Four Questionable Claims Obama Has Made on NSA Surveillance

#AceNewsServices says following my post in “Breaking News” this was sent to my by Kara Brandeisky ProPublica,  Jan. 17, 2014, 7 a.m. to publish ,so l do so with pleasure.

NSA Not Compatible in Current FormToday President Obama plans to announce some reportedly limited reforms to National Security Agency surveillance programs.

Since the first disclosures based on documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, Obama has offered his own defenses of the programs. But not all of the president’s claims have stood up to scrutiny. Here are some of the misleading assertions he has made.

1. There have been no abuses.

And I think it’s important to note that in all the reviews of this program [Section 215] that have been done, in fact, there have not been actual instances where it’s been alleged that the NSA in some ways acted inappropriately in the use of this data 2026 There had not been evidence and there continues not to be evidence that the particular program had been abused in how it was used. — Dec. 20, 2013

NSA Do You UseAt press conferences in June, August and December, Obama made assurances that two types of bulk surveillance had not been misused. In fact, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has reprimanded the NSA for abuses both in warrantless surveillance targeting people abroad, and in bulk domestic phone records collection.

FISAIn 2011, the FISA Court found that for three years, the NSA had been collecting tens of thousands of domestic emails and other communications in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The court ordered the NSA to do more to filter out those communications. In a footnote, Judge John D. Bates also chastised the NSA for repeatedly misleading the court about the extent of its surveillance. In 2009 2013 weeks after Obama took office 2013 the court concluded the procedures designed to protect the privacy of American phone records had been “so frequently and systemically violated that it can fairly be said that this critical element of the overall 2026 regime has never functioned effectively.”

The NSA told the court those violations were unintentional and a result of technological limitations. But the NSA’s own inspector general has also documented some “willful” abuses: About a dozen NSA employees have used government surveillance to spy on their lovers and exes, a practice reportedly called “LOVEINT.”

2. At least 50 terrorist threats have been averted.

We know of at least 50 threats that have been averted because of this information not just in the United States, but, sometimes, threats here in Germany. So lives have been saved. — June 19, 2013

The record is far less clear. Obama’s own review group concluded that the sweeping phone records collection program has not prevented any terrorist attacks. At this point, the only suspect the NSA says it identified using the phone records collection program is a San Diego cab driver later convicted of sending $8,500 to a terrorist group in his homeland of Somalia.

The NSA’s targeting of people abroad appears to have been more effective around counter-terrorism, as even surveillance skeptics in Congress acknowledge. But it’s impossible to assess the role the NSA played in each case because the list of thwarted attacks is classified. And what we do know about the few cases that have become public raises even more questions:

3. The NSA does not do any domestic spying.

We put in some additional safeguards to make sure that there is federal court oversight as well as Congressional oversight that there is no spying on Americans. We don’t have a domestic spying program. What we do have are some mechanisms where we can track a phone number or an e-mail address that we know is connected to some sort of terrorist threat, and that information is useful. — Aug. 7, 2013

In fact, plenty of Americans’ communications get swept up. The government, of course, has the phone records of most Americans.  And, as the FISA Court learned in 2011, the NSA was gathering tens of thousands of domestic emails and other communications.

Additionally, the NSA’s minimization procedures, which are supposed to protect American privacy, allow the agency to keep and use purely domestic communications in some circumstances. If the NSA “inadvertently” vacuums up American communications that are encrypted, contain evidence of a crime, or relate to cybersecurity, the NSA can retain those communications.

The privacy standards suggest a “back-door loophole” that allows the NSA to search for American communications. NSA critic Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has said, “Once Americans’ communications are collected, a gap in the law that I call the ‘back-door searches loophole’ allows the government to potentially go through these communications and conduct warrantless searches for the phone calls or emails of law-abiding Americans.”It’s not clear whether the NSA has actually used this “backdoor.”

And while the NSA acknowledges that it intercepts communications between Americans and surveillance targets abroad, the agency also intercepts some domestic communications that mention information about foreigners who have been targeted. As a result, the NSA has sometimes searched communications from Americans who have not been suspected of wrongdoing 2013 though an NSA official says the agency uses “very precise” searches to avoid those intercepts as much as possible.

4. Snowden failed to take advantage of whistleblower protections.

I signed an executive order well before Mr. Snowden leaked this information that provided whistleblower protection to the intelligence community 2013 for the first time. So there were other avenues available for somebody whose conscience was stirred and thought that they needed to question government actions. — Aug. 9, 2013

Obama’s presidential policy directive forbids agencies from retaliating against intelligence personnel who report waste, fraud and abuse. But the measure mentions only “employees,” not contractors. Whistleblower advocates say that means the order does not cover intelligence contractors.

“I often have contractors coming to me with whistleblower-type concerns and they are the least protected of them all,” attorney Mark Zaid told the Washington Post.

What’s more, the directive was not yet in effect at the time Snowden came forward.Since the leaks, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has said “the Executive Branch is evaluating the scope” of the protections.

Former NSA employee Thomas Drake argues that even if Snowden were a government employee who went through the proper legal channels, he still wouldn’t have been safe from retaliation. Drake says while he reported his concerns about a 2001 surveillance program to his NSA superiors, Congress, and the Department of Defense, he was told the program was legal. Drake was later indicted for providing information to the Baltimore Sun. After years of legal wrangling, Drake pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and got no prison time.

 

 

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Medicare Drug Plan: “How People Get Caught Up in the Medicare Drug Fraud”

#AceHealthNews says when you are elderly and infirm ,would you expect your doctor, drug company and advisers, to give you a “Medicare Drug Plan” you do not really need. Well according to this recent article that is exactly what happened to this person, under this “Medicare Drug Fraud” read the story ……………………………………………. below: comment and share

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (Me...

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (Medicaid administrator) logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Story of the Events:

At another time in her life, Denise Heap might have tossed aside the insurance forms listing the drugs prescribed to her mother.

The “explanation of benefits” forms came like clockwork and didn’t require any action on her part.

But Heap was worried about her mother, Joyce, who was in the end stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Her health had inexplicably declined in the Los Angeles-area nursing home where she’d been living. So in April, when a thick envelope arrived from her mother’s Medicare drug plan, Heap scrutinized it.

What she found was frightening: Her 77-year-old mother was receiving a raft of medications Heap had never seen before.

As Heap began Googling the drugs, she realized something was drastically wrong. Either her mother was being given expensive medications for conditions she didn’t have 2014 such as breast cancer, asthma, emphysema and high cholesterol 2014 or something sinister was going on: Someone was using her mother to steal drugs.

“I flipped,” Heap said. Medicare’s prescription program, known as Part D, paid for more than “$10,000 worth of meds” in just three months, she said.

She first called Medicare to report her suspicions, she said, then the insurance company that managed her mother’s Medicare drug plan. Neither, she said, seemed very concerned.

“I was like, No, No, No,  You have to understand. I am trying to help you guys,'” she said.

Soon, Heap became convinced someone had stolen her mother’s identity while she was living at a nursing home run by an Armenian couple. The couple kept moving the location of the nursing home. And Heap believed they had over-sedated her mother with high doses of antipsychotics, inappropriately treating her blood pressure and allowing bed bugs to feast on her.

“I knew something crooked was going on,” said Heap, 59, who, with her mother, had co-founded a Holocaust education nonprofit in the 1990s to document stories of German resistance to Hitler.

Frustrated, Heap called Los Angeles County sheriff‘s Sgt. Steve Opferman, head of a task force specializing in prescription drug fraud. As soon as Heap began describing what had happened, Opferman said he knew her mother had been caught up in a fraud scheme involving Armenian organized crime.

Opferman and other investigators say criminals wager that patients and their families will not be like Heap. They bank on the fact that their victims 2014 Medicare beneficiaries 2014 will be too old or too sick to review insurance forms summarizing the medications and services billed in their names. And they count on the tendency of busy family members to give such forms a cursory glance, if that.

“Suffice it to say most people don’t pay attention, let alone know what they’re looking at,” Opferman said.

But Heap’s case, and others like it, shows the important role patients and their families can play in uncovering fraud within Part D. The program now covers 36 million seniors and disabled people and fills 1 in 4 prescriptions nationwide. Last year, it cost taxpayers $62 billion.

In an earlier report, ProPublica found that Medicare’s system for pursuing such fraud is so cumbersome and poorly run that schemes can quickly siphon away millions. Tips such as Heap’s can come into private insurers, which run Part D for Medicare, to contractors hired by Medicare to spot fraud, or to the U.S. Department of Health Human Services inspector general, which investigates health care fraud. But only a small percentage of cases funneled through this chain are prosecuted.

Reporters, using Medicare’s own data, were able to identify scores of doctors whose prescribing within the program followed known patterns of fraud: the cost of doctors’ prescribing jumped dramatically 2014 sometimes by millions of dollars 2014 from one year to the next and they chose brand-name drugs that scammers’ can easily resell.

Some doctors claimed that they 2014 like some of the patients involved 2014 were unwitting victims of identity theft. In other cases, federal investigators found, the doctors were paid for writing bogus or inappropriate prescriptions.

In a response to these findings, a Medicare official said more focus has been placed on fraud detection within Part D.

SpirivaThe drugs listed on Joyce Heap’s explanation of benefits forms are those most-desired in such fraud schemes. They included the asthma drugs Spiriva and Advair Diskus, for which her insurance plan paid nearly $270 a month each, the cholesterol drug Crestor, which cost nearly $170, and the antipsychotic Abilify, for which the plan paid about $920 for a 30-day supply.

Advair DiskusOpferman said Heap’s call launched an investigation that uncovered a large Part D scheme allegedly connecting the owners of the nursing home to a North Hollywood pharmacy operation, including evidence that other residents’ identities were used. A September search of the pharmacy where Heap’s mother’s prescriptions were filled found evidence that drugs were being relabeled or repackaged for resale, he said.

The doctor who prescribed the drugs has denied prescribing the majority of them, Opferman said. The case is now part of an ongoing investigation by California’s Department of Justice and his group, he said.

