report (pdf)—entitled Dollars vs. Democracy: Companies and the Attack on Voting Rights and Peaceful Protest—says that 44 state lawmakers sponsored at least one anti-protest bill and one anti-voter bill in the past year. It also reveals that 53 of the 100 top corporate donors to lawmakers sponsoring anti-voter bills also rank among the top 100 contributors to anti-protest measures. Continue reading →
The Hololens is demonstrated at the Penn Museum. (Photo: Penn Libraries-TRL/flickr/cc)
Declaring to chief executives that they refuse “to become war profiteers,” a group of Microsoft workers on Friday demanded the company cancel a contract with the U.S. Army that they say would “help people kill” and turn warfare into a “video game.”
Their open letter is addressed to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and president and chief legal officer Brad Smith, and, according to the “Microsoft Workers 4 Good” Twitter handle, which posted the document, it got over employee 100 signatures in its first day. Continue reading →
The door of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement vehicle.. Photo: ICE
The Department of Immigration & Customs Enforcement is taking new steps in its plans for monitoring the social media accounts of applicants and holders of U.S. visas. At a tech industry conference last Thursday in Arlington, Virginia, ICE officials explained to software providers what they are seeking: algorithms that would assess potential threats posed by visa holders in the United States and conduct ongoing social media surveillance of those deemed high risk.
The comments provide the first clear blueprint for ICE’s proposed augmentation of its visa-vetting program. The initial announcement of the plans this summer, viewed as part of President Donald Trump’s calls for the “extreme vetting” of visitors from Muslim countries, stoked a public outcry from immigrants and civil liberties advocates. They argued that such a plan would discriminate against Muslim visitors and potentially place a huge number of individuals under watch. Continue reading →
Fear of hackers reading private emails in cloud-based systems like Microsoft Outlook, Gmail or Yahoo has recently sent regular people and public officials scrambling to delete entire accounts full of messages dating back years. What we don’t expect is our own government to hack our email – but it’s happening. Federal court cases going on right now are revealing that federal officials can read all your email without your knowledge.
The federal government is getting access to the contents of entire email accounts by using an ancient procedure – the search warrant – with a new, sinister twist: secret court proceedings.
The earliest search warrants had a very limited purpose – authorizing entry to private premises to find and recover stolen goods. During the era of the American Revolution, British authorities abused this power to conduct dragnet searches of colonial homes and to seize people’s private papers looking for evidence of political resistance.
To prevent the new federal government from engaging in that sort of tyranny, special controls over search warrants were written into the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. But these constitutional provisions are failing to protect our personal documents if they are stored in the cloud or on our smartphones.
Fortunately, the government’s efforts are finally being made public, thanks to legal battles taken up by Apple, Microsoft and other major companies. But the feds are fighting back, using even more subversive legal tactics.
Searching in secret
To get these warrants in the first place, the feds are using the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, passed in 1986 – long before widespread use of cloud-based email and smartphones. That law allows the government to use a warrant to get electronic communications from the company providing the service – rather than the true owner of the email account, the person who uses it.
But relatively little notice has come to a similar Microsoft effort on behalf of customers that began in April 2016. The company’s suit argued that search warrants delivered to Microsoft for customers’ emails are violating regular people’s constitutional rights. (It also argued that being gagged violates Microsoft’s own First Amendment rights.)
It’s very difficult to get a copy of one of these search warrants, thanks to orders sealing files and gagging companies. But in another Microsoft lawsuit against the government a redacted warrant was made part of the court record. It shows how the government asks for – and receives – the power to look at all of a person’s email.
On the first page of the warrant, the cloud-based email account is clearly treated as “premises” controlled by Microsoft, not by the email account’s owner:
“An application by a federal law enforcement officer or an attorney for the government requests the search of the following … property located in the Western District of Washington, the premises known and described as the email account [REDACTED]@MSN.COM, which is controlled by Microsoft Corporation.”
The Fourth Amendment requires that a search warrant must “particularly describe the things to be seized” and there must be “probable cause” based on sworn testimony that those particular things are evidence of a crime. But this warrant orders Microsoft to turn over “the contents of all e-mails stored in the account, including copies of e-mails sent from the account.” From the day the account was opened to the date of the warrant, everything must be handed over to the feds.
Reading all of it
In warrants like this, the government is deliberately not limiting itself to the constitutionally required “particular description” of the messages it’s looking for. To get away with this, it tells judges that incriminating emails can be hard to find – maybe even hidden with misleading names, dates and file attachments – so their computer forensic experts need access to the whole data base to work their magic.
If the government were serious about obeying the Constitution, when it asks for an entire email account, at least it would write into the warrant limits on its forensic analysis so only emails that are evidence of a crime could be viewed. But this Microsoft warrant says an unspecified “variety of techniques may be employed to search the seized emails,“ including “email by email review.”
If Microsoft wins, then citizens will have the chance to see these search warrants and challenge the ways they violate the Constitution. But the government has come up with a clever – and sinister – argument for throwing the case out of court before it even gets started.
The government has asked the judge in the case to rule that Microsoft has no legal right to raise the Constitutional rights of its customers. Anticipating this move, the American Civil Liberties Union asked to join the lawsuit, saying it uses Outlook and wants notice if Microsoft were served with a warrant for its email.
The government’s response? The ACLU has no right to sue because it can’t prove that there has been or will be a search warrant for its email. Of course the point of the lawsuit is to protect citizens who can’t prove they are subject to a search warrant because of the secrecy of the whole process. The government’s position is that no one in America has the legal right to challenge the way prosecutors are using this law.
Far from the only risk
The government is taking a similar approch to smartphone data.
Where does this all leave us now? The judge in Ravelo is expected to issue a preliminary ruling on the feds’ arguments sometime in October. The government will be filing a final brief on its motion to dismiss the Microsoft case September 23. All Americans should be watching carefully to what happens next in these cases – the government may be already watching you without your knowledge.