Opferman said investigators might never have known of the scheme without Heap’s tip.

Joyce Heap didn’t live long after her daughter unearthed the problems.

She improved briefly after moving to a new nursing home, where a doctor reduced her psychiatric medications, Denise Heap said. But she died of a heart attack on April 21.

In the months following her mother’s death, Heap said, she sent letters alerting Medicare and her mother’s insurer to the possible fraud. In July she wrote, “Please note that 100% of the prescriptions charged in April 2013 2026 are FRAUDULENT.”

Heap said she is “outraged” Medicare didn’t follow-up and ask detailed questions about her allegations. In fact, it was either her insurer or Medicare 2014 she can’t recall which 2014 that recommended she call the local sheriff if she was worried.

“I would have thought immediately they would have gotten on it,” she said.

But Heap said she is mostly tormented that she didn’t know such fraud schemes existed 2014 and that elderly people like her mother could become prey.

“It’s a hard thing to live with,” she said, tearfully. “I feel like I failed.”

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 Courtesy of:  Tracy Weber and Charles Ornstein ProPublica,  Dec. 31, 2013, 10:20 a.m.

 

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Big Data+Big Pharma = Big Money

#AceHealthNews says a recent article courtesy of Charles Ornstein ProPublica,  dated Jan. 10, 2014, 12 p.m.

Need another reminder of how much drug-makers spend to discover what doctors are prescribing? Look no further than new documents from the leading keeper of such data.

IMS HealthcareIMS Health Holdings Inc. says it pulled in nearly $2 billion in the first nine months of 2013, much of it from sweeping up data from pharmacies and selling it to pharmaceutical and biotech companies. The firm’s revenues in 2012 reached $2.4 billion, about 60 percent of it from selling such information.

The numbers became public because IMS, currently in private hands, recently filed to make a public stock offering. The company’s prospectus gives fresh insight into the huge dollars 2013 and huge volumes of data 2013 flowing through a little-watched industry.

IMS and its competitors are known as prescription drug information intermediaries. Drug company sales representatives, using data these companies supply, can know before entering a doctor’s office if he or she favours their products or those of a competitor. The industry is controversial, with some doctors and patient groups saying it threatens the privacy of private medical information.

The data maintained by the industry is huge. IMS, based in Danbury, Conn., says its collection includes “over 85 percent of the world’s prescriptions by sales revenue,” as well as comprehensive, anonymous medical records for 400 million patients.  

All of this adds up to 10 petabytes worth of material 2014 or about 10 million gigabytes, a figure roughly equal to all of the websites and online books, movies, music and TV shows that have been stored by the non-profit Internet Archive.

IMS StatisticsIMS Health says it processes and brings order to more than 45 billion health care transactions each year from more than 780,000 different feeds around the world. “All of the top 100 global pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies are clients” of its products, the firm’s prospectus says.

Dr. Randall Stafford, a Stanford University professor who has used IMS data for his research, said the company has grown markedly in recent years through acquisitions of competitors and other companies that host and analyze data. As the pharmaceutical industry has consolidated, he says, IMS has evolved by offering more services and expanding in China and India.

“They’ve tried to beef up their competitiveness in some areas by making all of these acquisitions,” he said.

IMS has especially expanded its database of anonymous patient records, which can match patients’ diagnoses with their prescriptions and track changes over time, Stafford said.

IMS sells two types of products: information offerings and technology services. The information products allow pharmaceutical companies to get national snapshots of prescribing trends in more than 70 countries and data about each prescribers in 50 countries.

IMS’s prospectus offers examples of the questions companies are able to answer with its data, including which providers generate the highest return on a sales rep’s visit, whether a rep drives appropriate prescribing and how much reps should be paid.

IMS Health’s data collection and sales have been controversial.

Several years ago, three states passed laws limiting the ability of IMS and companies like it to collect data on doctors’ prescriptions and sell it to drug-makers for marketing purposes. Their intent was to protect physician and patient privacy and to reduce health care costs by reducing marketing of brand-name drugs. Once a drug loses patent protection and becomes generic, promotion essentially ceases.

IMS and other companies sued, and the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ruled in their favor, finding a First Amendment right to collect and sell the information. (ProPublica and a group of media companies filed a legal brief supporting IMS on First Amendment grounds.)

ProPublica has sought to purchase data on each provider from IMS and some of its competitors but was told by each that it could not buy the information at any price.

Instead, reporters obtained data from Medicare on providers in its taxpayer-subsidized drug program, known as Part D, which fills more than one in every four prescriptions nationally. The data are now on Prescriber Checkup, where anyone can look up each doctor and compare their prescriptions to peers in their specialty and state.

ProPublica has found that in Part D, some of the top prescriber’s of heavily marketed drugs received speaking fees from the companies that made them.

Physicians and privacy advocates have argued that prescription records could be used to glean information about specific patients’ conditions without their permission. In addition, physicians have argued that they have a right to privacy about the way they choose drugs 2014 but aren’t asked before pharmacies sell information about them.  

Stafford said those concerns have parallels to recent revelations about mass surveillance by the National Security Agency.

“It’s part of a larger dialogue, which things like the NSA scandal have brought up,” he said. “There’s a lot of data out there that people don’t necessarily know about. … We’re living in a time where people can accept some loss of privacy, but they at least want to know how their privacy is being compromised.”

In its prospectus, IMS cited several challenges to its growth, including data-protection laws, security breaches and increased competition from other data collectors. The filing notes that the United Kingdom’s National Health Service in 2011 started releasing large volumes of data on doctor prescribing “at little or no charge, reducing the demand for our information services derived from similar data.”

Until 2010, IMS Health was a publicly traded company. At that point, it was acquired for $5.2 billion, including debt, by private-equity groups and the Canadian pension board.

Bloomberg News, citing confidential sources, reported last fall that IMS’s owners may seek to value the company at $8 billion or more.

IMS Health declined to comment for this story, citing the regulatory quiet period before the public offering takes place. No date has been set.

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“How #Payday #Lenders Fight To Stay #Legal and Still Able To #Lend”

PayDayLenders2#AceDebtNews says tactics by Unscrupulous lenders even leading to people being paid not to sign a petition banning, their type of lending.

It is time to put these types of lenders out of business and prevent their way of #capitalising on people’s #need by making lending so easy, but at a #cost

English: Cash Money - 24 hour payday loan outl...

English: Cash Money – 24 hour payday loan outlet on Yonge St. Toronto, Ontario, Canada (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is another copy righted article, but please spread the article, thanks. Editor

The Payday Playbook: How High Cost Lenders Fight to Stay Legal

by Paul Kiel ProPublica,  Aug. 2, 2013, 8 a.m.

A version of this story was co-published with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

As the Rev. Susan McCann stood outside a public library in Springfield, Mo., last year, she did her best to persuade passers-by to sign an initiative to ban high-cost payday loans. But it was difficult to keep her composure, she remembers. A man was shouting in her face.

He and several others had been paid to try to prevent people from signing. “Every time I tried to speak to somebody,” she recalls, “they would scream, ‘Liar! Liar! Liar! Don’t listen to her!'”

Such confrontations, repeated across the state, exposed something that rarely comes into view so vividly: the high-cost lending industry’s ferocious effort to stay legal and stay in business.

Outrage over payday loans, which trap millions of Americans in debt and are the best-known type of high-cost loans, has led to dozens of state laws aimed at stamping out abuses. But the industry has proved extremely resilient. In at least 39 states, lenders offering payday or other loans still charge annual rates of 100 percent or more. Sometimes, rates exceed 1,000 percent.

Last year, activists in Missouri launched a ballot initiative to cap the rate for loans at 36 percent. The story of the ensuing fight illuminates the industry’s tactics, which included lobbying state legislators and contributing lavishly to their campaigns; a vigorous and, opponents charge, underhanded campaign to derail the ballot initiative; and a sophisticated and well-funded outreach effort designed to convince African-Americans to support high-cost lending.

Industry representatives say they are compelled to oppose initiatives like the one in Missouri. Such efforts, they say, would deny consumers what may be their best or even only option for a loan.

English: Loan payment schedule of a 1-year, fi...

English: Loan payment schedule of a 1-year, fixed-size payment loan with 3% monthly interest. Shows the accumulation of the interest, the payments and how much of the total cost consists of interest. The effective annual percentage rate is calculated. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Quick Cash and Kwik Kash

Missouri is fertile soil for high-cost lenders. Together, payday, installment and auto-title lenders have more than 1,400 locations in the state — about one store for every 4,100 Missourians. The average two-week payday loan, which is secured by the borrower’s next paycheck, carries an annual percentage rate of 455 percent in Missouri. That’s more than 100 percentage points higher than the national average, according to a recent survey by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The annual percentage rate, or APR, accounts for both interest and fees.

Fee Charged: $15

Loan Period: 14 days

Loan Has Been Renewed: 2 times

To renew a loan, borrowers pay only the fees due, not any principal.

The average APR is 23.64 percent on credit cards for consumers with bad credit.

Note: The annual percentage rate accounts for both interest and fees. Sources: Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Missouri State Department of Finance, CreditCards.com. Graphic by Sisi Wei.

The issue caught the attention of Democrat Mary Still, who won a seat in the state House of Representatives in 2008 and immediately sponsored a bill to limit high-cost loans. She had reason for optimism: The new governor, Jay Nixon, a Democrat, supported reform.

"DO NOT BORROW FROM PAYDAY LENDERS"

“DO NOT BORROW FROM PAYDAY LENDERS”

The problem was the legislature. During the 2010 election cycle alone, payday lenders contributed $371,000 to lawmakers and political committees, according to a report by the nonpartisan and nonprofit Public Campaign, which focuses on campaign reform. The lenders hired high-profile lobbyists, and Still became accustomed to their visits. But they hardly needed to worry about the House Financial Institutions Committee, through which a reform bill would need to pass. One of the lawmakers leading the committee, Don Wells, owned a payday loan store, Kwik Kash. He could not be reached for comment.

Eventually, after two years of frustration, Still and others were ready to try another route. “Absolutely, it was going to have to take a vote of the people,” she said. “The legislature had been bought and paid for.”

A coalition of faith groups, community organizations and labor unions decided to put forward the ballot initiative to cap rates at 36 percent. The main hurdle was collecting the required total of a little more than 95,000 signatures. If the initiative’s supporters could do that, they felt confident the lending initiative would pass.

But even before the signature drive began, the lending industry girded for battle.

In the summer of 2011, a new organization, Missourians for Equal Credit Opportunity (MECO), appeared. Although it was devoted to defeating the payday measure, the group kept its backers secret. The sole donor was another organization, Missourians for Responsible Government, headed by a conservative consultant, Patrick Tuohey. Because Missourians for Responsible Government is organized under the 501(c)(4) section of the tax code, it does not have to report its donors. Tuohey did not respond to requests for comment.

Still, there are strong clues about the source of the $2.8 million Missourians for Responsible Government delivered to MECO over the course of the battle.

Payday lender QC Holdings declared in a 2012 filing that it had spent “substantial amounts” to defeat the Missouri initiative. QC, which mostly does business as Quik Cash (not to be confused with Kwik Kash), has 101 outlets in Missouri. In 2012, one-third of the company’s profits came from the state, twice as much as from California, its second-most profitable state. If the initiative got to voters, the company was afraid of the outcome: “ballot initiatives are more susceptible to emotion” than lawmakers’ deliberations, it said in an annual filing. And if the initiative passed, it would be catastrophic, likely forcing the company to default on its loans and halt dividend payments on its common stock, the company declared.

"DO NOT BORROW FROM PAYDAY LENDERS"

“DO NOT BORROW FROM PAYDAY LENDERS”

In late 2012, QC and other major payday lenders, including Cash America and Check into Cash, contributed $88,000 to a group called Freedom PAC. MECO and Freedom PAC shared the same treasurer and received funds from the same 501(c)(4). Freedom PAC spent $79,000 on ads against Still in her 2012 losing bid for a state senate seat, state records show.

MECO’s first major step was to back three lawsuits against the ballot initiative. If any one of the suits were successful, the initiative would be kept off the ballot regardless of how many citizens had signed petitions in support.

Threatening letters and decoy initiatives

Meanwhile, supporters of the ballot initiative focused on amassing volunteers to gather signatures. The push started with umbrella organizations such as Metropolitan Congregations United of St. Louis, which ultimately drafted more than 50 congregations to the effort, said the Rev. David Gerth, the group’s executive director. In the Kansas City area, more than 80 churches and organizations joined up, according to the local nonprofit Communities Creating Opportunity.

Predominantly African-American congregations in Kansas City and St. Louis made up a major part of the coalition, but the issue crossed racial lines and extended into suburbs and small towns. Within one mile of Grace Episcopal Church in Liberty, a mostly white suburb of Kansas City, there are eight high-cost lenders. “We think it’s a significant problem and that it was important for people of faith to respond to this issue,” said McCann, who leads the church.

Volunteers collected signatures at Catholic fish fries during Lent and a community-wide Holy Week celebration. They went door to door and stood on street corners.

In early January 2012, a number of clergy opened their mail to find a “Legal Notice” from a Texas law firm and sent on MECO’s behalf. “It has come to our attention that you, your church, or members of your church may be gathering signatures or otherwise promising to take directions from the proponents’ political operatives, who tell churchgoers that their political plan is a ‘Covenant for Faith and Families,'” said the letter.

Please be advised that strict statutes carrying criminal penalties apply to the collection of signatures for an initiative petition,” it said in bold type. Another sentence warned that churches could lose their tax-exempt status by venturing into politics. The letter concluded by saying MECO would be watching for violations and would “promptly report” any.

Soon after the Rev. Wallace Hartsfield of Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Kansas City received the letter, a lawyer called. Had he received the letter? Hartsfield remembers being asked. He responded, “If you feel like we’re doing something illegal, you need to try to sue, all right?” he recalls. Ultimately, no suits or other actions appear to have been filed against any faith groups involved in the initiative fight.

MECO did not respond to requests for comment. The law firm behind the letter, Anthony & Middlebrook of Grapevine, Texas, referred comment to the lawyer who had handled the matter, who has left the firm. He did not respond to requests for comment.

Payday lenders and their allies took other steps as well. A Republican lobbyist submitted what appears to have been a decoy initiative to the Missouri Secretary of State that, to the casual reader, closely resembled the original measure to cap loans at 36 percent. It proposed to cap loans at 14 percent, but stated that the limit would be void if the borrower signed a contract to pay a higher rate — in other words, it wouldn’t change anything. A second initiative submitted by the same lobbyist, Jewell Patek, would have made any measure to cap loan interest rates unlawful. Patek declined to comment.

MECO spent at least $800,000 pushing the rival initiatives with its own crew of signature gatherers, according to the group’s state filings. It was an effective tactic, said Gerth, of the St. Louis congregations group. People became confused about which was the “real” petition or assumed they had signed the 36 percent cap petition when they had not, he and others who worked on the effort said.

MECO’s efforts sowed confusion in other ways. In April 2012, a local court sided with MECO in one of its lawsuits against the initiative, throwing the ballot proposition into serious jeopardy for several months until the state Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s ruling. During those months, according to video shot by the rate cap’s supporters, MECO’s employees out on the streets warned voters who were considering signing the petition that it had been deemed “illegal.”

MECO also took to the airways. “Here they come again,” intones the narrator during a television ad that ran in Springfield, “Washington, DC special interests invading our neighborhoods.” Dark figures in suits and sunglasses can be seen descending from a plane. “An army of outsiders approaching us at our stores and in our streets,” says the voice. “But together we can stop them: If someone asks you to sign a voter petition, just decline to sign.”

Although the ad discloses that it was paid for by MECO, it does not mention payday lending or capping interest rates.

Installment lenders join the fray

Installment lenders launched a separate group, Stand Up Missouri, to fight the rate-cap initiative — and to differentiate themselves from payday lenders.

As the group’s website put it, “special interest groups masquerading as grass-roots, faith-based alliances” were not only targeting payday loans but also “safe” forms of credit such as installment loans. “Stand Up Missouri does not represent payday lending or payday interests,” the group said in its press releases.

Unlike payday loans, which are typically due in full after two weeks, installment loans are paid down over time. And while many payday lenders also offer such loans, they usually charge higher annual rates (from about 300 to 800 percent). The highest annual rate charged by World Finance, among the largest installment lenders in the country and the biggest backer of Stand Up Missouri, is 204 percent, according to its last annual filing.

Still, like payday lenders, installment lenders such as World profit by keeping borrowers in a cycle of debt. Installment and payday lenders are also similar in the customers they target. In neighboring Illinois, 56 percent of payday borrowers and 72 percent of installment loan borrowers in 2012 had incomes of $30,000 or less, according to state data.

World was the subject of an investigation by ProPublica and Marketplace in May. The company has 76 locations in Missouri: Of all high-cost lenders, only payday lenders QC and Advance America have more locations in the state.

Stand Up Missouri raised $443,000 from installment lenders and associated businesses to oppose the rate-cap ballot initiative, according to state filings.

To broadcast their message in Missouri, the installment lenders arranged a letter-writing campaign to local newspapers, placed ads, distributed video testimonials by satisfied customers, and held a rally at the capitol. Like MECO, Stand Up Missouri also filed suit with their own team of lawyers to block the initiative.

English: The Missourians For Secession's offic...

English: The Missourians For Secession’s official label. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tom Hudgins, the chairman of Stand Up Missouri as well as the president and chief operating officer of installment lender Western Shamrock, declined to be interviewed but responded to questions with an emailed statement. Stand Up Missouri acknowledges that “some financial sectors” may require reform, he wrote, but the initiative backers didn’t want to work with lenders.

“Due to their intense lack of interest in cooperatively developing market-based reforms, we have and will continue to meet with Missourians in all corners of the state to discuss the financial market and opportunities to reform the same.”

“Put a good face on this”

In February 2012, the Rev. Starsky Wilson of St. Louis sat down at a table in the Four Seasons Hotel. The floor-to-ceiling windows reveal vistas of the city’s famous arch and skyline. Lined up in front of him were two lobbyists and Hudgins, he remembers.

The lenders had targeted a community that was both important to their profits and crucial to the petition drive: African-Americans. Wilson, like the majority of his flock, is black.

So were the two lobbyists. Kelvin Simmons had just a few weeks before been in charge of the state budget and was a veteran of Missouri politics. His new employer was the international law firm Dentons, then called SNR Denton, and he was representing his first client, Stand Up Missouri.

Next to Simmons was Rodney Boyd, for the past decade the chief lobbyist for the city of St. Louis. He, too, worked for SNR Denton.

The lobbyists and Hudgins urged Wilson to re-think his commitment to the rate-cap ballot initiative.

Wilson was not swayed, but he was only one target among many. At the Four Seasons, Wilson says, he bumped into two other leaders of community organizations who had been summoned to hear Stand Up Missouri’s message. He said he also knew of more than a dozen African-American clergy who met with the lobbyists. Their message, that installment loans were a vital credit resource for middle-class African-Americans, was persuasive for some. As a result, Wilson found himself mounting a counter-lobbying effort. A spokesperson for Simmons and Boyd’s firm declined to comment.

In Kansas City, Rev. Hartsfield also received an invitation from the lobbyists — but that was not the only case, as Hartsfield puts it, of an African-American being “sent into the community to try to put a good face on this.”

Willie Green spent eight seasons as a wide receiver in the NFL and won two Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos. After he retired in 1999, he opened several payday loan stores of his own and went on to hold a series of positions serving as a spokesman for payday lending, especially to minority communities.

While African-Americans comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 23 percent of payday loan borrowers, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts survey. Green was “Senior Advisor of Minority Affairs” for the Community Financial Services Association, the payday lenders’ national trade group, then director of “community outreach” for Advance America, one of the largest payday lenders. Finally, in 2012, he opened his own consultancy, The Partnership Alliance Co., which, according to his LinkedIn profile, focused on “community relations.” Over the past decade, he has popped up during legislative fights all over the country — North Carolina; Georgia; Washington, D.C.; Arkansas; Colorado.

It is unclear who hired Green in 2012 — he declined to comment, and MECO did not report paying him or his company. But to Hartsfield, it was clear he was there to advocate on behalf of payday lending.

Green once penned an open letter to the Georgia’s legislative black caucus arguing that government regulation on payday loans was unneeded and paternalistic: Opponents of payday lending “believe that people unlike them are just po’ chillin’ who must be parented by those who know better than they do what’s in their best interest,” he wrote, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

During their private meeting, Hartsfield said, Green made a similar argument but also discussed church issues unrelated to the ballot initiative. The payday lending industry might be able to help with those, Hartsfield recalled Green saying. The message the minister received from the offer, he said, was “we’ll help you with this over there if you stop this over here.”

Green referred all questions to his new employer, the installment lender World Finance. In a statement, World did not address specific questions but said the company was “pleased to have Mr. Green as a member of its team to enhance World’s outreach to the communities that it serves and to provide him the opportunity to continue his many years of being personally involved in and giving back to those communities.”

Hartsfield did not take Green up on his offer, but the former athlete has served as a gateway to the industry’s generosity before. In 2009 in Colorado, where payday loan reform was a hot topic (a bill ultimately passed in 2010), Green presented the Urban League of Metro Denver with a $10,000 check on behalf of Advance America. Landri Taylor, president and chief executive of the organization, recalled that Green had approached him with the offer and that he was glad for the support. He also said that lending was not a core issue for his organization and that, even if it were, the contribution couldn’t have bought its allegiance.

In Georgia in 2007, Green, then a registered lobbyist, gave a state lawmaker $80,000 a few weeks before the legislature voted on a bill to legalize payday lending. The lawmaker, who subsequently pleaded guilty to unrelated federal charges of money laundering, was one of 11 Democrats to vote for the bill.

After the Atlanta Journal-Constitution broke news of the transfer, Green produced documents showing that it had been a loan for a real estate investment: The lawmaker had promised to repay the loan plus $40,000, but had never done so, Green said. The state ethics commission subsequently found Green had broken no state laws, because lobbyists are allowed to engage in private business transactions with lawmakers.

The case of the missing petitions

By the spring of 2012, supporters of the initiative were in high gear. Volunteers, together with some paid employees, were collecting hundreds of signatures each day. They were increasingly confident they would hit their mark.

In some areas, such as Springfield, the work resembled hand-to-hand combat. Through intermediaries, such as ProActive Signature Solutions, the initiative’s opponents hired people to oppose it.

“It was a well-funded effort,” said Oscar Houser of ProActive. He declined to say which company had retained ProActive. However, only MECO reported spending funds on what it said were signature gatherers. Those employees, according to Houser, eventually focused solely on trying to prevent people from signing the initiative.

Marla Marantz, a Springfield resident and retired schoolteacher, was hired to gather signatures for the 36 percent cap initiative. Just about every day, she could expect to be joined by at least one, and often several, of ProActive’s employees, she says. Wherever she went — the public library, the DMV — they would soon follow. It was a tactic both she and her adversaries (with whom she became very familiar, if not friendly) called “blocking.”

“What we’re doing is preventing them from being able to get signatures,” one ProActive employee says on a video shot by a Missouri State University journalism student. Asked to describe how “blocking” works, the employee says, “Usually, we get a larger group than they have. We pretty much use the power of numbers.” In the video, as Marantz stands outside a public building, she is surrounded by three ProActive employees.

ProActive’s employees did not identify themselves to voters as affiliated with payday lending, Marantz says. They sometimes wore T-shirts reading “Volunteer Petition Official” or held signs urging citizens to “Stand up for Equal Opportunity.”

Marantz shared various photos and videos of her experiences. In one video, a library employee tells a group of ProActive employees they will be asked to leave if they continue to make patrons uncomfortable. At other times, Marantz says, exasperated public employees or the police simply asked anyone collecting signatures to leave the area.

McCann also gathered signatures for the initiative and experienced “blocking.” “I had on my clerical collar, and they seemed to address a lot of their vitriol at me,” she remembers.

In May 2012, Missourians for Responsible Lending, the organization formed by supporters of the initiative, filed suit in county court in Springfield, alleging that MECO, through ProActive, was illegally harassing and assaulting its signature gatherers. The suit included sworn declarations by Marantz and three others who had said they had endured similar treatment. It called for a temporary restraining order that would keep MECO’s employees at least 15 feet away.

MECO, via its lawyers, fired back. The suit was an unconstitutional attempt by supporters of the initiative to silence their political opponents based on alleged “sporadic petty offenses,” MECO argued. Even if the initiative’s detractors “engaged in profanity-laced insults all of the time,” they said, such behavior would still be protected by the First Amendment.

Houser called the suit “frivolous” and said he was happy to let MECO’s lawyers handle it. The suit stalled.

“Blocking” wasn’t the only problem initiative supporters encountered. Matthew Patterson ran a nonprofit, ProVote, that coordinated signature gathering in the Springfield area. On the night of April 25, 2012, Patterson put a box of petitions in his car. Then, realizing he had forgotten his phone in his office, he locked his car and went back inside.

When he returned, his passenger side window was broken and the box of petitions was gone, according to Patterson and the police report he filed. The box had contained about 5,000 voter signatures, about half of which were for the 36 percent cap initiative, Patterson said.

No arrest was ever made. Volunteers from Kansas City and St. Louis converged on the area to recoup the lost signatures. The final deadline to submit signatures to the secretary of state’s office was less than two weeks away.

23,000 over, 270 under

In August, the Missouri Secretary of State announced that supporters of the initiative had submitted more than 118,000 valid signatures, about 23,000 more than needed.

But the state’s rules required that they collect signatures from at least 5 percent of voters in six of the state’s nine congressional districts. They had met that threshold in five districts — but in the First District, which includes North St. Louis, they were 270 signatures short.

A week later, initiative supporters filed a challenge in court, arguing that local election authorities had improperly disqualified far more than 270 signatures. MECO and Stand Up Missouri joined the fray, arguing not only that signatures had been properly excluded, but also that far more should have been tossed out.

Eventually, with only a couple of weeks before the deadline to finalize the November ballot, backers of the initiative decided they could not match the lenders’ ability to check thousands of signatures. They withdrew their challenge.

“It was so frustrating, disappointing,” McCann said. “People had spent hours and hours and hours on this initiative.”

Looking to 2014

The initiative’s supporters now have their eye on 2014, and they have made the necessary preparation by filing the same petition again with the secretary of state.

The industry has also made preparations. MECO has reported adding $331,000 to its war chest since December. Stand Up Missouri has raised another $151,000.

Jewel PatakLast May, Jewell Patek, the same Republican lobbyist who filed the industry’s initiatives in 2011, filed a new petition. It caps annual rates at 400 percent.

The installment lenders have continued their effort to woo African-Americans. In December, Stand Up Missouri was a sponsor of a Christmas celebration for Baptist ministers in St. Louis, and in June, it paid for a $20,000 sponsorship of the National Baptist Convention, hosted this year in St. Louis. It’s retained the same high-powered African-American lobbyists and added one more: Cheryl Dozier, a lobbyist who serves as executive director of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus. Lastly, Willie Green, according to initiative supporters who have spoken with the ministers, has made overtures to African-American clergy on behalf of World Finance.

Follow @paulkiel

 

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AmeriCashLoans: Borrowing Just $1,000 Turns Into $40,000 Debt

"DO NOT USE PAY DAY LENDERS TO BORROW MONEY"

“DO NOT USE PAY DAY LENDERS TO BORROW MONEY”

#AceDebtNews says as more and more people are put into #debt by #greedy lenders, out to make a profit out of misery.

This story has been agreed and it is copy righted thanks   Editor.

When Lenders Sue, Quick Cash Can Turn Into a Lifetime of Debt

by Paul Kiel ProPublica,  Dec. 13, 2013, 10:47 a.m.

A version of this story will be published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Sunday.

Five years ago, Naya Burks of St. Louis borrowed $1,000 from AmeriCash Loans. The money came at a steep price: She had to pay back $1,737 over six months.

“I really needed the cash, and that was the only thing that I could think of doing at the time,” she said. The decision has hung over her life ever since.

A single mother who works unpredictable hours at a chiropractor’s office, she made payments for a couple of months, then she defaulted.

So AmeriCash sued her, a step that high-cost lenders 2013 makers of payday, auto-title and installment loans 2013 take against their customers tens of thousands of times each year. In just Missouri and Oklahoma, which have court databases that allow statewide searches, such lenders file more than 29,000 suits annually, according to a ProPublica analysis.

ProPublica’s examination shows that the court system is often tipped in lenders’ favor, making lawsuits profitable for them while often dramatically increasing the cost of loans for borrowers.

High-cost loans already come with annual interest rates ranging from about 30 percent to 400 percent or more. In some states, if a suit results in a judgment 2013 the typical outcome 2013 the debt can then continue to accrue at a high interest rate. In Missouri, there are no limits on such rates.

Many states also allow lenders to charge borrowers for the cost of suing them, adding legal fees on top of the principal and interest they owe. One major lender routinely charges legal fees equal to one-third of the debt, even though it uses an in-house lawyer and such cases usually consist of filing routine paperwork. Borrowers, meanwhile, are rarely represented by an attorney.

After a judgment, lenders can garnish borrowers’ wages or bank accounts in most states. Only four states prohibit wage garnishment for most debts, according to the National Consumer Law Center; in 20, lenders can seize up to one-quarter of borrowers’ paychecks. Since the average borrower who takes out a high-cost loan is already stretched to the limit, with annual income typically below $30,000, losing such a large portion of their pay “starts the whole downward spiral,” said Laura Frossard of Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma.

The peril is not just financial. In Missouri and other states, debtors who don’t appear in court also risk arrest.

As ProPublica has previously reported, the growth of high-cost lending has sparked battles across the country. In response to efforts to limit interest rates or otherwise prevent a cycle of debt, lenders have fought back with campaigns of their own and by transforming their products.

Lenders argue their high rates are necessary if they are to be profitable and that the demand for their products is proof they provide a valuable service. When they file suit against their customers, they do so only as a last resort and always in compliance with state law, lenders contacted for this article said.

After AmeriCash sued Burks in September 2008, she found her debt had grown to more than $4,000. She agreed to pay it back, bit by bit. If she didn’t, AmeriCash won the right to seize a portion of her pay.

Ultimately, AmeriCash took more than $5,300 from Burks’ paychecks. Typically $25 per week, the payments made it harder to cover basic living expenses, Burks said. “Add it up: As a single parent, that takes away a lot.”

But those years of payments brought Burks no closer to resolving her debt. Missouri law allowed it to continue growing at the original interest rate of 240 percent 2013 a tide that overwhelmed her small payments. So even as she paid, she plunged deeper and deeper into debt.

By this year, that $1,000 loan Burk’s took out in 2008 had grown to a $40,000 debt, almost all of which was interest. After ProPublica submitted questions to AmeriCash about Burks’ case, however, the company quietly and without explanation filed a court declaration that Burks had completely repaid her debt.

Had it not done so, Burks would have faced a stark choice: declare bankruptcy or make payments for the rest of her life.

A Judge’s Dismay

Appointed to Missouri’s associate circuit court in St. Louis last year by Gov. Jay Nixon, Judge Christopher McGraugh came to the bench with 25 years’ experience as an attorney in civil and criminal law. But, he said, “I was shocked” at the world of debt collection.

As in Burks’ case, high-cost lenders in Missouri routinely ask courts to hand down judgments that allow loans to continue growing at the original interest rate. Initially, he refused, McGraugh said, because he feared that would doom debtors to years, if not a lifetime, of debt.

“It’s really an indentured servitude,” he said. “I just don’t see how these people can get out from underneath [these debts].”

But he got an earful from the creditors’ attorneys, he said, who argued that Missouri law was clear: The lender has an unambiguous right to obtain a post-judgment interest rate equal to that in the original contract. McGraugh studied the law and agreed: His hands were tied.

Now, in situations where he sees a debt continuing to build despite years of payments by the debtor, the best he can do is urge the creditor to work with the debtor. “It’s extremely frustrating,” he said.

Since the beginning of 2009, high-cost lenders have filed more than 47,000 suits in Missouri, according to a ProPublica analysis of state court records. In 2012, the suits amounted to 7 percent of all collections suits in the state. Missouri law allows lenders to charge unlimited interest rates, both when originating loans and after winning judgments.

Borrowers such as Burks often do not know how much they have paid on their debt or how much they owe. When creditors seek to garnish wages, the court orders are sent to debtors’ employers, which are responsible for deducting the required amount, but not to the debtors themselves.

AmeriCash, for instance, was not required to send Burks any sort of statement after the garnishment began. She learned from a reporter how much she had paid 2013 and how much she still owed.

After AmeriCash’s deduction and another garnishment related to a student loan, Burks said she took home around $460 each week from her job.

No court oversees the interest that creditors such as AmeriCash charge on post-judgment debts. For instance, the judgment that Burks and an attorney for AmeriCash signed says that her debt will accrue at 9 percent interest annually. Instead, AmeriCash appears to have applied her contractual rate of 240 percent a year.

That seems unjustified, McGraugh said. “I would believe you’re bound by the agreement you made in court.”

In the past five years, AmeriCash has filed more than 500 suits in Missouri. The suits often result in cases like Burks’, with exploding debts. One borrower took out a $400 loan in late 2005 and by 2012 had paid $3,573 2013 but that didn’t stop the interest due on the loan from ballooning to more than $16,000. (As in Burks’ case, AmeriCash relieved that debtor of his obligation after ProPublica submitted a list of questions to the company.)

AmeriCash, a private company based in a Chicago suburb, has five stores in Missouri, as well as 60 more across four other states. The company did not respond to repeated phone calls and emails about its practices. The firm’s attorney, Wally Pankowski of the Evans & Dixon law firm, declined to comment.

Cases in which lawsuits led to exploding debts abound in Missouri, and ProPublica found examples involving several different lenders.

Erica Hollins of St. Louis took out a $100 loan from Loan Express just before Christmas 2006. She soon fell behind on the payments, but instead of suing immediately, the company waited, the debt growing at 200 percent interest all the while. When the company sued two and a half years later, it received a judgment to collect on $913, including interest.

For years, the company garnished Hollins’ paychecks from her job at a nursing home. When, after a total of nearly $3,600 in payments, Hollins still had not cleared her debt, she called Loan Express’ attorney, she said. As in Burks’ case, the lender was represented by Pankowski. “I asked him would I ever be done paying for this?” she recalled. “And he said, 2018Maybe, maybe not.’ ” (Pankowski declined to comment on the case.)

Hollins sought legal help. Now she’s filed suit against the company, alleging it intentionally delayed suing so that her debt would multiply. The suit is ongoing.

Todd Stimson, who owns Loan Express, as well as three other stores in Illinois, said his company waited to sue Hollins because he believed her wages were already being garnished by another creditor. He also said his company gave her ample opportunity to avoid a suit in the first place but that Hollins didn’t pay. Companies like his have to sue in such situations, he said. Otherwise, “word gets out in the neighborhood, 2018Oh, you won’t get sued anyway, just don’t pay them.'”

As for Hollins paying back more than 35 times what she borrowed, Stimson said his company might have stopped the garnishment if Hollins had asked, although he added that “legally, I don’t have to.”

Not all lenders pursue as much as they are legally entitled to. Some lenders charge triple-digit rates in their contracts, but they lower the rate after receiving a judgment.

Speedy Cash, for instance, has filed at least 9,382 lawsuits in Missouri over the past five years, more than any other high-cost lender, according to ProPublica’s analysis. It has six stores in the state, in addition to making loans online.

Speedy Cash’s loans can be very expensive. A 2011 contract for a $400 loan, for instance, shows a 389 percent annual interest rate and total payments of $2,320 over a year and a half.

Case Files: Missouri

Missouri allows high-cost lenders who win judgments against  delinquent borrowers to charge unlimited interest rates on the debts, inflating the amount owed. Here are three examples:

 

#americash-loans, #americashloans, #burk, #burks, #jay-nixon, #loan, #missouri, #national-consumer-law-center, #naya-burks, #oklahoma, #propublica, #st-louis, #st-louis-post-dispatch

#NSA and #CIA Spied on “World of Warcraft Games” and On-line Games

World of Spycraft: NSA and CIA Spied in Online Games

 

by Justin Elliott, ProPublica, and Mark Mazzetti, The New York Times, Dec. 9, 2013, 7 a.m.

 

This story has been reported in partnership between The New York Times, the Guardian and ProPublica based on documents obtained by The Guardian.

 

Editor says this is a Copyrighted Article courtesy of ProPublica and The New York Times.  

 

Banner made for WikiProject Warcraft. Made by ...

Banner made for WikiProject Warcraft. Made by Havok. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Not limiting their activities to the earthly realm, American and British spies have infiltrated the fantasy worlds of World of Warcraft and Second Life, conducting surveillance and scooping up data in the online games played by millions of people across the globe, according to newly disclosed classified documents.

 

Fearing that terrorist or criminal networks could use the games to communicate secretly, move money or plot attacks, the documents show, intelligence operatives have entered terrain populated by digital avatars that include elves, gnomes and supermodels.

 

The spies have created make-believe characters to snoop and to try to recruit informers, while also collecting data and contents of communications between players, according to the documents, disclosed by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden. Because militants often rely on features common to video games — fake identities, voice and text chats, a way to conduct financial transactions — American and British intelligence agencies worried that they might be operating there, according to the papers.

 

Online games might seem innocuous, a top-secret 2008 NSA document warned, but they had the potential to be a “target-rich communication network” allowing intelligence suspects “a way to hide in plain sight.” Virtual games “are an opportunity!,” another 2008 NSA document declared.

 

But for all their enthusiasm — so many CIA, FBI and Pentagon spies were hunting around in Second Life, the document noted, that a “deconfliction” group was needed to avoid collisions — the intelligence agencies may have inflated the threat.

 

The documents do not cite any counterterrorism successes from the effort, and former American intelligence officials, current and former gaming company employees and outside experts said in interviews that they knew of little evidence that terrorist groups viewed the games as havens to communicate and plot operations.

 

Games “are built and operated by companies looking to make money, so the players’ identity and activity is tracked,” said Peter W. Singer of the Brookings Institution, an author of “Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know.” “For terror groups looking to keep their communications secret, there are far more effective and easier ways to do so than putting on a troll avatar.”

 

The surveillance, which also included Microsoft’s Xbox Live, could raise privacy concerns. It is not clear exactly how the agencies got access to gamers’ data or communications, how many players may have been monitored or whether Americans’ communications or activities were captured.

 

One American company, the maker of World of Warcraft, said that neither the NSA nor its British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters, had gotten permission to gather intelligence in its game. Many players are Americans, who can be targeted for surveillance only with approval from the nation’s secret intelligence court. The spy agencies, though, face far fewer restrictions on collecting certain data or communications overseas.

 

“We are unaware of any surveillance taking place,” said a spokesman for Blizzard Entertainment, based in Irvine, Calif., which makes World of Warcraft. “If it was, it would have been done without our knowledge or permission.”

 

A spokeswoman for Microsoft declined to comment. Philip Rosedale, the founder of Second Life and a former chief executive officer of Linden Lab, the game’s maker, declined to comment on the spying revelations. Current Linden executives did not respond to requests for comment.

 

A Government Communications Headquarters spokesman would neither confirm nor deny any involvement by that agency in gaming surveillance, but said that its work is conducted under “a strict legal and policy framework” with rigorous oversight. An NSA spokeswoman declined to comment.

 

Intelligence and law enforcement officials became interested in games after some became enormously popular, drawing tens of millions of people worldwide, from preteens to retirees. The games rely on lifelike graphics, virtual currencies and the ability to speak to other players in real-time. Some gamers merge the virtual and real worlds by spending long hours playing and making close online friends.

 

In World of Warcraft, players share the same fantasy universe — walking around and killing computer-controlled monsters or the avatars of other players, including elves, animals or creatures known as orcs. In Second Life, players create customized human avatars that can resemble themselves or take on other personas — supermodels and bodybuilders are popular — who can socialize, buy and sell virtual goods, and go places like beaches, cities, art galleries and strip clubs. In Microsoft’s Xbox Live service, subscribers connect online in games that can involve activities like playing soccer or shooting at each other in space.

 

According to American officials and documents that Mr. Snowden provided to The Guardian, which shared them with The New York Times and ProPublica, spy agencies grew worried that terrorist groups might take to the virtual worlds to establish safe communications channels.

 

In 2007, as the NSA and other intelligence agencies were beginning to explore virtual games, NSA officials met with the chief technology officer for the manufacturer of Second Life, the San Francisco-based Linden Lab. The executive, Cory Ondrejka, was a former Navy officer who had worked at the NSA with a top-secret security clearance.

 

He visited the agency’s headquarters at Fort Meade, Md., in May 2007 to speak to staff members over a brown bag lunch, according to an internal agency announcement. “Second Life has proven that virtual worlds of social networking are a reality: come hear Cory tell you why!” said the announcement. It added that virtual worlds gave the government the opportunity “to understand the motivation, context and consequent behaviors of non-Americans through observation, without leaving U.S. soil.”

 

Ondrejka, now the director of mobile engineering at Facebook, said through a representative that the NSA presentation was similar to others he gave in that period, and declined to comment further.

 

Even with spies already monitoring games, the NSA thought it needed to step up the effort.

 

“The Sigint Enterprise needs to begin taking action now to plan for collection, processing, presentation and analysis of these communications,” said one April 2008 NSA document, referring to “signals intelligence.” The document added, “With a few exceptions, NSA can’t even recognize the traffic,” meaning that the agency could not distinguish gaming data from other Internet traffic.

 

By the end of 2008, according to one document, the British spy agency, known as GCHQ, had set up its “first operational deployment into Second Life” and had helped the police in London in cracking down on a crime ring that had moved into virtual worlds to sell stolen credit card information. The British spies running the effort, which was code-named “Operation Galician,” were aided by an informer using a digital avatar “who helpfully volunteered information on the target group’s latest activities.”

 

Though the games might appear to be unregulated digital bazaars, the companies running them reserve the right to police the communications of players and store the chat dialogues in servers that can be searched later. The transactions conducted with the virtual money common in the games, used in World of Warcraft to buy weapons and potions to slay monsters, are also monitored by the companies to prevent illicit financial dealings.

 

In the 2008 NSA document, titled “Exploiting Terrorist Use of Games & Virtual Environments,” the agency said that “terrorist target selectors” — which could be a computer’s Internet Protocol address or an email account — “have been found associated with Xbox Live, Second Life, World of Warcraft” and other games. But that document does not present evidence that terrorists were participating in the games.

 

Still, the intelligence agencies found other benefits in infiltrating these online worlds. According to the minutes of a January 2009 meeting, GCHQ’s “network gaming exploitation team” had identified engineers, embassy drivers, scientists and other foreign intelligence operatives to be World of Warcraft players — potential targets for recruitment as agents.

 

At Menwith Hill, a Royal Air Force base in the Yorkshire countryside that the NSA has long used as an outpost to intercept global communications, American and British intelligence operatives started an effort in 2008 to begin collecting data from World of Warcraft.

 

One NSA document said that the World of Warcraft monitoring “continues to uncover potential Sigint value by identifying accounts, characters and guilds related to Islamic extremist groups, nuclear proliferation and arms dealing.” In other words, targets of interest appeared to be playing the fantasy game, though the document does not indicate that they were doing so for any nefarious purposes. A British document from later that year said that GCHQ had “successfully been able to get the discussions between different game players on Xbox Live.”

 

By 2009, the collection was extensive. One document says that while GCHQ was testing its ability to spy on Second Life in real time, British intelligence officers vacuumed up three days’ worth of Second Life chat, instant message and financial transaction data, totaling 176,677 lines of data, which included the content of the communications.

 

For their part, players have openly worried that the NSA might be watching them.

 

In one World of Warcraft discussion thread, begun just days after the first Snowden revelations appeared in the news media in June, a human death knight with the user name “Crrassus” asked whether the NSA might be reading game chat logs.

 

“If they ever read these forums,” wrote a goblin priest with the user name “Diaya,” “they would realize they were wasting” their time.

 

Even before the American government began spying in virtual worlds, the Pentagon had identified the potential intelligence value of video games. The Pentagon’s Special Operations Command in 2006 and 2007 worked with several foreign companies — including an obscure digital media business based in Prague — to build games that could be downloaded to mobile phones., according to people involved in the effort. They said the games, which were not identified as creations of the Pentagon, were then used as vehicles for intelligence agencies to collect information about the users.

 

Eager to cash in on the government’s growing interest in virtual worlds, several large private contractors have spent years pitching their services to American intelligence agencies. In one 66-page document from 2007, part of the cache released by Mr. Snowden, the contracting giant SAIC promoted its ability to support “intelligence collection in the game space,” and warned that online games could be used by militant groups to recruit followers and could provide “terrorist organizations with a powerful platform to reach core target audiences.”

 

It is unclear whether SAIC received a contract based on this proposal, but one former SAIC employee said that the company at one point had a lucrative contract with the CIA for work that included monitoring the Internet for militant activity. An SAIC spokeswoman declined to comment.

 

In spring 2009, academics and defense contractors gathered at the Marriott at Washington Dulles International Airport to present proposals for a government study about how players’ behavior in a game like World of Warcraft might be linked to their real-world identities. “We were told it was highly likely that persons of interest were using virtual spaces to communicate or coordinate,” said Dmitri Williams, a professor at the University of Southern California who received grant money as part of the program.

 

After the conference, both SAIC and Lockheed Martin won contracts worth several million dollars, administered by an office within the intelligence community that finances research projects.

 

It is not clear how useful such research might be. A group at the Palo Alto Research Center, for example, produced a government-funded study of World of Warcraft that found “younger players and male players preferring competitive, hack-and-slash activities, and older and female players preferring noncombat activities,” such as exploring the virtual world. A group from the nonprofit SRI International, meanwhile, found that players under age 18 often used all capital letters both in chat messages and in their avatar names.

 

Those involved in the project were told little by their government patrons. According to Nick Yee, a Palo Alto researcher who worked on the effort, “We were specifically asked not to speculate on the government’s motivations and goals.”

 

Andrew W. Lehren contributed reporting.

 

Editor says this is a Copy Righted Article Courtesy of ProPublica and The New York Times. 

 

LIVE DISCUSSION: What are intelligence agencies doing in virtual worlds? Join ProPublica reporter Justin Elliott and New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti this Monday, Dec. 9, at 2 pm ET to discuss. Submit your questions here or on Twitter with the hashtag #spygames.

 

Editor says this is a Copy Righted Article courtesy of ProPublica and The New York Times. 

 

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Follow @justinelliott

 

 

 

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How to Get Censored on China’s Twitter

How to Get Censored on China’s Twitter

ProPublica,  Nov. 14, 2013, 11:19 a.m.

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中文版:新浪微博:遭遇中国式审查

Weibo.com Logo English

Weibo.com Logo English (Photo credit: bfishadow)

The word “tank.” Photos and names of Chinese dissidents. Images of rubber ducks. Any mention of Tibetan protests or Bo Xilai, the disgraced senior member of China’s Communist Party. Political cartoons.

Every day, more than 100 million items are posted to Sina Weibo, the microblogging service sometimes called “China’s Twitter.” And every day, teams of censors comb through the posts in search of anything that challenges what the government likes to call a “harmonious society.”

How Sina Weibo censors its users is as revealing as the content that appears on the site, and for the past five months, we’ve been watching the watchers. We’ve created an interactive feature, launching today, that allows readers to see and understand the images that censors considered too sensitive for Chinese eyes.

Because the Chinese government blocks popular worldwide services like Twitter and Facebook, Sina Weibo has emerged as an influential player in China’s daily life, with some 500 million users. But while the speech on Weibo is equal parts sophisticated and base, considerate and raucous, it is by no means free.

Weibo.com Logo Chinese

Weibo.com Logo Chinese (Photo credit: bfishadow)

Sina’s censors appear to be walking a fine line seen frequently in modern China. If they allow users too much freedom, the government will shut them down. But if they block too much material, the users in this quasi-capitalist economy can go to one of the company’s competitors.

While there are many research projects devoted to identifying posts that are deleted on Sina Weibo, considerably less attention has been focused on censored images and the meaning behind them.

For five months, our software has been quietly checking 100 Weibo accounts, keeping track of every post containing an image and returning repeatedly to see if those posts were deleted. Our collection has grown to nearly 80,000 posts, of which at least 4,200 — more than 5 percent — were deleted by censors.

We also gathered a team of people proficient in Mandarin to read and interpret 527 deleted images collected during a two-week window this summer. Among the key events that occurred in this period: The indictment of Bo Xilai, a disgraced Chinese political leader; a protest by female police officers; and the arrest of Xu Zhiyong, the co-founder of a pro-democracy movement that is still being suppressed.

Sina Weibo has long been eager to stay in the government’s good graces, even before the Chinese government started arresting some of its most popular users this summer for “spreading rumors.”

Users who post forbidden content frequently, or who have a lot of followers, are singled out for threats and can face arrest. One user, whose name is being withheld by ProPublica because of the risk of reprisals against him by the Chinese government, posted on Sina Weibo, accusing a local government official of wrongdoing. Soon after, he received a direct message.

“The message said that they knew everything about me and about my family,” the user said. “That I couldn’t see them, but they could see me, and if I knew what was good for me, I’d delete that post because they will always be watching me.”

The user complied, noting “I had to protect my safety.” Since then, he’s never posted a message naming a specific government official.

By many accounts, the censorship apparatus deployed by Chinese companies is the most sophisticated in the world. Attempts to post a message containing words on the continually updated list of forbidden words on Weibo, such as “坦克” — meaning “tank” — are rejected by the service before the message can even reach a user’s followers.

Still, even the best automatic filtering technology can miss subtleties, and are frequently circumvented by Weibo’s human users, using puns, sarcasm and typographic tricks.

“The Chinese language offers novel evasions, such as substituting characters for those banned with others that have unrelated meanings but sound alike or look similar,” Gary King, a political scientist, said in his 2013 study on Chinese censorship. For example, a nonsensical phrase such as “eye field” looks similar in Chinese to the characters meaning “liberty.”

A political image manipulation can transform innocuous phrases such as “giant yellow duck” into a commonly understood metaphor for the tanks at Tiananmen Square.

Chinese Internet users have mastered the use of irony as protest,” Jason Ng wrote in his book Blocked on Weibo. “Emphatically pro-government comments online such as ‘Socialism is good‘ and ‘I have been represented by my local official’ are often meant to be satirical.”

Censorship

Censorship (Photo credit: IsaacMao)

This is where human censors come in. The company employs hundreds of people to delete posts that have slipped past the filters. Forbidden messages don’t live long after being posted. Researchers have found that nearly 30 percent are gone within 5-30 minutes and 90 percent are gone within 24 hours. The censors take an especially dim view of posts that go viral or promote any type of collective action.

An increasingly sophisticated competition of sorts has arisen, pitting cutting-edge digital censors and clever human ones against users who deploy countermeasures such as typographic tricks and arcane metaphors.

English: A large temporary monument in Tiananm...

English: A large temporary monument in Tiananmen Square marking the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. The Forbidden City can be seen in the background. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of these countermeasures takes advantage of the fact that computers aren’t very good at understanding photographs and other images. Weibo messages with innocuous text but taboo political imagery — the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square, for example, or photos of disgraced politicians — pass by the automated algorithms unnoticed, only to be deleted later by the human censors.

We’ve published the deleted images themselves, as well as a translation of some of the text users posted with them. We’ve also tried to convey the meaning behind each picture, explaining Chinese cultural references, identifying public figures and deciphering subtle political points.

In tracking images censored from our sample of 100 Weibo accounts, we found that they fell into roughly 10 conceptual categories representing a wide sample of “unharmonious” culture. They provide a window into the Chinese elite’s self-image and its fears, as well as a lens through which to understand China’s vast system of censorship.

We contacted Sina for a response to our story, but they did not respond to us in time for publication.

Some of the research for this investigation was conducted in collaboration with a team at the Spatial Information Design Lab and the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, at Columbia University. The Columbia project, called “Jumping the Great Firewall,” uses a similar methodology and was pursued in partnership with the Pen American Center and Thomson Reuters.

If you work as a Weibo censor and are willing to speak to ProPublica about your experiences, please contact us at weibo@propublica.org. Here’s our PGP key.

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Claim on “Attacks Thwarted” by #NSA Spreads Despite Lack of Evidence

Image representing Edward Snowden as depicted ...

Image by None via CrunchBase

Two weeks after Edward Snowden‘s first revelations about sweeping government surveillance, President Obama shot back. “We know of at least 50 threats that have been averted because of this information not just in the United States, but, sometimes, threats here in Germany,” Obama said during a visit to Berlin in June. “So lives have been saved.”

In the months since, intelligence officials, media outlets, and members of Congress from both parties all repeated versions of the claim that NSA surveillance has stopped more than 50 terrorist attacks. The figure has become a key talking point in the debate around the spying programs.

“Fifty-four times this and the other program stopped and thwarted terrorist attacks both here and in Europe — saving real lives,” Rep. Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said on the House floor in July, referring to programs authorized by a pair of post-9/11 laws. “This isn’t a game. This is real.”

But there’s no evidence that the oft-cited figure is accurate.

The NSA itself has been inconsistent on how many plots it has helped prevent and what role the surveillance programs played. The agency has often made hedged statements that avoid any sweeping assertions about attacks thwarted.

A chart declassified by the agency in July, for example, says that intelligence from the programs on 54 occasions “has contributed to the [U.S. government’s] understanding of terrorism activities and, in many cases, has enabled the disruption of potential terrorist events at home and abroad” — a much different claim than asserting that the programs have been responsible for thwarting 54 attacks.

NSA officials have mostly repeated versions of this wording.

Keith Alexander, director of the NSA.

Keith Alexander, director of the NSA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander spoke at a Las Vegas security conference in July, for instance, he referred to “54 different terrorist-related activities,” 42 of which were plots and 12 of which were cases where individuals provided “material support” to terrorism.

But the NSA has not always been so careful.

During Alexander’s speech in Las Vegas, a slide in an accompanying slide show read simply “54 ATTACKS THWARTED.”

And in a recent letter to NSA employees, Alexander and John Inglis, the NSA’s deputy director, wrote that the agency has “contributed to keeping the U.S. and its allies safe from 54 terrorist plots.” (The letter was obtained by reporter Kevin Gosztola from a source with ties to the intelligence community. The NSA did not respond when asked to authenticate it.)

Asked for clarification of the surveillance programs’ record, the NSA declined to comment.

Earlier this month, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., pressed Alexander on the issue at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

“Would you agree that the 54 cases that keep getting cited by the administration were not all plots, and of the 54, only 13 had some nexus to the U.S.?” Leahy said at the hearing. “Would you agree with that, yes or no?”

“Yes,” Alexander replied, without elaborating.

It’s impossible to assess the role NSA surveillance played in the 54 cases because, while the agency has provided a full list to Congress, it remains classified.

Officials have openly discussed only a few of the cases (see below), and the agency has identified only one — involving a San Diego man convicted of sending $8,500 to Somalia to support the militant group Al Shabab — in which NSA surveillance played a dominant role.

The surveillance programs at issue fall into two categories: The collection of metadata on all American phone calls under the Patriot Act, and the snooping of electronic communications targeted at foreigners under a 2007 surveillance law. Alexander has said that surveillance authorized by the latter law provided “the initial tip” in roughly half of the 54 cases. The NSA has not released examples of such cases.

After reading the full classified list, Leahy concluded the NSA’s surveillance has some value but still questioned the agency’s figures.

“We’ve heard over and over again the assertion that 54 terrorist plots were thwarted” by the two programs, Leahy told Alexander at the Judiciary Committee hearing this month. “That’s plainly wrong, but we still get it in letters to members of Congress, we get it in statements. These weren’t all plots and they weren’t all thwarted. The American people are getting left with the inaccurate impression of the effectiveness of NSA programs.”

The origins of the “54” figure go back to a House Intelligence Committee hearing on June 18, less than two weeks after the Guardian’s publication of the first story based on documents leaked by Snowden.

At that hearing, Alexander said, “The information gathered from these programs provided the U.S. government with critical leads to help prevent over 50 potential terrorist events in more than 20 countries around the world.” He didn’t specify what “events” meant. Pressed by Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., Alexander said the NSA would send a more detailed breakdown to the committee.

Speaking in Baltimore the next week, Alexander gave an exact figure: 54 cases “where these programs contributed to our understanding, and in many cases, helped enable the disruption of terrorist plots in the U.S. and in over 20 countries throughout the world.”

But members of Congress have repeatedly ignored the distinctions and hedges.

The websites of the Republicans and Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee include pages titled, “54 Attacks in 20 Countries Thwarted By NSA Collection.”

And each congressman have often cited the figure in debates around NSA surveillance.

  • Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., who is also on the House Intelligence Committee, released a statement in July referring to “54 terrorist plots that have been foiled by the NSA programs.” Asked about the figure, Westmoreland spokeswoman Leslie Shedd told ProPublica that “he was citing declassified information directly from the National Security Agency.”
  • Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, issued a statement in July saying “the programs in question have thwarted 54 specific plots, many targeting Americans on American soil.”
  • Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., issued his own statement the next day: “The Amash amendment would have eliminated Section 215 of the Patriot Act which we know has thwarted 54 terrorist plots against the US (and counting).” (The amendment, which aimed to bar collection of Americans’ phone records, was narrowly defeated in the House.)
  • Mike Rogers, the Intelligence Committee chairman who credited the surveillance programs with thwarting 54 attacks on the House floor, repeated the claim to Bob Schieffer on CBS’ “Face the Nation” in July.”You just heard what he said, senator,” Schieffer said, turning to Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., an NSA critic. “Fifty-six terror plots here and abroad have been thwarted by the NSA program. So what’s wrong with it, then, if it’s managed to stop 56 terrorist attacks? That sounds like a pretty good record.” Asked about Rogers’ remarks, House Intelligence Committee spokeswoman Susan Phalen said in a statement: “In 54 specific cases provided by the NSA, the programs stopped actual plots or put terrorists in jail before they could effectuate further terrorist plotting.  These programs save lives by disrupting attacks. Sometimes the information is found early in the planning, and sometimes very late in the planning. But in all those cases these people intended to kill innocent men and women through the use of terror.”
  • Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., went even further in a town hall meeting in August. Responding to a question about the NSA vacuuming up Americans’ phone records, he said the program had “been used 54 times to be able to interrupt 54 different terrorist plots here in the United States that had originated from overseas in the past eight years. That’s documented.”
  • The same day, Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., who sits on the Intelligence Committee, defended the NSA at a town hall meeting with constituents in Cranston, R.I. “I know that these programs have been directly effective in thwarting and derailing 54 terrorist attacks,” he said. Asked about Langevin’s comments, spokeswoman Meg Fraser said in an email, “The committee was given information from NSA on August 1 that clearly indicated they considered the programs in question to have been used to help disrupt 54 terrorist events. That is the information the Congressman relied on when characterizing the programs at his town hall.”

Wenstrup, Heck and Lankford did not respond to requests for comment.

The claims have also appeared in the media. ABC News, CNN and the New York Times have all repeated versions of the claim that more than 50 plots have been thwarted by the programs.

The seal of the U.S. National Security Agency....

The seal of the U.S. National Security Agency. The first use was in September 1966, replacing an older seal which was used briefly. For more information, see here and here. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The NSA has publicly identified four of the 54 cases. They are:

  • The case of Basaaly Moalin, the San Diego man convicted of sending $8,500 to Somalia to support Al Shabab, the terrorist group that has taken responsibility for the attack on a Kenyan mall last month. The NSA has said its collection of American phone records allowed it to determine that a U.S. phone was in contact with a Shabab figure, which in turn led them to Moalin. NSA critic Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has argued that the NSA could have gotten a court order to get the phone records in question and that the case does not justify the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records.
  • The case of Najibullah Zazi, who in 2009 plotted to bomb the New York subway system. The NSA has said that an email it intercepted to an account of a known Al Qaeda figure in Pakistan allowed authorities to identify and ultimately capture Zazi. But an Associated Press examination of the case concluded that, again, the NSA’s account of the case did not show the need for the new warrantless powers at issue in the current debate. “Even before the surveillance laws of 2007 and 2008, the FBI had the authority to — and did, regularly — monitor email accounts linked to terrorists,” the AP reported.
  • A case involving David Coleman Headley, the Chicago man who helped plan the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack. Intelligence officials have said that NSA surveillance helped thwart a subsequent plot involving Headley to attack a Danish newspaper. A ProPublica examination of that episode concluded that it was a tip from British intelligence, rather than NSA surveillance, that led authorities to Headley.
  • A case involving a purported plot to attack the New York Stock Exchange. This convoluted episode involves three Americans, including Khalid Ouazzani of Kansas City, Mo., who pleaded guilty in 2010 to bank fraud, money laundering, and conspiracy to provide material support to Al Qaeda. An FBI official said in June that NSA surveillance helped in the case “to detect a nascent plotting to bomb the New York Stock Exchange.” But no one has been charged with crimes related to that or any other planned attack. (Ouazzani was sentenced to 14 years last month.) The Kansas City Star reported that one of the men in the case had “pulled together a short report with the kind of public information easily available from Google Earth, tourist maps and brochures” and that his contact in Yemen “tore up the report, ‘threw it in the street’ and never showed it to anyone.” Court records also suggest that the men in Yemen that Ouazzani sent over $20,000 to may have scammed him and spent some of the money on personal expenses.

For more from ProPublica on the NSA, read about the agency’s campaign to crack Internet security, a look at the surveillance reforms Obama supported before he was president, and a fact-check on claims about the NSA and Sept. 11.

Photo of Sen. Patrick Leahy by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

by Justin Elliott and Theodoric Meyer ProPublica,  Oct. 23, 2013, 8:59 a.m.

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Healthcare Users Speak Out:’Clean This Mess Up’

Healthcare.gov‘s Users Speak Out: ‘Clean This Mess Up’

by Charles Ornstein ProPublica,  Oct. 24, 2013, 10:43 a.m.

Over the weekend, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services began unveiling its effort to fix Healthcare.gov, the home for the federal insurance marketplace. Part of that was a blog post soliciting comments from folks who have tried the site.

“Most importantly, we want to hear from you, and make sure that your experience with HealthCare.gov is a positive one.  If you have any comments, either complimentary or critical, please let us know by sharing your feedback at https://www.healthcare.gov/connect/.  We’ve already heard so many stories of individuals getting health insurance for the first time, and we are dedicated to making that possible for all Americans.”

The Obama administration has not always been transparent about Healthcare.gov: A case in point is how HHS has withheld the number of people who have been able to successfully enroll. But in this instance, the administration allowed comments to the blog post to be seen by all (after moderating them and removing identifying information). Commenters’ identities were not verified and they are identified by whatever name they entered.

As of yesterday afternoon, we counted more than 500 comments. My colleague Mike Tigas pulled them from the site, and I’ve analyzed the feedback.

“Repeal Obamacare,” several commenters wrote, making political statements based on the website’s problems.

Some urged patience: “Turn off the TV and stop listening to the naysayers,” Darlene wrote. “Its [sic] better to wait patiently and get great health care than to get emotional and frustrated and wind up with NO healthcare…”

Others, like Kim, offered to help: “I have a home office and am VERY tech savvy. I would like to be able to help in whatever way I can.”

By and large, however, the feedback has been negative. While some comments root for the site’s failure, many are from people who’ve tried to use the site without success. Some pose specific questions; others voice general frustrations. Because their identities and contact information isn’t listed (for understandable reasons), there was no way to verify their stories.

The problems touch people from all over the country. The posts below have been trimmed for length, but the original grammar and spelling are used (even if they contain errors).

Wrongly Listed As Jailed

“Website said my wife and I were ineligible due to current incarceration. We have never been arrested in our lives, both 63!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!,” Fred wrote on Oct. 21.

Health Problems Made Worse

“I have a pre-existing condition …. a-fib…..and actually had an attack after getting frustrated with this confusing mess,” Bill wrote on Oct. 22. (A-fib refers to atrial fibrillation, an abnormal heartbeat.)

Daughter is Not a Daughter Anymore

“I am having difficulty with my account,” Joanna wrote on Oct. 22. “It appears that my daughter was added twice so that I now have two daughters with the same name and social security number. I am unable to delete one of them.  Also, the drop down menu that relates to what relationship someone is to another is faulty. I choose that my husband is the father of our daughter and that my daughter is a dependant [sic] to me and my husband. What it actually shows though is that my daughter is a stepdaughter to her father and that my daughter is now both my husband and I’s parent. ”

Compromised Identity

“I can sign in … but cannot see the plans available to me — they claim my identity has been compromised. So frustrating!” Rhonda wrote on Oct. 22.

Going in Circles

“I have tried to get into the system since the beginning,” Marion wrote on Oct. 22. “I have created 3 different accounts and am not able to log into any of them. When I request the user ID or to reset the password it throws me back to the log in page where I can’t login because it says I don’t have an account. When I try to reset the password with the email I used it, I never get an email to validate my account. I won’t let me create another account telling me I already have an account. I feel like I keep going around in circles. Will I ever be able to set up an account? ”

Groundhog Day

“I’ve now filled out that same application multiple times and even though there are hitches and glitches, I do manage to get to the point where I should be able to shop,” wrote one person whose name is listed as “likebillmurrayingroundhogday, on Oct. 21. “However, once at that point, there is no place for me to shop! The system just kicks me back to starting the application again. It’s like “Groundhog Day.”

Blocked

“After many attempts I did manage to set up an account with a log in and password,” Francine wrote on Oct. 23. “NOW when I’m about to get to the meat and potatoes and go shopping a red box pops up and says “you can only do one application per state”. WTF? Several times I was able to find a page that asked me if I was a Florida resident with a yes and no button and it appears that after the site drops off my computer it moves this from yes to no. I can no longer find this page, so this site has BLOCKED me.”

Circular Security Questions

“I get an error message after I answer the security questions that say the answers can’t be the same, but they aren’t the same. If people are getting past this error message, I would like to know how,” Samara wrote on Oct. 20.

Name Not Unique

“I’ve been trying to create an account since program inception (October 1).  I continually get a variety of crazy messages, the most recent being that I could not create an account because my first name, last name and email address are not unique!” Tom wrote on Oct. 20. “What the devil does that mean?  Most people use their names in their email address, so it’s never going to be “unique.”  I need health insurance for my 61-year-old wife and the Marketplace appears promising.  Clean this mess up!”

Insurance Agents Stymied

“I am insurance agent also President of Insurance Agency (50+ Insurance Agents plus 30 employees),” John wrote on Oct. 21. “We have 1000’s of customers who want to sign up for health insurance and most will be subsidized. We have tried everyday since 10-1-2013. Maybe 2 applications have been processed. I have spent well over 250K getting ready for the ACA roll-out. My agency has written individual and small group insurance for over 25 years. We have marketed the uninsured and lower-income. We have held events to get pre-enrollment applications. We just want to help people get the insurance they need.  What can you do to help me?”

Application Counselor Frustrated

“I am employed as a Certified Application Counselor in Scranton, Pennsylvania and I have not been able to successfully assist the approximately 50 people who visited me looking for assistance,” Suzanne wrote on Oct. 21. “I created an account for myself prior to October 1st to walk myself through the system and have not been able to successfully log in since October 1st.  Needless to say, I am as frustrated as the consumers who visited me are.  I hope the log in situation is fixed soon.”

ProPublica fellow Mike Tigas contributed to this report.

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To brush up on today’s congressional hearings, see Charles Ornstein’s quick guide.

Follow @charlesornstein

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As ProPublica the New York Times and the…

As ProPublica, the New York Times, and the Guardian reported last week, documents provided by Edward Snowden suggest that the NSA has heavily influenced the standard, which has been used around the world.

In its statement Tuesday, NIST acknowledged that the NSA participates in creating cryptography standards “because of its recognized expertise” and because NIST is required by law to consult with the spy agency.

“We are not deliberately, knowingly, working to undermine or weaken encryption,” NIST chief Patrick Gallagher said at a public conference Tuesday.

Various versions of Microsoft Windows, including those used in tablets and smartphones, contain implementations of the standard, though the NSA-influenced portion isn’t enabled by default. Developers creating applications for the platform must choose to enable it.
http://www.propublica.org/article/standards-agency-strongly-suggests-dropping-its-own-encryption-standard

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